Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

507. Marking Time

In Aging, Nature, reflections, Stories, Teaching on January 23, 2022 at 11:39 pm

As this Spring semester of 2022 gets underway, every day is necessarily going to bring a succession of ‘lasts’, each one unnecessarily freighted with significance. For I have made the decision to retire. Never having believed in counting down the days before, I hardly know whether I dread getting to the last ‘last’ or whether I can’t wait. My last first day of classes is already history, and already I’ve found myself thinking about the very last meeting of my very last class. Will I tell the students and bring in Indian sweets to share? Or just slip quietly out and away? Can’t allow myself to think about it now.

But when all the ‘lasts’ are behind me, when the inevitable tears of sadness and relief have flowed, I hope there will be a period of blessèd emptiness—before this overactive mind of mine starts in on the ‘nexts.’  

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131. Across the Miles

In Stories on December 19, 2021 at 3:25 pm

Re-posting this from the TMA archives, 10 years ago. Thinking of my dear Auntie Bette on her birthday. She would have been 101 today, and lived into her 100th year (leaving us just as COVID-19 arrived).

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Piccadilly Circus, from Cousin Sue

Throughout my childhood, living thousands of miles from family on both sides, we treasured every piece of mail, especially at Christmastime (see St. Nicholas’ Day). There was no such thing as junk mail, so every single letter, parcel, or card we received was personal, most often from a family member far away. We savored every single new card as it arrived, identifying the sender by the handwriting on the envelope, admiring the stamps (with me eyeing them for my collection), marveling at the colors, the artwork, and the quality of the card stock, reading and re-reading the loving greeting, giving it pride of place in the living room, and adding it to the running count of the number we had received to date. When I set up a household of my own I began sending and receiving my own cards, and still delight in…

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506. The Loudest Voice

In Childhood, Family, Immigration, Music, people, reflections, singing, Stories, women & gender on December 14, 2021 at 3:19 am

After all these years, only now am I listening to this luminous story by the late Grace Paley. In 1998 she read it out aloud on Vermont Public Radio for the holidays, and there it still lives, her voice issuing forth at the press of a button and conjuring up a time, a place, and a child’s innate self-confidence. She was 76 when she read the story, one she had written 40 years before, and her voice was still clear and well-modulated. Oh the sly humor! Chosen for her clear, strong voice, the very voice that parents, teachers, and neighbors are always admonishing her for, the Jewish girl in a Jewish immigrant community attending a Christian school delights in narrating the school’s Christmas pageant. She has no feeling of being an outsider. She simply filters the entire story through her own consciousness, whence it issues utterly–and wonderfully–transformed. And her voice, the loudest voice, comes through with flying colors.

I met Grace Paley several times during the 1990s. She certainly didn’t need to raise her voice to command respect and perhaps she never had. At our first meeting I had no idea who she was. I had gone to a reception for the campus visit of the late Edward Said, and didn’t know anyone there. An elderly couple were in the room and so I struck up a conversation with the husband, who was standing a little apart from the others and wearing faded denim jeans like any old Vermonter straight out of the back woods. His wife wore a bandanna around her messy hair like a Russian grandmother. When I told him I was in the English department he said mildly, “my wife does creative writing, too.” I was curious about this wife. I introduced myself to her as well and listened to her for a while, as she talked about this and that. It must have been when I heard her casually refer to her conversations with women during a trip to Vietnam that I suddenly had a prickling feeling at the back of my neck and asked her whom I was addressing. “Grace Paley,” she replied matter-of-factly, and I wondered why I hadn’t realized this from the start. Her voice was not loud at all, but it was by no means self-effacing either.

The Lamb, Songs of Innocence and Experience

I had a loud voice as a girl, like my father before me. My parents, bless them, never asked me to tone it down or hush it up. My classmates teased me for it but didn’t ask me to change. My teachers did, though, as evidenced by my earliest report cards. By age 8 I already had a reputation to live up to; it never occurred to me that it was something I might have to live down someday. Passing through England on the way back to India at age 9, I was chosen to recite a poem by William Blake—The Lamb, I think it was—in school assembly. It never crossed my mind for one moment that I might have been chosen as a token “Other”; in fact, I was told the reason was that I was the only child in my class “without an accent.” Ironically, this girl who had grown up outside of England spoke unselfconscious Standard English, or R.P. (Received Pronunciation), as it is called nowadays: the regionally neutral middle-class accent of England. A year or two later, my father’s students organized a show in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to raise money for people affected by the drought in Bihar and asked me to be the emcee. What fun it was! I was the only child up on the stage, introducing all the university students’ performances. I was fearless at that age.

Two things happened to my voice as time went on. As a university undergraduate, where I felt like a fish out of water, I lost it for a time. One bad experience of being verbally attacked after having made what I thought was a perfectly innocent remark in class silenced me for years; not at home or among friends, but in the rarefied atmosphere of the classroom. Throughout my twenties I still felt perfectly at ease with public speaking in the outside world, though. And returning for graduate study in my thirties, my girlhood confidence returned and stood me in good stead. I knew who I was and what I wanted to say, and had no hesitation in saying it.

Then came the life of a junior professor, when one is made to learn one’s place. Those years didn’t do any favors to my voice. A decades-long habit of speaking unnecessarily loudly without breathing or hydrating properly made me develop a throat nodule. I had to learn to moderate and modulate my voice in ways that were utterly new to me. It was interesting that the voice class I attended was full of professors, many of them senior faculty, all seeking to recover their authentic voices after years of suppressing, silencing, second-guessing themselves. They–we–had to reach deep inside and learn to trust ourselves again. With these classes and vocal therapy at the UMass Center for Language, Speech, and Hearing, my throat nodule receded, enabling me to lecture and to sing again, but not to speak extemporaneously with the same innocent self-confidence as young Shirley Abramowitz, narrator of the Christmas pageant.

As noted earlier, I have my dear father to thank for my loud voice, my father whose normal speaking voice was a gentle bellow. Saying, “no need to shout” would infuriate him. He’d shout louder: “I’m not shouting; this is my normal voice!” There were only two options when faced with the full-throated power of Dad’s voice: either to lower one’s own, or to raise him one. For better or worse, I must have done the latter. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Now I am the one whom people ask to moderate my foghorn. Add to that my increasing deafness, which makes me unaware of the volume at which I’m speaking, and the need to teach wearing a mask, which requires me to project, enunciate, and bellow. After that successful voice therapy 20 years ago, my throat nodule appears to have returned with a vengeance.

Bill Barnacle bellowing in frustration at Henderson Hedgehog, Horticulturer (Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding)

What prompted this reflection was listening to Boston Public Radio last week on my way home from work. Margery Eagan and Jim Braude’s daily news program is an enjoyable mix of serious news and analysis, with comic banter and a call-in component that invites the public to join the fun. On this particular day the subject was men’s loud voices. Apparently men are greater COVID-19 spreaders than women because their loud voices spray more virus farther and wider. Then followed some light-hearted banter with a sharp edge to it, with Margery accusing Jim and men in general of using their loud voices to bully others into submission and Jim, quite uncharacteristically, acknowledging this tendency in himself with some shame. They were inviting public comment when, driving into the reception-free flood-zone of the North Quabbin region, I lost the signal. But I continued to think on the subject, and wondered about how much I had silenced the people around me with my loud voice. How much was the negative perception of loudness gendered? If I were a man, would my unnecessarily loud voice be considered appropriately assertive? But why did I feel the need to assert my opinions, already strong, so forcefully? (In graduate school, much to my eternal shame I had a verbal run-in with a famous writer whom I revered and who shall remain unnamed. He used great restraint in the end-of-semester comment he put on my grade: “Inclined to hold strong opinions.”) These were questions to which the answers only generated more questions.

I have always loved singing and taken pride in bursting into song on the slightest pretext. But I have damaged my voice by singing too loud. A singing voice ought not to be harsh and raspy like a portable loudspeaker; it can be soft and sweet. It is much harder to sing high notes softly than to belt them out. I had always prided myself on my ability to hit the high notes–even singing the descant when there was one. Now my voice was cracking less than an octave above middle C. I would have to learn to harmonize and sing the alto part rather than the tune which I had always sung. My whole identity was going down the tubes. What was I to do?

Instead of answering that question, I listened to the 76-year-old Grace Paley reading “The Loudest Voice.” With a broad tolerance and affectionate humor she affirmed that young girl’s confidence. And she didn’t have to shout to blow me away.

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232. Before Interstates, Before Automobiles

In Stories on November 14, 2021 at 4:04 pm

From a New England November of yesteryear. . .

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The Oxbow—Connecticut River Near Northampton by Cole Thomas (Wikimedia Commons) The Oxbow—Connecticut River Near Northampton by Thomas Cole, 1836 (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll never forget the time Andrew and I drove cross-country with our world-traveled friend Peta, on her first trip to the United States in the nineteen seventies. Anticipating a rugged ride into the Wild West, she was singularly unimpressed with the reality of American highway travel. “Everything looks the same,” she complained, citing the HoJo’s restaurants and motor lodges with their ubiquitous orange roofs all along the Eastern highways and the Stuckey’s chain with their corn-syrup-filled pecan pies and log rolls regularly clogging the arteries through the South, Midwest, and Southwest. What blots on the magnificent landscape! Even as we argued with Peta, insisting that she would see wild aplenty as soon as we got off the Interstate, we couldn’t help agreeing with her.

The U.S Interstate Highway System has blasted through rugged rock and ridge, cutting out the sinuous…

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505. My Cup

In Aging, Music, Nature, reading, reflections, Stories on November 11, 2021 at 5:22 pm

   Lu Hersey (Pinterest)

Remembrance Day, 11/11/21. How many dear ones have gone these past few years, and the pace at which they have left has surely picked up, what with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ageing of my generation, and the ageing-out of my parents’ generation. Each one of them a shining light who brought joy to my life. Each one with something for me, a gentle admonition, a pointed joke, a vote of confidence. There is the fear that sitting too long with them risks drowning in a bottomless well of grief. But perhaps there is a different way to think about that well.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of the usual busyness of an academic semester, with deadlines advancing toward me in an unending column and the list of unfinished tasks looming ever-longer even as item after item was checked off the top, I was urged to sit for a minute and go inside. How was I feeling? My first response was bewilderment–what a question! I hardly knew, hardly dared to know; even if I wanted to, I didn’t know how. But I gave it a try.

The next thing I knew I was overcome. Everything welled up in me, brimming, and threatening to spill over. Was I about to drown in grief, as I had feared? Dismissing the question, I tried to keep on feeling. This was different, and I wasn’t drowning. As it went on welling up and washing over me, I could only describe it as fullness. Fullness. So much, so rich, this life. So many more that mingle with mine.

This week my class finished reading Toni Morrison’s luminous novel, Beloved, which is ultimately about healing, even from unspeakable grief. (Don’t listen to the haters. This is a novel for the ages.) In it, Baby Suggs, holy, tells the people struggling to reclaim their newly-freed selves, “love your heart. For this is the prize” (86). Not an easy task for people haunted by horrific “rememories” of enslavement (43): for characters like Paul D, who had a “tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut”; or Sethe, for whom every morning began anew the “serious work of beating back the past” (86). And they certainly couldn’t do it alone. 

Letting yourself feel, fully, does risk everything welling up. But with the grief also comes unexpected joy, and immense gratitude for the inexhaustible wellsprings of life.

My cup is running over
And I don’t know what to do
                        (My Cup, Bob Marley)

 

[Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Random House, 1987, 2004.]

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231. Festivals of Light

In Stories on October 29, 2021 at 4:28 pm

As Halloween, Diwali, and Guy Fawkes’ Day approach again, I’m sharing a post from eight years ago, in the hopes of getting into the spirit of the season. We will be carving and lighting a pumpkin at our front door, and setting out a bowl of candy for safe and socially-distanced Trick-or-Treating; but, to tell you the truth, I’m not feeling it. Show me some light!

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Children wave sparklers at night, during Diwali (REUTERS/Reinhard Krause) Children wave sparklers at night, during Diwali (REUTERS/Reinhard Krause)

Halloween (U.S.), Diwali (India), and Bonfire Night—aka Guy Fawkes Day (Britain) all come round at the same time of the year, this year within a single week. This year I kept our front light on to welcome passing trick-or-treaters and bought Halloween candy because Dad insisted on it, but for the third successive year no one came. With the houses spread far apart and no sidewalk on our side of the street it’s not easy for children to get around this neighborhood unless their parents drive them, and in any case it doesn’t make sense for kids seeking the largest volume of candy in the shortest time. I miss the days when, as young parents, we participated fully in the celebration, costume-making, pumpkin-carving and all. Perhaps what I miss the most is watching the ritual of the kids dumping out the bags of loot…

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504. Things are looking up

In Books, Food, reflections, seasons, Stories, Teaching on October 13, 2021 at 2:31 am

It was a horrible evening that was looking ahead inexorably to a horrible night. Grading, comments on rough drafts of student essays, and deadlines, deadlines, deadlines, as far as the eye could see. I was already sleep-deprived, and my eyes were burning and heavy with the dull pain of a bruise. They still are, but somehow, despite the long night ahead, things are looking up.

Funnily enough, it started with the stink bug in the hallway outside my office. When I stepped out to get myself a cup of tea from the thermos, there it was, looking young and sprightly, antennae waving airily. My heart sank; it was that time of year. The stink bugs were coming indoors for the winter and, with my luck, they would duly settle in amongst the books and papers in my office, one inevitably materializing on my computer keyboard during a late-night work session and strutting about as if it belonged here. I couldn’t face it, but sidestepped the issue and went down for my refill of tea. It was still there upon my return, but I shut myself into the office and huddled at my desk, insect-like, antennae well drawn in.

I should tell you that I’m starting to teach Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in my World Literature class tomorrow morning, so insects and transformation were on my mind. After a few minutes of huddling, I could distinctly feel my exoskeleton hardening. I could allow this mood to get the better of me or I could do something about it. Taking a plastic tumbler from the kitchen and a square of card stock from my office, I stepped smartly out into the hall again and in one decisive action, swept the young bug into the cup, clapped the card on top, and deposited it outside the front door. It clung to the walls of the cup when I shook it, so I left that outside too; it might need the shelter overnight.

Back in my office I thought about what might relieve this sense of unending gloom. Thankfully, I didn’t have to think long. Today on my drive home from work I had stopped in at the Petersham Country Store and picked up a fresh loaf of locally-made, multi-grain sourdough bread. An open-face Marmite-and-tomato sandwich! Five minutes later, back at my desk with the same workload ahead of me, things are looking decidedly brighter. The stink bug has been dispatched to where it belongs; so has the Marmite-and-tomato sandwich. And oh yes, I chopped a small green chili onto the hot buttered toast before adding the other ingredients.

I wonder what my students will make of The Metamorphosis tomorrow, of a man waking up on a workday morning to find that he has been transformed into an insect overnight? For my part, I feel more human already.

 

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78. October Rains

In Stories on October 8, 2021 at 11:45 pm

Re-posting October thoughts [from the TMA archives].

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At last the long-awaited rains have come, first the traffic-stopping, roof-leaking, storm-drain-flooding downpours and now the steady soaking the plants desperately need before winter. I love this weather and all that it evokes: awakening in Darjeeling to the chill of misty mornings; walking to school on the Hijli campus, Kharagpur, launching paper boats on the torrents raging in the roadside ditches; rambling over Hampstead Heath along paths strewn with elfin-capped acorns and glossy horse-chestnuts bursting from their spiky, velvet-lined casings.

What about here, now? Here in New England these rainy fall days recall  mushrooming in the woods of Winchendon, canning the last of the summer’s harvest, listening to the weather radio for warnings of the killing frost. I see Maureen and me, heavily pregnant, climbing the long-neglected pear trees on Orchard Hill, Amherst, to make organic pear sauce, the first food for our yet-to-be-born babies. I see Nikhil making apple-and-pear cider…

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344. Tropical Botanicals

In Stories on September 22, 2021 at 4:52 pm

Re-posting a story from several years ago and longing for a return to tropical climes as the chill begins to creep into this part of the world. Happy Autumnal Solstice!

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Rhizophora mangle, or Red Mangrove (mangrove.at) Rhizophora mangle, or red mangrove (mangrove.at)

Forty years ago, in April 1975, a group of us in the co-op house at university decided to go down to Key West, Florida for our Spring Break. We drove non-stop, getting from Boston to the northern border of the state in just 24 hours, and headed first to Miami. Unusually for college students on Spring Break, our first destination was not the beach, but, because we had a budding botanist among us, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Once there, we made a beeline for the area where the Garden maintains a small simulated tropical rainforest; visiting that hot, moisture-drenched paradise alone made our entire trip worthwhile.

Erythoxylum coca Erythoxylum coca (altoona.psu.edu)

Peter, our resident botanist, had inside knowledge about the Garden; he knew the exact location of plants that were not labeled for fear that they would be stripped and stolen. The plant he took us…

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503. Five Years Out

In Aging, Family, Immigration, India, parenting, Stories on September 17, 2021 at 3:57 pm

It has been five years since my father died. There is so much that I have yet to understand and to process about this remarkable and complex man, and I have to accept that there is so much that I will never and can never know about him. In the immediate aftermath I wasn’t able to sit with my thoughts and feelings, mostly because my mother was still with us and with Dad gone she needed my attention all the more. We had the memorial only 10 days later, and that time is a blur. The teaching year had just begun and for some reason I took no bereavement leave, simply carried on. In fact, I conducted my evening class on modern Indian literature the very next day, and only told the students at the end of the session, dedicating the rest of the seminar to him. Six months later my father-in-law passed away and eighteen months later my mother breathed her last. A year after that my sister and I sold our parents’ house. After Mum’s death, Andrew and I moved to a new house, his siblings sold their parents’ house and, just last week, we finally sold our old one. All that time is another blur. Now, five years on, there are still a few loose ends to tie up with our parents’ estate taxes, which I dearly hope will be finally done with this year. But as the late Agha Shahid Ali put it, Rooms are Never Finished. Somewhere, somewhere, from in amongst the detritus of life, from under the endless burden of paperwork, one has to make a start.

Dad would start working on his taxes in January, dedicating a chunk of time to the task every day that Mum was out at her day program. He didn’t enjoy the process and wasn’t particularly good with numbers and figures, but knew it had to be done and had a horror of lateness. He would painstakingly copy out long columns of figures in his distinctive architect’s hand, adding them up and checking them twice on a pocket calculator before passing everything on to the tax accountant. The accountant told me after his death that even in his 90s Dad was by far the best prepared of any of her clients, that the material he sent her was complete and meticulously documented.

Dad was stoic about pain and loss. He didn’t make a habit of talking about his health problems, even when he was struggling to draw every next breath. Only Mum knew when he had a toothache or something heavy on his mind, because flashes of bad temper betrayed it. To me he only remarked, just once, “growing old is not for sissies.” He didn’t dwell on the loved ones he had lost or left behind, either, but that didn’t mean he loved them any less. Every year he sat down to write Christmas and New Year’s greetings cards to every single member of his family in India and the United States, checking with me to make sure of the addresses for those who had moved and for the names of all the grandchildren whom he had never met. Only the occasional comments betrayed his true feelings, as when he would ask from time to time, in some exasperation, why he never heard back from them, why only his elder sister Kumud faithfully kept him abreast of family news.

One November, the arrival of a large package via courier from Mumbai, sent from his niece Meena and grand-niece Sucheta, was nothing short of miraculous for him. We opened it to find it full of traditional Diwali sweetmeats and savory snacks, all perfectly fresh and utterly delicious. For days Dad fully savored every single one, between sips of tea and reminiscences. That one delivery brought him so much joy that it revealed the depth of his unexpressed feelings.

                                   Diwali treats

He hated phone calls. This was understandable for someone coming from an era in which long-distance phone calls were rare, wildly expensive, hard to hear through the static, and likely to bring bad news (See TMA #181, The Silver Hairpin). But once most of our relatives had excellent phone service in their homes and could direct-dial their international calls, once I had a calling code that allowed me to make calls to India for pennies a minute, I felt that Dad had no excuse not to phone his family from time to time. One day, while trying to talk him into calling his beloved younger sister, I asked him in some frustration whether he missed them all. That was hurtful and unnecessary, I realize now. But he stopped everything and tried to find the words to explain. “Of course I miss them,” he said. “But I have made my life outside India. If I allowed myself to miss them too much I would be miserable all the time.”

Dad was not by nature a man to wallow in misery. He believed in getting on with life and in the joy of living, taking great pleasure in the natural beauty around him, in his art, in reading, and in the visits of friends and family. He was an optimist by nature, and this habit of optimism persisted, even when he was very ill. In his last decade, visits to the emergency room by ambulance were almost an annual affair, until the very last year, when he had four hospitalizations. But each time, upon admittance, when the ER doctor came in and asked him how he was, the answer was, “Fine.” It fell to me to contradict him and explain the seriousness of his condition and the nature of the emergency. During the last visit, though, when he was breathing with great difficulty, one of the myriad healthcare workers asked him, in that infuriatingly cheerful way, how he was feeling. In the exasperated tone that those who love him know so well he snapped back at her, “How do you think I’m feeling?”

I miss you, Dad. I pray that I continue to learn from you. I promise to screw up my courage to call your dear sister, my dear Mandatya—for I, too, fear phone calls. I promise to send New Year’s greeting cards to our family in India this year, all the more important while it is still not possible to simply hop on a plane. And I promise to do my best not only to take care of the business of life (to finish those damned taxes) but also to engage more fully in the joy of living.

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