Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

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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502. Farewell, Old House!

In Aging, Family, places, reflections, seasons, Stories on August 31, 2021 at 11:10 pm

It was on a night like this, in late August thirty-one years ago, with the cicadas and katydids in full-throated chorus and grasshoppers and crickets abounding, that Andrew, Nikhil, and I slept in our new house for the first time, bedding down together on the floor in the same bedroom while the other rooms were being painted. (I say ‘new’ because it was new to us, but the house was already 75 years old when we first moved in.) The following week Nikhil was to start kindergarten in a new school and a new town. Tonight, on the verge of selling our old house and of starting a new academic year that might well be my last, it feels like a time of endings—or at least, of tying up loose ends.  

On the morning of his first day of kindergarten Nikhil insisted that Andrew light a small fire in the fireplace so that he could toast a marshmallow. We couldn’t have done that in our old house because we only had a woodstove. Over the next few years Andrew collected the sap of the maple trees in the back yard and boiled it down to make maple syrup; he set up a cider press and he and Nikhil made apple-and-pear cider. The following year Andrew’s parents bought the house next door and moved back from California, and two years later my parents moved  to a house less than two miles down the road. A huge expanse of woods across the street, the Amethyst Brook Conservation Area, made up for the loss of our old country life in Winchendon, and over the years we hiked and biked and built dams and played Poohsticks there.

Out back, Andrew built a large raised-bed garden with a blueberry patch. Over the years he grew everything, strawberries, potatoes, garlic, hot peppers, butternut squash, and even corn, before he lost the long war with the woodchucks. A vine of Concord grapes sprawled over the old foundation to the south of the house and he made grape juice, grape jelly, and stuffed grape leaves. Now wild blackberries and black raspberries have overgrown his extensive earthworks, along with the pervasive poison ivy that has dug in and taken over.

The house became a gathering place for friends and extended family on both sides. Every birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Ukrainian Christmas (two weeks later), Ukrainian Easter, and not to forget those dissertation defense parties, we put both flaps in the trusty old dining table and brought out all the folding chairs while everyone contributed a dish to the feast. In the summers we had outdoor parties, with music, badminton, basketball, and massive quantities of food. In the winters, fast and furious games of darts, tiddlywinks, and Running Demons, endless movie nights, and those very welcome snow days when I curled up in bed with a book and a bottomless cup of tea while Andrew shoveled us all out.

The house also became a gathering place for Nikhil’s friends. Play dates, sleepovers, study sessions, parties, heart-to-hearts. In those years, young people continually flowed in and out, chattering, laughing, eating, eating some more. Parents came to pick them up and lingered to chat with us as the friends said their long goodbyes, unable to tear themselves away from each other.

I can’t count the number of times friends came over for tea (Lopchu Darjeeling), when I made scones (never as good as Mum’s) and salmon cakes. For parties my speciality was a large pot of chhole–chickpea curry–and an equally large batch of pullao rice with peas, topped with caramelized onions and roasted cashews.

In mid-August Andrew’s father Ted would remind us of the Perseid meteor showers. One memorable night we all rose in the wee hours and walked over to the field across the street where Ted sat on a folding chair and the rest of us lay on our backs on blankets, gazing up at the heavens.

Andrew’s dear mother Anna would invite us to dinner one night a week so that I didn’t have to cook. In later years her health didn’t allow her to be as active as she would have loved to be, but every Saturday she would go down to the farmer’s market on the Town Common and bring us back bean sprouts and Chinese vegetables from the Chang family farm. She soon made friends with the owners of the Greek pizza place round the corner where they would sell her trays of frozen spanakopitas at the wholesale price and send home a bag of Greek pita bread for her grandson. At the Asian grocery story two doors down she must have been the most faithful customer. She  provided Nikhil with a steady supply of nori, paper-thin sheets of dried seaweed, for his school lunchbox. When the store had to close Anna came close to buying up their entire stock. When Nikhil grew tired of me on some tirade or the other he would slip out and over to his Grandma Anna’s, where I would find him in her kitchen watching Emeril or re-runs of The Galloping Gourmet.

When I think of the old farmhouse I will forever remember my father’s words whenever he came over. After browsing the bookshelves he would settle in with a good book and a cup of tea, looking up to survey the contours of the place with his architect’s eye and to pronounce, “This is a good house.” Mum, accustomed to being the hard-working host, would ask what she could do to help and when I insisted that there was nothing to do, would give herself over to the rare pleasure of being fussed over and waited on.

Now that stage of our lives is long over and only the memories linger. Fireflies on a summer’s night will always remind me of the quiet of our old back yard. But on this last night of August, as I prepare for my first day of fall teaching and we prepare to pass the house on to a young family, I can hear the chorus of cicadas and katydids at our new house, and feel in my bones the effort it has taken us to sort and clear the accumulation of thirty-one years. It’s the longest I have ever lived in one place and surely, at this point, the longest I ever will. Along with the inevitable pangs will also come a strong sense of relief: that’s done at last. Farewell, old house!

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402. Land Where Our Fathers Died

In Stories on August 24, 2021 at 10:35 am

From the TMA archives, August 2016

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Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second short-story collection, opens with an epigraph by Nathaniel Hawthorne that also provides its title:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.  (from The Custom-House, introduction to The Scarlet Letter)

Like Hawthorne’s children, I had a different birthplace from that of my father, and my son, in turn, had a different birthplace from mine. Do I feel that, as a result, I was raised in richer, more generative soil? I was born in my mother’s city and country, but we didn’t stay there long. For much but not all of my childhood I was raised in my father’s…

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501. The Small Things

In Books, Childhood, culture, Family, parenting, people, reading, reflections, Stories on August 15, 2021 at 12:36 am

Dad would read Anatole and the Cat (“Quelle horreur!) in his inimitable French accent.

It’s the small things I remember these days, but they seem to come all the more freighted with meaning. Things that might have irked me at the time are endearing now, and I long to hear them just one more time: Dad joking, when we children protest at his insistence on reading to us in a pseudo-French accent, that he can’t help it, he has been speaking like this ever since he visited gay Parree. My Uncle Ted insisting on teaching his one-year-old grandson Jon to jump with glee into muddy slush-puddles, shouting “Splash”, when his exhausted young mum has just finished washing and drying his snowsuit. Bob, beloved partner of my dear friend Cylla, teaching our five-year-old son to say “bottle” with a Cockney glottal stop (“bo’l”). Mum crying out with a pang of loss when I first pronounce an ‘r’ American-style. All of them gone now. All of them larger than life in my memory.

I remember those loved ones who are grown and gone, one in particular whose childish charms lit up my life for a spell. When being dressed for bed in a new all-in-one sleepsuit, a little toddler’s voice chirping, “ Is it one hundwed pooercent cotton?” (For once it wasn’t, and he could tell.) When it became clear, playing his first board game at age 3 or 4, that he was about to lose, I remember him sweeping all the pieces and players off the board in a fit of fury. But when, ten years later, mother and tween were playing a truth-or-dare-style board game and the youth answered a question about his mother’s maturity with ruthless honesty—”she is immature”—this adult role-model proved it by ending the game then and there in a fit of petulance. On the only occasion this indifferent cook made calzones—with two different fillings, on a real terracotta baking stone, mind you—the appreciative young teen declared that it was the best thing his mother had ever made, filling her with guilt about her distinctly unmemorable performance in the kitchen for the past 15 years. (She has never made them since.)

 

Memories of watching movies as a family, two in particular. The violent fight scenes, filled with stereotypically racialized bad guys, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) sending the older boy-next-door bouncing off the walls in paroxysms of manic glee; whereas our son the budding film aficionado, no older than seven, seemed hardly to notice them, commenting instead on words of wisdom uttered by the Turtles’ mentors.

Watching Amadeus (1984) at about the same time, he had to leave the room, so upset was he by Salieri’s murderous envy of the young Mozart’s virtuosity. As he put it, “I would feel happy for Mozart; why couldn’t he?”

Some of these memories are glorious, some ignominious, all of them infinitely precious. Small things, but so telling.

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500. Late-Summer Morning

In Family, Nature, reflections, seasons, Stories on August 10, 2021 at 9:33 am

I’ve been waking and rising earlier this past week or so, as July has advanced inexorably into August and the start of the new academic year looms ever-larger. Now, as a three-day heatwave looms as well, I’m driven not just by dread but also by desire for the feel of the evanescent cool on my skin as I sip my morning tea. I go out to the terrace to check the progress of the chillies, jalapeño and cayenne, grown noticeably larger overnight, and to water or weed for a few short minutes while the tea is steeping. My To Do list is here, longer by the day, but there’s not much to be done until offices open at 8:30 am, so it can be set aside for now as I savor these moments of quiet.

Most mornings I open the doors to the terrace and courtyard so as to run a breeze through the house. This morning, though, it was already warmer and stickier outside than in, and the living-room carpeting was swelling and billowing underfoot, so the doors are closed and the dehumidifier running.

In the world outside, cases of COVID-19 are surging again, driven by the so-called Delta variant and throwing the fall outlook into uncertainty. I was to return to conducting most of my classes face to face, but now, especially with my hearing loss, doubts assail me and I quail at the prospect of trying to teach fully masked in a classroom that will no longer be socially distanced. My once-enjoyable ritual of shopping for a back-to-school outfit has been replaced with online research into voice amplifiers and the best masks for teachers.

Billowing out from my personal concerns, the planet’s climate woes are worsening visibly. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its latest report yesterday, and it was the direst yet; but anyone can read the signs of the catastrophe all around us. The other night, after Andrew and I had watched the evening news, I realized that every single news item— the surging global pandemic, devastating floods, raging wildfires, and the refugee crisis—had been related  to climate change.   

Back at home, I remain acutely aware of the distances between me and my far-flung family and friends, both in the United States and around the world. I wonder what they are all doing and  thinking, how they are feeling. My heart reaches out to them, telling them that I love them, that we will be together again, one day, soon. Simultaneously aware, as always, of multiple time zones, I think of dear ones in the Eastern U.S., just waking up; in California, still sleeping; in England, Germany, Spain, having lunch; in India, enjoying the cool of the evening, in Australia, asleep again; while my own day beckons, and then collars me: the alarm goes off. Time to be up and doing.

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341. Unexpected Fruit

In Stories on July 31, 2021 at 11:56 am

Re-posting this piece from the TMA archives as we are in the midst of selling the dear old house in the story. The nectarines are again out in abundance, as they were six years ago.

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IMG_2773

It was late August, 1990, when we moved to this house, with the schools poised to reopen after Labor Day and the cicadas in full-throated chorus every night. Soon afterwards Andrew dug up the twin nectarine trees from his parents’ old cabin on White Pond in Concord and transplanted them in our kitchen garden. This year, twenty-five years later, I am tasting the sweetness of their fruit for the first time.

One day, years before Nikhil was born, we opened a nectarine and found its seed sprouting, sending up not one, but two shoots. Although I can’t recall the details, I think Andrew half-immersed the split seed in a jar of water as one does an avocado pit (here’s a video on how one man did it). In any case, he nurtured the conjoined twins until they were old enough to separate very gently and plant in the soil. When the…

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463. Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment

In Stories on July 12, 2021 at 11:17 am

Still learning to live more fully in the moment while honoring and treasuring my past; a lifelong challenge for most of us, and particularly so for migrants.

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This is the twelfth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment.

Loch Lomond, looking south from Ben Lomond (Wikimedia Commons)

For migrants, longing comes with the territory. Many migrants—especially women—did not choose to leave a place they loved, where they themselves were known and loved, and where many of their nearest and dearest still live; it is only natural, then, that they would yearn for home and for those they left behind. At the same time, they must love and protect those who migrated with them and who may be particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of everyday life. Finally, they have a duty to themselves, to allow themselves to live in the present, to open themselves to the possibility of love flowering anew.

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