Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

512. My Champion

In clothing, culture, Family, Immigration, Music, parenting, places, Stories, United States, women & gender on June 5, 2022 at 12:44 pm

I.

During our sojourn in England in the late 1960s, many of the girls in my school would hike up their mini-skirts still further by folding over the waistbands as soon as they left home in the mornings. Of course, once they got to school they would have to fold them back down again because there were rules governing how many inches above the knee your skirt could be (see Exposing Whose Perversity?). But when we immigrated to the United States in 1970, we found that what was acceptable in Boston was very different from the prevailing London fashions. Mum had to take down the hems of several of my skirts and dresses before I could wear them to Brookline High, despite the fact that in every other respect it was more permissive than any school I had ever attended. We were struck by American prudishness, not only in fashions but also in the media, where nudity and swearing were routinely censored, even as violence seemed to be entirely permissible, even early in the evening, when children were still awake. In Britain it was just the opposite: sex on television was perfectly acceptable, while violence was a no-no. But over time I have come to appreciate more and more my mother’s open-mindedness.

As a teenager, I thought of Mum as prudish. I suppose it was a necessary stage I had to go through, of defining myself in opposition to her. As I grew older, I realized more and more how forward-thinking she was. That’s probably why most of her female friends in the States were so much younger than she was; the women her age were stuffy by comparison. In the early 1970s, as I was discovering youth culture in the U.S., I must have felt the need to shock the older generation, and my parents were the closest old fogeys at hand. But although Mum played the role that she had been socially assigned, and set ethical standards for me, I think she disapproved of American morality, which she considered backward and hypocritical. She generally presented herself as stereotypically British, prim and proper, and a stickler for good manners and “correct” diction and pronunciation. But in fact she was a rebel who had broken with tradition time and again and who stood up courageously for what she considered to be right action even when she was standing alone. There was one time in particular that I remember Mum springing into action publicly in my defense, just a few months after we had arrived in the States.

It was our first summer in America and I had just turned sixteen. Perhaps for my birthday, Mum had made me an outfit of her own design: a tiny gathered skirt, so short that it was more like a tutu, with a matching short-sleeved crop-top like a sari-blouse. The cloth was a cotton print from a little fabric shop in Coolidge Corner that carried a line of beautiful African batik prints. The day I wore my new outfit in public for the first time, Mum and I were riding a trolley on the Green Line, that runs from downtown Boston out to the Western suburbs. Out of the corner of my eyes and ears I became aware of two old ladies commenting disapprovingly on my appearance, quite loudly enough for me and the entire trolley car to hear, casting aspersions on “girls these days” but also on my own morality. I don’t remember how I felt when I heard them, but Mum certainly knew how she felt, and she made it abundantly clear to them.

Raising her voice and speaking clearly and directly to the two old gossips in her Queen’s English, she told them that there was nothing wrong with a young woman wearing pretty clothes. It was not my morality that was in question, but theirs. Her exact words escape me, but she made it abundantly clear that it was their own minds that were smutty; her daughter was entirely innocent.

Wow. That silenced them. Without a word to each other about what had just transpired, Mum and I continued on our morning’s errands. But thinking back on this episode more than half a century later, I marvel at her courage to speak out as fiercely as she had done in public and how unquestioningly she had stood up for me. My champion!   

II.

Lest you think that mini-skirts were the only things in fashion in 1970, long, flowing skirts were equally in vogue. There is another story about Mum and me and the African cotton prints at that fabric store in Coolidge Corner, Brookline. It must have been our first Christmas in the U.S., when I was wracking my brains for a present for Mum that I hit upon the idea of making her a skirt out of the material she liked so much. The only problem was that I was useless at sewing; the only time I had ever been the recipient of corporal punishment in school was in needlework class. Still, I got down to work and eventually produced something approximating what I had had in mind, wrapped it up, and waited impatiently for Christmas Day.

Now Mum was Father Christmas in our household. She loved Christmas more than any other holiday and started preparing for it months in advance, tiptoeing into the house with mysterious-looking parcels that she would bundle into her and Dad’s bedroom and hide away in a secret stash. On Christmas Day there were always more presents for my sister Sally and me than for anyone else, and certainly many more for us than there ever were for her, so Sally and I had to start opening first, otherwise Mum and Dad would have nothing to open later in the day. I had already opened a couple of presents—can’t remember what, though I’m pretty sure that my presents that year included George Harrison’s single, My Sweet Lord, and The Who’s album, Tommy—when I spotted an interesting-looking package from “Santa”; certainly not a record, but almost certainly an article of clothing, what we called a “softie” in our family. Until quite recently softies had been boring presents for us, but now they were getting more and desirable, even for Sally, who had hated them when she was younger. Anyway, I opened mine with great anticipation, and did a double-take, thinking at first that I had somehow mislabeled one of my own presents.

It was a full-length, African-cotton skirt, of identical design to the one I had made for Mum.

My champion, my role model, my twin!

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202. Tennessee Stud

In Stories on May 29, 2022 at 10:43 am

Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson passed away ten years ago, on May 29, 2012. Sharing this appreciation from the TMA archives.

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docandmerle

For years my love of country music was a bit of a guilty secret in a group of friends who listened mostly to rock-n-roll, punk, blues, and reggae. I remember once in my twenties, while I was playing Hank Williams in our group house in Somerville, my housemate Charlie going up into his room and playing his saxophone at full blast to register his displeasure. I listened to real country, country blues, folk, and bluegrass. Besides Hank Williams (whom I had loved ever since 1970, when I had heard a nameless musician sing Jambalaya at the Nameless Coffee House in Harvard Square), my favorites were Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs; and my all-time favorite, Doc Watson.

In December 1970, when I was sixteen and had been in the States for less than a year, Andrew took me to the Boston Tea Party on Lansdowne Street near…

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388. It Wants To Be Found

In Stories on May 27, 2022 at 2:17 pm

In the aftermath of two more mass shootings, one in Buffalo, New York, targeting African American shoppers, the other in Uvalde, Texas, targeting young schoolchildren, I share this post examining “the weapons effect.” For years one of the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) slogans has been “Guns don’t kill, people do.” I beg to differ.

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Happiness is a warm gun (bang, bang, shoot, shoot)/Happiness is a warm gun, mama
When I hold you in my arms/And I feel my finger on your trigger
I know nobody can do me no harm
—The Beatles

When I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as a child, the scene that most disturbed me was the diminutive hero Bilbo’s underground encounter with the etiolated Gollum, in which he found the Ring and got away by outwitting (cheating, actually) his opponent in a game of riddles. From then on, Bilbo kept the Ring and he kept it a secret, using it to make himself invisible whenever expedient, and thereby sealing his reputation as a brilliant little burglar. It was clear to me that Bilbo’s behavior, though justifiable, was not altogether ethical, and I even felt sorry for the light-deprived, near-translucent Gollum, left all alone in the underground tunnels without his “Precious.”

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399. East of What?

In Stories on May 18, 2022 at 10:59 pm

With the doubling-down on Cold War rhetoric since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, “East” and “West” are being rehabilitated all over again. Although I wrote this piece five years ago, the need to resist the illogic of these terms is as urgent as ever. And so I ask again: East of what?

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Illuminated Meridian Line (Royal Museums Greenwich)

People’s faces sometimes register impatience when I insist on putting the terms “East” and “West” in quotation marks. Okay, I see them thinking, we get it: you’re flagging them as fictions, or as intellectual shorthand, but there’s no need to be pedantic; everyone knows what they stand for.

Do they really? What is it then, that the West stands for? Liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry? As Anthony Appiah points out, these ideals are certainly not exclusive to Western civilization, and in any case the “West,” however it is defined, has spectacularly failed as a beacon of such enlightened principles.

What about the East? The late Edward Said argued that the East, or “Orient,” through the impressive body of 18th-19th-century Orientalist scholarship,  has been created as Europe’s Other, serving to justify and facilitate the ends of Empire. In European colonial thought, the East stands for everything that the West is…

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154. Saraswati and Sari-wearing

In Stories on May 13, 2022 at 10:51 am

As summer comes in again, my old cotton saris beckon. Sharing this post from the TMA archives.

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the goddess Saraswati

These summer heatwaves in New England put me in mind of the hot season in India before the arrival of the rains, and awaken in me the urge to wear a sari again. Not an elegant silk, slid out carefully from its zippered bag for weddings and festivals, or a heat-trapping chiffon or polyester, but a simple cotton handloom sari, soft with repeated washings and cooler and more comfortable than anything else one could wear at this time of year.

I didn’t always feel comfortable in a sari. In fact, for years I was traumatized by a major wardrobe malfunction that had taken place when I was ten, during Saraswati Puja. It was the festival of the veena-playing goddess, divine patron of learning and creativity, one of the most important  events of the year in West Bengal, and a procession of people took to the street on…

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511. Start as you mean to go on.

In Aging, Books, reading, Stories, storytelling, Words & phrases, Work, writing on May 11, 2022 at 12:43 pm

It’s going on 11 am and here I am sitting up in bed with end-of-term grades to submit, two outings to dress for, my daily walk still ahead of me, and a To Do list as long as my arm. One is supposed to get the grades in before starting in on the summer proper, but as usual I have allowed life to flow in and utterly derail me. I had resolved that because I have a lot on next week, I would get down to grading single-mindedly and submit the final grades for my classes early—for the first time ever, mind you. But here I am again, doing everything but, and with every hour that passes, dooming myself to an inevitable all-nighter a week from tomorrow.

But this is all very tedious. Let me tell it differently, with reference to literature. In R.K. Narayan’s delightful second novel, The Bachelor of Arts (1937), the wayward college student Chandran finds himself “face to face with November”, and the realization that half the college year is “already spent.” His B.A. examinations are looming and he has done nothing to prepare for them. “What one ought to do in a full year must now be done in just half the time.” So in a grand gesture that I well recognize, Chandran resolves to begin a rigorous programme of right living: to rise early, bathe in cold water, and give up smoking—just for starters. Then he draws up an ambitious programme of study.

He took out a sheet of paper and noted down all his subjects. He calculated the total number of preparation hours that were available from November the first to March. He had before him over a thousand hours, including the twelve-hour preparations on holidays. Of these thousand hours a just allotment of so many hundred hours was to be made for Modern History, Ancient History, Political Theories, Greek Drama, Eighteenth-century Prose, and Shakespeare. He then drew up a very complicated time-table which would enable one to pay equal attention to all subjects…Out of the daily six hours, three were to be devoted to the Optional Subjects and three to the Compulsory. In the morning the compulsory subjects and Literature at night.

Chandran duly arises at 5 am the next day; but from the very outset, the comedy of life begins getting in the way of his elaborate schedule. Something of great urgency turns up and utterly consumes his time for a fortnight. He has no option but to revise his initial programme to make up for the lost time.

He consoled himself with the fact that he had wasted several months so far, and a fortnight more, added to that account, should not matter…The time wasted in a fortnight could…be made up by half an hour’s earlier rising every day. He would also return home at seven in the evening instead of at seven-thirty. This would give him a clear gain of an hour a day over his previous programme. He hoped to make up the ninety study hours, at six hours a day, lost between the first of November and the fifteenth, in the course of ninety days.

But, notes the narrator wryly, “Man can only propose.” Chandran is inevitably drawn into other escapades that threaten to derail his programme yet again. And as it was with R.K. Narayan’s protagonist, so it was with me. As a junior faculty member facing the deadline for the submission of my book manuscript, I too drew up a rigorous—and altogether unrealistic—timetable with a certain number of hours per day and week allotted to the preparations. When, inevitably, I found myself a few weeks down the line having made no progress to speak of, I too sat down to revise my schedule by increasing the required number of hours of work per day. I consoled myself with the thought that I was not the first to have to revise my programme in this way. After all, the wildly prolific R.K. Narayan’s protagonist had had to do the same thing, hadn’t he?

But a few weeks soon became a few months, and, like Chandran’s, life had broken in and steamrolled over my best intentions. Once again, I found myself re-calculating the number of hours remaining until the hard—and fast-approaching—deadline and once again revising upward the number of hours per day that I would have to apply myself to the increasingly daunting task. I’m ashamed to say that this happened yet again, and yet again, I consoled myself with the example of my fickle—and, I neglected to acknowledge, entirely fictional—literary predecessor.

Somehow I muddled through, and the materials were duly submitted, though not before I had put my family to a lot of unnecessary heartache. For they were packed and ready to set out on our cross-country road trip with the motor running while I assembled the final manuscript and revised the cover note for the umpteenth time. We mailed the package Priority Mail on our way out of town. But this is not my point.

Some time later I returned to The Bachelor of Arts to revisit my hilarious and reassuring fellow-procrastinator who had had to revise his unrealistic timetable repeatedly. But although I went through the text with a fine-tooth comb, I couldn’t find it. Eventually, I had to accept that it wasn’t there. Sure enough, in chapters two through five, Chandran had drawn up his programme and then had had to revise it after events in his life overtook it. But he had only had to do so once. After that initial two-week delay, he had in fact stuck to his punishing schedule of rising at 4:30 am and not retiring to bed until 11:00 pm. He had not lapsed again.  He had not had to ratchet up his hours per day yet again. I, on the other hand, had fallen away from my initial resolve repeatedly and had to revise and re-revise my daily timetable. My consolation, that the great R.K. Narayan’s comic hero had done the same, turned out to have been an utter fiction.

The realization shook me, but I managed to shake it off and soon returned to my bad habits, though now without the reassurance of fiction. Now I just hated myself.

So here it is, past noon now, and, as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers used to say on National Public Radio, “you’ve done it again, you’ve just wasted another perfectly good hour.“ As retirement sets in, I am inevitably making resolutions. It is important to start as you mean to go on, I tell myself—and not for the first time. I am at the other end of life from the young Chandran, who was just starting out. But I recognize his feelings as his college career came to a close:

As they dispersed and went home, Chandran was aware that he had passed the very last moments in his college life, which had filled the major portion of his waking hours for the last four years. There would be no more college for him from tomorrow. He would return a fortnight hence for the examination and (hoping for the best) pass it, and pass out into the world, for ever out of Albert College. He felt very tender and depressed.

Chandran does pass his exams and another, very poignant, chapter of his life begins. If you haven’t read R.K. Narayan’s early trilogy—Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, and The English Teacher—you have a treat in store. For my part, I still intend to start as I mean to go on. Stay tuned.

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107. Kalo Paska

In Stories on April 23, 2022 at 1:40 pm

As Orthodox Easter approaches, sharing this from the TMA archives. Kalo Paska and Peace for Ukraine!

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In Greece in the 1960s Easter was the biggest holiday of the year, bigger than Christmas and much more eagerly anticipated. The blessings of Easter, or Paska, lasted all year long. Although we weren’t a religious family, in the spirit of Indian secularism and my mother’s unitarian socialist agnosticism (“God is all the Goodness in the world,” she told us), we celebrated every holiday there was, and the Greeks knew how to celebrate. All through Lent people had been fasting, denying themselves meat, fish, dairy products, wine, and even the ubiquitous olive oil that seemed to form the basis of every dish. They had also been cleaning and whitewashing their houses, purifying themselves inside and out.

Holy Friday was the most sombre day of Holy Week, one of deep mourning. All the lights of Athens were turned out, plunging even the Acropolis into darkness. Late on Saturday night, people bundled…

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510. School’s (Nearly) Out

In Aging, Education, Stories, Teaching, Work on April 9, 2022 at 1:56 am

As retirement looms—why does that sound ominous?—I’ve found myself thinking back over all the jobs I’ve done over the years. Counting them up, I’ve remembered at least twenty-five, from waitress, house-cleaner, and gas-station attendant to teaching assistant, research assistant, college professor; and everything in-between. It has always irked me that people outside the teaching profession think that college professors have a cushy life when, in fact, we’re always on the job, the classroom hours being just the tip of the iceberg. As I prepare to retire I’m still feeling defensive about the work I’ve done because to my mind it will never have been enough. I think the praise I value most came when, at age 21, I’d put in a day of hard labor on a farm and the manager (Pete Hill, our friend Michael’s dear father), said—with some surprise—that I certainly knew how to work. How much I’ve put that knowledge into action since then is one of the things I find nagging at me as the countdown begins.

I’ve already written about the paper round, Godine Press, the Merit gas station and the Blue Parrot, house-cleaning, the Posh Bagel, and Whetstone Press. There were so many more jobs in my early, checquered career: shop assistant at Party Favors in Coolidge Corner, circulation assistant, Widener Library, caterer in Belmont, free-lance laddu-maker, greenhouse worker, technical editor, Environmental Research & Technology, first employee of an (anti-)nuclear information and resource service (NIRS), newspaper editor and board secretary at a food co-op federation (NEFCO), newspaper stringer, The Winchendon Courier, medical receptionist (for a week), substitute teacher (for two whole days). And none of the above counts my unpaid or volunteer work. 

Teaching was a profession I came to late, in my thirties, and have been at for the past 35 years, in different capacities and at five different colleges and universities. Strangely enough, I haven’t written much about it—the so-called life of the mind.

I wonder why not? Something about not telling tales out of school, perhaps. Something to revisit after retirement?  In my current state of exhaustion I think, not bloody likely. For now, here’s a handful of teaching stories—one set in the 1980s and the rest between 2017 and 2020:

Reaganomics 101
teaching in the 80s

Why Should Not Old Women Be Mad?
an end-of-semester rant or, I’m so old that. . .

Scattergram, April 2017
teaching in the age of Trump

Free from Thought
still in the age of Trump

Zoom
during the pandemic 

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372. Real Country

In Stories on April 7, 2022 at 6:10 pm

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Kentucky, Route 80 (Wikipedia) Kentucky, Route 80 (Wikipedia)

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

RListening to Radiolab the other day, I happened to catch a show called Songs That Cross Borders, on songs that stick in our heads, and why they have such wide appeal. My ears pricked up with the third segment (starting around 12:40, if you click on the show’s link) which was about country music. Apparently, country music officially began with Jimmie Rodgers’ first recording, in 1927 (the year of my mother’s birth). Interestingly, it was also the year when, for the first time, the urban population in the United States exceeded the rural population.

What is country music about, at heart? A deep longing for a country home left behind. This note of longing resonates deeply with people around the world whose homes have been transformed out of all recognition, or who have been driven from…

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245. Welcome Home

In Stories on March 21, 2022 at 1:17 am

From the TMA Archives–I need this tonight.

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Some five or six years ago I had a dream that left with me a feeling of comfort and reassurance that I had not felt since I was a child and have not felt since. I tried to capture it in writing before it slipped away forever, but where that piece of writing is now I cannot say and the details remain shadowy in my mind’s eye. Let me try once more to approximate the atmosphere, to conjure up even the contours of the scene.

il_340x270.337978823It was a dreary day, late afternoon, and I was out on an interminable round of errands. The row of small, independent storefronts told me that I was in neighboring Northampton, though the daunting prospect of crossing the Connecticut River and finding a place to park usually deters me from going there to shop.  Tired of traipsing, I found myself pausing and lingering at one…

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