Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

399. East of What?

In Books, Music, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories on May 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm

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 not. Where the West has enlightened leaders, the East has “Oriental despots”; where the Westerner is active (manly), rational and capable of exercising self-control, the Easterner is passive and effeminate, superstitious, and sensual; where Western systems of governance are a model for the world, Eastern governments, without Western oversight and tutelage, cannot help becoming mired in corruption and intrigue. In a 1998 documentary by the Media Education Foundation, On Orientalism, Said and MEF founder Sut Jhally discuss these stereotypes and the purposes they serve.

How are East and West defined? During the era of European colonialism, the West was Europe and the East stretched from the Persian Gulf all the way to East Asia including everything in-between. During the Cold War, the West referred to the capitalist world: the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, while the East referred to the communist Soviet Union and its satellite states east of the Berlin Wall. Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the West refers, as far as I can tell, to capitalist democracies that are allies of the United States (and populated primarily by white people). Despite being in the Far East and the Southern Hemisphere to boot, Australia is considered part of the West; so is Israel, though it is located squarely in the Middle East; while democracies in Africa, South America, Asia, or the Caribbean will never be admitted to the club.

Where is the East? East of What? Well, the dividing line between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres is Longitude 0º, or the Prime Meridian. Here it is on a map:

The National Geographic Society helpfully reminds us that the prime meridian is arbitrary, meaning it could be chosen to be anywhere. However, it is no accident that the Prime Meridian runs right through Greenwich, England, which is also the center of world time. It won Longitude 0º in 1884 at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., by a vote of 22 to 1, with one No vote—Santa Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) and two abstentions—France and Brazil. Why was it chosen? Because Britain, with its far-flung empire, was then the reigning global superpower, and so it was able to claim centrality.

Ask yourself what the function of the East-West divide is in the 21st Century. Why divide the world up based on an arbitrary line that makes neither geographical nor philosophical sense? Why lump together all the diverse societies and cultures that fall into one or the other categories under a simplistic and patently false set of stereotypes?

The answer is pure, naked Power. The East-West divide serves the interests of power. That’s my view—biased, no doubt, but informed. Verify my claim if you like: start paying careful attention to where, how, and by whom you see the two terms employed and decide for yourself. But until I am persuaded otherwise, I will continue to put “East” and “West” in quotation marks.

Let me close with “The Funky Western Civilization” (a 1978 song by Tonio K from his album, Life in the Foodchain), that I danced and sang along to gleefully in my twenties, loving the irony. You can listen to it here and read the lyrics here. The Funky Western Civilization is a dance, and this is how you do it:

Grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there. . .

Oh get down
Get funky
Get Western
(Own up to it boys and girls)
And if you try real hard
Maybe you can even get
Civilized . . .

As Mahatma Gandhi famously quipped when asked what he thought of Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.”

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398. This day . . .

In reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, Work, writing on May 24, 2017 at 3:48 pm


This day is the first day of the rest of your life, proclaims that 1960s poster once plastered ubiquitously on college dorm walls across the country and intoned, infuriatingly, by any number of 1970s self-help gurus and popular culture figures from John Denver to The Walking Dead. But being banal doesn’t make it untrue; quite the contrary.

Every spring, as I teach my last class of the year, and again a couple of weeks later, when I turn in my students’ final grades, I tell myself: This day is the first day of the rest of your summer. Make the most of it, start as you mean to go on. Walk and write daily, wrap up long-postponed and unfinished business, work steadily to make inroads into those large, looming tasks that take time to complete, and have plenty of fun: take trips to visit friends and family, thrift-store shop to your heart’s content, and do a whole lot of entirely extraneous reading (what Andrew used to call, in that interminable last six months of my doctoral studies, reading unrelated to my dissertation). On that first day, as the whole summer stretches before me, I am utterly exhausted, but simultaneously filled with pleasurable anticipation and resolve.

Here it is, though, a week since I turned in the grades, more than three weeks since I taught my last class, and I have precious little to show. Already I have that sinking feeling, as if the whole summer, and then some, is already spoken for. Former students with Incompletes are still turning in late work, students from this just-finished semester demanding to know why their grades haven’t shown up online; prospective students asking for the syllabus of one of my fall courses (answer: I don’t have it; the course is yet to be designed), editors asking after that book chapter that I have yet to complete, creditors asking why I haven’t paid (and never will pay) that last ambulance bill for Dad. And now, here I sit at the dining-room table with my second cup of tea, doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of nothing.

For the first few days of the summer, I always tell myself—despite my resolution to work slowly and steadily, to start as I mean to carry on—that it is okay not to do much of anything, that I need to catch up on lost sleep, unwind, and generally be kind to myself. But in my heart of hearts I know that I am simply postponing the inevitable: there is no substitute for getting started.

The trouble is that inevitably, the instant I finish teaching my last class, either I fall sick or crisis strikes at home. There is no time in-between to take a deep breath. It’s like when Nikhil was a baby and went down for his 45-minute nap (unlike my friends’ babies who regularly took two-hour naps during the day, sometimes two of them), I would immediately start rinsing out his dirty nappies (because of course I used cloth diapers rather than disposable) and inevitably, the instant that I had finished the last one, he would wake up as if on a timer. So it was this year; so much has happened since that last day of classes in early May that I can’t account for it all. Through the blur of these past three weeks I seem to recall that, among other things, my eyeglasses broke in two during the last, desperate hours of my final grading, the air conditioning failed during an unprecedentedly hot mid-May heatwave, more students than ever before failed to complete their final term papers on time, and, of course, the nation has been teetering on the brink of a Constitutional crisis. All I know is that I feel as if I’ve been continuously and furiously busy, but seem to have nothing to show for it but a lot of late nights where I fall asleep on the couch and so many rounds of Canfield’s Solitaire (called Demon in England because it is so notoriously hard to win) that my hands ache with the repetitive stress. My hands actually ache from doing a whole lot of nothing.

The cure for doing nothing seems obvious: just do something; make even a little headway with it, and you will begin to feel better. But what to start on first? Perform triage, and then start with the most urgent task. But there are so many urgent tasks; it’s overwhelming. This is where the deck of cards comes out for yet another round of Canfield. If I lose, I play again: just until I beat Canfield. If I win, I play again: why quit when you’re ahead? (Wait, isn’t the maxim Quit while you’re ahead? No matter.) You get the picture, and unless you’re superhuman, or one of those Highly Effective People, you’ve probably struggled with your own version of it.

But the summer is young yet, and despite my sinking feeling that it’s already over, it really isn’t. It is. Not. Over. So let me take stock, and come up with a game plan; just for today.

First, open that unfinished book chapter and get back in the groove: Where was I when I last worked on it, and what do I need to do next? Actually get to work on it for a short period of time, setting a timer and stopping when it goes off; but not before writing myself a brief To Do note for the next time I sit down to it.

Second, take a brisk walk; it doesn’t have to be a long one. The 40-minute loop down through the old cemetery is perfect, but the shorter leg-stretch up to the Town Line and back will suffice.

Third, Destination Henion Bakery: sit with a cup of tea and a little something (okay, a jelly doughnut; although they now make these light, not-too-sweet little French things called choquettes; if feeling righteous, substitute a couple of them for my JD). Keep wireless internet connection resolutely turned off so as to continue to work on essay without distraction for period of time not to exceed 45 minutes. Slow and steady is the way to ease into this.

Now the hard work of the day is done. If energy permits, knock off one of those Incompletes: reread, regrade, recalculate, and resubmit the grade to the Registrar.

What next? Front porch, feet up, and—oh joy!—Extraneous Reading.

After dinner, repair to living-room couch. Get required daily dose of Professor Robert Reich’s Resistance Report, and laugh at opening monologues from last night’s late-night comedians.

This day is the first day of the rest of my life. From the standpoint of now, it is the only day. It is.

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397. Why Should Not Old Women Be Mad?

In Education, Stories, Teaching, Words & phrases, Work on April 28, 2017 at 10:21 pm

St. Trinians girls (Ronald Searle)

I’m so old that when I was in secondary school in England, the teachers still addressed the boys by their last names, as if, anachronistically, we were in some sort of Monty Python sketch. (I’m so old that I was in secondary school before the advent of Monty Python.)

I’m so old that I become enraged by fundraising emails that address me by my first name.

I’m so old that students sending me their late essays via cell phone infuriate me, not by their lateness, or by the fact that I am forced to print them out, but by their failure to include a cover note.

I’m so old that when a student sends me an email message without a cover note, I reply with a cold (and to them, bewildering), “Were you addressing me?” or “Excuse me, but did you intend to send that message to me?”

I am so impossibly old that when, in their essays, students call eminent scholars like Edward Said “Edward,” or Martin Luther King, Jr. “Martin,” I say, with withering sarcasm, “Oh, I didn’t know you were on a first-name basis with him.” (It goes right over their heads.)

It’s contradictory, I know, that in email messages to my students I sign off with my first name, but have the urge to (cyber)slap them if they dare to address me as such. Although to tell you the truth, I am grateful when they address me at all. Nowadays one is lucky if a message from a student starts with a “Hey!”

By the way, while I’m giving vent to righteous indignation, Woe Betide any student who makes any of the following cardinal slip-ups, whether orally or in writing:

Pakistan is in the Middle East;
India is in Southeast Asia; or
the Mahatma’s name is spelled G-h-a-n-d-i.
Not!

I’m not done yet: on the subject of names, if you are giving an oral presentation on an eminent writer or scholar from Elsewhere, you are responsible for finding out how to pronounce his or her name beforehand. S-a-i-d is pronounced with two syllables; it emphatically does not rhyme with ‘head’. Why is it that you can do Dostoevsky without hesitation, but—like the British—balk at Bandopadhyay? Stay after class and repeat “Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak” as many times as it takes to get it right.

By the way, I’m so old that in my day they still sent the boys to the Headmaster to be caned. Just sayin’.

Mr. Quelch and Billy Bunter

All right; I’m done now.

With apologies to William Butler Yeats: Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?

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396. Missing Ted

In Family, people, places, poetry, Stories, United States on March 18, 2017 at 2:56 am

My father-in-law Theodore (Ted) Melnechuk passed away on March the first, at the age of eighty-nine. There is a void where he once was, and we cannot fill it. Science writing was his profession—neuroscience writing in particular, but his interests and expertise were broad and eclectic. Poetry was his avocation, and he loved form in verse, from sonnets to limericks, which he wrote daily, for years, thousands of them. He wrote a poem for every occasion in our lives, on my mother-in-law Anna’s birthday and their wedding anniversary and, also for Anna, every Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. He was kind enough to read and edit all my writing for years, and I still follow his rules about the serial comma, the adverb following the verb, the title of an essay stating its thesis. Gently, he pointed out some of my tendencies to verbal excess, noting only that a second adjective tended to cut the impact of the word in half rather than doubling it. Once, wistfully, he expressed a wish that I would evaluate literary works for their intrinsic beauty, the way he had learned to do, rather than merely interrogating them politically.

For more than 40 years he marked, clipped, and sent me and many others articles of interest from The New York Times, which he read religiously every morning. He read the print issue, of course, and if for any reason it was not delivered he would fret, fume, make phone calls, and eventually drive down to the newsagent’s to pick up a replacement copy. Only then would his day take its proper shape.

Ted loved words, puzzles (crossword and jigsaw both), word games, games of all kinds. Puns, anagrams, acrostics, homonyms, palindromes, all endless sources of pleasure. He loved playing games with his children and together they made up their own idiosyncratic rules for them. In the ten years after his beloved wife, my dear mother-in-law Anna, passed away he had taken to organizing a games day on the third Saturday of every month, when all four children joined him for lunch followed by an afternoon of high jinks and tiddlywinks, Melnechuk-style, followed by Scrabble in teams. Ted always kept score, meticulously, and the family not only kept them in perpetuity, but compared their new scores to old ones, delighting in besting themselves. But the older he got, the less Ted, once super-competitive, cared about winning; he simply enjoyed finding good words, a place to put them on the board, and the company of his children.

Still, as much as he loved his children, my father-in-law had his priorities. He did move up his daily nap time on games days to accommodate the special schedule, but even Games Day had to give way to big football and baseball games; sometimes he would peremptorily announce that it was time for us to leave. Other events that could not be missed: all three of the horse races that make up the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes (on television of course). For every one Andrew and I would receive a cordial invitation to join him half-an-hour before the race began, when we would be given a photocopy of the line-up and invited to pick our first three choices for the winner. Ted would always pick the horses with the best odds of winning, while Anna would pick the names she liked best. Another must-watch ritual was the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving Day—mostly, I think, because it was held in his native New York City.

Ted loved New York. As a son of Ukrainian immigrants, he was born (in 1928) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attended high school at Brooklyn Tech (where even then he brought the arts to a science and technology high school as Editor of their literary magazine), and college at Columbia, where he studied science, took literature classes with Mark Van Doren and wrote poetry with classmates Alan Ginsberg and John Hollander. Although he left New York for Massachusetts in the early 1960s, he followed the New York scene avidly and, as long as he was able, used to travel down to the City with an old friend once a year to go to the opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Amherst he was a member of a group called the Ex-New Yorkers, who used to gather once a month to reminisce about their hometown, choosing a different theme every time.

Also every month, from the very beginning of his stay in Amherst, Ted held a men’s poker game on a Friday night—low stakes, high seriousness. He cancelled the game only once that I recall— the month after Anna’s death. In the last month of his life he moved into assisted living in Amherst, and one of his poker mates moved in soon after. But they didn’t have time to get Poker Night going again in the new venue.

So many daily, weekly, monthly, annual rituals, now all gone. Will any of us ever manage to be as faithful to them? Which of them will we keep up? Now that I no longer receive my regular envelope of clippings from the Times, I must subscribe on my own, though mine will have to be the digital edition. Nights, when I am at a loose end, I will play Canfield’s Solitaire, Ted’s favorite, though I won’t keep a running score as he did. When I need to soothe my soul, I must remember to play music, like Ted, who always listened to classical music on the radio or CD player as he worked at his desk. And on Saturday mornings I will visit the Book Shed at the Amherst town dump to see if there’s anything of interest; but I won’t get there as often, or keep my eyes peeled anymore for British murder mysteries, Ted’s favorites (he went through hundreds of them, some of the best ones many times over, since he claimed that he always forgot whodunit).

His house is empty. This weekend Andrew and his siblings are clearing his room at the assisted living place, where he stayed for only six weeks. He had insisted on continuing to live in his own home, resisting home help, remaining independent to the end. Here is the obituary that he wrote himself; a shorter version will run in his beloved New York Times this Sunday.

Rest in Peace, dear Ted.

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395. “Oh, Rob!”

In people, United States, women & gender on January 26, 2017 at 4:26 am

54fa8e7403fadb657f1b508a3d658d1aI know I’m not alone in the pang I felt this morning when I learned of the death of Mary Tyler Moore, age eighty. For me she will always be Laura Petrie, the lovely, lithe, funny, frustrated young wife in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966). I was introduced to the show when I met Andrew in 1970, the same year we immigrated to the United States. It was already in re-runs by then, but it was brand-new to me, like everything else in America. Andrew’s family watched television while eating dinner, starting with the CBS Evening News. Walter Cronkite signed off sometime over dessert with his “and that’s the way it is,” followed without fail by half an hour of Dick Van Dyke. On our trips to New York City, Andrew could never drive past the New Rochelle sign on the highway without murmuring, “Home of Rob and Laura Petrie.”

Looking back now, I see how young she was, still in her 20s. But I was 16 and the Women’s Movement was making her “Oh, Rob!” look terribly old-fashioned. I didn’t learn until years later how ground-breaking the show was, how subversive and controversial her tight black Capri pants had been. For Rob had married Laura right out of the army after the War (WWII, that is), and the successful dancer had become a suburban housewife. So much of the show’s comedy—and tension, and pathos—stemmed from Laura’s pent-up creative energy that burst out in the sparkling moments when she was allowed to perform on stage for part of an episode.

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Mary Tyler Moore was a New York actress and comedienne, progressive and public-spirited. She and the irrepressible Dick Van Dyke made a perfect TV couple. Just seeing them together made you smile. In the 1970s, she starred as Mary, the single “career-woman” in the man’s world of TV news in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), and again, as in the show’s theme song, she “turned the world on with her smile.”

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Behind that dazzling smile, Mary Tyler Moore the woman didn’t have an easy personal life. She was a victim of abuse as a child, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1970, struggled with alcoholism, and, in 1980, following a divorce, lost her only son. Still, she overcame the alcoholism, was nominated for an Oscar for her devastating portrayal of the bereaved mother in the film Ordinary People, and raised awareness and funds for diabetes research.

5b5ba9a186af7f9c51763da3d74f6714I don’t want to get too maudlin, but coming at this particular moment when the entire American landscape is changing, Mary Tyler Moore’s death feels terribly sad, not just for me, but for everyone who grew up with her. See, for instance, this very personal tribute by Michael Buckley, and another that includes an interview with Dick Van Dyke. With her seems to go a whole era. For me it was the time when I was defining feminism for myself, meeting the person who was to become my husband, and struggling to find my feet in a new country. But there’s to be no moping; just thinking of her makes me want to get on my feet and move.

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Rest in Peace, Mary Tyler Moore.

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394. Scattergram, Spring 2017

In Books, Music, Politics, Stories, Teaching, United States, Words & phrases on January 14, 2017 at 4:33 am
Robert Rauschenberg, Scattergram

Rauschenberg, “Scattergram”

My Spring teaching semester begins right after Martin Luther King Day, with the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States (there, I said itfollowing hard on its heels. As I find myself struggling to bring order to my mental landscape, the word scattergram comes, unbidden, to mind.

scattergram would require me to map my wayward thoughts in relation to something fixed. But rather than being plotted between two axes, representing dependent or independent variables, everything appears to be in total disarray. Nothing can be held steady, allowing other variables to be plotted in relation to it. Even scattered is too controlled—splattered, more like it.

No matter, I must posit order; let the horizontal axis be calendar time, the vertical, hours per day or hours per week. There looms a 15-week semester moving inexorably onward into May, with four courses (3 different preparations) running—galloping—concurrently, three of them twice a week each, the fourth, blessedly, only once. Here they are, with their attendant syllabi and lesson plans and work schedules, their assignments and office hours, their grading, grading, grading. Subject matter is another diagram altogether, but of course it will color the whole experience, mine and my students’, in and out of the classroom.

shoppingThe courses will inevitably overlap with each other. Concepts of freedom and unfreedom frame my two first-year composition courses, with a focus on incarceration in the United States, mass imprisonment of black Americans, black men in particular, disenfranchising them all over again: The New Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander describes and amply demonstrates. The ideas in these two courses can be further illuminated through the lenses of the third, contemporary theory. To Jean Beaudrillard, U.S. society is itself carceral, though Americans will do almost anything to avoid facing this fact, with “truth” becoming a non-issue in the age of the hyperreal, when media images no longer need to correspond to any underlying reality. 

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Michel Foucault’s genealogies of prisons and punishment trace the advent of “corrections” and the rise of all-seeing surveillance, epitomized by the panopticonStuart Hall, author of Policing the Crisisredefines “black” and unites in resistance the diverse new ethnicities of contemporary Britain. The fourth course, my weekly Special Topics seminar, after dragging us, bedraggled and grief-benumbed, through the wake of terror, helps us come to some kind of healing through art—and through humanity, I hope, bedeviled though we are.

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Sure, we’re scattered, shattered, shell-shocked, mud-bespattered. But we’d best take heart, bestir ourselves and coalesce, soldiering on through the blighted landscape, casting a smattering of light upon these benighted post-truth times. 

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Come Together

from occupy.com (Abramsky)

from occupy.com (Abramsky)

 Belay there, me hearties! Let’s Work Together.

(And why have I just used so many words with the prefix “be-“? Begorrah, I cannot say.)

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393. Flying those Flags

In Britain, India, Music, Politics, Stories, United States on December 4, 2016 at 3:25 am
Eddie Izzard's Do You Have a Flag?

Eddie Izzard’s Do You Have a Flag?

I’ll try to keep this brief, because to me it’s cut-and-dried. Hampshire College has folded, following a firestorm of protests and threats, and has re-flown the American flag on its campus. I have not followed the controversy closely, but I want to make one observation: private colleges in the United States are not required to display the national flag.

As a student of nationalism, I feel compelled to note that although pennants and flags have long been used as signals (as in semaphore) and to identify armies in battle, national flags are very recent developments in world history, only dating back to the late eighteenth century, and not becoming universal until the 19th century. Rectangular pieces of fabric bearing national insignia, they have become potent patriotic symbols that often carry strong military associations, but it is important to remember that they are just that, symbols, displayed on bits of cloth and mounted on poles—or, in one of my favorite songs, printed on plastic and plastered on cars.

Allow me, and yourself, a little levity: watch Eddie Izzard’s classic sketch, “Do You have a Flag?” performed here by the comedian himself, and here by Lego men. Now treat yourself to John Prine’s classic song from his first album, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore. Back in 1971, he was referring to the Vietnam War when he said, in the next line, “It’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war”; but unfortunately it’s all the more resonant in this brave new world of perpetual war.

I recall with sadness the great Indian philosopher poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote Jana Gana Mana, the song that has become the nation’s national anthem. (He also wrote Amar Sonar Bangla, the song that became the national anthem of Bangladesh.) I can’t hear Jana Gana Mana without getting overcome by nostalgia—love for India, the aspirations of the–then newly independent nation, and memories of singing it at the top of my ten-year-old voice every time I went to the cinema with my father (the flag billowing on the screen for 52 seconds just before the running of the birth control advertisements: do ya teen—bas!). Tagore was a great patriot with a deep love for his country. But as he grew older, and began to understand what horrors nationalism was capable of wreaking, he came to see it as a modern scourge, and spoke out strongly and insistently against it. For this he was attacked and vilified by many of his compatriots, just as those who dare to question the military adventures of the United Statestoday are attacked and vilified as anti-national. As Tagore said in 1908, “I will never allow nationalism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.” For both yesterday and today, his words warn us of the danger and the travesty of bestowing upon a state apparatus and its symbols the love best reserved for our fellow human beings, the reverence best reserved for all things sacred.

While the British once paraded their flag with overblown pomp and ceremony as a symbol of their imperial power, now their erstwhile colonial subjects, rather than turning away from such vainglorious displays of worldly power, seek to reproduce them with a vengeance.

The Indian Supreme Court has just ruled that the national flag must be displayed in all movie theaters, and the national anthem played to a standing audience before film screenings. While in my childhood innocence I sprang to my feet and sang with all my heart, now it chills me to see that ritual made mandatory by the highest court in the land.

I opened with a reminder that private colleges—and indeed, private individuals—are not required to fly the national flag. In closing, permit me another reminder: the last time I checked, the United States was a free country, whose constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech included the freedom to question such symbols of military might. To the extent that the flag stands for freedom for us all, long may it wave! But to the extent that it stands for Might over Right, I must say, like Rabindranath Tagore, that it does not stand for me.

Oh, and another song: U.S. Blues.

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392. Pecking Order

In Family, Nature, reflections, Words & phrases on November 12, 2016 at 11:51 am

b943939cc38c7a4c769c401ab271f47cIn the past couple of years I’ve taken over the job of keeping my parents’ bird feeder filled. They always did so religiously, observing the birds’ behavior intently, keeping track of all the different species that paid them a visit, watching over the eggs and fledglings in the spring (see TMA #301, Babysitting), and worrying about their well-being as winter approached. I watch through the kitchen window as I do the washing up, trying not to anthropomorphize, though it’s well-nigh impossible for me not to do so.

At first I couldn’t help but notice the large birds taking up too much space, scaring off the smaller ones, and trying to scarf up all the seed. I also noticed little birds of many species perching on a nearby tree, like so many Christmas-tree decorations, and coming forward one by one to take their turn at the feeder. The term “pecking order” immediately came to mind, and it struck me how apt it was; here were the birds lining up hierarchically by size, taking it in turns to peck at the birdseed. But I was wrong, wrong on the origins of the term, and wrong in my knee-jerk interpretation of what was happening at the feeder.

It turns out that pecking order was coined by Norwegian zoologist and psychologist  Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, whose 1921 PhD dissertation presented his observations and interpretations of  social dominance among cooped-up chickens who, apparently, punished transgressors with a “painful peck” that taught them their place in the hierarchy. He claimed that this hierarchy was not learned, but inherent in the birds’ nature. Other scholars seized on this notion, and applied it to human social hierarchies as well, arguing that we are competitive creatures who naturally establish social pecking orders.

This line of thinking reached back to the 19th century, when Darwin’s theory of natural selection was seized upon by social Darwinists who extended it to persons, groups, and races, arguing for Herbert Spencer’s theory of the “survival of the fittest.”  According to them, human society naturally followed the law of the jungle, and those who came out on top were evolutionarily superior to the rest. In his 1949 elegy, In Memoriam, Tennyson entered what was to become a long-running debate with his now-famous phrase, Nature, red in tooth and claw, in a section of the poem where he contrasted the seeming heartlessness of Nature with the religious belief that Love was the ultimate force in the universe. And ever since, the work of politicians, artists, social scientists, and natural scientists has been shaped—or skewed— by the assumption that cutthroat competitiveness is hard-wired in human beings, even when the evidence suggests otherwise.

How many Nature documentaries have you watched where a powerful predator stalks, kills, and devours its hapless prey? Take note of the narrative thrust of the storyline and tone of the commentary. More often than not, it seems, the narrator focuses almost obsessively on the gory details, delighting in the bloodthirsty order of things, as if to naturalize, even valorize, similarly violent behavior in human beings.

Back to my kitchen window. Viewing the birds at the feeder without my pecking-order lenses, I still saw the blue jay crowding out the smaller songbirds or the red-bellied woodpecker drilling far into the feeder with its long, rapier-sharp beak, which other birds wisely gave a wide berth. But I also noticed other kinds of behavior. First of all, there was very little actual fighting, aside from the occasional wing-beating flap when two birds descended on the feeder at the same time, and one made sure it got in first. But there was no further fussing and fighting, and certainly no pecking. The other bird simply waited in line, as customers do at a crowded restaurant, until there was space for it at the bar, and then took its place, first-come, first-served. I also observed that while big birds were dominating one side of the feeder, the smaller birds simply lined up on the other side, and there seemed to be little conflict either between the big and the small or among the small ones.

In addition to competition, I observed an interesting symbiosis among different species. While most of the birds perched on either side of the feeder, others who were no good at perching, like the mourning doves, picked up the fallen seed, as did the squirrels. One morning, I even saw a flock of free-ranging hens from next-door cleaning up on the ground—amicably, I might add: no sign whatsoever of a pecking order.

There have been some exceptional scientists who have been free enough from the prevailing social-Darwinist bias to pioneer other approaches, both at the cellular level and at the level of relationships between different organisms.  One was the late evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis, who focused on symbiosis and  cooperation rather than competition as the driver of evolution. Her perspective brought her into vigorous debate with neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene), but while her ideas were initially ridiculed, many of them were eventually accepted.

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My father felt so strongly about keeping the bird feeder well stocked with seed that he was reluctant to leave home for any length of time lest it run out. As for the larger predators, he was a particular lover of the Big Cats. He never tired of watching documentaries of lions and tigers, neither reveling in or recoiling from their carnivorous natures. “They have to eat,” he would simply say, “What magnificent creatures they are!” But his favorites were the videos showing the close relationships that developed between Big Cats and humans, and he never tired of watching a YouTube video of the joyful response of a lion raised by humans, released to the wild, and then reunited with them when they returned to visit after many years. He was deeply touched by the scene every time. “We under-estimate these animals,” he would always say, shaking his head in wonder and sadness, for I think he was remembering having to leave behind our beloved dog when we left India for the United States (see TMA #54, Flash).

So what a person sees at the bird feeder depends on how that person sees the world. While one cannot  eradicate one’s own biases altogether, one can at least attempt to be aware of them. Pecking order—pshaw! More like pecking disorder.

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391. buying up the whole store

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, parenting, United States on October 23, 2016 at 6:26 pm
Birthday haul from the Indian store

Birthday haul from the Indian store

Dad was never one to cocoon himself in the comfort of “his own people,” however one might define one’s own. In his teens he left his small hometown on the Konkan coast of India for the big city of Bombay, where he apprenticed himself to an accomplished watercolorist for a year, then took a diploma in architecture from the Sir J. J. School of Art. Soon afterwards he boarded a steamship for London, where he was to stay for 5 years, studying, working, and befriending and sharing digs with Indians and Britishers alike. He met and married an Englishwoman (soon to become my mother), withstanding and wearing down the opposition from his bewildered family. Back in India, at I.I.T. Kharagpur, my parents’ friends included Indians, some mixed couples like themselves, and a few visiting foreigners. Later, in Athens, their friends included many Greeks and a cosmopolitan crowd including Australians, Austrians, Americans, Britishers, Germans, Indians, and Pakistanis. And when Mum and Dad moved to the United States, at a time when there were still very few Indians in the country, their closest friends here in New England were both American and Indian.

But despite his diverse circle of friends and acquaintances, in the last few years of his life Dad admitted, almost guiltily, that he pined for Indian faces. He looked forward eagerly to the local Indian association’s annual Diwali event, when they laid on a catered Indian feast and everyone took out their gold ornaments and dressed up in the silks that lay folded in boxes all year. Dad would put on his best Indian woolen jacket and Irish tweed hat and pace the front hall for hours in advance, while I fussed anxiously over the draping of my sari. Funnily enough, though, once he was surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a lively, multigenerational, multilingual Indian crowd, he wasn’t much interested in interacting with anyone; he was content to eat, take pleasure in the sights and sounds, bask in the warmth of the organized chaos, and just be.

We don’t live in an area with a high concentration of Indian Americans, so the nearest Indian grocery store is in Springfield, about twenty miles away, and we usually managed to get there only a couple of times a year, when Dad had an eye doctor’s appointment. Last year we paid them a special visit on his birthday and came away with a highly satisfying haul that would last us until the next time. Just looking at all the choices made us ravenously hungry, so we always bought a fresh samosa each and ate it in the car on the way home, with Dad pronouncing it “Delicious.”

Our last visit to the Indian store, back in late May or June, had been delayed due to Dad’s second hospitalization of the year. He was now having to be on supplemental oxygen day and night, trundling a small oxygen tank in front of him in a little three-wheeled walker wherever he went.  On this visit, he put the oxygen tank in a shopping cart and pushed that around the store instead. We oohed and aahed at everything we saw: packets of savory snacks of every description (“munchies”, Dad called them); tins of pure ghee; frozen chapatis from Malaysia that tasted almost as good as home-made; heaps of fresh curry leaves, dhaniya-patta (cilantro), and green chillies; sweets of all kinds by the pound, driven up from New York; several varieties of  mangoes, sold by the box; blocks of jaggery made in Kolhapur, right near Dad’s hometown of Ratnagiri; cans of mango pulp made in Ratnagiri itself; and, of course, a myriad varieties of rice, tea, and spices.

As the clerk rang up our order and we began to maneuver our cart out to the car, Dad said wistfully, “one feels like buying up the whole store.”

The next month, the day after his 92nd birthday, we had to call an ambulance for what turned out to be Dad’s final hospitalization. Most of the Kohlapuri jaggery and the pure ghee still sits here at home, looking as lonely and bereft as we feel. Diwali approaches again, but this year it will be a quiet one. We will simply be content to attend the function and to be surrounded by Indians for a while.

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390. When You’re Pulled Over

In 2000s, Politics, Stories, United States on September 3, 2016 at 3:04 pm

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My heart is still pounding. This morning, en route to my parents’ house from the rehab facility where my father is convalescing, I suddenly became aware of a police car behind me. I had noticed the car earlier, but it had pulled someone else over, so I had driven on by in some relief, until I realized that it was now coming for me.

I might have known that the police would be out in force. It is move-in weekend for the returning college students, and traffic was already getting heavy quite early in the day. I admit I was preoccupied, in the midst of calculations as to whether I would have time to stop at the copy shop located dangerously close to the university, prepare a master for copying on my first day of classes, and get back to my mother before her caregiver had to leave. But although I was mindful enough to be respectful to the point of obsequiousness (a lesson learned long ago), although this particular cop was decent and I managed to defuse the situation, it started out charged, escalated rapidly, and came as close to a violent encounter as I would ever want to get.

Here’s how it unfolded, and how it very nearly unraveled: I knew the stretch of road well, because it has been a construction zone for the past hot, dry month, and the road was still stripped down to the dirt, choking passing motorists with billowing clouds of dust. (Why is it that they always seem to time these construction projects to coincide with the return of students in the fall, rather than scheduling them over the summer, when our area is depopulated?) When I saw the blue lights flashing in my rear-view mirror, I knew that I was in a heavy traffic zone and a turning lane to boot, that there was no shoulder or emergency lane, and that it was not a very safe place to stop. Still, after a little hesitation I pulled over as far as I thought I could, switched on my emergency flashers, and rolled down my window to seek guidance from the police officer as to where to go. No joy—he didn’t oblige. So I cracked open the driver’s door to let him know that I needed help; apparently that was a big mistake.

Already overloaded with the flashing lights, my senses were now blasted by a bullhorn, which warned me to stay inside the vehicle. I re-closed the door hastily, and now the officer stepped out and approached me. He told me that Massachusetts law required me to stay in the vehicle if I was pulled over, and to keep my hands on the wheel lest he worry that I had a gun. I had been rummaging in my parents’ glove compartment for their registration, so my hands had had to leave the wheel. His state of high anxiety immediately set up a matching state in me, as I searched my handbag frantically for my driver’s license, and he told me that the car’s registration, which he had already run through the state database, was associated with an expired license. I explained my situation, that it was my parents’ car and that my mother no longer drove.

To be fair, the tension now began ratcheting down as quickly as it had escalated, and he gave me a lecture, returned to his vehicle to check my driving record, and came back to let me off with a warning. I turned off the main road immediately, kicking myself for not having trusted my original instinct to take the back way home.

A Dallas police sergeant takes part in a prayer circle after a Black Lives Matter protest. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

A Dallas police sergeant takes part in a prayer circle after a Black Lives Matter protest. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

When I got home I looked up the Massachusetts drivers’ manual, the section entitled General Guidelines if You are Stopped By a Police Officer (pp. 111-112). It warns that: “[p]olice officers have reason to be worried about their safety during traffic enforcement. Each year in the United States, a number of police officers are killed and thousands more are assaulted.” Apparently “[d]uring 2013 alone, 2 police officers were killed and 4,335 others were assaulted during traffic pursuits and stops.” Two police officers were killed! I don’t have figures for 2013, but according to the open-source reporting project, Killed by Police, one hundred and sixty-eight people were killed by U.S. law-enforcement officers in attempted traffic or street stops in 2015, or 14% of the 1199 people killed (Reuters, Jan 2, 2016).

“[T]o help reduce the levels of anxiety. . .during a traffic stop” the Massachusetts driver’s manual lists thirteen things you should do. It does not say, by the way, that these things are required by law, just things that could make the police officer less anxious (and therefore, by implication, less likely to shoot you). By the way, I did all but one of them: “Stay in the vehicle (both you and your passengers). Only get out if you are instructed to by the officer.” It’s interesting that if the officer orders one to get out, one is required by law to comply; however, it is not a law, but a guideline, that one should stay in the car unless instructed otherwise. Still, if one wishes to minimize one’s chance of getting killed, it is a damn good idea.

I’m a 60+ year-old female college professor with no history of violence, in a rural part of the state that has virtually no history of violence. Still, just cracking open the car door rapidly escalated the police officer’s anxiety to levels of volatility that we could both feel in our guts; and that, if I had inadvertently made one more false move, might have driven the situation right over the top and out of control. My breathing is quickening again just thinking of that.

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What nearly happened to me this morning was a wake-up call. It could happen to anyone at any time, but it happens to black people, and people of color in general, at a dramatically higher rate in proportion to their numbers in the population. If you don’t think so, take a look at The Counted, a website maintained by the British newspaper, The Guardian, that also documents people killed by police in the United States: 730 to date in 2016 alone, 112 of whom were completely unarmed. Of those 730, 365 were classified as white, 180 black, 122 Hispanic/Latino, 15 Asian/Pacific Islander, and 13 Native American. That’s 5.49 per million Native Americans and 4.51 per million Blacks in comparison with 1.84 per million Whites killed by police this year so far.

I’ve been aware of these disproportionately higher numbers for some time, and they amply document the problem, but after today I will no longer be able to go out in the car just enjoying a lovely day. For sure, everyone’s mind should be on the road at all times, but in addition to that alert attentiveness, there will be a dull anxious ache in my stomach as I negotiate the nation’s roadways. While we are all advised to modify our behavior so as to placate the anxious—and armed—police force, my experience today gave me just a taste of the visceral fear that Blacks in the United States must live with at all times.

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