Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘1940s’ Category

272. Zindagi

In 1940s, 1960s, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, Music, Stories, travel, Words & phrases on April 30, 2014 at 2:53 pm

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As I return home from a month of travel and reach the last day (and letter of the alphabet) of the A-to-Z April Blogging Challenge, I offer the word zindagi, meaning life or existence in Hindi-Urdu. A Hindi synonym is the word jeevan. It’s fitting to end the month with a non-English word, since many different languages  are echoing in my ears. Here’s zindagi in the Arabic script: زندگی, and here, in Devanagari: ज़िन्दगी.

220px-ZindagiIt is a staple in Indian and Pakistani film songs, and has given its name to no less than five major movies over the years, including Zindagi (1940) the classic directed by P. C. Barua. It was the highest-grossing Indian film that year, with music by Pankaj Mullick and starring K. L. Saigal, who plays an unemployed university graduate. Here’s So Jaa Raajkumari, one of the most popular songs in the movie (another being Jeevan asha hai). The film poster pictured here is from Zindagi (1964), directed by Ramanand Sagar.

There are too many songs to list with zindagi in their title, but here’s Zindagi Hai Kya Sun Meri Jaan, sung by Mohammad Rafi, from the super-hit Bombay classic movie Maya (1961), directed by D.D. Kashyap, with music by Salil Choudhury, starring Mala Sinha, Dev Anand, Lalita Pawar & Amjad Khan.

So, as my travels come to an end—for now, at least—here’s to life, and all that comes with it.

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194. London, My London

In 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, Britain, Childhood, Family, Immigration, Music, Nature, places, Stories on April 13, 2013 at 9:35 am

I was born in London, a London of the 1950s just emerging from the ravages of the Second World War and the era of British colonialism, a new London with more educational opportunities and better health care and social services for the poor and working classes, greater cultural diversity as immigrants from South Asia, Africa, and the West Indies came to find work in the “Mother Country,” a London where my Indian father and English mother met and married. Although I have actually lived in the city of my birth for only 5-6 years in total, they include periods in my infancy, in my nursery, elementary, and secondary school years, and while I was a university student. London, birthplace of my mother, will always be dear to me and, as cities go, is perhaps the only one where I could imagine myself feeling completely at home.

London from Parliament Hill,(

London from Parliament Hill (

the Heath in Autumn (

the Heath in Autumn (

But my London is not the home of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace—in fact, after all these years I have yet to visit the Tower of London. “My” London is a city of neighborhoods, and specifically, of the neighborhoods of North London where my mother grew up, where my father lived as a student, where I was born, and where in turn I lived as a student—Kentish Town, Belsize Park, Hampstead, and Camden Town. When I return, I go straight to my family, infinitely more important to me than any monument. When my mother returns, she and her sister Bette head straight out to Castle’s pie and mash shop (not my cup of tea—I’m squeamish about eels) and then for a ramble over Hampstead Heath, ending up at Kenwood House for tea and a bite to eat.

Queen's Crescent market (

Queen’s Crescent market (

“My” London is plaice, haddock, or cod-‘n-chips in newspaper, the thick, soggy chips salted and liberally doused with malt vinegar; crowded street markets with stalls where half the goods seem to have fallen off the back of  a lorry; corner shops run by British Asians selling fresh coriander and green chillies along with English sweets and tabloids; bakeries full of fresh crusty  loaves and squashy jam doughnuts; the Tube, double-decker busses, and black cabs (my Uncle Bill drove one–see Get Me To the Church on Time); and, of course, pubs, which can still be found on just about every street corner.

The Flask, Hampstead (

The Flask, Hampstead (

In my London, Cockney accents emerge quite naturally from the mouths of British Asian youth whose grandparents immigrated there from the former Empire—after the sun set on it. (See Gurinder Chadha’s I’m British But…) Visiting a friend in Hackney back in the 1980s, I found the adult education booklet carrying night-class listings in eight languages, including Bengali, Punjabi, Greek, and Turkish.

My London is the London of Brick Lane and Southall, of the Royal Free Hospital and aging public housing estates; of pub food that features samosas as well as Cornish pasties and traditional English Sunday dinners; of the Bank Holiday fairs on Hampstead Heath and the Caribbean Notting Hill Carnival every August Bank Holiday weekend (by the way, given the importance of Notting Hill to Britain’s history of race relations, it infuriated me that they managed to make the movie Notting Hill without a single black character in it).

Notting Hill Carnival (

Notting Hill Carnival (

My mother married for love and had to leave her beloved city for most of the rest of her life; yet it has never left her heart and therefore it can never leave mine. Every seven years, when I watch the latest edition of  Michael Apted’s 7 Up series (Here’s the late Roger Ebert interviewing Apted in 2006), I wonder fleetingly what my life might have been like had my parents decided to stay there. But if they had, I wouldn’t be who I am now.

I leave you with the British Asian band Cornershop’s 1990’s hit, Brimful of Asha, and a rendition of Hubert Gregg’s sentimental 1940’s favorite, Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner.

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148. Avoiding the Plague

In 1900s, 1940s, 1960s, Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, India, Stories on May 24, 2012 at 11:02 am

smallpox vaccination scar

The bubonic plague! The very name conjures up ghoulish images of the medieval era, but my Dad remembers two outbreaks of the dreaded disease in the twentieth century, during his own childhood in Ratnagiri. He can date the second one fairly accurately to 1939 or 1940, because the outbreak coincided with his matriculation exams and, due to the danger of infection in the district town of Ratnagiri, he had to travel all the way to Kolhapur to sit them. (He recalls, too, that he left his geometry set (remember those?) at home and had to lose valuable exam time waiting to borrow his friend’s compass and protractor.) The first outbreak must have been about five years earlier. Since the plague is spread by rat fleas and rats frequent built-up areas, his whole family moved to the edge of town and camped out for the duration. Dad remembers it only as fun, but I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for his mother to manage a household of eight children and a husband who had to get dressed for court  in the morning while living in tents. But it worked: no one in the family was stricken with the plague, and our grandparents successfully raised all eight of their children to adulthood, no mean feat in the days before antibiotics were available to treat infections. In the early twentieth century, the plague killed an estimated 10 million people in India.

It’s hard to remember that it was not until the Second World War that antibiotics became available, not until 1942 that penicillin was being mass-produced. Before then, a host of childhood diseases were seriously life-threatening. My paternal grandparents were lucky enough not to lose a child, but my maternal grandparents were not so fortunate. Two of their eight children died of diptheria before 1920, and although a vaccine became available in the mid-1920’s it wasn’t until 1940, when my mother was a teenager, that a nationwide vaccination program was established in Britain. In-between, 2,500 children died from diptheria every year.

Even in my own childhood vaccinations were still fairly new, and our annual trip to the doctor for a series of injections—smallpox, cholera, polio—was serious business. Those of us who grew up before the World Health Organization’s smallpox radication campaign, which started in 1967 and was finally successful in 1980, all bear the lifelong scars of our injections; until then, smallpox epidemics raged around the world . My father came down with the disease as a young man—a mild case, thankfully—and still carries a few marks from it. My father-in-law was not so lucky, and came down with polio in 1953, when Andrew was a baby, just months before Jonas Salk developed his vaccine. He still suffers from post-polio syndrome.

Not surprisingly, injections loomed large in our young minds. Our instincts told us to avoid them like the plague, but reason reminded us that we needed them to avoid the plague. We steeled ourselves to face them bravely, but they certainly weren’t any fun. One day in the early 1960s, when I was about eight, I arrived at school in Athens to the announcement that everyone in the whole school was going to be vaccinated—for what, I don’t remember, but I think it was chicken pox (for which a vaccine was not to be available until the 1990s). Our collective heart sank, but we all lined up dutifully to walk one by one into a classroom set up as a makeshift infirmary and walk out by another door. When it was my turn, I screwed up my courage and stretched out my arm to a teacher who prepped the area with a peroxide-soaked cotton ball. As I prepared myself for the needle, I was greeted with, “April Fool!” It was all an elaborate April Fool’s Day hoax.

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130. Orwellian Jingles

In 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1990s, Books, Britain, Childhood, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on November 27, 2011 at 8:35 pm

“Oranges and Lemons” (

Gauri Deshpande, the late, great Marathi writer, Indian English poet, and Marathi-English translator, once told me that when she was studying for her PhD in English at the University of Poona, her professor had insisted that his graduate students learn all the Mother Goose rhymes. He had said that they wouldn’t be able to fully understand a body of literature until they were steeped in the culture that the writers themselves would have imbibed even before they could use language. Gauri said that although at first she had felt silly reciting nursery rhymes, she had come to appreciate the wisdom of her professor’s unorthodox approach. I experienced the truth of this in my first year of fulltime teaching, when I was asked to teach Twentieth-Century British Writers and one of my chosen texts was George Orwell’s 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Mindful of the way Orwell tended to be taught in American high schools, and that my American students were likely to have been introduced to him as an anti-communist writer, I wanted to draw their attention to the novel’s English particularities. As I began re-reading in preparation for teaching it, my way suddenly became clear.

The scrawny hero, Winston Smith, is haunted by fragments of Oranges and Lemons, the old London children’s song chanted in accompaniment to the playground game of the same name.* I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed this before, but now I saw that it was all part of Orwell’s plan. Fascinated with history precisely because the government seeks to erase it, Winston Smith firmly believes that he can find refuge in the “Golden Country” of the past. As he mingles with the “proles,” the working classes of London, he fixates on the old song as the key to his lost past and seeks out elderly people who might be able to remember all the words. He finds an old man who says he knows it, but the fellow disappoints him, having forgotten the ending. If you know the rhyme, you will be well aware that the ending is critically important. It starts out benignly enough but grows progressively more ominous, taking a sudden, bloodthirsty turn in the last two lines; poor Winston learns too late that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing.

One of the settings of the novel, and the place where we leave Winston at the end, is the Chestnut Tree Café. What the chestnut tree signifies is also unknown to most citizens on Airstrip One (or Britain, in Orwell’s totalitarian future). Only someone familiar with British popular culture of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s  would fully appreciate the poignancy of that name. Harking back to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s sentimental 19th-century poem, The Village Blacksmith, “Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree,” a popular love song in Britain of the 1930s, went:

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree
I loved her and she loved me.
There she used to sit upon my knee
‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree.

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree
There she said she’d marry me
Now you ought to see our family
‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree!

This song too was sung to a kind of game, one of hand movements in which each successive iteration removes more words and replaces them with mimed gestures. In his wartime essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn,” Orwell spoke affectionately of England as a family “with the wrong people in charge.” If you’ve seen the 1939 Pathe newsreel of King George and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother, that is) singing and miming “Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree” to signal their unity with the “proles,” it is just possible to believe in Orwell’s view of England as a family, albeit a rather dysfunctional one. But in Nineteen Eighty-Four, written after the war, the version played on the telescreen paints a very different picture of the nation:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me.
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

Here is a society ruled by total and totalizing power, where children will turn in their parents and lovers betray their beloved for fear of Big Brother. The official language, Newspeak, is eliminating words from the English language so quickly that we are told it will soon be impossible even to formulate the ideas to engage in “thoughtcrime,” silencing potential traitors preemptively. That once-reassuring symbol of national unity, the chestnut tree, has indeed spread, reaching its tentacles into every home and every mind.

*If you are interested in the culture and folklore of playground games, I highly recommend Iona and Peter Opie’s 1959 study, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, recently reissued by NYRB Classics.

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111. Strawberry-Picking Camp

In 1940s, Britain, Food, Stories, Work on June 3, 2011 at 3:31 pm

My mother has always had a particular fondness for strawberries. She buys strawberries trustingly, undiscriminatingly, ever-hopeful despite the tastelessness of most store-bought approximations that desecrate the name. Perhaps, besides their uniquely delicious taste, there is something else associated with them that she holds especially dear. Perhaps the strawberry stands for something infinitely better, an ideal that can’t be spoiled by the inevitably less-than-perfect reality. I suspect that this ideal has something to do with her experiences in the 1940’s at strawberry-picking camp.

As a young woman after the War, out of school, living at home in grey, bombed-out London, with food rationing still in effect, Mum worked hard at office jobs by day and, in the evenings, when she wasn’t going out dancing or to the movies with her best friend Lily, broadened her cultural horizons by taking night classes in German and ballet. She also did supply teaching in the East End of London in conditions much like those depicted in To Sir, with Love. Times were hard and, after she had given her mother a chunk of her weekly pay for her keep, there wasn’t much left over; certainly not for a vacation.

Her opportunity came when her elder brother Ted found out about a strawberry-picking camp in Norfolk,  between Kings Lynn and Wisbech, set up by special arrangement between the farmer and the National Union of Students. Strawberry-picking offered the cheapest possible summer vacation. I don’t think that the pickers were paid, or if they were, it was a pittance: essentially, they picked all day in exchange for room and board. But what they got in return for their hard work couldn’t be measured in money: the pleasure of each other’s company.

Every morning, Mum said, when she told us stories about her childhood and youth, they went out into the strawberry fields, baskets in hand, and picked all day in the hot sun—eating strawberries as they picked, of course—with only a short break for lunch. But at the end of the day, their time was their own until the next morning, and the evenings with her fellow-campers for that one short week were experiences that would last a lifetime.

Back in the 1940’s, London wasn’t as international as it has become since, and travel to the rest of Europe wasn’t as easy. If one didn’t have the means to travel and didn’t attend university, one was unlikely to meet many foreigners. But the strawberry-picking camp drew university students from all over Europe, and in the evenings they built campfires and sat round them singing, teaching songs to each other, sharing food, friendship, and youthful energy. Mum hadn’t had the opportunity to go to university (although, years later in the States she would earn a BA by attending Harvard University Extension School in the evenings after work) and these evenings round the campfire gave Mum her only taste of the college experience. She was exposed to other cultures and languages, met intellectuals fired with social consciousness, and—I’m only guessing—had a little summer romance. In such a setting, how could one not?

When my sister and I were children, Mum would sing all the songs she knew, talking about where she had first learned them, and every so often she would sing a song from strawberry-picking camp. I particularly remember the French drinking song, Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. There were others as well, like another French folk song, Sur le Pont D’Avignon, that I think she must have sung round the campfire and Avanti Popolo, an Italian workers’ song that she suddenly remembered only recently.

The following year, Mum’s brother Ted decided to return to the camp, but this time he wanted to make some real money. When he proposed to Mum that he take the position of cook and she, assistant cook, she readily agreed, signing on without realizing it would involve untold hours of potato-peeling. But that second year wasn’t nearly as much fun as the first. Pay or no pay, the responsibility for feeding and washing up after the hungry masses robbed the experience of its original carefree quality; and besides, the masses disapproved of the food. Ted (so Mum told it; no doubt he has his own story!) didn’t have any problem serving up strawberries for dessert, a move that was not well-received, but he didn’t care. He had no intention of taking more time than necessary laboring over a hot stove during his summer vacation. But Mum was thin-skinned, and the boos of the crowd hurt her, and made her feel a little less one with them. Then one day, Uncle Ted decided he’d had enough and simply took off with no warning, leaving the cooking entirely to her for the rest of the week. She had never cooked for such a large group before, and the prospect was terrifying, especially since she was suddenly left in the lurch with dinnertime looming, hordes of hungry campers threatening to turn into hordes of angry campers, and no supplies in the kitchen.

For several years, as shareholders in a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) farm, we had the pleasure and the luxury of picking our own strawberries. I took Mum with me a couple of times, thinking that she might enjoy the experience, but she soon tired of it. I guess she had quite enough of strawberry-picking in her youth.  At this age, she’d much rather eat strawberries than pick them.

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53. Sucking Lemons and Quoting Shaw

In 1930s, 1940s, Books, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories on June 20, 2010 at 10:48 am

In my mother’s stories of her childhood, when the Salvation Army band marched into her working-class neighborhood of Kentish Town, she and the other children would hasten to find half a lemon and suck it noisily right in front of the horn players, bold as brass. One by one, the musicians would salivate and pucker up, and “Onward Christian Soldiers” would come a cropper.

Mum hadn’t read (George Bernard) Shaw’s Major Barbara then, of course, but she and the Fabian Shaw would have got on with each other. When she got older, other visitors toured the slums of London, among them Paul Robeson, who made a powerful impression on her. She became deeply concerned with justice for all, not just her own small corner of the world; barely out of the War and her teens, and still some time before she would meet my father, she marched for India’s Independence.

Now Dad had read Shaw by then, all of Shaw, and many times over.  His father had The Complete Plays in two volumes in his library in Ratnagiri, and Dad used to sneak in to read them and another voluminous (and racy) work, Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights. All through my childhood Dad quoted Shaw (“As Shaw would say…”) in just about equal measure as he pronounced sonorous Sanskrit slokas and pithy Marathi sayings. Remembering the brilliant, if lengthy, editorializing in Shaw’s stage directions, it occurs to me that he was a combination of my father and mother—the liberal intellectual and the bohemian socialist. Faced with self-righteous do-gooders, my father would quote Shaw and my mother, suck lemons.

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36. My Grandmother

In 1940s, 1950s, Britain, Family, people, Stories, women & gender on April 9, 2010 at 12:39 am

My maternal grandmother died when my mother was six months pregnant with me, so I never knew her except through the softness that entered Mum’s voice every time she spoke of her. She was a gentle soul who never spoke ill of anyone. When my Grandad swore or spoke sharp words, she would just say, “Oh, Charlie.” She worked hard all her life and had eight children, two of whom died young, of diptheria. When the mother of a neighboring family died, she took in her children as well.

I carry with me a few fragments of my grandmother, mostly through stories told by Mum. My middle name, Elizabeth, is hers; she was Lizzie. She loved the hymn, “There is a Green Hill Far Away,” and I sing it on Good Fridays and think of her. Very occasionally a church group would take the neighborhood women by coach to the seaside for the day, and she enjoyed those rare outings. Every year (or at least more than once), Grandad played the same April Fool’s trick on her and, according to Mum, she fell for it every time. He brought her breakfast in bed (“Oh, Charlie”), something he did at no other time, and she cracked the boiled egg on the breakfast tray to find that it was hollow.

My grandmother had a stroke when she was just over 60, and lost some control over her speech. She knew what she meant to say and those close to her understood perfectly, but sometimes the words didn’t come out as she intended. Once, the doctor came by to see her, and she said, “Here comes the Flying Dutchman.” Everybody laughed, because this captured him to a tee. Television was just coming in at this time, so after her illness her children brought one home for her. She had a favorite radio host who now had a show on television, so she prepared to watch it with great anticipation, but was terribly disappointed when she saw him; his disembodied voice had been so much more attractive.

My grandmother’s cardinal rule of cooking, oft-repeated by Mum, was, Clean up as you go. Mum has always followed this rule religiously, and I try to do so as well. With a large family in a small space, it must have been an absolute necessity.  On cold school days, she would slip a hot potato into the children’s pockets to keep their hands warm. Mum would hurry home from school to help her mother, as she knew she was weak and tired, and her two older sisters were already out at work.  It upset her when, in my twenties and trying to live the simple life, I made a virtue out of maintaining a labor-intensive woodstove. She had watched her dear mother labor over a dirty coal stove, and had worked hard herself to make sure that my sister and I would have a better life, yet here was I, who had been given every opportunity, perversely choosing what her mother had been forced to do out of necessity.

Mum has only one thing that belonged to her mother, a small glass-bulb egg-timer with a wooden frame. When she and Dad left for India with me at six months, her father accompanied her to the docks. As he said goodbye, he slipped the egg-timer into her pocket.

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17. Chickens on the Pot

In 1940s, Britain, Family, history, Stories on March 11, 2010 at 11:32 pm

My mother Gladys—Glad, as her family called her—was only eleven when the Second World War broke out, and because London was a special target for bombing, she was evacuated along with her entire school to the old market town of St. Albans.

London was only 20 miles away, but it seemed much farther to Mum, and she was terribly homesick. Hers was a large, closeknit family and she had never been away from them. She had never slept alone either, since they were three to a bed at home, with her tucked in the middle between her two elder sisters. As the youngest girl, she was the only one of the six children to be evacuated, since her younger brother Len was too young to leave his mother, her next-elder brother Ted lied about his age and joined the air force, and the other siblings were already grown and working.

During her evacuation Mum was billeted with three different foster families, in situations ranging from abusive to exploitative to more-or-less-tolerable. In one, the family’s biological daughter secretly tormented her, knowing that she could never complain; in another, the foster-mother starved her and spent the government money entertaining the troops; and in a third family—the best of the lot—the foster-mother extended the food budget by  filling her up with cheap carbohydrates, until she grew so plump that they began calling her Dumpling as a term of endearment.

This last family had a garden, and even kept chickens. Like many others at the time, they had no indoor toilet, so if nature called during the night, one was obliged to use the outhouse in the back garden. Nature did call one night, and so Mum picked her way gingerly down the back stairs and across the yard, groped for the door, and ducked quickly in.

Accompanied by a raucous squawking, screeching, and beating of wings, a dark figure sprang up from the pot and pushed past her into the night.  He was a chicken thief, who had been at work in the coop when he had heard someone approaching and taken cover in the privy along with his haul.

I can’t imagine how Mum screwed up her courage to venture down at night ever again. It occurs to me that this early experience might also account for her lifelong aversion to using strange bathrooms when away from home.

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