Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘1960s’ Category

389. Exposing Whose Perversity?

In 1960s, 2010s, Britain, clothing, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, women & gender on August 29, 2016 at 12:37 am

3d57c1d7d0a94e46a4d6a300c1dbaf4dYoung people are bound to set and follow fashions as they shape and explore an identity that distinguishes them from their elders. Back in the mid-Sixties when I was at boarding school in India, the Thai boys, who were always ahead of us in India when it came to fashion, arrived for the new school year sporting bell-bottomed trousers, or flares. But bell-bottoms weren’t regulation, and their flares were duly measured to determine whether they were in excess of some official width (that I suspect was invented on the spot). Our Thai guys’ wings were clipped as they were returned to the population. But though their style was cramped and trousers narrowed, they were always and forever our fearless fashion vanguard.

Ironic, isn’t it, that less than a decade earlier the cool guys had been sporting drainpipes. No doubt their trouser legs were also measured and found wanting—too narrow by half. The truth is, clothing is a marker of identity, and therefore must be controlled by those who are in the business of social control. And as long as the authorities seek that control, there will be acts of rebellion to wrest it away from them, whether out in the open or undercover.


As teenage girls in late-Sixties England, our mild act of suburban rebellion was to surreptitiously fold over the waistbands of our sensible school-uniform skirts as we left home in the morning, instantly shortening them by a couple of inches and giving us that critical edge that our mothers just couldn’t understand. Of course, the authorities had to intervene; but the way they chose to do so backfired hilariously.

We got to school one day to find the prefects awaiting us officiously, armed with tape measures and unable to control their smirks. Apparently acting under orders from the very top, they ordered us girls to kneel in turn, while they measured the length of our skirts from the ground up. For those of us under 5’ 2’, that distance could not exceed six inches, while I think the taller girls were held to seven.

They reckoned without the press: the spectacle was a bonanza for them. The next day, photos of school-uniformed girls on their knees and tape-measure-wielding male prefects (curiously, they were all male that day) bending over them gleefully made several national papers as well as the local ones. How I wish I still had one of those cuttings!

In our case, the prefects were senior boys.

  (In our case, the prefects caught in the act were Senior boys.)

But while purporting to safeguard female modesty, the school authorities only exposed their own perversity with those lascivious images. Their ridiculous efforts to nip our wayward tendencies in the bud only redoubled our rebelliousness, while revealing that the indecency lay, not in our innocent hearts, but in their male gaze.

photo: Vantage

photo: Vantage

A similar fiasco is unfolding in France today with the ill-conceived burkini ban. While purportedly upholding France’s hallowed tradition of secularism, armed police were snapped standing over a woman on a Nice beach in the act of making her strip off her clothing. Far from challenging the control of religious extremists and modeling French social permissiveness, they only exposed their own need for social control. And as we schoolgirls did back in the Sixties, women are resisting. It’s a sales bonanza for burkinis and a warning to any authorities who seek to regulate what people choose to wear: banning will backfire on you.

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358. Darjeeling

In 1960s, blogs and blogging, Education, India, Nature, places, Stories on April 6, 2016 at 12:19 am

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

photo by Karl Hagen

photo by Karl Hagen

DDarjeeling is a hill station in West Bengal, India, set mile-high in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was formerly part of Sikkim and its name derives from Dorje Ling, abode of the thunderbolt, a monastery built for the Chogyal of Sikkim in the mid-nineteenth century. Its diverse population of about 130,000 includes Gorkhas, Lephchas, Bhutias, Bengalis, Marwaris, Anglo-Indians, Chinese, Biharis, and Tibetans. It is justly famous for its flowery, faintly orange-scented tea, its cool climate, its ancient narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that chugs up from the plains, its botanical garden, its Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (founded by Tenzing Norgay), and, when the mists clear, its stunning views of Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world.

I love Darjeeling because it was my home for two and a half years during my teens, when my parents sent me to boarding school there, to Mount Hermon, where the snows of Kanchenjunga were the view from our dormitory window. Keeping in touch with my MH friends and classmates (Batch of ’69), drinking whole-leaf Darjeeling tea, lifting my voice and my eyes to the mountains as we did every day, and recalling the awe-inspiring beauty of the Himalayan landscape, all continue to bring me joy.

Some 17 years ago the Batch of ’69 celebrated its 30th anniversary in Kathmandu, hosted by Lobsang, our classmate who is settled there. Three of us, Tsognie, Marianne, and I, being based in the U.S., were unable to travel to Nepal at that time, and so we got together at the same time for a mini-reunion at my house. We made a video in which we reminisced, sang MH songs, and sent our greetings to everyone. In it, Marianne, who has the clearest, purest voice I have ever heard, sang To Sir with Love, that she had first learned as a tribute to our class teacher, Mr. Mellor. In short order, we converted the videocassette from the U.S. NTSC format into the Indian PAL, and sent it to Kathmandu by Global Express Mail. (This was before Skype or Youtube were founded (2003 and 2005, respectively) and email, even if some people had access to it, was slow and unreliable.)

Our video got to Kathmandu on time, but on that day it was either a long weekend or the post office was closed due to a strike. Our classmates celebrated without us while it languished in the mailroom. Months later, Mr. Mellor, who was retired back in Australia by then, visited Calcutta (just before it became Kolkata again), where we believe that members of our batch of ’69 showed him the video. We hope it meant half as much to him to receive it as it meant to us to record it for him. Mr. Mellor passed away not long afterwards, and so did dear Santosh, our classmate who had brought us all together on an email list after many years.

I realize that my tone here is nostalgic; but Darjeeling is a place of such sublime natural beauty that, even half a century later, it is still able to cast its mountain mists upon my inward eye, bringing with it that emotion recollected in tranquility so treasured by the Romantic poets.

I had to leave Darjeeling a year before the rest of my class graduated. While it was a wrenching parting for me, Darjeeling itself was devastated almost immediately afterwards by the terrible landslide of 1968. It was not until twenty-five years later that I returned again, and I haven’t been able to return since. How is it that a place lived in for such a short time, and that too so long ago, still means so much to me?

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330. Ruth Rendell: Dead-On

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Britain, reading, Stories, writing on May 9, 2015 at 10:15 am
Ruth Rendell (photographer: Felix Clay for The Guardian)

Ruth Rendell (photographer: Felix Clay for The Guardian)

I’m not a murder-mystery hound like my father-in-law, who has read most of the works of most of the major British practitioners of this genre, some of them several times; because, as he says, he soon conveniently forgets who dunnit and can read them all over again. But on May the second, when I heard of the prolific and highly respected mystery writer Ruth Rendell’s death at age 85, I felt a great disturbance in the Force: Inspector Wexford was no more.

I felt sad, too. Although I never took to Barbara Vine, the alias Ruth Rendell created for her twisted psychological thrillers, I have a special fondness for the domestic common-or-garden mysteries that Inspector Reg Wexford of Kingsmarkham, Sussex and his deputy, Mike Burden, have been solving every other year for the past half-century. Ruth Rendell wrote 24 Inspector Wexford novels between 1964 and 2013 (you can see a list of them here), and I’ve read just about all of them, my father-in-law passing each one on to me as he finishes it.

What draws me to these quintessentially English novels in a quintessentially English genre? Although I enjoyed Miss Marple mysteries in my youth, St. Mary Mead was too twee after a while, and Agatha Christie’s snobbery and social conservatism annoyed me. (Here’s a piece by Lakshmi Kannan on the racism in Christie’s works.) But although the market town of Kingsmarkham is a place I wouldn’t want to live in a million years, I feel very differently about it than I do about St. Mary Mead. Although the middle-aged Chief Inspector Wexford loves his roast and his pint at the Olive and Dove (or did do, before his hated health regimen), is loth to walk when he could drive, and leaves the running of the home entirely to his wife Dora, everything about him is delightful, to women as well as to men, and I’m no exception. Why? It’s because of the quality of Rendell’s writing, her politics, and her broad, humane worldview.

UnknownSpanning 50 years of British life as they do, the Wexford novels document a changing Britain with interest and without nostalgia—or without too much nostalgia, at any rate). From Doon with Death (1964), the first of the series and her debut novel, shows a dreary postwar Britain, with its genteel poverty, the insufferable arrogance of old money, the absence of central heating (except for the daring and the spendthrift), and above all, an obsession with keeping up appearances. But beneath that veneer of respectability seethe suppressed passions that frequently bubble up and over, even—perhaps especially—in the suburbs. Over the years Inspector Wexford and Mike Burden, both happily married family men, deal with youth culture, immigrants and racism, gentrification and class conflict, unemployment, sexism and feminism, homosexuality, and above all, dysfunctional families—as they affect not only Kingsmarkham, but their own personal lives. While his prudish deputy has a horror of change and social aberration, the perennially middle-aged Wexford accepts and engages with it. He remains deeply humane, open-minded and liberal throughout, and at the same time, comfortingly conservative in his personal tastes, though never politically so.

Here’s a character in From Doon with Death speaking, in an interview with Wexford, on the dreams and disillusionments of women in the 1950s and early 1960s:


‘We used to talk about . . .well, about our dreams, what we wanted to do, what we were going to make of our lives’ . . .

She whispered savagely, as if she had forgotten he was there: ‘I wanted to act! They wouldn’t let me, my father and my mother. They made me stay at home and it all went. It sort of dissolved into nothing.‘

‘I met Pete,’ she said, ‘and we got married.’ Her nose wrinkled. ‘The story of my life.’

‘You can’t have everything,’ Wexford said.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I wasn’t the only one. . .’ (109, Black Dagger Crime ed., 1978)

From that very first novel Rendell was both of her time and considerably ahead of it in her choice of subject matter and her approach to it. To say more would be a spoiler, but read it yourself: she doesn’t disappoint. The earliest reviews noted that she was someone to watch but otherwise dismissed her as just another female mystery writer. They soon had to sit up and take notice.

Ruth Rendel 28 July 1986

The novels are literary without being pretentious and without departing from the straightforward conventions of the police procedural. Loved and admired by writers as diverse as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jeanette Winterson, Ruth Rendell never went to university, but she was tremendously well read, as was her creation, Reg Wexford. The epigraph of every chapter of From Doon with Death is an quote from a 19th-century poet, including, among others, the usual (male) suspects like Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and Alfred Tennyson, and the free-spirited Walt Whitman, the Orientalist Sir Edwin Arnold (author of The Light of Asia and The Song Celestial, a poetic rendering of the Bhagavad-gita), Mary Coleridge (the great grandniece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), the romantic and unconventional Christina Rossetti, the feminist Caroline Norton, and Coventry Patmore, most famously the author of The Angel in the House, the ideal Woman of the Victorian era.

But mere name-dropping doesn’t begin to capture the way Rendell uses her frequent literary quotations and allusions. She weaves them cleverly into the plot so that they lead right into the heart of the mystery. To take just one example in From Doon with Death, a suspect’s characterization of young love as “rather like ‘the expense of spirit in a waste of shame’” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 129). Though the source is not identified in the novel, Wexford recognizes it, and registers a dissonant note, because the sonnet is not speaking of love, but of lust. Why has the suspect, who, we learn, earned distinction in this subject in her Higher School Certificate exams (we still called them HSC in 1960’s India), willfully chosen to misinterpret it?

9780099588542To the last, Ruth Rendell was engaged with a changing Britain. She was a liberal campaigner in the House of Lords (while her fellow mystery-writer, P. D. James, was a political conservative). She was always a spokesperson for the outsider, whether that outsider was a woman, an immigrant, or a member of the increasingly displaced poor and middle classes in a free-market Britain where the benevolent Welfare State was being dismantled. Even in her very first novel, this perspective comes through loud and clear. When Chief Inspector Wexford goes to interview a couple in which the husband has married into Old Money, he is treated like a tradesman who ought to have come to the back door. In the course of the interview, the wife speaks dismissively of someone she went to school with as,

‘a typist or a clerk or something.’

Just another of the hoi-polloi, Wexford thought, the despised majority, the bottom seventy-five per cent.

The only updating this thought would require today is that the number seventy-five would have to be increased to ninety-nine.

Rest In Peace, Ruth Rendell. You were always dead-on.

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300. Mistrusting My Inner Voice

In 1960s, 1970s, Books, Inter/Transnational, Media, Music, reading, reflections, women & gender on February 19, 2015 at 12:12 pm
Tears of a Clown

Tears of a Clown

Readers of Children of Violence, Doris Lessing’s five-volume Bildungsroman, follow the protagonist Martha Quest from her stormy adolescence to her old age. This series of novels, published over a 17-year period between 1952 and 1969, with four set in Southern Africa and the fifth in Britain, has all of life crammed into it, but it is through the developing character of Martha that we understand the events, both as they unfold and retroactively.


One of the central truths that I take from Children of Violence is that we see the reality of who we are very early on, but are only able to act on that self-knowledge after we have made all the mistakes that most people inevitably make in life. Martha’s inner voice speaks to her throughout, but in her earlier years it is often drowned out by the passions of youth and by little-understood patterns of behavior that stem from her upbringing and even from the upbringing of her parents. For many years she acts as if programmed, even when she knows that she is making a mistake. Thankfully Martha does grow, and one of her insights is into “Matty,” the protective persona that she created as a young woman which continued to speak and act for her long after it no longer served her, if indeed it ever did.

“Matty” was a clown, the life of the party, always using self-deprecating humor to mask her intelligence and her sober, questioning Self. It is a pleasure to watch Martha recognize Matty as a construction and eventually outgrow her. And this reader, at least, squirms with self-recognition. For who among us has not created a persona as a protective mask against the world, and who among us has not seen that creation taking on a life of its own and outstaying its welcome, like an party guest who sets up on the living-room couch?

d076091226823762201983572cd1e7b7A succession of memories swims into view as I recall created personae that I have inhabited, consciously or otherwise. Sometimes they “worked,” in that they served their purpose, while at other times they completely backfired on me. One such instance was when, at age 13 or 14, we went on a school outing to see The Sound of Music (for the umpteenth time). Sitting next to a boy who had recently become my boyfriend (as this relationship was defined in boarding school in 1960’s India), I remember thinking, as a sentimental scene approached, that it would be “feminine” to cry and, amazing to me now, I turned on the waterworks on cue. Unfortunately it didn’t have the desired effect; curling his lip, he expressed his contempt for such soppy sentimentality: “just like a girl!”

It served me right! I had deliberately been untrue to myself in order to present an appealing model of femininity, but it hadn’t worked—the object of my deception had reacted just as I would have done if I had been him. Of course, reinforced by society, such “feminine wiles” must pay off in some way, otherwise women wouldn’t continue to deploy them. Although it is troubling that people feel the need to perform such stereotypical identities, it is tragic if they thereby lose access to other, deeper selves.


Another incident still embarrasses me all over again whenever I remember it. It was in 1972 or 1973 while I was at university, perhaps 18 or 19 years old. One of my favorite Bob Dylan songs was, and still is, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. Although there are many interpretations of Dylan songs that I love, by artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, and Johnny Cash, in the case of this song I have never heard a version that comes close to Dylan’s own. At the time my college suitemate was dating an older student who had a twin brother, and she had recently found herself getting involved with the twin as well. Anyway, another artist—I forget who—had just released a cover version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” which I had heard and immediately hated. The very next day, one of the twins—the brother of the first, I think—was visiting our dorm, and mentioned Dylan’s song, my favorite. I was in awe and not a little envious of these sophisticated friends of my suitemate, and found myself wanting to impress. Before I had a chance to think better of it, out of my mouth came the following travesty: “Oh, did you know that so-and-so has just come out with a terrific cover of it?”

His rejoinder served me right, as he said exactly what I had been thinking: “Oh, I love Dylan’s version, but that cover changes it out of all recognition. I hate it.” My attempt to impress had completely backfired on me, making me look like a tasteless idiot. Why, oh why, hadn’t I had the self-confidence to say what I actually thought?

I’d like to be able to say that I have learned to trust my inner voice, that these early experiences taught me to tell the truth about my responses to art and life. But of course they didn’t. These inauthentic performances continued into my adult life. Did they ever serve me well? I don’t think so.

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299. Time Travel (Birthdays & Birthday Books)

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Childhood, Greece, Inter/Transnational, Media, Stories, travel on February 7, 2015 at 12:58 pm


It was while we were living in Greece that I acquired my now-battered copy of Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book, in 1962 or 1963, when I was about eight years old. (The stamp on the inside back cover shows that it was purchased at Pantelides Bookshop which, when I looked it up on the Internet just now, is still in business, is still the largest English-language bookshop in Athens, and still has the same telephone number!)

IMG_0640I immediately set about asking everyone I knew when their birthday was so that I could enter their name in my new book, or they could write it in themselves. After we left Greece for India, I wrote our new address under the old one and began adding new names, first from friends in Kharagpur, then from classmates and teachers in Darjeeling. Five years later, as a teenager in England en route to the United States, I asked my English family and classmates from two different secondary schools to sign in as well.


By the time I arrived in the U.S., nearly sixteen, my ardor had cooled off, so that only a sprinkling of names have been entered since high school in Brookline. Besides, as the rate of my new entries slowed to a near standstill, the speed at which the years have rolled by seems to have increased exponentially. Now I know several people who share the same birthday, sometimes from three different generations. I wish I had thought to ask everyone to enter their birth years as well their names, but as a child that didn’t even cross my mind.

My mother was always the one in our family who remembered and made sure to commemorate birthdays. Now that that task has fallen to my generation, I’m afraid that I’m not as consistent. I hadn’t consulted or updated the old birthday book for years, but this morning I was suddenly unsure of whether dear Uncle Ted’s 90th birthday was today or in a couple of days. Climbing precariously on a chair, I retrieved Kate Greenway from a top shelf in my book-crammed office, and confirmed the date. Coincidentally, I found my old Kharagpur friend Robin’s name entered on today’s date in my childish hand, and sent him birthday greetings in London via Facebook.

University of Florida Digital Collections, Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature

University of Florida Digital Collections, Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature

Kate Greenaway was a wildly popular illustrator of English children’s books in the late nineteenth century. Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book was first published in 1880, with a different cover from that of my edition, but with identical illustrations (369 line illustrations and twelve color plates), format, and interior design. The University of Florida has digitized all her works, including her Birthday Book, online and fully searchable.

It is always heart-warming to receive birthday greetings, especially from friends and family far away, even if you know that they only remembered because they received a pop-up notification via Facebook. Last year I looked up and surprised a childhood friend from India with a Facebook message on his birthday, even though I had not had any contact with him for more than fifty years. How on earth had I remembered? It was in my birthday book. Recording birthdays in this way is clearly a fast-disappearing practice. It is perhaps for that very reason that I derive a special thrill from setting eyes on an old friend’s name, in her best handwriting or my untidy scrawl, and instantaneously being transported half a century back in time through the four-inch square portal of one little book.



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286. Foxfire

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Nature, seasons, Stories, United States, Work on October 12, 2014 at 1:56 am


. . . a name commonly applied to several species of bioluminescent fungi that grow on rotting wood in damp forests (like the Southern Appalachians) during the warmer months (The Foxfire Book)

This evening, feeling melancholy, hard done by, and inclined to self-pity, I went for a short walk in the damp night air. With invisible mists rising all around me, I was in that kind of mood where one begins to wallow in the miserably pleasurable certainty of being misunderstood by the whole world. Slipping on a peacoat and wrapping a woolen shawl several times around my neck, I flung myself dramatically out into the dark, stomping up the hill to the border of our town, where both the sidewalk and the streetlights end abruptly, and marching back down again, like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme.

On the way down I paused for a moment at the quince bush, where one small but perfect specimen the size of an apricot came off in my hand without the slightest resistance. Velvety-cold, it glowed yellow in my cupped palm as I bore it home. Just about hitting my stride as I was coming back into the house again, I reflected that if it had been a different time of day—more likely, if I had been at a different stage of life—I might have gone on walking almost indefinitely. My legs were aching, but from disuse rather than overuse, and I craved adventure, defined, on this Saturday night in October, as just about anything other than grading papers or working on my deferred taxes.


Still bundled up in my outdoor clothes—for in this ornery mood woe betide anyone, myself included, who dared suggest that I might turn up the heat—I huddled in front of my glowing laptop as if it were a fire in a cave of yore and scanned my Facebook feed, prepared to take exception to just about anything. There was a review of a new book about hoarding (which has just been added to the latest DSM) which purported to “depathologize” the practice. After all, one person’s hoarding is another person’s collecting. DSM-5 defines hoarding disorder as characterized by the persistent difficulty of discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions. I curled a misanthropic lip at those “others” who failed to value the items I chose to keep, pathologizing my perfectly harmless predilection for printed matter. Defiantly, I posted a link to the review on the page of my Facebook decluttering group and hoped, like the man in the Monty Python skit who wanted an argument, that someone would take the bait. But no one did; all it drew was a disappointingly cheery Like.

As I glared round the room in search of something else to focus my wrath on, I was overtaken by the thought of what my bookshelves would look like five, fifty years hence if the house were to be abandoned. Years ago Andrew and I had stumbled upon one such scene, in a broken-down barn in Concord in the woods of Old Road to Nine-Acre Corner (the longest street name I have ever encountered, by the way; the street sign reads, “Old Road to N.A.C”), where we retrieved a rain-soaked old medical manual and attempted to restore it, but in vain. With my eyes in soft focus, I contemplated the wall of books in the dining room, considering how rarely I actually opened any of them, and wondering what they really meant to me. It was then that the Foxfire books shimmered into view.


I plucked the first volume from the shelf and opened it—after how many years! Re-reading the introduction reminded me of the project, begun in 1966 by an idealistic and highly educated young English teacher who started a magazine in Rabun Gap, Georgia, in which high-school students interviewed ordinary Appalachian Mountain folk. These were hard-working people who eked out a subsistence living, doing everything, but everything, themselves. Their matter-of-fact accounts of their lives lit up a generation of young people who set out to learn their skills and carry on their tradition of self-sufficiency.

Aunt Arie (The Foxfire Book)

Aunt Arie (The Foxfire Book)

Aunt Arie was an elderly woman who, since the death of her husband Ulysses, had lived by herself in a log cabin with no running water, working, working, all the livelong day. The interviewer asked her:

Doesn’t being here alone bother you sometimes?

Aunt Arie freely acknowledged that it got “mighty lonesome”, that she was afraid of snakes, and that the foxes had never allowed her to keep any of her chickens: “they catched th’last one of ‘em.” She did not downplay the difficulties, but neither did she have any regrets:

We made a good life here, but we put in lots’a’time. Many an’many a night I’ve been workin’ when two o’clock come in th’mornin’—cardin’n’spinnin’n’sewin’. They want me t’sell an’move away from here but I won’t do it. It’s just home—‘at’s all. I spent my happiest days here (Foxfire 1: 30).

I looked over at the little quince, still glowing, in the wooden fruit bowl with two pears from my father’s pear tree. Tomorrow the rest of the pears had to be picked and put by before they fell to the ground and rotted. I would make pear sauce for the winter. What was the point of my anger? There was no argument to be had and no-one to have it with.



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280. My Love Affair with Penguins

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, reading, Stories on August 2, 2014 at 6:04 am

Penguin Books, that is. I’m too unsystematic to be a collector, and besides, the ones I love the most have no monetary value by the time they’ve been read for the umpteenth time. I grew up with Puffins, and eventually graduated to Penguins. By then, the logos, the colors (orange for Penguins, blue for Pelicans, green for Crime, brown/black for Classics), the book designs, the illustrations, and, of course, the works themselves had (like George Orwell’s suet puddings and red pillar-boxes) entered into my soul.

Edward Ardizzone's illustration for The Little Book Room, by Eleanor Farjeon

Edward Ardizzone’s illustration for The Little Book Room, by Eleanor Farjeon

books and frog


BlackBeautyIt’s almost incredible to look back and realize that the period during which I voraciously devoured Puffins was less than five years long, from when I was seven or eight years old until I was about twelve. It started in Greece when I read my first novel, the Puffin edition of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, and was subsequently allowed to go down to the English bookshop in Athens and choose a new Puffin book every time the loose change in our kitchen drawer added up to 60 drachma. It was in Greece that I first read, most memorably, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Hobbit. When we moved back to India my parents would let me order half-a-dozen Puffins from the Penguin catalogue every so often, and when they arrived, in a delicious-looking brown paper parcel, I would unwrap it rapturously and bury myself in them for days, transported magically into their worlds. Most of the books in the gathering of Puffins below were bought or shipped to me in Kharagpur.

PS158I was lucky that that period, from 1961 or 2 to 1966, also marked the beginning of Kaye Webb’s editorship of Puffin, so that the authors (such as Arthur Ransome, C.S. Lewis, P.L. Travers, John Verney, Clive King, Laura Ingalls Wilder) and illustrators (Edward Ardizzone, Pauline Baynes, Ronald Searle, Raymond Briggs, Margery Gill, Mary Shepard) were absolutely first-rate, never, never patronizing their young readers. (Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books in the U.K., has a digital archive of Kaye Webb’s 18-year tenure at Puffin and you can listen to a 1993 interview with her on BBC4s Desert Island Discs.)

1949-1969_96dpiMy attachment to the plump Puffin logo of my era (I never took to the modernized logo of the Seventies, when the poor emaciated creature looked as if it had been put on a forced diet) carried over into a lifelong affection for Penguins as well, and I understand the obsession of those, like Karyn Reeves, author of the awe-inspiring blog A Penguin a week, who aim to collect the entire set of 3000 vintage titles that predate the ISBN, from the first 10 Penguins published in 1935 to the end of the Sixties. You can find the complete list of all the early Penguin series here, along with their cover art, including Peacock, Ptarmigan, Porpoise, Pelican, and Peregrine Books. Another feast for the eyes is the work of the Penguin Paperback Spotters’ Guild on flickr.


the first ten Penguins

the first ten Penguins

I myself am sometimes a little embarrassed by my brand loyalty for an outfit owned by Pearson, that London-based mega-corporation that owns everything from the Financial Times to Penguin Books. But the truth is that I grew up on Penguins. Their history is intimately bound up in my own, and their distinctive orange covers stand for so much that is dear to me. Penguin paperbacks helped shape the consciousness and sensibilities of my generation and that of my parents, inaugurating a new era in 1935 when they made high-quality literature available to working-class readers for the price of a pack of cigarettes.

I welcomed the establishment of Penguin India in the late 1980s for its role, along with others, such as Rupa Books, in helping to make both foreign and Indian titles, including English translations of excellent works from other Indian languages, available at affordable prices (although I was extremely disappointed in it earlier this year when it buckled so easily to pressure from the Hindu Right and withdrew Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History). The books pictured below include Penguin India titles as well as King Penguins and Penguin Modern Classics.





Perhaps I’m in danger of becoming an anachronism, along with my aging paperbacks. Occasionally I feel rather sheepish about the stacks of them spilling over and multiplying all about the house, but soon revert to unabashed pleasure in them. I reserve a special place in my heart and on my shelves for Penguins, which, when I am seized by the urge to rearrange, are organized by series and by color, although not, as yet, by number. The Puffins, almost the only things I have managed to retain from my peripatetic childhood, still occupy several shelves, two-deep, in my study at home. In my son’s childhood it gave me tremendous pleasure to be able to revisit them while reading them aloud to him, and I continue to resist all charges of hoarding and exhortations to de-clutter by not only holding on to the collection but adding to it whenever I come across a vintage Puffin in good condition. Picking up strange Penguins is a vice, I suppose, but a relatively innocuous one, as vices go; or so I tell myself. No, this is a lifelong love affair. Until I run out of space to lay my head, or develop a dust allergy, they’re here to stay.

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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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262. Oh, to be in England

In 1960s, Britain, Immigration, Music, Nature, places, seasons, Stories, travel on April 17, 2014 at 9:39 pm

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Robert Browning’s poem, Home Thoughts, from Abroad (read here by William Hurt), written in 1845 when the poet was visiting Northern Italy, has been voted one of the U.K.’s most popular poems. The speaker is clearly longing for England (which for British colonial civil servants always remained Home, no matter how long they were away), and imaginatively seeing and hearing the beauty of an English spring as unsurpassed by any other. In my view, though, the last line is jarring, the line in which he describes the humble buttercups as far more beautiful than “this gaudy melon-flower,” as if English flowers naturally had an unadorned, unassuming beauty, while the Italian flowers were gaudy—showy in a tasteless or vulgar way. Nevertheless, the poem’s language and images are quite moving in their simplicity, even if they do tend toward the sentimental.

P1050913Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

But if Browning’s poem is sentimental, the take-off “Oh, to be in England” (also known as “Aachaa England”) is a hilarious corrective. According to the blog, Black South Asia, few people know that the person who sang the song in Blake Edwards’ 1968 comedy, The Party, starring Peter Sellers (see TMA #123, That Funny Accent for more on Peter Sellers’ Indian accent), was in fact Bill Forbes, born in (then-)Ceylon in 1938 and living in Britain since 1955, who recorded it under the name of Kal Khan. It’s not only Forbes’/Khan’s exaggerated accent and the ability to laugh at himself that is funny, but the way it turns the tables to observe strange British customs from the perspective of a South Asian immigrant.

P1050914Yinglish people sleeping in the sun to get a tan
Pouring oil upon their face just like a frying pan
Funny thing about it is they all go rosy red
Next day when the peeling starts they are crying in their bed.

Chorus: Oh, to be in England
Now that spring is here
Oh, to be in England
Drinking English beer.

Boiled potatoes, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding too
That is all you’ll ever find upon a set menu
They don’t know that I can make an Anglo English Fry
Tell me have you ever heard of Snake and Kidney Pie?


British people watching television every day
When the kiddies go to bed they show a sexy play
They don’t know that washing powder showing on the screen
Turning coloured clothing into white you’ve never seen.


Funnily enough, I am visiting England at the moment, and in April too, after many years of home thoughts from abroad (although for me, “home” and “abroad” are by no means settled or singular). Spring here, even in London, is beautiful, in a distinctly English way. These photos, taken on the streets of North London, may give you a little taste of it.


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257. Leaving on a Jet Plane

In 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, places, Stories, travel, United States on April 11, 2014 at 8:43 pm

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More than anything, the word jet suggests speed to me—speeding up and away, powered by a jet engine. It seems I’ve been leaving somewhere all my life, at first at a slower speed, by steam-powered ships and locomotives, then faster and faster with the revving-up of the jet age, starting in 1963 with a flight on a Boeing 707 from London to Bombay.

Jet Magazine cover, 1954

Jet Magazine cover, 1954

The song that first captured my feelings of having to leave a beloved place and to leave beloved people behind was Harry Belafonte’s 1957 Jamaica Farewell, a great favorite of my mother’s (see TMA #34, His Master’s Voice). Sung by a sailor, it was well suited to departures by sea. (Here’s a photograph of Harry Belafonte with Dorothy Dandridge in 1954 on the cover of Jet (invoking the other sense of the word, blackness).)

In 1966, less than a decade later and just a couple of years after my family’s first flight, the American singer-songwriter John Denver wrote Leaving on a Jet Plane. No song evokes quite as it does the wrenching sadness of having to blast off with jet-propelled force, perhaps never to return, leaving behind someone whom you love. Although John Denver wrote it, Peter, Paul and Mary were the first to make it a hit in 1969, when it reached #1 in late December. It was still in the air and on the charts in early 1970 when we arrived in the States.


I have always liked the Jamaican reggae deejay Yellowman’s 1982 version, perhaps because it has a little humor which balances out the sentimentality of the song and prevents it from getting too schmaltzy, and because it brings it back to Jamaica. More recently, in 1998, it re-emerged in the soundtrack of the movie Armaggedon (talk about speed!), sung by Chantal Kreviaz.

There seem to be more songs about leaving than about coming home, perhaps because in this life, leaving wrenches our hearts again and again, while coming home, though longed for so deeply, is often attended by disappointment. Time speeds on, and the home to which we return can never be the same one that we remembered with such reverence.

[To counteract the sadness of that thought, you may want to listen to a boisterous rendition of Back in the USA, Chuck Berry’s celebration of homecoming (Well oh well, I feel so good today/We’ve just touched down on an international runway), sung here with Linda Ronstadt.]


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