Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘1980s’ Category

484. Home Truths

In 1980s, Food, health, parenting, Stories, Words & phrases on August 24, 2020 at 2:27 am

Over the years, friends and family members have said things that I needed to hear; home truths that I might not have wanted to hear at the time, but that have stayed with me and stood me in good stead.

In the early 1980s, when we lived with roommates on Washington Terrace in Somerville, Stan and Joan, old friends of Maureen’s, moved in for a short while with their new baby, Katya Rain. While we were still living the student life, renting rooms in apartments, sharing cooking and housework, doing pretty much what we wanted when we wanted, they were the first of our friends to have a baby. Stan, Joan, and Baby Katya were a family unit on a schedule, one parent on baby duty while the other was working. Because of the baby they had to cook, eat, and sleep at certain times, and because of her there was baby gear strewn all around the shared living areas of the house.

Every parent knows that it is impossible to travel light with a baby. However well-organized one is—and Stan and Joan were very well organized—one has to have lots of things on hand day and night for every eventuality–feeding, washing, wiping, diaper-changing, entertaining, sleeping, waking. You can’t tidy a baby away; it takes over the household, and of course that’s how it should be. But not being parents, we were entirely unused to Babydom.

The only way a group household can maintain some semblance of order is if everyone takes responsibility for keeping the shared living spaces clear of their personal belongings. If one of us neglected to clear away half-read books, half-eaten slices of toast, half-empty tea or coffee mugs, another of us would soon let the delinquent housemate know. So when the dining tables, living- and dining-room floors, kitchen counters began to be covered with Katya paraphernalia, we couldn’t help letting her parents know that they were making a bit of a mess; and although we thought we were being tolerant, we were in fact behaving badly, making two wonderful, conscientious, hard-working new parents feel as if they and their perfect baby were in the way.

Not only were Stan and Joan good parents, they were also good people. They didn’t complain or call us out for our behavior. To be fair, when I say “us”, I probably ought to say “me”, since I don’t remember the other roommates making a fuss. But one day, when she was home and the rest of us were out, Joan quietly did something that taught me a lesson I have never forgotten.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Back then, as now, there was almost always a pot of tea on the go. Very little time elapsed between finishing one pot and starting another. I enjoyed the ritual of cleaning out the old tea leaves, warming the pot, refilling it from the caddy with our favorite Lopchu Darjeeling. But there was one thing I frequently neglected to do; and it was Joan who drew it to my attention, in the nicest possible way of course.

Coming home that day, I put the kettle on as I usually did, and looked around for my trusty teapot. Joan handed it to me, with the remark, “sometimes it’s more important to clean things on the inside.” I had no idea what she was talking about until I took the lid off. Instead of its customary brown coating from the daily build-up of tannin, it was gleaming, stain-free for the first time in I couldn’t remember how long. Joan was a nurse, studying to be a midwife, so she certainly knew that proper hygiene was important, while a little messiness was only to be expected. I took the teapot from her, duly chastened; though, to be honest, I can’t say that I thanked her.

But even now, nearly forty years later, when I look into my teapot and it scowls back at me, I remember that home truth, by no means limited to tea or baby paraphernalia: it’s more important to be clean on the inside than to look good on the outside. Thank you, Joan!

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459. Householder

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, parenting, places, singing, Stories, Teaching, United States on April 10, 2020 at 2:59 am

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


I can’t remember anymore what my parents gave us for our wedding present back in 1983, on the farm in Winchendon; perhaps they helped pay for our honeymoon trip to India, my first return trip since we had left in 1968 and Andrew’s first time ever. What I do remember is my mother’s personal present to me: a box of at least two dozen beautiful high-quality tea towels, every single one of them different. (In the States they are called dish towels, and nobody knows what they are because nobody uses them. And don’t ask me what a tea towel is because if you don’t know I’m not going to tell you. Look it up!) It was at that moment that I knew I was really a householder, and I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, as if my mother was passing part of herself to me to carry forward.

I used those tea towels sparingly over the years, not bringing them all out at once, but keeping some back so as not to spoil them. More than 36 years later, there are still a couple left. They represent many bountiful meals cooked for our immediate and extended family and circle of friends, countless dishes washed and dried companionably, table settings laid out and cleared away. They call to mind recipes passed down from our families and made our own; feasts for special holidays; and, after Eric and Nikhil were born, children’s birthday parties with lots of wiping-up of spills and sticky hands and faces. And of course, they remind me of Mum, and her hard work and cleanliness and caring.

My family in India also welcomed us into the life of the householder, that stage of life most central to the functioning of society. This was before the era of economic liberalization, when, at their wedding, couples were given one set of stainless-steel thalis to last their whole married lives. We still have ours, with our names engraved on the underside and on some the name of the person who had bestowed them upon us. After preparing an Indian meal and laying out the gleaming thalis with the little stainless steel katoris arrayed around the edges, I feel loved and nourished.

Being a householder wasn’t just cooking and cleaning but carrying out traditions, old and new. It was hanging a garland of mango leaves over the door to the house; painting eggs at Russian Easter; hosting and attending family gatherings, in the years when our parents were still active and the undisputed heads of the extended family; visits back and forth to Newton to visit my parents and to California to visit Andrew’s parents and grandparents; going out mushrooming with Andrew’s mother Anna and his Grandma Pauline; helping Anna put up her wild cherry brandy (“it cures what ails you”).

Being a householder meant repairing frozen pipes with numb and chilblained fingers, trying in vain to save a bird that flew down the chimney into the wood stove and getting a raccoon out of the chicken coop; it was paying bills, doing taxes, getting our two rooms in the shared farmhouse ready for the birth of the baby; making sure that every piece of furniture was child-safe; and finding a place near his cradle to hang the mobile of a thousand paper cranes that Andrew’s sister Vera made to welcome him into the world.

Most of all, being a householder was becoming parents. The first five-and-a-half years of Nikhil’s life on the farm in Winchendon passed by in a blur, as parenting for those years before kindergarten was all-absorbing. It was venturing out in sub-freezing temperatures to cut a Christmas tree or help build a snowman when every fibre of one’s being cried out for a nice hot cup of tea and a good book by the fire; cross-country skiing through the woods to our friends’ house, pulling the babies behind us on wooden sleds; play-acting King Arthur and Good Sir Lancelot; mediating fights. It was dancing to old vinyl records in the evening before bed to tire the boys out; allaying childish fears with words of comfort and reassurance; reading aloud to Nikhil for hours (“just one more chapter!”); singing him to sleep with his favorites and mine: The Skye Boat Song, My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean (with the saddest lyrics changed); Morningtown Ride; Doc Watson’s Freight Train Boogie; Donovan’s Epistle to Derroll, everything by John Prine.

Somewhere in there we found time for more-or-less gainful employment, that too an integral part of being a householder: Andrew holding the fort at Whetstone Press in both Boston and Winchendon; my job as a stringer for The Winchendon Courier, the local weekly; and, when Nikhil was nearly three, teaching at UMass a couple of days a week.

Forgive me if my tone is little elegiac. I’m sitting at the dining table writing this in the biggest and most modern home I’ve ever lived in as an adult, yet ironically, at a time when the household is at its smallest ever. Of the four stages of life in the Indian tradition, the householder or grihastha (“occupied with home”) is the most active, passionate, socially engaged. Now I hover at the brink of the next stage, that of vanaprastha, or retiring to the forest, alternating between longing to withdraw and needing to keep the home fires burning. After all, if people like Bernie Sanders, at age 78, can run a punishing presidential campaign and, without missing a beat, go on to advocate tirelessly for the most vulnerable, then who am I to withdraw from the fray? Retiring to the forest may not be an option, although in this time of stress and uncertainty it is becoming a necessity to take time out just to breathe.

Bernie Sanders [Rebecca Cook Reuters]

In closing, under the current Stay-at-Home Advisory to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, all but those designated as essential workers are confined to their homes. My students are understandably claustrophobic, especially those who had just begun living away from home for the first time, now cooped up in the house with the college and the dorms closed, unable to go to the gym or to hang out with their friends. Some of them, along with their parents, are essential workers in the health-care professions or service workers, having to care for elderly people in nursing homes or running cash registers at supermarkets or delivering pizzas and packages door to door. They must return home, change their clothes and shower so as not to risk exposing their grandparents, parents, or children to the virus. Despite being under tremendous stress they are pulling together with their entire household, determined to make the best of a terrible situation as they care tenderly for frail grandparents, treasure the unexpected time they now have to play board games with their family, and even help younger siblings with their homework. They are in the student stage of their lives, too young to be bearing the burden of householders, but bearing it nonetheless, and cheerfully. If they must do it, so must I. In a situation that requires all hands on deck, vanaprastha will just have to wait.

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458. Graduate School

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, culture, Education, Immigration, parenting, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 9, 2020 at 2:01 am

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

Graduate School. 

In 1987, twelve years after having completed my B.A. in English, I found myself in graduate school in an English MA-PhD program. I say “found myself” because never in a million years had I considered going for a doctorate until I was actually doing it. After moving to the farm in the early 1980s and casting about for some worthwhile employment in the surrounding towns, it struck me that since the local schools were failing to teach the children to read, I might usefully get my M.A. in Teaching and become a reading specialist. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but reading had always been my passion. However, the local state college didn’t offer enough courses to enable me to complete the MAT, so they recommended that I apply to the nearest state university, some 30 miles away. With a two-year-old baby a 60-mile roundtrip commute already pushed my limit, so UMass Amherst was the only graduate school to which I applied, and the English department only had an MA-PhD program. Though initially I told myself that I could simply stop at the M.A., it was soon clear that I was going to go all the way. But if my graduate studies came about by accident, then—despite the inevitable, and not inconsiderable, costs to other areas of my life—it was a fortunate accident, because in some very important ways they brought me back to myself.

I have always been told that I talk too much. My primary school report cards said so, and so did my high-school friends’ entries in my autograph book. The move to high school in the U.S. at fifteen didn’t shut me up either, as I felt fully accepted by my small group of friends, all of whom for one reason or another were not part of the myriad cliques that divided the school. But college did silence me. My typical mode as an undergraduate was to slouch in the back with dark glasses on, metaphorically speaking, feeling completely out of place, and routinely tormenting myself at the thought of all my parents’ hard-earned money that I was wasting. I made few friends in my first two years there and spent more time wondering what I was doing there than actually doing something. It was only after taking a year off to study in London that I returned to the States with a sense of purpose, and finally learned a great deal in my final year. But most of the time I felt like an outsider in an alien environment with people who didn’t understand or include me and didn’t have the least interest in doing so. No doubt many fellow-students felt that way too, but my old gregarious self went into eclipse during those years, especially in classroom settings, where I hardly said a word unless called upon.

Merle Hodge

Returning to university for graduate school, I was a few years older than most of my cohort, and had the confidence of the intervening years of life experience. It was also very lucky for me that at the outset I met a group of young international faculty from India and South Africa, barely older than I was, who mentored and introduced me to an emergent field that I seemed to have been waiting for all my life. Looking at the course catalog for my first semester I noticed that a Dr. Ketu Katrak, a professor with an Indian-sounding name, was offering a course called “Commonwealth Literature.” Interesting, I thought, literature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? But it turned out to be literature of the British Commonwealth, the name the Britisher gave to an emergent body of writing that, in the late 1980s, was about to rename itself postcolonial literature.

Chinua Achebe

In that first course we read works by Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ousmane Sembène and Ama Ata Aidoo from Africa, by Merle Hodge and George Lamming from the Caribbean, Anita Desai and Mulk Raj Anand from India, and I was hooked. Where had these works been hiding all my life? As an undergraduate I hadn’t been able to read anything other than British and American literature written well before the Second World War. A Passage to India (1924), the most recent British novel on the curriculum there and the only one set in India, had been written by an Englishman, albeit a wonderful writer deeply critical of British colonial rule. With Ketu Katrak graciously consenting to become my dissertation director, I immersed myself in the study of twentieth-century literatures from India, Africa, the Caribbean, and the postcolonial diaspora and the years just flew by, until one day Andrew gently reminded me that perhaps it was time for me to finish up, and at last I did, eight years after I had begun.

I was only taking two courses a semester because I was teaching at the same time and Nikhil was only two years old when I began my studies. Both my guys were nothing if not supportive. Andrew and I barely saw each other during those first years of grad school, because he was with Nikhil in Winchendon while I was away at UMass and I was with Nikhil while he was away at the press in Boston. Dear Andrew would occasionally nod off while reading bedtime stories to Nikhil and I would return to find the baby wide awake, beaming from ear to ear, with his dad fast asleep and snoring. Returning to Winchendon the day of my PhD qualifying exam, little Nikhil told me that he had kept all his fingers crossed for me all day. As a three-year-old he rode to the administration offices on my hip when the unionizing graduate employees were calling for family health insurance and childcare support (both of which we won). And he met many of the postcolonial writers and scholars who passed through the five-college area, including Anita Desai and her teenage daughter Kiran, who babysat for him for a semester while I was taking an African literature class with Chinua Achebe.

Shakespeare-Wallah (1965)

I’ll close with an anecdote from graduate school that exemplifies what I’ve been trying to feel my way toward. One semester I was auditing a Shakespeare class with the brilliant Normand Berlin (who at twice our age put us students to shame with his energy). My classmates knew their Shakespeare much better than I did; but of a class full of Shakespeare lovers, the two students who were head-and-shoulders above the rest came from Asia: one woman from Manila, the Philippines, and the other from India, a Bengali woman from Calcutta. My point is that in this particular context in the late 1980s, foreigners and immigrants like us were not outsiders, but at the center of an exciting new literary-cultural movement. We didn’t have to slouch in the back with dark glasses on as I had as an undergraduate. (America’s honeymoon with the Other didn’t last long; but that’s another story.)

The point is that this new field of literary studies gave me permission to delve deeply into literature and history that told my story and the stories of my parents. While the British Empire had invaded countries around the world and grown wealthy at their expense, my father had traveled to study in England, where and my mother had met and fallen in love, returning to India with her after my birth. I had grown up in newly Independent India in English-medium schools reading English children’s books (very good ones, I hasten to add). But it was only after coming to the United States that I started studying the literatures, cultures, and histories of the countries I had left behind. Now it became my mission to help students who might not have been exposed to this wealth of literature from around the world to fall in love with it as I had, and to see that the world was there to learn from rather than to dominate.

I was still talking too much, but now I had a captive audience.

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457. Farming

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, Childhood, Nature, parenting, Stories, United States, Work on April 7, 2020 at 11:01 pm

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


From 1984 to 1990 Andrew and I lived with friends from the Boston area on a 60-acre farm in Winchendon, a small town in North-Central Massachusetts. In truth it was mostly woods, with less than 20 acres of cleared land, an old red farmhouse and barn, and a run-down chicken coop. We had been having conversations since 1977 about forming some kind of collective and moving to a farm, sustained economically by some of us having paying jobs in the community; but when push came to shove most of the others bailed out, all of them economically more solvent than we were, and in the end there were just five of us. Since 1980 Andrew and I had been running a small press in the Boston area with his sister Eve, moving to the farm meant shuttling back and forth to Boston every week, which we had to do until we could move the operation to the repurposed chicken coop. Letterpress printers don’t make much money, still less when half the customers, mostly environmental groups and community organizations, get a political discount; but we had to keep working at the press and couldn’t afford to get involved in another marginal start-up. In the end our housemates started a small business growing perennials and eventually added a CSA, delivering vegetables in season to local families and our friends in the city, while all five of us maintained a big kitchen garden for our own use, including putting by large quantities of food to carry us through the winters.

It was hard farming in Winchendon, which turned out to be just about the coldest town in the state, so the growing season was very short, from after Memorial Day in late May to the week before Labor Day in late August, so one couldn’t grow crops that needed an extended period of heat, like okra or peanuts. But we were still able to grow a few crops that normally thrived in the heat because we ordered from Johnny’s up in Maine who developed seeds especially for northern climes, including a terrific variety of hot chili pepper.  Maureen and Rudy had the forethought to put in strawberries and asparagus for rare times of pure extravagance, and we produced a wealth of potatoes, onions, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, beans and leafy greens of all kinds, and lots of culinary herbs. I say “we” loosely: I was never really a farmer, though I benefited from the hard work and expertise of the others. I helped a little with the weeding, killed potato beetles and tomato hornworms when they threatened our precious crops, collected eggs from the hens, picked when it was time to harvest, cooked, and ate my share—and then some.

But however isolated the community, inhospitable the climate, and rocky the soil, living on a farm was idyllic in the dark decade of the Reagan Years, when all our social activism of the previous decade seemed to have come to nought, when the very concept of society and community was under challenge by the defunding of the public sector and an ethos of individualism. We were actively engaged with raising our children–Andrew and I had one child and Maureen and Rudy another, three months apart, so Nikhil and Eric were brothers. They played at farming with Playmobil (Eric’s first word was “tractor”) and grew their first crop of scarlet runner beans at age four out of a seed packet they’d brought home as a party favor from the birthday party of a little friend of theirs, whose parents were also farmers.

In the mid-1980s, at the very time when we moved to our little farm, American farming was in crisis. Many farms, particularly in the Midwest, were up for sale. Farm debt had recently skyrocketed and now prices had collapsed and incomes were plummeting. It all added up to a consolidation of land in big farms, and small and medium-size farmers going out of business.  According to Iowa PBS, the “trend toward very large farms was initiated during the 1980s and it continues unabated up to the present day.” In September 1985 dozens of artists, organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young, organized Farm Aid, that started as a benefit concert that raised $9 million to save family farms, and still continues as a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep them on the land.

Interestingly, a parallel movement to the consolidation of land in mega-farms has been a “concurrent, ongoing trend. . .for the development of small family farming enterprises, mostly organic, that is producing many new farm people” (Iowa PBS). The little farm we lived on, at least the business side of it–I can’t claim any credit for the work–was part of that movement as a member of NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, catering to the growing desire for high-quality organically grown produce (hence our hand-culling of potato beetles and tomato hornworms).

Although compared to the average American farm, our production was small potatoes (our ascerbic housemate Charlie Gamble got a kick out of near-obsolete agricultural idioms); although it never made anyone a living; and although complaints about the weather and arguments among the adults were a-plenty, we certainly put in our share of honest effort, and our son spent his formative years unplugged, in small-town America, living on a farm.

Here’s The Who singing Now I’m a Farmer: and I’m digging, digging, digging, digging, digging.
And here are more stories of life on the farm:

127. Going Up the Country

69. Wonders in the Woods

10. Ghosts of New Boston

86. Bottled Sunshine

177. The Sugar Snow

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456. The Eighties

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, Family, history, Nature, parenting, Stories, United States on April 6, 2020 at 11:53 pm

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

The Eighties. 

We human beings like to find ways to order and keep track of the passage of time, as if by packaging and labeling it we can convince ourselves that we are in control of it. So it is when we carve time into decades and then slap a label on each one, a label that is almost inariably a gross oversimplification. But in the United States the Eighties are an exception to this rule; they are known as the Reagan Years, referring to the two-term presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), and Reagan’s policies really did not only span the decade but came to define it. Andrew and I lived a thrifty life throughout the Eighties, working very hard and making very little, but since we were largely removed from the mainstream economy, Reaganomics, as it was called then, or neoliberalism, as it came to be known, didn’t do the damage to our lives that it did to so many others.

Reaganomics, simply defined, was “the set of economic ideas followed by Ronald Reagan when he was US President in the 1980s, [which] included lower taxes and spending on public services, and less government control of the economy.” Here’s a short video that states in a fairly balanced way why Reaganomics was so controversial, and here’s a longer article, Reagan’s Real Legacy,  that doesn’t mince words about its devastating long-term damage. Back in 2011, the centenary of his birth, those of us who remembered the terrible Reagan years were outraged by the way politicians of all stripes were trying to outdo each other with praise for him; the man was practically being canonized. It’s important to set the record straight–and don’t worry, I’m not going to do so here except to highlight a couple of features of the Reagan era that bear remembering.

This was the era of the so-called War on Drugs, when heroin and crack cocaine trafficking and addiction ravaged the cities and destroyed the lives of millions of African Americans in particular. In this war, as War on Drugs–or War on Blacks? argues, black people were seen as the enemy, not the victims, and as Reaganomics cut social programs, including funding for public education, it ramped up policing and incarceration, targeting and prosecuting blacks disproportionately, and slamming them with heavier sentences.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is a preponderance of evidence showing that a drug trafficking cartel that was operating in Los Angeles in the 1980s was funneling its profits to the contras in Central America–the U.S. funded mercenaries whose mission it was to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Reagan’s administration was heavily involved with funding, training, and arming the contras, just how heavily they were doing so came out in the Iran-Contra Affairs, leading to a long-running Congressional investigation in which National Security Council staff member Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver (Ollie) Norththe White House official most directly involved in secretly aiding the contras, selling arms to Iran, and diverting Iran arms sales proceeds to the contras, testified–and lied repeatedly under oath–to the joint congressional committee.

Funnily enough, during the 1980s, this era of privatization when public-sector entities were sold off to private companies, when unions were systematically smashed, when social security was slashed and welfare and other programs cut right back, privatization was happening on a personal level in my own life. This was the decade when Andrew and I started our own small job printing business, first as a partnership with his sister Eve, and then as a sole proprietorship. It was the decade in which we were married, after which I took Andrew back with me to India in my first return visit since I had left in 1968. Also during this time we moved out of the Boston area with three friends to a hardscrabble farm in the arctic corridor of North-Central Massachusetts, where our son Nikhil was born and where we lived until 1990, just before he was due to start kindergarten. During that time we cultivated a large home garden, canned our own food, made our own maple syrup, watched hundreds of VHS movies on those long winter nights, changed a whole lot of cloth diapers, and shoveled a whole lot of snow. I became a householder and a mother, in some of the happiest and most all-absorbing years of my life. Later in the decade, I began a course of graduate study and, almost accidentally, found myself on an entirely new trajectory. I will write about some of the highlights of these years–my Eighties–in the next few entries.

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384. Auntie Bette’s Litmus Test

In 1980s, Britain, Family, Food, people, Stories, travel, United States on June 28, 2016 at 9:35 pm


My Auntie Bette has always had impossibly high standards and we were anxious not to disappoint her. In the summer of 1984, older then than I am now, she stepped off the plane at Logan Airport looking regal in a powder-blue jumpsuit, as ravishing as if she had just stepped out of a beauty salon rather than having survived the ravages of a seven-hour transatlantic flight. England, of course, was the pinnacle of perfection in her eyes, and the U.S. would always be playing catch-up. For years she sent us massive care packages at Christmas, telling the neighbors, sweet-shop man, and post-office clerk that it was “for my poor sister out there in America who can’t get a good Christmas pudding for love nor money.”

So when we took her to New York City we wanted to show her something really impressive. But was there anything there that could match London? She didn’t think so. FAO Schwartz wasn’t bad, she conceded; the Statue of Liberty: well, all right if you liked that sort of thing; bagels, meh. We’d heard of this building that had just opened a few months before and which we hoped would be just Auntie Bette’s cup of tea: unashamedly luxurious, in-your-face-opulent, totally over the top. It was named Trump Tower, after some wealthy toff who had developed it, no shrinking violet himself, by all accounts.

Atrium, Trump Tower

Atrium, Trump Tower

The building’s massive foyer—the Atrium, they called it—was dazzling with gold glinting and reflecting off every surface. The walls, the ceilings, even the escalators were gold. Auntie Bette didn’t think so. Gilt, she was sure, and showy; she remained singularly unimpressed. We checked out the restaurant, but no dice: the menu was ordinary and overpriced, and you couldn’t get a good cup of tea. Suddenly Auntie Bette said, “What about the loos? Are the seats made of gold? Now that would be something.”

There ensued a half-hour search—upstairs, downstairs, and in my lady’s chamber—but most of the building consisted of a hotel and high-end retail stores, and we couldn’t find a public toilet anywhere. Finally, deep in the bowels of the building, in some lower basement, we found it. There was a line of expensively-dressed ladies waiting outside in the corridor for a few miserable stalls to be vacated. We joined them, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other until it was our turn. What a disappointment! They were just ordinary toilets; no gold seats or gold faucets, in fact, not a glimmer of gold anywhere in sight, except on the ladies’ fingers. “I thought so,” said Auntie Bette; “All show and no substance.”  Or words to that effect: maybe she said, “Flash waistcoat and dirty knickers.” You can always judge a place by its lavatories, says my Auntie Bette, and I fully concur.

photo by Joseph Burke (

photo by Joseph Burke (

Thankfully, America did redeem itself that day. On the drive home we broke our journey at the legendary Secondi Brothers truck stop where Andrew’s brother Dan always had breakfast on his weekly food co-op truck run to New York. (Sadly, the restaurant is no more, only a gas station and convenience store.) This was a place guaranteed to fill the stomach of the heftiest trucker, but Auntie Bette is a good trencherwoman and more than a match for anyone. And breakfast is her favorite meal.

She asked for a fried-egg sandwich, with home fries on the side. If I recall, she gave the amused waiter detailed instructions about how she  liked her eggs and how many pieces of toast she wanted. At least, he started out amused; by the time he had finished taking the order he was quaking in his boots. It was going to be hard to satisfy this customer.

But Secondi’s delivered. When the massive platter arrived, steaming hot, with the food threatening to fall off its edges, even Auntie Bette was suitably impressed. There was silence all round for a few minutes, as she did justice to the order and we all looked on, amazed. Her only remark, halfway through, was, “three eggs!” And at the end, she went up to the front personally to thank the cook. “Now, they know how to do breakfast,” she pronounced, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Secondi Brothers had her seal of approval.

Trump Towers, however, failed to pass Auntie Bette’s litmus test. And I suspect the man behind the (gilt) curtain would do the same.

(from the guardian.com_

(from the


Note: Word must have gotten out that the TT toilets had failed to pass muster because, in search of images to illustrate this story, I found a 2012 article listing the locations of the top ten public bathrooms in New York City, guaranteed to “make you feel like royalty.”  Whaddya know? Listed at number seven was Trump Towers at Columbus Circle.

(not at Trump Towers)


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349. A Chair for My Mother

In 1980s, 2010s, Books, Inter/Transnational, parenting, reading, Stories, United States, women & gender, Work on November 7, 2015 at 10:58 am


BK100160AWhen Nikhil and Eric were young, one of our favorite picture books for them was Vera B. Williams’ A Chair for My Mother (1982). It became a Scholastic title as well as a Reading Rainbow book (remember LeVar Burton of PBS’s Reading Rainbow?), and Maureen, who taught kindergarten, must have brought it home as she did all the new and classic Scholastic books she would order to preview for her students. I don’t know who loved it more, the boys or us. We also read and enjoyed Vera Williams’ Cherries and Cherry Pits (1986), which, like all her books, she both wrote and illustrated in her distinctively bold, colorful style. A Chair for My Mother, though, was far and away my favorite.

I won’t spoil it for you by summarizing the plot; do pick up a copy and read it to the children in your life. Just know that its characters are a little girl, her mother, her grandmother, and, of course, the eponymous chair. They don’t have much in the way of possessions; the mother works hard for their living; and the love and warmth of its spare text and lavish illustrations continue to light up American children’s literature through the generations.


When I heard of Vera Williams’ death last month, I felt a pang and a deep sadness. I read in her obituary that after her divorce she moved from New York to a houseboat in Vancouver, British Columbia, where, in her late 40s, she began to write and illustrate children’s books. What constitutes the sense of home is personal and elusive, but A Chair for My Mother captures what’s essential. That stage of my life is long gone, but the chair, and all that it stands for, sits squarely in my heart, inviting me to come home.


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345. Reaganomics 101

In 1980s, Books, India, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on October 10, 2015 at 1:40 am
Poor People's March, 1968 (

Poor People’s March, 1968 (

When I started my graduate studies in the late 1980s I taught freshman composition to entering undergraduates. As an undergraduate myself in the early 1970s and as a child of the 1960s (not just the 1960s in general, but the 1960s of post-Independence India in particular), I had had my core values instilled in me much earlier. At first it shocked and unnerved me to see how dramatically different their basic assumptions were from mine, until it dawned on me that, as children of the 1980s, these 18 year-olds had come to consciousness during the Reagan era.


My realization of this difference in perspective came when we were discussing an essay on poverty in the United States. In my childhood, the poor were the products of structural inequities in society, their children having grown up without proper housing, healthcare, or nutrition and without the educational and employment opportunities of the more privileged classes. The dominant view then was that social programs existed as a safety net for those who were struggling and to redress the imbalance in society. The poor were to be given a helping hand: not charity, but a fair shake. Furthermore, the rich were indebted to the poor, since it was their hard labor that had afforded the wealthy their lives of ease. That’s more-or-less how we saw it. We further believed that acquisitiveness was not a virtue: the wealthy at least ought to invest their surplus wealth in the national economy, rather than squandering it in conspicuous consumption.

WelfareMy students, however, thought that the rich deserved their wealth and had every right to the most lavish of lifestyles. Their disapproval was reserved for the “undeserving poor“, whose condition they ascribed to laziness and lack of ambition. If they wanted money, then they ought to work for it like the rest of us. This was the prevailing attitude among my students: if these people were poor, it was their own fault.This was the legacy that Reaganomics bequeathed to them and to subsequent generations.

I ought not to have been surprised. This attitude was set forth as common sense in the marketing of Reagan’s domestic policy and has taken root so successfully as the national ethos that all subsequent U.S. administrations have adopted it to some degree. While Ronald Reagan was fond of repeating a story of a “welfare queen” who drove a Cadillac (a myth that maligned black people as well as justifying the slashing of social programs for the poor) it was Bill Clinton on whose watch “welfare reform” cut off single mothers’ welfare payments after a certain period of time and forced them to return to work on sub-poverty salaries, often having to leave their children unsupervised. Blame the Poor was again the watchword: if these immoral and irresponsible women had gotten themselves pregnant out of wedlock, what right did they have to expect society to pay for raising their children while they lay abed all day taking drugs and living lives of gay abandon?

baby-20with-20headphonesJust as hypnopaedia imprinted the babies of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with the ideology of their society, so Reaganomics 101 was imbibed by the children of the 1980s all unawares.

There’s plenty of work; they just don’t want to do it.
They just want a government handout.
Why should we subsidize their sloth?
I’m so glad I’m an investment banker. 

I guess I was out of step with the times; as Reagan was taking the oath of office, pledging to get Big Government off the backs of hardworking Americans, our newly-formed letterpress print shop joined the IWW (the Wobblies), whose Little Red Songbook featured the feisty Dump the Bosses off Your Back.

DumpTheBosses_thumbAlthough the Wobblies shamelessly secularized the beloved Christian hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, I’d dare bet that the IWW’s declaration in the Preamble to their constitution that “there can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life”, is closer to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 19:24 than is Reaganomics 101, a doctrine that taught my innocent students to honor the rich and to blame, rather than bless, the poor.


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335. Are you Black or White?

In 1980s, 2010s, Britain, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on June 14, 2015 at 12:56 pm

2840Back in 1980, while living in Concord, Massachusetts, I worked for a time on a newspaper at MCI (Massachusetts Correctional Institution) Concord called Concord Community Inside-Outside. Those were the days when prison policy still included an element of rehabilitation, and inmates could participate in all kinds of programs, educational, skills-training, cultural, even community service and fund-raising. For my part it was an eye-opener, as I became aware for the first time of conditions in U.S prisons and began to get an inkling of what it might feel like to be on the inside. The non-inmates were allowed to go right into the prison to work on the paper with the insiders, and I had some memorable discussions and interactions, one of which became a friendship that lasted 30 years. Many of the participants in the program were lifers and, because of the racially skewed nature of the U.S. criminal justice system, many of them were African Americans.

I remember one conversation in particular, at the end of which one of the inmates asked me whether I considered myself white or black. Put on the spot, and without pausing to consider the question and its implications, I replied, “Black.” No one in the room ventured further into that racially fraught territory, so the subject was dropped, until later, the next time I visited my friend. He asked me curiously why I had answered in that way, and gave me the opportunity to consider the question a little further. My reply was that given only two options, white or black, my choice had been clear. Since I most certainly didn’t consider myself white, I had to be black. My answer had been based on my mixed background, personal identification, and political perspective.

Given my skin color and class background, I was in a position to choose my answer. Whatever people had thought of it, they kept their thoughts to themselves. Thirty-five years later, I would have challenged that black/white binary formulation and said that I was brown. As a racially and ethnically mixed 1.5-generation immigrant, I considered myself both Asian American and European American. Politically, I identified with people of color, both in the U.S. and globally, and I was still most definitely not white. Everything about that category disturbed me. However, I was in a position to pass for white, something that most other Asian Americans could not do, and I recognized the privilege that it afforded me.

However, being in a position to choose my answer by no means guaranteed that I would be accepted as such. At university in the early Seventies, there was simply no question of my sitting with the black and the Latino students at lunch. And though there were a few Japanese- and Chinese American students, at that time there were virtually no other students of South Asian origin at university. Nearly half a century of Asian exclusion and restrictive national-origin quotas had seen to that, and the children of the post-1965 immigrants had not yet come of age. It was a very different racial and cultural landscape for me then, as a new immigrant to the U.S. not understanding its very strange and particular system of racial categorization, coming out of the universalist ethos of the 1960s when we were all one, and not yet having entered the multicultural 1980s when everyone was expected to celebrate their difference rather than their unity.


It was not until graduate school in the late 1980s that I came to study the history of race and ethnicity as both reality and construct. I learned that despite the painful reality of race to the people who were at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, and who had to live with racism on a daily basis, “race” was a socially constructed category, something that had no scientific validity and that varied from society to society. Whiteness was a strange identity whose definition has changed over time and which, in the U.S. context, had been deployed by different immigrant groups from Irish to Italians to gain themselves leverage and social status as they struggled to assimilate. They might be poor and discriminated against, but they could claim whiteness and thereby position themselves as superior to blacks. (See Toni Morrison’s 1993 essay, On the Backs of Blacks.) Similarly, the dubious distinction of the model minority had been conferred selectively on certain Asian immigrant groups, with the effect of rendering them perpetually non-white, but simultaneously raising them above native African Americans (or all blacks, since African, Latin American, and Afro-Caribbean immigrants were lumped into the catch-all category of Black). The effect: a whole lot of “Others” rendered permanent outsiders to full Americanness, and pitted against each other as they struggled for a slice of an ever-shrinking economic pie.

Every society constitutes its racial categories in different ways. Those with histories of slavery and colonialism are still struggling to dismantle the racialist ideologies that were used to justify their oppression and disenfranchisement. In Britain in the 1970s, when post-colonial immigrant populations of color were under attack, and a movement had arisen to “repatriate” even those who had been born there, they adopted the term Black British to unite across categories of race, religion, and national origin, giving themselves greater moral support and political leverage. By that definition, when I was asked to identify myself racially in 1980, I could have called myself black, but not in the United States. There, an acceptable equivalent might have been person of color, but not black; not for me, anyway.

These reflections have been prompted by a news story that has been making the headlines this week: the case of Rachel Dolezal, a Howard University graduate, NAACP leader, and Africana Studies instructor who has long identified herself as black but whose parents have suddenly outed as white. There has been a furor in the media at this unusual instance of racial passing, in which the person in question has chosen to adopt the identity of a particular race, but not, as is most common, of the more privileged one. It seems that Dolezal decided that her own racial identification was all that mattered, and that she could disregard biology altogether. I understand the anger of African Americans who, by virtue of their skin tone and history of race-based discrimination, do not have the privilege of choosing a racial identity, and who see her as not only having lied, but having taken advantage of the scant programs and hard-won privileges for which African Americans have frequently laid their lives on the line.

Although I understand that anger, I do not find myself sharing it. I wonder, like Al Sharpton when interviewed here, why Dolezal’s parents felt the need to expose their daughter publicly in this way, why she was drawn to identify racially with her black adopted siblings and to represent herself as black. But I do think that in the wider scheme of things, this is a storm in a teacup, and a distraction from the ongoing racial injustices in U.S. society, where being black, or perceived as black, still puts one’s very life in danger.

If I were asked that question again today, whether I considered myself black or white, I would challenge the false binary and the whole premise of the question. But if I had to choose one of them, I would most probably give the same answer as I did then. Did that answer make me a liar, a wannabe, or wrong in the head? I don’t think so. I had my reasons; Rachel Dolezal probably had hers.

Then again, I could have chosen to walk out of that prison anytime.


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326. Whetstone Press

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, Books, Stories, Words & phrases, Work on April 28, 2015 at 8:29 pm

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the-pine-street-inn-towerWhen I was first considering A Printer’s Alphabet as the theme for this year’s A-to-Z Challenge and brainstorming possible entries for each letter, I knew at once what ‘W’ would be (while I’ve still got nothing for ‘Y’—yikes!). In the summer of 1979 Andrew and I drove back from New Mexico in our old International Harvester milk truck, with the goal of starting a letterpress printing business with his sister Eve; and that is exactly what we did. In the New Year we moved into an old industrial building in Boston’s as-yet-ungentrified South End, right across the street from the famous Pine Street Inn for homeless men, and started doing business as Whetstone Press.


wedding invitation

wedding invitation

How did we come up with the name? Here I am trying to answer that question, asked of us back in the early 1980s by Andrew’s Grandma Olga. It was understandably a bit of a puzzle to the grandparents’ generation, why these well-educated young folks would be starting a letterpress print shop just as everybody else was jettisoning their hot type as fast as they possibly could. And the name: why Whetstone? Surely we weren’t a knife-sharpening business? Grandma Olga had a rational mind, and she asked us for an explanation more than once. We promised to send it to her in a letter, but we delayed, as young folks will, and she died before we got around to it.

We knew we wanted a name that would speak of the pride we took in our trade, an old and essential one, involving physical work by skilled hands. I remember Watershed Press being a strong contender, but somehow not sounding quite right. There was nature, there was flow, there was the suggestion of a water wheel, but perhaps in the end it had one too many syllables in it. How we got from watershed to whetstone I don’t quite remember. Since they are both in the W’s, toward the end of the alphabet, I suspect that we had exhausted all the candidates that had come before. What I do remember was the clincher, in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Diligence is to the Understanding as the Whetstone is to the Razor.

Somehow that said it all. The way to understanding is not through some mystical inspiration wafting in on the breeze, but through painstaking and persistent effort. It sharpens the mind (as the whetstone sharpens the razor), thence deepening the understanding. To us, the old-time skilled, labor-intensive trades like letterpress printing lent themselves to the deep concentration required for understanding.

illustration by Eve Melnechuk

illustration by Eve Melnechuk

letterpress on felt

letterpress on felt

Did we attain Understanding, sharpened by dint of our diligence? I can’t say. I do know that we worked very hard and had a lot of fun, for the first four years Andrew, Eve, and me— Printer, Designer, and Jack-of-all-Trades, respectively—running the business as a partnership. During that time we made two moves: from Bristol Street round the corner to Harrison Avenue, also in the South End, and then to Green Street in Jamaica Plain, each time with Red Sun Press, our larger offset printing counterpart (which is still in business at the same address)

IMG_1148Then, in the fourth year, Andrew and I moved to the farm in Winchendon and, a year after that, had a baby. Eve decided that she needed a steadier paycheck if she was to be able to support herself and after my maternity leave, followed by a very part-time work schedule, I decided to base myself in Winchendon with the baby and cut back to doing some of the estimating, the billing, and the taxes. Until we moved yet again, even further west, seven years later, Andrew continued to commute back and forth to Jamaica Plain while setting up a second shop in a rebuilt chicken coop on the farm. Now, more than 30 years later, most of the equipment stands idle in our basement, waiting for new energy to give it yet another lease on life, perhaps in the Museum of Printing in North Andover, or else a last ride, to the scrap metal dealer.

© Whetstone Press (artwork by Eve Melnechuk)

© Whetstone Press (artwork by Eve Melnechuk)

illustration by Eve Melnechuk

illustration by Eve Melnechuk

But what a run we had! I have described our bread-and-butter work in TMA 313, Job Printers. Aside from the job work we didn’t have the time or the capital to fulfill our publishing aspirations, except for the one book of poetry and small items such as cards, pads, and bookplates. Our families finally came around from their initial bewilderment at our decidedly unprofitable business enterprise, and threw their full moral support behind us. It was only after we closed our doors that letterpress printing underwent a new revival, with little shops springing up everywhere.


We’re done, I think: the lead type, the solvents, the sheer weight of all that equipment. But this was not meant to be an elegy, despite its coming at the tail-end of the alphabet. Whetstone Press did fine, high-quality work, and for good causes to boot, work that distributed itself out into the world and didn’t just sit on a shelf looking beautiful (although there’s a place for that as well).

Dear Grandma Olga, I’m sorry that this explanation comes 33 years late.

Diligence is to the Understanding as the Whetstone is to the Razor.

The Understanding is still a work in progress.

© Whetstone Press

© Whetstone Press

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