Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘2000s’ Category

390. When You’re Pulled Over

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

what_to_do_when_pulled_over_by_police-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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295. Changes

In 2000s, Books, Inter/Transnational, Music, places, Politics, reflections, Stories, travel, United States, Words & phrases on January 10, 2015 at 3:36 pm
Carlsbad Caverns, 2004

Carlsbad Caverns, 2004

We have a family joke about our guide to the Carlsbad Caverns when we visited that national park on our 2004 cross-country trip. We learned from him that irreversible damage had been done to the stunning geological formations in the caves during the period of their uncontrolled commercial exploitation, and that climate changes in the desert overhead had killed them, or, at any rate, rendered them inactive for the indefinite future. The spin that our manicly optimistic guide put on this sad state of affairs was, basically, that it was a pity about the damage; but after all, if Jim White hadn’t discovered and exploited the caverns, then the public wouldn’t be enjoying them today. His attitude was summed up in the phrase, “Change is good,” which he repeated more than once and which we have repeated, usually sarcastically, many times since.

Most probably our guide was riffing creatively on a script dictated by the National Park Service, whose bulletin on the Carlsbad Caverns says of its checkered history:

History is about change made by people and events and the results of that change. It is also about how that change stimulates new directions of change. How people changed this area from the frontier to a guano mining area to a world famous geological site and premier showcave to a World Heritage Site is a compelling story told within the beautiful limestone caves and Chihuahuan Desert of southeastern New Mexico.
The park staff invites you to understand and enjoy these resources and to join us in preserving them for the future.

The late singer and song-writer Phil Ochs, most of whose songs supported radical social change, wrote a wistful and uncharacteristically apolitical love song, Changes. In it he describes the world as on “. . . a journey through/the universe ablaze with changes;” in his view, nothing lasts. Yes, change is of the natural order of things, but our own approach to it is all-important.

Just recently, after a long time, I consulted the 5,000 year-old I Ching, or Book of Changes, and was reminded anew of the 1002698essential principles that govern change. All is in flux and change is inevitable, but to respond to it aright one must cultivate understanding. Action without understanding is not constructive, but neither is understanding without taking appropriate, timely action. On all levels, the way forward is always best enabled by cultivating a balance of opposing and complementary forces, with creativity arising from receptivity, movement enabled by rest, and so on.

If change is inevitable, then surely it is desirable that we seek to understand how it works, in the universe, in the world, and within ourselves. Contrary to the assertions of our Carlsbad Caverns guide, change in itself is not necessarily a force for good. Depending on the situation, conditions, and timing, it can be positively transformative or utterly disastrous. That is why we need to study its underlying principles so that we can engage with the changes in our own lives and in the world at large in the best possible way.

images-1The same principles allow us to understand when it is necessary to resist change and when resistance is futile or even counter-productive. In the anti-nuclear movement, we argued that even if nuclear power could be harnessed to create electricity, we opposed it because, in our view, the harm far outweighed the benefits. Just because the atom could be split, it didn’t follow that it should be split. The cost-benefit analysis of the nuclear industry and other nuclear advocates of nuclear power was a short-sighted, narrowly profit-based analysis that didn’t take into account all the human and environmental costs, especially the long-term ones. It seemed to us to epitomize the capitalist, market-based approach to change: if you could make money on it, then it was a good thing. I personally think we were right about nuclear power; but conservationism to limit or modify change can also become a blind clinging to the status quo, and clinging in the face of change can be as wrong-headed as a completely laissez-faire letting-go.

I have no special knowledge of the I Ching and have only dabbled in a fount of wisdom in which scholars and sages through the centuries have immersed themselves for lifetimes of study. It is important to recognize that reading the I Ching is not an act of mere divination, fortune-telling. If approached in the best spirit it can function as a guide to the situation in question and the possibilities and pitfalls inherent in it.

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In my own reading, hexagram 30, “Fire,” changed, with a changing of the third line, to hexagram 21, “Biting Through.” In the words of the translation in The Taoist I Ching,

Fire is beneficial for correctness and development. Raising a cow brings good fortune.

The explanation elaborated:

Fire is clinging, and it is illuminating. . . Although fire is beneficial to correctness and development, if you only know how to use illumination (outer illumination) and you do not know how to nurture illumination (inner illumination, raising a cow), you will not attain development . . . the path of illumination and production of good fortune has a process, a course of work; if there is the slightest carelessness, illumination will not develop. (126-127)

images

Following the change from Fire to Biting Through, I read,

Biting through is developmental. It is beneficial to administer justice.

And in the explanation:

If you want to act on something, you should first understand it; first understanding, then acting, all actions will be as you will. That is why biting through, using action within understanding, is developmental. Action with clarity is always based on understanding; its development and fruition may be symbolized by the administration of justice . . .practice of the Tao is like administering justice. . .When you investigate and find out true principle, it is clear in the mind and evident in practice; fully realizing essence and perfecting life, it is unfailingly developmental and beneficial. (99-100)

So here lies my task for the year ahead, probably the task of a lifetime: to seek understanding, but without clinging. And when it’s time, acting so as to make sure that it is just and beneficial; or, in the words of our Carlsbad Caverns guide, making sure that the change is good.

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247. Gauri Deshpande: A Distinctive Voice

In 1990s, 2000s, Books, India, people, postcolonial, reading, Stories, women & gender, writing on March 19, 2014 at 2:36 pm
Gauri Deshpande (1942-2003)

Gauri Deshpande (1942-2003)

In Marathi or in English, in person or in print, the prolific poet, fiction-writer, and translator Gauri Deshpande (1942-2003) has a distinctive voice: strongly feminist, wryly humorous—usually at her own expense, confident yet self-critical, irreverent yet steeped in tradition, cosmopolitan yet grounded in her love for language and place. No matter who or where her audience is, she is bound to challenge their assumptions, producing both discomfort and delight.

In 1993, as a postgraduate student preparing with trepidation for our first meeting at the University of Poona’s English Department where she was teaching at the time, I carefully donned a traditional Pune sari to meet the daughter of the illustrious anthropologist Iravati Karve and the granddaughter of the illustrious social reformer D.K. Karve. To my embarrassed surprise, a tall, lanky, imperious-looking woman dressed in torn trousers came striding toward me and grasped my hand in a firm handshake. We became friends quickly, thanks to her openness and generosity, and my husband, son, and I have fond memories of our visits to her house during our stay in Pune, as we all ate and talked non-stop, and played fast and furiously competitive card games (the game of Running Demons I shall forever associate with Gauri Deshpande) with her and her daughters, son-in-law, and grandsons. Back in the United States a decade later when I heard the sad news of her untimely death over the internet, I could hardly imagine returning to Pune without her there.

While Gauri Deshpande was unquestionably one of the most important and innovative writers in contemporary Marathi literature, and was well-known and respected throughout India and among scholars of Maharashtra, she began her career writing well-received poetry in English. She published three collections with P. Lal’s Calcutta-based Writers Workshop and edited a collection of Indian poetry in English in the late sixties and early 1970s, but then switched over to writing fiction in Marathi and made her name with her stories and novellas (9 in all), and her translations. At the time of her death in 2003 she was relatively unknown beyond India; however, that was changing, since her work in English had been gaining greater exposure throughout the 1990s. One of her Marathi stories was translated into English and anthologized in the important two-volume Women Writing in India, published in 1993, and her first collection in English, The Lackadaisical Sweeper and Other Stories, was published in 1997. Several of her important Marathi-English translations were also published or re-issued in the late 1980s and 1990s, including Sumitra Bhave’s Pan on Fire: Eight Dalit Women Tell their Story (1988), Jayawant Dalvi’s searing social critique, Chakra: a novel (1974, 1993), and Sunita Deshpande’s …and Pine for What is Not (1995), a controversial memoir by the wife and secretary of the popular Marathi playwright P.L. Deshpande.

Like Gauri Deshpande herself, her stories confound readerly expectations—whether the readers are Indians or non-Indians—of Indian society, and specifically of women, and the stories are often profoundly unsettling, jarring the reader out of complacency. In addition, they continually shift perspective, from India to the United States and back, from gender to caste-class, from mother to daughter, from the rational to the emotional, from the abstractly philosophical to the earthily physical, and back again. Further, the categories themselves are unsettled, as women resist femininity, Indians refuse to behave in a stereotypically “Indian” manner, and the direction of global flows are reversed, as Americans migrate to India and become entirely assimilated.

Women_Writing_in_49ecaf8ba7e67In “That’s the Way It Is” (Ahe he ase ahe), the story published in Women Writing in India, the utterly rationalist first-person narrator gains a new perspective on herself at middle age, in a chance meeting with an old friend, an American long-settled in India. As she goes literally and figuratively to buy glasses to correct her far-sightedness, she discovers that she has understood nothing at all of life and love. When her friend observes, “You really do need glasses to see up close” (475), his comment prompts a shift in perspective, as the narrator, remembering so many incidents in the past, realizes that he has loved her silently ever since their childhood, while she has remained oblivious. “And suddenly, I saw…I was all wrong; I had missed my way in life. My constant arrogant insistence—“What I say is right!”—had kept me from knowing what it was that others understood about life. I didn’t let myself know. All this” (475-476). This capacity to be at once opinionated and self-critical is typical of Gauri Deshpande’s writing.

In the title story of The Lackadaisical Sweeper, two newlywed upper-middle-class wives, one Indian, the other American, stationed in Hong Kong with their businessman-husbands, meet and become friends as they take their daily morning walks. At first the American woman appears to be stereotypically brash and self-involved, the young Indian woman (aptly named Seeta) equally stereotypically meek and submissive.  However, the Indian wife’s unquestioning submissiveness to her husband’s demands leads her to betray her American friend’s open confidences about her husband’s business dealings. Learning from Seeta that her American friend and her husband are Jewish, Seeta’s businessman-husband is able to use anti-Semitism and his wife’s inside information to force the couple to flee the country, grabbing their real-estate holdings just as the property market is booming. The reader’s disgust shifts from the uninhibited sex talk of the American woman to the unethical behavior of the Indian woman. And then, in a characteristic shift, Gauri Deshpande gives a silent, sullen street sweeper the last word. Every morning the American woman has greeted him as they pass him on their morning walks, trying in vain to elicit a response from him. In the closing scene, Seeta greets him and he answers back, to her delight, though she understands nothing of what he has said. In her parting shot, Deshpande leaves us with a view from below: “It was fortunate that she did not know Cantonese” (28). Wealthy, sheltered Seeta’s naiveté does not excuse her from complicity with her husband’s land-grab plot, neither does it excuse her total ignorance of the sweeper’s point of view. The reader is left pondering the sweeper’s judgment of Seeta, who may be a virtuous Indian wife, but is not a good human being.

In “Map”, a tribute to Edward Said, a middle-aged woman reclaims her body as her own territory after a love affair has ended.  The story draws upon the postcolonial critique of colonial thought as a gendered discourse that designates the colonized as female, a blank canvas passively desiring to be conquered and mapped. Her ex-lover was the colonial explorer cartographer, drawing the map of her body in his own, exoticized terms. As in Said’s Orientalism, where the “Orient” as represented by the European Orientalism bears no resemblance to actuality, but is a projection, a “will-to-power”, of Europe itself, in Deshpande’s story the female first-person narrator now recognizes “that the me in his mind had nothing to do with the me in my mind” (55). Taking pleasure in self-discovery at last, she declares, “it’s my body now and my map” (61).  Gauri Deshpande’s refreshing frankness in discussing the female body and female sexuality can never be pornographic, because pornography is a language of power and domination, while hers is a language of love and self-acceptance.

In “Insy Winsy Spider,” another story in the same collection (translated from the Marathi original “Bhijata Bhijata Koli”), a mother is forced to recognize her daughter’s difference from herself. The mother is a highly-educated professor of Buddhist philosophy, a scholar of the Self who, ironically, seems to have little self-knowledge. She and her husband, also a philosophy professor, who have named their daughter Maitreyi “to help her on her way to greatness,” are mortified when the daughter announces that she has no interest in studies and is going to get married without even having done her B.A. The next day, as the mother clears her mind to write an academic paper on the development of self-awareness in the ‘self’, the sight of her daughter chopping onions gives her a sudden revelation: while all growing children must learn to differentiate the ‘I’ from the ‘not-I’, she, in her self-involvement, has failed to differentiate herself from her daughter, despite her age and education. Like the spider in the nursery rhyme, climbing back up the water spout, “It was necessary to begin all over again…‘I’ am not this Maitreyi” (125).

(from marathi.webduniya.com)

(from marathi.webduniya.com)

I want to close with a few personal reminiscences of Gauri Deshpande that might shed some light on how her mind worked. With regard to the title of the story, “Insy Winsy Spider,” she once told me that one of her professors during her postgraduate studies in English literature insisted that his Indian students read English nursery rhymes in order to become as fully immersed in the language as a native speaker. She herself was in complete command of English, confident enough to reshape it in her own image. With regard to her firm commitment to write in Marathi, she once observed with a wry smile how much more money she could be making if she were writing in English. With regard to her exalted caste status and eminent parentage, although she rejected many upper-caste/class social and gender norms, Deshpande loved the language and culture of her community. Talking to fellow-Marathi writer Ambika Sirkar, she once observed sadly that, with the passing of their generation, certain turns of phrase particular to their community would disappear forever. When we visited her in Pune, even as she offered her guests a cold glass of beer, she also offered us a tumblerful of panha, a cooling green mango drink, explaining that it had to be drunk at this particular time of year.

As Shanta Gokhale wrote soon after her death, “How could this strapping, handsome, vibrant, gutsy, intense and intellectually passionate woman have just ceased to exist? Gauri had an insatiable zest for living, for experiencing new places and people, for friendship, for loving and giving”  (Gokhale, “Woman of Substance”). As a writer and as a person, Gauri Deshpande has left a gap in English and Marathi fiction and society that is not easily filled.

First published in SPARROW Newsletter (SNL 14, August 2008)
Also posted on Gauri’s daughter Urmilla Deshpande’s blog.  (Urmilla is also a writer: see her blog  for all her titles and  how to  order them.)

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240. Heaven’s Gate: Two Degrees of Separation

In 1970s, 1990s, 2000s, Books, history, parenting, people, places, reading, Stories, travel on January 19, 2014 at 4:14 pm
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The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Artist: Anette Bishop (fromoldbooks.org)

Because it was generally felt that we needed to read something “uplifting” for a change, my book group chose Christopher Castellani’s 2013 novel All This Talk of Love for our first meeting of the new year. I’m still only halfway through it, and have already been brought to tears twice; the jury is still out on the question of whether or not it is uplifting. Whatever that means will also be up for discussion at the meeting. The novel, set in Boston and Wilmington, Delaware in the late 1990’s, raises close-to-the-bone issues of relationships in immigrant families; different ways of coping with death, illness, and aging (by the way, the large-print edition I checked out from the library is changing the reading experience for me); memories, secrets, and silence; differing values, perspectives, loyalties, and emotional attachments between generations, siblings, husbands and wives; and where Home can be found. But yesterday another kind of passage brought me up short, sending me down to the basement to rummage through old papers for nearly an hour and haunting me for the rest of the day:

He [Frankie, the still-unmarried youngest son of Italian immigrants, writing his doctoral dissertation in postcolonial literature] flips through the six channels that come with basic cable and settles on PBS. . . It’s a low-budget documentary on the Hale-Bopp comet, and though it’s yesterday’s news, it captivates him. The comet, the greatest natural spectacle of the nineties, is long gone and won’t be back for two thousand years. The thirty-nine brainwashed believers who followed it into oblivion won’t be back at all. Meanwhile, the earth remains in a perpetual state of loneliness, welcoming but never visited, a ghost whose friends drive by once in a while but don’t stop in.

Immediately I was back in 1997, when I first heard the hair-raising news of the mass suicide (some say murders) of 38 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, along with their remaining leader, Marshall Applewhite, in Rancho Santa Fe, California. All the more unsettling for me because nearly two decades beforehand I had had a brush with Applewhite and his late partner, Bonnie Nettles. Well, not exactly a brush: more accurately, a near miss; but it was a near-enough miss that the news gave me a curiously contaminated feeling, and made it impossible for me to simply dismiss the dead cult members as another bunch of loonies who had drunk the Kool-Aid.

The news sent me down to a cardboard box  in the basement, full of posters, flyers, notebooks, and newspaper clippings from our activist days in the 1970s, where I almost immediately laid my hands on what I was looking for: a photocopied flyer announcing a visit of “the Two” to UMass-Boston, and inviting interested people to come and meet them. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, these “Two” were Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, later to be known as “Bo and Peep” or “Do and Ti.” And as strenuously as I reject the idea that I would ever be tempted to join any kind of cult, I cannot deny that back in late 1978 or early 1979 Andrew and I were intrigued enough about the Two to make our way one night to the deserted commuter campus of UMass Boston.

Between the summers of ’78 and ’79 Andrew and I lived in New Mexico, driving out and back in Andrew’s 1951 International Harvester milk truck. In-between we took a short trip back to the Boston area, mostly to see my uncle Nandu, who was the first of either of my parents’ siblings to visit us since we had immigrated to the United States. Frustratingly, I can’t remember exactly when we took that trip, but for the purposes of this story about the Two it matters whether it was late 1978 or early 1979, and if the former, then exactly how late in the year; for it was in November of 1979 that more than 900 members of the People’s Temple committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana under the direction of leader Jim Jones. But it didn’t cross my mind, as I decided to check out the Two, that I might well have been the next recruit for a suicide cult.

UMass-Boston campus (/iamhollywood.deviantart.com)

UMass-Boston campus (/iamhollywood.deviantart.com)

Looking down at that nearly 20-year-old flyer (which I have since mislaid) back in March, 1997, I recalled what had transpired that evening: thankfully, not very much. We took the South-East Expressway from Somerville to the lonely peninsula of Columbia Point where the stark concrete campus of UMass-Boston was located. It was only after we had arrived that we realized that the flyer had not mentioned a venue for the meeting, so we found a place to park and proceeded to wander around in the dark, looking for a sign. No sign. Then we looked around the empty campus for other lost-looking souls like ourselves to approach and ask whether they too were seeking the Two. I can’t remember now whether we did and, if so, whether they were; I do know that we made our way home rather disappointed, consoling ourselves with the thought that it had been a silly idea to follow up on the flyer in the first place.

But what was the most chilling to me back in 1997 when the news first broke, and again yesterday after reading the passage in the novel (whose meaning I can’t fully contextualize until I’ve finished the book), was that rational, skeptical, educated people like Andrew and me, people who were socially engaged and had close, loving families, would nevertheless be interested enough in what we had heard of the Two that we would follow a cryptic flyer so as to hear first-hand what they had to say. They had been traveling the country speaking and recruiting, creating a bit of a buzz in the alternative and New Age youth cultures, and we had heard of them while we were out in the Southwest. Now, while we were on a short sojourn Back East, so were they. And that, it seems, was enough to draw us to them.

Other curious young people like us were not as fortunate as we were that night. Talking to our neighbor Bob that early Spring of 1997, in the aftermath of Heaven’s Gate, l learned that while Andrew and I had had a near miss, he was only one degree of separation from the tragedy. When he had read the names of the dead, he had realized with a shock of recognition that one of them had briefly been a housemate of his, back in the early 1970s. Looking up the cult on the Internet yesterday, I found that one of them—in fact, the woman who became Applewild’s nurse—had been a caring, compassionate young nursing student at UMass Amherst in 1975 when the Two had first begun their countrywide recruiting. Along with the leader himself, she was one of the last to die, as she had prepared the apple-sauce concoction that was the vehicle for their quick and painless deaths.

The lame child left behind. Artist unknown (steelthistles.blogspot.com)

The lame child left behind. Artist unknown (steelthistles.blogspot.com)

Yesterday, before I was recalled to my work in the present, I watched part of a British documentary on the Heaven’s Gate cult. In it, the film-makers interviewed surviving members of the group, some of whom had left long before they had begin planning their last fatal action, and others who had originally been part of the suicide pact. As I listened to one of them, I was put in mind of the sole-remaining child in Hamelin, the rest of whose playmates had followed the Pied Piper and never returned. His wistful words haunt Robert Browning’s poem:

‘It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can’t forget that I’m bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me.
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new;
The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
And their dogs outran our fallow deer,
And honey-bees had lost their stings,
And horses were born with eagles’ wings:
And just as I became assured
My lame foot would be speedily cured,
The music stopped and I stood still,
And found myself outside the hill,
Left alone against my will,
To go now limping as before,
And never hear of that country more!’

In case you think it is rather a leap to connect the fate of those hapless cult members with the children of the poem, read the first lines of the very next stanza (with my emphasis):

Alas, alas for Hamelin!
There came into many a burgher’s pate
A text which says that heaven’s gate
Opens to the rich at as easy rate
As the needle’s eye takes a camel in!
The mayor sent East, West, North and South,
To offer the Piper, by word of mouth
Wherever it was men’s lot to find him,
Silver and gold to his heart’s content,
If he’d only return the way he went,
And bring the children behind him.

dontdrinkWe nearly always recognize our mistakes when it is too late to correct them. While the parents and friends of those who had set their sights on Heaven’s Gate, along with most of us who read the story in the newspapers, were left as mystified as the burghers of Hamelin who had lost their children forever, I can never again distance myself from those children, who were earnest, disaffected young people not so very different from myself, seeking a better world, and only two degrees of separation away.

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239. No, It’s Not Political Incorrectness

In 1960s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, history, Media, Politics, Stories on January 7, 2014 at 12:35 am

Hepburn-breakfast-at-tiffanys

The opening scene of Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is subtle, delicate, and totally charming, with Audrey Hepburn wandering waiflike along a deserted Manhattan street in shoulder-baring Givenchy, accompanied by Henry Mancini’s romantic rendition of “Moon River.” (Did you know, by the way, that Moon River was written expressly for that movie?). I stretched out luxuriously and prepared to relax for an hour or two, escaping into the dreamworld of this American classic, which, amazingly, I’d never before watched all the way through. But America had something else in store for me: as Holly Golightly, our gamine of a heroine, gets back to her apartment building she is met, not by a handsome beau, but by a loud, shrill caricature of an ugly, buck-toothed, lascivious Japanese man. It was such a jarring shift that I stopped the movie; it had completely spoiled the mood for me.

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It has no doubt been argued in its defense that Breakfast at Tiffany’s was made more than 50 years ago. The 50th anniversary DVD of the film tries to make amends,  confronting Mickey Rooney’s racist impersonation head-on with the inclusion of the video, Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective. But this heartening fact doesn’t help me personally. The movie provides plenty of fodder for an analysis of orientalist representations of Asians, but that would be a busman’s holiday. What it doesn’t do is allow me to kick back, half-close my eyes, and be carried away. Instead I feel like Bruce Lee, as he watches the same scene in The Bruce Lee Story.

Such scenes are not limited to movies of yesteryear, but crop up with depressing regularity in movies that go on to become blockbusters. In fact, far from being aberrations, they are an integral part of the Hollywood formula. Everyone of a certain age knows of the embarrassing figure of Long Duc Dong in Sixteen Candles (1984). Is there some unwritten American movie rule that says that there has to be a ridiculously inappropriate Asian geek as a repulsive foil to the (white) American sweetheart?

When Nikhil was in elementary school, I had a similarly jarring experience, this time when a group of his friends were at our house for a sleepover. We had duly bought the requisite pizza, set up all the mattresses and folding cots, and rented a stack of movies suitable for pre-preteen boys. By popular acclaim, the evening’s choice was Happy Gilmore (1996), starring an up-and-coming young comic actor by the name of Adam Sandler. I agreed to the selection, despite its PG-13 rating (“for language and some comic sexuality,” which I felt sure would be innocuous). I had never heard of the lead actor before and sincerely wish it had stayed that way.

This movie, too, introduces the Asian caricature, this time a Chinese woman, early on, both to drive home the unredeemed crassness of the loser lead character and to serve as a foil for his pretty American girlfriend who won’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. Here’s the scene, so offensive and irredeemably crass itself that I hesitate to provide a link to it. I winced as I watched it that day, with a squirming, Dorito-munching knot of little boys stretched out on the floor in front of me, but didn’t say anything, hoping that it would go under their radar or right over their heads. Sadly, it did neither. In the car the next day as I drove the boys home they were chatting away in the back seat, and one of them said, in those bragging tones that boys assume when they’re trying to act sophisticated and worldly, “Wasn’t the scene funny in the movie last night, the one with the Chinese woman” (nod nod wink wink)? I cringed all over again, realizing that not only had they not missed it, but that in fact its brand of humor had probably been pitched at viewers of precisely their mental age. The whole source of the humor was that the Chinese woman who had thrown herself at our hero was so ugly that no one would ever desire her, yet he had not only happily used her for the night, but just as carelessly discarded her the next morning at the prospect of the all-American girl who was the true object of his desire, even as his Chinese doormat was preparing to do what Asian women are purported to do best: serve.

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Perhaps an even more disturbing scene in Happy Gilmore involves an African American. It’s been a long time since that sleepover in 1996, and I have no intention of watching the movie again, but  Chubbs Peterson, an African American former golf pro who lost his hand to an alligator, chooses to give his blessing and his special golf club to Happy Gilmore and, as if in repayment, is killed off completely gratuitously, after which Happy goes on to win the championship. For the life of me I can’t understand why so many viewers seem to find this scene funny.

The winning Hollywood archetype that Chubbs Peterson (played by football-player-turned-actor Carl Weathers) enacts is that of the Magical Negro, a black character who selflessly (and often for no apparent good reason) sacrifices him or herself to mentor and redeem a washed-up (and often utterly unworthy) white character. Once you identify this tired trope you will see it everywhere.

mr-miyagi-smiling

Still, aside from the adolescent humor of Adam Sandler and his ilk, there have been some encouraging developments in the past half-century of film. The Japanese American Gedde Watanabe playing the execrable role of Long Duc Dong was arguably some kind of advance, if a dubious one, over Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Mr. Yunioshi. But, no thanks to Sixteen Candles, 1984 was a breakthrough year for Asian American actors; it was the year when, as the character of Mr. Miyagi, Japanese American actor Pat Morita played a winning role in a Hollywood movie, The Karate Kid. Even though it was still a somewhat stereotyped role and remained a supporting one in which an elderly Asian American man mentors a callow white youth, Mr. Miyagi was a complex character, not a clown, and he paved the way for more and better roles for Asian American actors. (Unfortunately, 30 years on, their prospects are little better, and in 2010 Aly Morita, Pat Morita’s daughter, called for a boycott of the Karate Kid remake.)

Kal-Penn-John-Cho-on-New-Music-Live-October-20-2011-kal-penn-26199283-500-400

Given that one of my main goals in sitting down to watch a movie is to relax and enjoy myself, I’m not afraid to admit that I have a distinct preference for romantic comedies. While I don’t discriminate racially among my male romantic heroes, and freely confess to a fondness for the late Christopher Reeve, Colin Firth, and even Hugh Grant (in his time), I do take exception to the common practice in the U.S. of emasculating Asian American male characters. If they’re not utter buffoons, they’re nerds or geeks, and they are never romantic leads (unless they’re martial artists). That’s why I welcomed the Harold & Kumar films (Harold & Kumar go to White Castle (2004), Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), and a third, which I haven’t seen) with open arms, despite their adolescent-boy humor and silly stoner genre. Korean American John Cho and Indian American Kal Penn are intelligent, good-looking, romantic-hero material, and babes fall for them right and left. I take pleasure in this—and in them. I defy you to watch this trailer or this clip without doing the same.

In regard to my rant against Hollywood’s humor at the expense of brown and black folk, readers may wonder why I don’t just lighten up. It’s only comedy after all; why such tedious insistence on political correctness? My answer: because I watch movies to feel good, and characters like Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or the Chinese woman in Happy Gilmore completely spoil the fun.

No, it’s not political incorrectness that is the problem here: it’s bad old-fashioned racism.

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205. Weeping Willow

In 1960s, 2000s, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 27, 2013 at 12:04 am

Image

There is a tavern in the town, in the town,
And there my dear love sits him down, sits him down,
And drinks his wine ’mid laughter free,
And never, never thinks of me.

[Chorus] Fare thee well, for I must leave thee,
Do not let the parting grieve thee,
And remember that the best of friends must part, must part
Adieu, adieu, kind friends adieu, adieu, adieu,
I can no longer stay with you, stay with you,
I’ll hang my harp on a weeping willow tree,
And may the world go well with thee.
— F. J. Adams, 1891

I don’t remember having seen any weeping willows in my childhood in India, and knew of them only through There’s a Tavern in the Town, a song my mother used to sing. Although she would never have said so to us children, she was probably homesick for England when she sang these old songs. That hidden emotion and the longtime association of the weeping willow with parted lovers imbued my image of the tree with sentiment, deep, but non-specific.

It was not until we immigrated to the United States that weeping willows became a common feature of the cultivated landscape, and not until we moved out to the farm in Winchendon and started homesteading ourselves that we learned of the practical dangers of planting them anywhere near a house.  Although the tree is beautiful—one of the first to turn a delicate yellow, then green, in the early spring—and useful for preventing erosion, it craves water, and its large, thirsty roots gravitate toward septic pipes and storm drains, work their way in through cracks and crevices, and soon block them.

When my parents moved into their current house, there was a small weeping willow down in the far corner of their back field, in the lowest-lying part of their property. It was well away from the house and its roots would be likely to gravitate down and ever farther away, so they let it be. It thrived there, and now, twenty years later, it has filled out the entire corner and grown up to its full, mature height.

The weeping willow (salix babylonica) is native to northern China. Being highly desirable, it was traded along the Silk Route to south-west Asia and Europe, and has now spread worldwide. The tree at my parents’ is now so large that it can be seen from the other side of the world. Here’s how we found out:

My nephew Pinakin came to the U.S. from India for his doctoral studies. When he visited us for the first time and I was driving him over to meet my parents, he asked me excitedly if he could navigate. “You see,” he explained, “I’ve looked you all up on Google Earth.” Sure enough, Pinakin gave me flawless directions across town. When we drew up at the house, he exclaimed with satisfaction, “It’s all here: the house, the fields, and the big tree in the corner!” That weeping willow can now be spotted from India via satellite! I can’t quite describe what that made me feel: the tree that has so long been a symbol of parting and loss is now a landmark that our distant loved ones can seek out, zoom in on, and find us by.

Earlier this evening, in the gathering dusk, when I gazed on that tree clothed in its delicate Spring green, with the last rays of the setting sun lighting the adjacent clouds on fire, I thought of my mother in India half a century ago, long before the days of satellites, singing of her distant loved ones.  When I was a child, I thought that the woman in “There’s a Tavern in the Town” was singing, “I’ll hang my heart [not harp] on a weeping willow tree.” I still think that my version describes best what we have hung on that tree, that continues to seek water and light wherever it is transplanted, regardless of the human heart.

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202. Tennessee Stud

In 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, Childhood, Family, Music, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 24, 2013 at 12:16 am

docandmerle

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

In December 1970, when I was sixteen and had been in the States for less than a year, Andrew took me to the Boston Tea Party on Lansdowne Street near the Fenway. The line-up that night was the Incredible String Band (pretty, but for me at least, forgettable), Mimi Fariña, who had a lovely voice and sang Pack Up Your Sorrows (though sadly, without Richard Fariña, who had died four years earlier); and Doc Watson, with his son Merle, whose performance that night instilled in me a lifelong love of his music.

Arthel “Doc” Watson (1923-2012) would have been in his late 40s when I saw him in 1970, Born and raised in Deep Gap, North Carolina, near the border of Eastern Tennessee, he was like no other American I had ever yet met. I did not know at the time that he had been involved in the American folk music revival and had played at the Newport Folk Festival back in 1963: he seemed to me to be the down-home authentic article, uncontaminated by outside influences—although I was to learn that he was eclectic and experimental, drawing from traditional and modern folk, country, bluegrass, and blues, and even throwing in the occasional rockabilly performance. His virtuoso flat-picking was so fast that it boggled the mind, and his voice was true and clear—I could listen forever and never tire, to Deep River Blues, Shady Grove, Banks of the Ohio (performed here with Bill Monroe), and so many more.

It was on that night in 1970 when I heard him play Tennessee Stud for the first time. I was to learn later that it was his most popular song, a big crowd-pleaser. Although it clearly wasn’t one of Doc Watson’s own favorites, he seemed to be resigned to delivering to the audience what they wanted. Immediately after his first song someone yelled out, “Tennessee Stud,” and although Doc seemed a little annoyed, he eventually obliged, hamming it up just a little (I whupped her brother and I whupped her paw), and, after the last There never was a hoss like the Tennessee Stud, there was such a cacophony of heehaws you would have thought that we were in a barnyard. If there’s anything more irritating than a down-home country boy saying heehaw!, it’s a highly-educated Bostonian saying hee haw! the way he imagines a country boy would; but Doc just maintained his enigmatic expression, nodded quietly to Merle, and went on with the show.

A few years later, probably in the late 1970s, we went to see Doc and Merle Watson again, at the Paradise on Commonwealth Avenue. Again those irritating young men started calling out “Tennessee Stud” from the very outset. As if Doc didn’t have a massive repertoire and a line-up of songs ready to perform. But those who didn’t know anything else by him, knew “Tennessee Stud” from the popular album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972). (Andrew, by the way, had no patience for the song. He found it intensely irritating that these country singers all seemed to love their guns and their horses more than anything or anyone else; much more, he said, than any woman.)

The whistles, interruptions, heehaws, and yells of “Tennessee Stud!” continued. Finally Doc Watson stopped playing and addressed the crowd in stern, admonitory tones.

“Since y’all seem to want it so much, I will play the song, but on one condition: you must keep completely quiet through the whole performance. Not one heehaw, d’you hear?”

Silenced, the callow youths nodded their heads dumbly, like chastened schoolboys. Having received the desired promise, Doc was as good as his word, and he and Merle gave the crowd a rousing rendition.

I was able to see Doc Watson three or four times more, twice in the late 1980s/early 1990s with Nikhil when he was little. The first time was in Memorial Hall in Wilmington, VT, the only venue on the tour that allowed children, and was Nikhil’s very first concert. In the intermission I asked Nikhil which songs he’d like Doc to play, and we took them up to the stage on a piece of paper. Someone must have read it out to Doc or else Nikhil’s favorites were Doc’s own, because he sang every single one of them, including, as I recall, Mama Don’t ‘Low No Music Played Around Here. The second time was outdoors at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and was supposed to be Doc’s last concert before he retired. (Thankfully, he went on doing those “last concerts” for nearly 20 more years.) The line-up featured Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, not long before Bill Monroe passed away, with Doc Watson singing no more than a handful of songs. I asked Nikhil which songs he would like Doc to sing if he could choose, and he replied, “He’s in the Jailhouse Now and The Last Thing on My Mind.” I’ll be darned if Doc didn’t sing both of them!

The last time I got to see Doc Watson in concert was in November, 2006 at the Calvin Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts. A living legend at 83 years old, he took us on a musical journey back to his roots and brought down the house. No one asked for “Tennessee Stud,” but he sang it for us anyway.

Rest In Peace, Doc Watson.

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194. London, My London

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

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

London from Parliament Hill,(hampsteadheath.org.uk)

London from Parliament Hill (hampsteadheath.org.uk)

the Heath in Autumn (hampsteadheath.org.uk)

the Heath in Autumn (hampsteadheath.org.uk)

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

Queen's Crescent market (kentishtowner.co.uk)

Queen’s Crescent market (kentishtowner.co.uk)

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

The Flask, Hampstead (tigergrowl.files.wordpress.com)

The Flask, Hampstead (tigergrowl.files.wordpress.com)

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

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

Notting Hill Carnival (demotix.com)

Notting Hill Carnival (demotix.com)

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

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

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193. Kindling

In 2000s, 2010s, Books, Inter/Transnational, Media, reading, Stories, Words & phrases on April 12, 2013 at 1:16 pm
kindling (from megscoutguide.nic.in)

kindling (from megscoutguide.nic.in)

I’m speaking of the material one uses to get a wood fire going—dry twigs, thin sticks, or twists and knots of newspaper that will sustain the first, fragile, licks of flame, so that the larger pieces of wood will catch fire.  Having a supply of dry kindling on hand is essential to building a fire, whether indoors in a brick fireplace or woodstove or outdoors in a makeshift firepit.  As a verb, kindling refers to starting a fire, setting fire to something that will burn or, figuratively, arousing emotion. Etymologically, the word comes from cundel, “to set fire to,” thought to be of Scandinavian origin and related to the Old Norse kynda, also meaning “to kindle.”

How to Build a Campfire (npr.org)

How to Build a Campfire (npr.org)

There’s something very satisfying about building a good fire, setting it in the shape of a small teepee, carefully positioning the kindling so that it will get enough oxygen to catch fire and the flames are directed to the larger logs above, slipping the lit match in at the bottom, and watching it all flare up and slowly take hold. It warms your body and also kindles the cockles of your heart. Don’t forget, though, that the art of building a fire also includes the art of keeping that fire safe.

I suppose I have to mention (though I refuse to advertise) a commercial product, on the market only for a few short years (since 2007), that has appropriated this ancient word and still more primal human activity. I resent the fact that this brand of electronic reader seeks to be the object that comes to mind  when the word is mentioned. As a book-lover and former co-owner of a small letterpress business, I resent that this device even seeks to supplant the printed book, repository of human knowledge for more than a thousand years.

Amazon Kindle: Digital Book-burning (redicecreations.com)

Amazon Kindle: Digital Book Burning (redicecreations.com)

If you think that this new means of delivering information to readers will be more durable or more enviromentally sustainable, think again. “The printed book is by far the most durable and reliable backup technology we have. Printed books require no mediating device to read and thus are immune to technological obsolescence. Paper is also extremely stable, compared with, say, hard drives or even CD’s,” writes Kevin Kelly in a New York Times article on the Google Books project, digital technology, and the printed book. Librarian and cultural journalist R. H. Lossin has recently given a lecture on book-burning, Nazis, the 21st-Century digital library, and the fascinating question of why both major brands of e-reader have names that signify the act of setting something on fire. Thought-provoking, eh?

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189. Goodness Gracious Me!

In 1990s, 2000s, Books, Britain, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, Music, Stories, United States on April 8, 2013 at 12:07 am

radiocast

By the 1990s, there was a sizeable population of Asian—specifically, South Asian—origin in Britain. In 1948, needing labor power to rebuild the country after the Second World War, Britain had opened its doors to all subjects of the Empire, or former Empire. In 1962, after the economy started slowing down, immigration was restricted, and that process continued with still more restrictive legislation going into effect in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, by the 1980s and 1990s, the mostly British-born children of the post-war immigrants were making their presence felt in the culture, and the BBC Two television skit comedy series Goodness Gracious Me (1998-2001) was a hilarious and influential example. The show started out on BBC Radio 4 (1996-1998), and the television series was a huge crossover success, followed avidly by Asians and non-Asians alike.

Peter-Sellers-Peter-Sellers-And-240636

The show’s title came from a song of the same name in the Peter Sellers-Sophia Loren comedy, The Millionnairess (1960), in which Sellers, playing an Indian doctor, created a parodic Indian accent that was to become the definitive, almost the “authentic” accent required for anyone playing the part of an Indian on stage or screen, even if they were actually Indian themselves. The brilliant young ensemble cast, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir, and Nina Wadia played on this irony, parodying the parody.

Written as they were by young British Asians, the skits’ irreverent humor more-or-less equally targetted white British stereotyping of Asians, and their parents’ generation of Asian immigrants. Many of them turned the tables on British ignorance or racism (see Jonathan, Going for an English, Authentic, and the fake Guru), while others comedically reinforced the stereotypes of Asian parents (see Muslim Boy Converts to Judaism (oops, this one seems to have been removed from YouTube), Typical Asian Parents, and the skits of The Coopers (Kapoors), who try to be more English than the English). I adored the show, because there was nothing nearly as clever or sophisticated in the U.S. at the time (the South Asian population being largely made up of post-1965 immigrants and their children). Still, I winced now and then when the jokes were at the expense of the immigrant parents, since, as a 1.5 generation immigrant born and raised outside of the U.S., I identified with the parents’ generation at least as much as that of the children.

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Each member of the cast has gone on to even greater accomplishments, especially Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar, who married each other after doing the talk-show parody The Kumars at No. 42 together. Meera Syal, MBE, who played Sanjeev’s grandmother in The Kumars, has acted prolifically in theater and film as well as in television, and is the author of two novels, Anita and Me (1996, made into a BBC film, 2002) and Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee (1999, made into a BBC mini-series, 2005). Besides acting in Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars, and playing numerous film roles, Sanjeev Bhaskar, OBE, has hosted the documentary series India with Sanjeev Bhaskar, written and starred in the ITV sitcom Mumbai Calling, and most recently, stars in The Indian Doctor (BBC One).

TELEVISION GOODNESS GRACIOUS ME

My focus on Syal and Bhaskar should in no way diminish the talent of Nina Wadia and Kulvinder Ghir. Wadia is perfect in her over-the-top parodies of Indian mothers (see Competitive Mothers: Sexual Prowess) and perhaps my favorite sketch of all is Ghir’s Buddhist Pest Control Man. I can’t imagine British culture without Goodness Gracious Me. If you haven’t yet come across it, and have even the tiniest funny bone in your body, you’re in for a treat.

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