Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

504. Things are looking up

In Books, Food, reflections, seasons, Stories, Teaching on October 13, 2021 at 2:31 am

It was a horrible evening that was looking ahead inexorably to a horrible night. Grading, comments on rough drafts of student essays, and deadlines, deadlines, deadlines, as far as the eye could see. I was already sleep-deprived, and my eyes were burning and heavy with the dull pain of a bruise. They still are, but somehow, despite the long night ahead, things are looking up.

Funnily enough, it started with the stink bug in the hallway outside my office. When I stepped out to get myself a cup of tea from the thermos, there it was, looking young and sprightly, antennae waving airily. My heart sank; it was that time of year. The stink bugs were coming indoors for the winter and, with my luck, they would duly settle in amongst the books and papers in my office, one inevitably materializing on my computer keyboard during a late-night work session and strutting about as if it belonged here. I couldn’t face it, but sidestepped the issue and went down for my refill of tea. It was still there upon my return, but I shut myself into the office and huddled at my desk, insect-like, antennae well drawn in.

I should tell you that I’m starting to teach Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in my World Literature class tomorrow morning, so insects and transformation were on my mind. After a few minutes of huddling, I could distinctly feel my exoskeleton hardening. I could allow this mood to get the better of me or I could do something about it. Taking a plastic tumbler from the kitchen and a square of card stock from my office, I stepped smartly out into the hall again and in one decisive action, swept the young bug into the cup, clapped the card on top, and deposited it outside the front door. It clung to the walls of the cup when I shook it, so I left that outside too; it might need the shelter overnight.

Back in my office I thought about what might relieve this sense of unending gloom. Thankfully, I didn’t have to think long. Today on my drive home from work I had stopped in at the Petersham Country Store and picked up a fresh loaf of locally-made, multi-grain sourdough bread. An open-face Marmite-and-tomato sandwich! Five minutes later, back at my desk with the same workload ahead of me, things are looking decidedly brighter. The stink bug has been dispatched to where it belongs; so has the Marmite-and-tomato sandwich. And oh yes, I chopped a small green chili onto the hot buttered toast before adding the other ingredients.

I wonder what my students will make of The Metamorphosis tomorrow, of a man waking up on a workday morning to find that he has been transformed into an insect overnight? For my part, I feel more human already.


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501. The Small Things

In Books, Childhood, culture, Family, parenting, people, reading, reflections, Stories on August 15, 2021 at 12:36 am

Dad would read Anatole and the Cat (“Quelle horreur!) in his inimitable French accent.

It’s the small things I remember these days, but they seem to come all the more freighted with meaning. Things that might have irked me at the time are endearing now, and I long to hear them just one more time: Dad joking, when we children protest at his insistence on reading to us in a pseudo-French accent, that he can’t help it, he has been speaking like this ever since he visited gay Parree. My Uncle Ted insisting on teaching his one-year-old grandson Jon to jump with glee into muddy slush-puddles, shouting “Splash”, when his exhausted young mum has just finished washing and drying his snowsuit. Bob, beloved partner of my dear friend Cylla, teaching our five-year-old son to say “bottle” with a Cockney glottal stop (“bo’l”). Mum crying out with a pang of loss when I first pronounce an ‘r’ American-style. All of them gone now. All of them larger than life in my memory.

I remember those loved ones who are grown and gone, one in particular whose childish charms lit up my life for a spell. When being dressed for bed in a new all-in-one sleepsuit, a little toddler’s voice chirping, “ Is it one hundwed pooercent cotton?” (For once it wasn’t, and he could tell.) When it became clear, playing his first board game at age 3 or 4, that he was about to lose, I remember him sweeping all the pieces and players off the board in a fit of fury. But when, ten years later, mother and tween were playing a truth-or-dare-style board game and the youth answered a question about his mother’s maturity with ruthless honesty—”she is immature”—this adult role-model proved it by ending the game then and there in a fit of petulance. On the only occasion this indifferent cook made calzones—with two different fillings, on a real terracotta baking stone, mind you—the appreciative young teen declared that it was the best thing his mother had ever made, filling her with guilt about her distinctly unmemorable performance in the kitchen for the past 15 years. (She has never made them since.)


Memories of watching movies as a family, two in particular. The violent fight scenes, filled with stereotypically racialized bad guys, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) sending the older boy-next-door bouncing off the walls in paroxysms of manic glee; whereas our son the budding film aficionado, no older than seven, seemed hardly to notice them, commenting instead on words of wisdom uttered by the Turtles’ mentors.

Watching Amadeus (1984) at about the same time, he had to leave the room, so upset was he by Salieri’s murderous envy of the young Mozart’s virtuosity. As he put it, “I would feel happy for Mozart; why couldn’t he?”

Some of these memories are glorious, some ignominious, all of them infinitely precious. Small things, but so telling.

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490. A Continuation

In Books, Music, Politics, reflections, seasons, Stories, Words & phrases on December 31, 2020 at 8:08 pm

A continuance is a request by a party in a criminal case to reschedule a court date. The date can be for a hearing or a trial.

As the year draws to a close, at least for those who measure the passage of time by the Roman calendar, the internet is abuzz with messages bidding 2020 Good Riddance and looking eagerly to 2021 for new beginnings. For my part, I’ll be grateful for the chance of a continuation.

Of course we are desperate to draw a hard cut-off line under the ravages of the past year and celebrate the prospect of a return to life after COVID-19. Most of us realize, though, that we will never return to the old normality; which, in any case, was already unacceptable. Furthermore, metaphorically turning the page on 2020 will not end the pandemic or restore the lives, homes, and livelihoods lost to it. It will not end the endemic violence in our societies and around the world. It will not bring equality under the law regardless of race, class, or creed. It will not repair the fabric of our communities torn apart by greed, hostility, and mistrust. It will not feed hungry children, mend shattered lives, or heal broken hearts.

Those awaiting new political leadership, either in anticipation or in dread, may well find that in fact the new dispensation will not be much more than the old dressed up in a different style. (Here’s how The Who put it in Won’t Get Fooled Again and I must admit the truth in it, though I still resist the political cynicism.) There will be some movement, whether backward or forward, but either way we will just have to keep on pushing if we want to translate those new faces at the top into positive change in ordinary people’s lives.

Of course we all know that the end of one year and the beginning of the next is an arbitrary marker. Every moment of every day is a new beginning, if only the individual and the collective have the will to make it so. But new beginnings are not brought to fruition in a moment. So many people are forced to keep their lives on hold, in hostage to the whims of those in power. They are in limbo, waiting for a court hearing, a judge’s ruling, unable to make long-term plans. But the longed-for ruling, when it comes, may be a hard cut-off, a decree of immediate deportation or a sentence to lifetime imprisonment, whether literally or metaphorically. In  such cases, we may prefer a continuance to a final ruling, because it allows more time for us to work for change.

In U.S. law, when a court grants a continuance it means that the court date is temporarily suspended or postponed. When work is permitted a continuation, it means that the process underway can continue. It may not be completed, but at least it has not been terminated. There is still hope.

Progress is like that, moving in fits and starts. We continue to work as long as we can, and often a continuance is the best we can hope for. Those of us who are still here can celebrate that fact and recommit ourselves to preventing disaster capitalism from hi-jacking catastrophe yet again.

The prospect of a continuation is a positive one because it allows us more time not only to restore balance after a crisis, but to set things to rights, to set ourselves on a sustainable path, to heal divisions rather than merely to win.

In Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, three siblings whose family was broken apart and dispersed in the wake of Partition have become even further estranged over the years, by their different circumstances, their different personalities, and a series of misunderstandings and long-held grudges. When one sister, Tara, now living in the U.S. returned for a visit to her sister Bim in India, they finally began to make a breakthrough, but only when it was nearly time for them to part again. Tara begged Bim, who was ready to dismiss their precarious new understanding, to recognize that they had made progress. Said Bim, with her characteristic impatience:

‘Don’t be so silly, Tara—it was all so long ago.’

‘Yes, but’, cried Tara desperately (and with one of my favorite lines of all time):  ‘but it’s never over. Nothing’s over, ever.’

‘No,’ Bim agreed, growing gentler. . . Nothing’s over. . .Ever’.*

Tara seemed comforted to have Bim’s corroboration. . .  At least they had agreed to a continuation. *

Nothing’s over, ever; even this terrible year. And yet, as we remember Auld Lang Syne all over again, we are right to put 2020 behind us and to welcome 2021. Our struggles will not be over, not by a long shot, but we have been granted a continuation. Happy New Year!

*A confession: when discussing this passage in my book, Colonial Karma, I actually misquoted it, using the word ‘continuance’ rather than ‘continuation.’ Setting it right here, more than 15 years later, proves that it’s never too late to correct one’s mistakes.

The quote above is from Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day. Harper and Row, 1980, page 174.

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489. For Unto Us a Child is Born

In Books, Childhood, singing, Stories, storytelling on December 27, 2020 at 4:09 am

                      Paper on wood Nativity scene from 1750, Milan

It is the third day of Christmas and I have been learning to play my favorite carols on the piano, all welcoming the birth of a precious child. After 50 years in this country I still sing all the English carols (Once in Royal David’s City; The Holly and the Ivy; See Amid the Winter’s Snow) and both versions of those with different American tunes (Away in a Manger: English, American); O Little Town of Bethlehem; It Came Upon the Midnight Clear—English, American), but this year I must admit that I actually prefer a couple of the American ones. Inevitably I remember this season 36 years ago, when my husband and I brought our own dear infant child home from the hospital, just six hours old, enveloped in a large red corduroy Christmas stocking with white fur trim and just his little head with his bright eyes and shock of black hair sticking out of it. And as the carols repeat that oft-told story of the star and the angels, the shepherds, the wise men bearing gifts, and the parents, all looking with tenderness and awe upon the babe lying in a manger, I consider how Doris Lessing re-tells it in one of my very favorite novels.  

In Shikasta, Doris Lessing’s tour-de-force, Johor, benign emissary from the planet Canopus to the now-broken planet of Shikasta, notes as part of his report on “the Shikastan Situation” that the lowly inhabitants of a small, backward village celebrate an annual Ceremony of the Child, whom the monks call the Christ-Child. The story behind this long-institutionalized rite has been so often repeated that it has become garbled, and much of what it once meant has been lost. All that is left is the celebration of the birth of a special Child, welcomed with joy and accompanied by feasting and renewed promise for the  future.


However, having returned to Shikasta repeatedly over the millennia, Johor has a different perspective on the festival, now embraced by the villagers and the many tourists who flock there in season. In Johor’s account of its origins, strangers from far away had come to the village many centuries before and imparted new skills and ideals and ways of thinking to the villagers through their wondrous stories, broadening their horizons and making them dare to think that more was possible for them than they had ever dreamed of. Evening after evening, one of the visitors would lift up a child of the village and remind them that for this child—nay, for all children—the sky was the limit. All children were miracles, with boundless potential.

“And this is the point, you see, this is always the point which they must remember: that every child has the capacity to be everything. A child was a miracle, a wonder! A child held all the history of the human race, that stretched back, further than they could imagine . . .  

“Remember, remember, that after a long time, not in your time, or your children’s, or even your grandchildren’s—but it will come, this time—your labours, and your hardships, and the burden of your lives, all will be redeemed, will bear fruit, and the children of this village and of the world will become what they have it in them to be . . . remember this, remember it . . . it will be just as if men came down from that little star there, twinkling away above those dark trees, yes, that one! and suddenly filled this poor village which is so full of hardship and of trouble with good things and with hope. Remember this child here is not what he seems, is more, is everything, and holds within her, or within him, all the past and all the future—remember it.

One morning soldiers came to the village, sent by the king, who had been alerted by the monks to the strangers in the village with their dangerous talk, and the visitors quietly took their leave. But the villagers remembered the stories, and had kept their new knowledge secret until the monks incorporated the festival of the one divine Child into the officially sanctioned religion. Still,

“. . .  the ceremony never lost its roots in that visit so long ago, for there was still force enough to make the people hold stubbornly to the knowledge that they, not the monks, had been blessed, that they, not the monks, had been shown the Child.”


As I sing the beloved carols of my childhood during the Christmas season, songs of adoration for a divine being who chose to be born, to live, and to suffer in a human body, I try to think beyond the nostalgia for my own and my son’s childhood and to remember:

Every human child is a wonder. Every child is born with limitless potential. Every child is a Prince of Peace who bears the seeds of our redemption.    

What a difference this knowledge makes to the meaning of Christmas.

Image by Matt Cardy/Getty Images, in the Guardian

Quotes from Re: Colonised Planet 5: Shikasta. (Canopus in Argos: Archives, Volume 1 of 5). Alfred A. Knopf, 1979, pages 163-170.

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482. Knowledge and Right Action

In Books, culture, India, postcolonial, reading, Stories on July 26, 2020 at 6:38 pm

As a graduate student in the 1990s and for my book, Colonial Karma, I studied colonial, nationalist, and postcolonial translations of the Bhagavad-Gita into English, focusing on the problem of action at various historical moments. Starting with Charles Wilkins’ 1784 translation, but also reaching back to modern and contemporary discussions of much earlier interpretations, I must have read a score of different versions of the Gita for this project, including versions with the Sanskrit slokas and their English translations side by side; even so, I still haven’t yet done the subject justice.

Although I devoted a great deal of time and effort to this project, I must confess that I didn’t study the Gita outside of a particular literary-historical frame and set of questions I was asking of it. Even now, after so much reading, although I can comment on the competing interpretations of particular moments in the Gita that reformists, nationalists, and Sanskrit scholars of different stripes have argued over, and different ways in which various Indian English novelists have incorporated the Gita into their works, I couldn’t tell you what the Gita means to me personally. An even larger omission in my reading is the epic Mahabharata itself, a massive work in 18 sections in which the 18-chapter Gita is only Section Six. I have read abridged versions and contemporary commentaries, but it is said that one must read the Mahabharata in its entirety before one dies; and that awesome task still lies before me.

Why even consider taking on that task? The answer for me lies in the Mahabharata‘s expansive nature, full of stories within stories that digress from and return to the main plot like a baggy 19th-century novel to the power of ten; but beyond that, in the fact that its endlessly fascinating characters are all complex and flawed. Their actions are not only open to questioning, but they are consulted and questioned by contemporary Indians daily, as they face moral and ethical conflicts and dilemmas in their own lives. Dharma, or right living in tune with cosmic law, is not presented as a cut-and-dried set of rules for all time, but arrived at through reflection and struggle–in short, through the process of living. What is right in one situation may be wrong in another, or different for different people even if they are in similar situations.

It is also important to me that the epic Mahabharata is considered smriti, a “remembered” work, rather than the canonical sruti, which are the “heard” or “revealed” works. This means that the characters and conflicts are up for interpretation without subjecting one to charges of blasphemy, all too common in the current climate where religious–and political–zealots everywhere proclaim their interpretation as the only right one.


First Edition (wikipedia)

All of the above is prologue to what I really want to talk about. A year ago, my friend Dinah, whom I had previously known only from my monthly RUSH singing group,  visited us at home for the first time, and we had a lovely afternoon, singing, eating, marveling at the many connections that linked us, and discussing books. John Steinbeck came up, I forget how, but Dinah mentioned his East of Eden (1952), which had sat on my bookshelf unread for at least twenty years. There was a particular passage that she wanted us to look at, which was where the Chinese character Lee reveals that he has undertaken a study of Hebrew with Chinese sages and they engaged a rabbi in order to understand the full import of a passage in the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh), a passage that he had previously only encountered in English translation, in the King James Bible (1611) and the American Standard Version (1901). The passage is in the fourth chapter of Genesis, in which Cain is jealous of his brother Abel (and later kills him) because God has shown greater favor toward Abel’s accomplishments. In the King James version, God says,

If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. (Genesis 4:7)

The same verse in the American Standard Version reads,

If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up? and if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door: and unto thee shall be its desire, but do thou rule over it.

In Chapter 24 of East of Eden (Part 3) Lee discusses the Hebrew Bible, in which the Hebrew word timshel replaces “Thou shalt” (a prophecy) and “Do thou” (an order). Timshel is translated as “Thou mayest” (a free choice), and herein, to Lee and to Steinbeck, lies the key.

By the way, in case you are wondering what has come over me, it is important to remember that to Steinbeck, literature was not the province of priests claiming exclusive access to some divine decree, but an exploration of the real struggles of human beings, developed by human beings to serve the greatest good. In this regard it is worth reading his 1962 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, found here in its entirely.

That day Dinah planted the seed of timshel, which inspired me to read East of Eden, a mind-blowing American epic. Even before I had finished Chapter 1, Part 1, I knew why Steinbeck had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. But I won’t say anything more about it here so as not to spoil it for you.


That was last summer. But why, you may ask, is this story coming up today? A year later, I have just encountered the self-same discussion in the Indian English novelist Shashi Deshpande’s autobiography, Listen to Me (2018), which arrived on my doorstep directly from India earlier this week. For Deshpande as well as for Steinbeck, “Thou mayest” [rule over sin] is the translation that she finds the most compelling, because it offers the human being true choice. But Deshpande couches her discussion of East of Eden in the context of a larger discussion of the Bhagavad Gita, in which, in the final chapter,

Krishna tells Arjuna, ‘I have given you the knowledge, now do as you desire.’ (Yathecchasi tatha kuru, Chapter 18, sloka 3).

Deshpande comments, “To have the knowledge and then to decide what to do—there is no greater wisdom than this” (85).


In a different context about four years ago, I was discussing a personal dilemma about a possible course of action, with my friend Margaret, who said something that made a deep impression on me. “It’s clear that you can do this,” she said. “But should you?”

What an important distinction, perhaps all-important. Ultimately, the choice was mine; it was not cut-and-dried, and there was no single right answer that anyone else could dictate to me. But it was my highest responsibility as a human being to make an informed decision for myself and then to act honorably based upon that decision.

Complete and unabridged Mahabharata (Penguin, 2015)

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480. A Burning

In Books, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases, writing on July 12, 2020 at 5:51 pm

I’ve just finished reading A Burning, Indian American writer Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, which I ordered back in June, as soon as I heard about it. Although it ought to have been a quick read, I had to put it down while I met a few deadlines, and only just took it up again this morning, when I read the rest of it all at once. Now here I am, devastated; and impressed, in spite of myself.

I must admit that when I first started reading I was skeptical and prepared to find fault, which is not how I generally approach a novel. Why? Well, partly because of the book design, which featured short line lengths, large type, and short chapters, with short paragraphs separated by lots of asterisks as if it was written to be consumed by an attention-deficit public. As I began reading, it became clear that that was indeed the effect; the book was a page-turner and despite my reservations I soon began to care about the characters.

Small things still niggled, though; I took note of them even while aware that I was being ungenerous. The first was the author’s device of making Lovely, the hijra, a transgender woman and one of the three central characters, continually speak in the present or past continuous tense, as many Indian English speakers tend to do. While this trademark tense, along with Lovely’s many malaproprisms, certainly identified her in the rapid-fire chapter changes (each featuring a different character), I couldn’t help finding it jarring, and being unsure whether it was necessary, since it was so overused and clearly meant to add humor. Were we supposed to be sorry for her or laughing at her? Here’s an example, with Lovely’s own first-person narration:

“Don’t say such things, please,” I am protesting, even though I am secretly thinking that maybe he is right. My performances are always outshining. In fact, I am having the same thought myself. But I am always being humble. “I have to learn a lot more than you,” I am saying to him. (143)

Seven present continuous constructions in five sentences, short sentences at that. But I withheld judgment, and I’m glad I did.

What else grated? Well, Indian novels in English are almost always double-coded. If they use a term unfamiliar to non-Indians they follow it immediately with a descriptive phrase or word of explanation. This makes the work more easily accessible to a wider readership, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how much it is done, and whether or not it is desirable to make the readers do a little work and make sense of the word in context or (gasp) look it up in a glossary at the back of the book. This novel either double-codes every possible unfamiliar word or dispenses with it altogether and replaces it with a familiar one. Even Indian street food (at a time when “authentic” global street food is all the rage) has to be translated into terms a global audience would understand, with kadai translated as wok and fresh coriander translated as cilantro. One incidence of double-coding particularly irked me: Jivan’s harried defense lawyer visits his guru. Okay. I think that in 2020, most English-speakers know what a guru is. But this novel is taking no chances: just in case, “my guru” is followed by “my spiritual leader” (106).

The fact that one of the main characters is a hijra: did that bother me? Was I being transphobic? I confess that I mentally raised half an eyebrow when remembering that Anjum, one of the main characters in Arundhati Roy’s last novel, was also a hijra. Were they trying to cash in on the moment, especially in the Global North, or were they helping to bring marginalized voices to the fore? I remember the late Marathi writer Gauri Deshpande’s reaction to Arundhati Roy’s celebrated first novel, The God of Small Things, in which she wondered whether Roy was trying to cater to the West’s appetite for titillation by featuring not only a star-crossed inter-caste love affair and incest between twins but adding child sexual abuse for good measure. Gauri certainly did not make this charge out of political or social conservatism, since her own avant-garde novels challenged class and power inequities and included transgressions likely to simultaneously scandalize and titillate her Indian readers. Ultimately, the test would be in whether these characters were drawn with complexity and whether these elements were essential to the plot.

During the weeks A Burning had to be set aside, I found myself thinking of it from time to time. Did I want to be won over, or did I want my first impressions confirmed? I wasn’t sure. Was I being mean-spirited out of envy of this first-time novelist’s privilege? But hadn’t I been given all the same privileges? And wasn’t I often troubled by the all-too-ready dismissal by writers and critics based in India of the global successes of their fellow writers in the diaspora simply because that success was rarely extended to them, no matter how good they were?

Now that I have finished my first reading of A Burning, I recommend it heartily, despite my initial and admittedly petty reservations. It is a fine novel, fast-paced and powerful. It kept me guessing throughout, filled with hope and dread in equal measure. The three main characters are all drawn with complexity and pathos and I found myself rooting for every one of them. The outcomes for each of them were completely understandable, given their respective situations and the situation in India today; and yet, not entirely inevitable. They could have been different, if only. . .

A Burning couldn’t be more timely, and, as Majumdar herself said in a radio interview shortly after its publication:

I think there are these really close links between what’s happening in India and what’s happening in the U.S. And I hope that through this book, which, yes, is about oppression and yes, is about systems of discrimination, I hope that people also do pay attention to how the characters in this book dream and make jokes and strive even in conditions of great oppression, and I hope that feels meaningful to anybody picking up the book in the U.S.

The title, which somehow felt grammatically off to me at first, also turned out to have been just right on so many levels. Congratulations, Megha Majumdar, for a terrific first novel!

Majumdar, Megha. A Burning. Knopf, 2020. Buy it from your local independent bookseller.

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469. Return

In blogs and blogging, Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, singing, Stories, Teaching, travel, United States, Words & phrases on April 22, 2020 at 6:43 pm

This is the eighteenth 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.

Here in the United States there is a general impression that, given the choice, just about everyone in the world would want to immigrate to this country. But in fact, this is far from the truth. The experience of emigrating from the place of one’s birth is a wrenching one, and migration is never taken lightly, whether or not it is driven by choice. Even when a migrant has settled into their new home, they continue to have home- thoughts (from Robert Browning’s poem), and even a parallel phantom-life, comparable to phantom limbs felt by amputees. What Americans may not realize is how many immigrants eventually return to the countries of their birth by choice, sometimes even resulting in a net loss, with more leaving the U.S. than coming to it.

Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins (Jim Sullivan)

Let’s take Mexican immigrants, for example. It will not have escaped anyone’s attention that Donald Trump and his administration have given the impression that hordes of Mexican immigrants are overrunning the United States, threatening our livelihoods and our daughters. However, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, between 2009 and 2014 there was a net loss of 140,000 Mexicans, as fewer came to the U.S. than returned to Mexico. In its discussion of return migration, the 2015 Handbook of the Economics of International Migration reported that “until recent decades, most Mexican migrants did not settle in the US. Instead, they spent an average of six months to a year in the US per trip and made four to five such trips over a lifetime.” Ironically, they found that the harsher border enforcement in recent years has had “a significant negative effect on migrant outflows” because it “deters return migration, leading to permanent settlement among illegal immigrants from Mexico.” What I take from these studies is that, left to themselves, immigrants would come and go freely, based on need. They need to support their families but their greater desire is to be with their families. So U.S. anxiety about a Mexican “invasion,” is actually having the opposite of the desired effect, because it is no longer possible to move back and forth seasonally, as needed.

Recently I watched an interview with one of my favorite singers, Linda Ronstadt, who is Mexican American and grew up in Arizona, close to the Mexican border. She remembers a childhood of easy, fluid back-and-forthing across the border for shopping, socialization, visits with family and friends. I don’t see why it couldn’t continue to be like this if we in the U.S. would let go of our siege mentality. By the way, here she is talking about the lack of interest in Spanish recordings on the part of the U.S record industry, until she became a superstar and could prevail on them to release her Canciones de Mi Padre. Here she is singing Mexican songs with her father Gilbert Ronstadt and Mexican singing star Lola Beltran and here, a song of my Indian childhood, Perfidia, in Spanish.

Returning to return migration, a 2018 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two scholars at the University of Washington, Jonathan Azose and Adrian Raftery, used a new statistical method to estimate the global flows of migrants found that yielded higher immigration numbers, that also showed, over time, a much higher percentage of migrants than previously thought returned to their countries of origin.

Estimated global migration flows by region from 2010 to 2015. Numbers indicate millions of people (Azose and Raftery, PNAS, 2018)

Azose and Raftery . . . broke down migration rates by emigration, return migration and transit migration, in which migrants move between two countries that are not their countries of birth. In general, from 1990 to 2015, more than 60 percent of migration was emigration. Transit migration never topped 9 percent. Return migration accounted for 26 to 31 percent of migrants, more than twice the rate of other migration estimates. That high rate of return migration added up over time. From 1990 to 2015, approximately 45 percent of migrants ultimately returned to their home countries. (Urton, UWashington News)

Focusing their results on migration between the United States and Mexico from 2010-2015, they found that during that period 2-1 million people migrated from Mexico to the United States, but 1.3 million returned from the U.S. to Mexico.

Americans may similarly assume that the flow of immigrants to the U.S. has historically been a one-way movement. However, Immigrants Who Returned Home: You Can Go Home Again, a short but informative essay by genealogist Donna Przecha shows that the real story has always been more complex, with immigrants moving back and forth, and a substantial number return permanently. She lists eight major reasons for return, whether temporary or permanent, and significantly, notes that women tended to have less reason to return than men did, since they found they enjoyed a greater degree of freedom in the United States. I can attest to the fact that many immigrants or children of immigrants I know maintain dual citizenship if they can, and flow back and forth as often as they can afford to do so.

During the recent era of rapid transnational networks and globalization, it seemed more likely that this two-way flow would only accelerate with time. However, from the current vantage point of the coronavirus lockdown, our families and ancestral homes across the oceans seem very far away indeed, and we wonder when we will be able to make the pilgrimage again.

There is another kind of return that I must mention, though I hesitate to do so, and that is the forced return or deportation of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, something that ICE, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, is prosecuting aggressively, both at the border and in cities and towns across the country. In 2019 alone, according to their own statistics, ICE deported (“removed”) more than 267,000 people. The coronavirus lockdown has not slowed their activities; deportation flights are continuing from detention facilities, risking the spread of coronavirus to countries like Haiti and Guatemala that are ill-equipped to handle an outbreak.

Here are some prominent artists, writers, and activists who have been deported from the United States over the years: Charlie Chaplin, C.L.R. James, Marcus Garvey, Emma Goldman, Claudia Jones, and Mohamad Mustafa Ali Masfaka; and two well-known figures who fought deportation and won: Dennis Brutus and John Lennon.

To close with some highly recommended reading, here are two novels that address the issue of return or being returned: Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, and The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai.

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466. Originals and Adaptations

In 1990s, 2000s, blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, Media, postcolonial, Stories, storytelling, United States on April 18, 2020 at 7:16 pm

This is the fifteenth 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.

Originals and Adaptations.

There was a while in the 1990s and early 2000s when it seemed that every other book was a contemporary rewriting of another book and every film either an adaptation of a book or a remake of an earlier film. Whether or not this was a new phenomenon, it was something everyone seemed to be talking about and, increasingly, a cause for concern. It was as if we were afraid that we’d run out of things to say, and that all we could do was to recycle old stories in new guises.

There was Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel, The Hours, each of whose three interwoven subplots engaged differently with Virginia Woolf’s brilliant 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway. One imaginatively follows the struggle of the author herself, another explores the inner emptiness of a 1949 version of Clarissa Dalloway, and a third focuses on a New York woman’s party preparations in the 1990s for a friend dying of AIDS. The Hours was wildly successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and later being made into a 2002 Oscar -winning film, starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep. (Incidentally, Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite novels of all time and happens to be a favorite of readers in coronavirus quarantine.)

Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (2001), billed as an “unauthorized parody” of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 blockbuster novel, Gone with the Wind, challenged the powerful myth of a pre-civil-war good life among Southern white people, and got into legal trouble with Mitchell’s estate. Unfortunately, although the novel importantly addressed matters that were regularly swept under the rug (in this case the mixed-race children born of white slaveholders’ unwelcome dalliances with black women), the rewrite was unable to challenge the seductive nostalgia of the self-justifying original.

Aladdin was criticised for its Orientalist stereotypes of the Middle East and Asia (Credit: Alamy)

Disney’s blockbuster, Aladdin (1992), was a heavily Disneyfied cartoon adaptation of that oft-retold Arabian Nights tale. I must confess that I refused to watch it on principle, much as I adore Robin Williams, who did the voiceover for the genie, because of the Orientalist stereotyping in the movie’s representations and song lyrics. Sophia Smith Galer, on Dr. Jack Shaheen’s successful campaign to change some of them, noted “The original lyric in the first verse of the song “Arabian Nights” described Arabia as [a place where] ‘Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.’” This was changed; however, many of the crude stereotypes remained.

A well-known 1990s example of a contemporary movie based on a classic novel is Clueless, the 1995 remake of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, Emma, set in the wealthy city of Beverly Hills, bordering Los Angeles and Hollywood  instead of among the landed gentry in the countryside around London, and spoiled, self-involved valley girl Cher (Alicia Silverstone) playing the Emma character. It’s not clear whether the audience of the movie were spurred to read the novel, or even how many of them made the link between the two. However, viewers of Clueless do make the link to Autumn DeWilde’s Emma (2020), yet another more direct movie adaptation of Austen’s beloved novel (which—another confession–my mother presented to me when I was about ten, but I didn’t actually read until I was well into adulthood).

Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) was just one of numerous film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel going all the way back to James Whale’s 1931 sci fi horror film. Branagh’s adaptation, also a horror film, made much of its faithfulness to Shelley’s plot, just as he signaled in the title itself. And this is the point I want to make here regarding the relationship of an adaptation to the original. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein protested too much, anxious to bill itself as closer to the original than many of its predecessors, and indeed it was, at least, as far as the plot went. But the overall effect was merely gruesome. Consequently, I don’t remember much of the film except for the blood and gothic horror of some of the scenes featuring Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth.

In different ways, both the theorists Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard point to a post-modern nostalgia in late twentieth-century works that signal the “loss of the real,” that is, the lost ability to distinguish between the real and the reality-effect, or simulation. Hence Branagh’s anxiety to point to his film as authentic because of its faithfulness to the original. I don’t know if either Jameson or Baudrillard would have said this, but I wonder if our need to link fictional works to the authors’ actual lives, as in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, or the effort to make an adaptation “relevant” by setting it in the present moment, also bespeak this anxious need for “authenticity”?

Postmodern works are particularly known for the self-reflexive “metacommentary”, that is, their tendency to dramatize and draw attention to what they are trying to do, instead of just doing it. The 2002  Adaptation was the epitome of this genre, a “meta-film” that drew attention to the anxiety of adaptation, with one brother writing an adaptation of a novel while the other brother is working on an original screenplay.

Back in the 1990s I was decidedly old-school. Having been raised amidst books and hardly having seen any film or television until I came to the U.S. as a teenager, I was a snob about literature, the literary, and the value of originals over adaptations. I never ceased to be horrified whenever my students hailed Disney’s Jungle Book as a classic, whereas I winced every time I heard Baloo the bear mispronounced. Had they never heard of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and All the Mowgli Stories? I would ask in scandalized tones, remembering my father lovingly reading them to us at bedtime. But they hadn’t, and their warm fuzzy feelings were routinely reserved for films that made me shudder.

However, the times have changed and so have I. Now I believe that a well-made film adaptation of a novel can actually improve on the original (case in point,  director Mira Nair’s film of The Namesake over Jhumpa Lahiri’s original novel of the same name). I also argue against the very idea of an original. For example, can we ever reach back to an original of the much-travelled, much-translated Arabian Nights, which has always been a compilation of disparate tales, loosely connected by a frame story? Even my beloved Jungle Book—how authentic could it be, springing out of the nostalgic imagination of an Englishman full of contradictions, desperate to recover the beloved India of his childhood but known for his jingoistic nationalism and justification of British colonial rule? Nowadays I suspend my judgement a little and just set out to enjoy the novel or film. Whether it is faithful to a supposedly authentic original is no longer so much of an issue for me; I’m more interested in how and why it speaks to me now, in this moment.

Of course, as an immigrant and a postcolonial critic I’m attentive to whose story a given work tells and from what perspective, and how the different characters are represented. Postcolonial literature is known for challenging dominant elite and colonialist representations and for privileging the voices and stories of the marginalized.

If Baudrillard and other critics were warning us of the Loss of the Real in the late twentieth century, the manufacture and marketing of fake news on social media today has taken it to the nth degree. The press briefing is the reality show, with avid fans following the conversation on Twitter after the show. In this post-truth era, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the powerful are telling the truth, as long as what they say confirms the pre-existing beliefs of their target audience (confirmation bias).

In the current COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is so terrible that it is certainly understandable why one might want to deny or soften it, but unfortunately things will get a lot worse if it is not faced-head-on. Nowadays references to originals and adaptations are returning to earlier outbreaks and pandemics, such as the yellow fever outbreaks in Louisiana that kept recurring in the mid-19th Century; or the global flu pandemic in 1918, that followed hard upon the (First) World War and killed at least 50 million people worldwide; or, much closer to the present, how some countries have responded more effectively than others. Returning to these old stories is valuable if it teaches us how to avoid the mistakes of the past. Whether or not COVID-19 is like other coronaviruses or entirely different from them is for the scientists to determine. It doesn’t matter much whether it’s an original or an adaptation; what matters is how we respond to the crisis, how we learn from the experience, and how we protect the most vulnerable among us.

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463. Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment

In Books, Britain, Family, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, poetry, reading, reflections, Stories, United States, writing on April 15, 2020 at 1:51 pm

This is the twelfth 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.

Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment.


Loch Lomond, looking south from Ben Lomond (Wikimedia Commons)

For migrants, longing comes with the territory. Many migrants—especially women—did not choose to leave a place they loved, where they themselves were known and loved, and where many of their nearest and dearest still live; it is only natural, then, that they would yearn for home and for those they left behind. At the same time, they must love and protect those who migrated with them and who may be particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of everyday life. Finally, they have a duty to themselves, to allow themselves to live in the present, to open themselves to the possibility of love flowering anew.

In the 1990s, after not having traveled much in the 1980s, I took three or four short trips to England, one for an NEH summer seminar that allowed me to stay in London for the better part of a summer with Andrew and Nikhil joining me for a month, and one long trip to India, where Andrew, Nikhil (then 8 years old) and I stayed with family for nearly six months while I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation. These visits allowed me to renew my connections with the beloved people and places of my own childhood and of my family, which, in an important sense, helped me maintain my equilibrium back in the United States. By the mid-1990s I had lived in the U.S. for 25 years. Was it still not home for me, and if not, was I living too much in the past?

                             Early-morning view of Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling

So many expressions of love are outpourings of longing. Langian, the old English word for ‘long’, means to grow long, prolong, and also to ‘dwell in thought’. It is also related to the German langen, ‘reach, extend.’ Immigrants in particular, unless they choose to burn their bridges completely, to cut themselves off surgically from their past lives, are particularly susceptible to this complex and persistent emotion. But if you think about it, many if not most of the most moving poems and songs of love are in fact songs of longing or loss. Kālidās’s Meghadūta, or Cloud-Messenger, comes to mind, a lyric poem written in the 4th-5th century CE in which a yaksha (nature-spirit) in exile for a year asks a passing cloud to convey a message to his wife. In song, think of The Water is Wide, Loch Lomond or Danny Boy. In fact, songs that celebrate love fulfilled are few and far between. The Beatles’ And I Love Her is a beautiful expression of love realized in the present. John Prine’s The Glory of True Love springs to mind, too, mostly because it is so uncharacteristic of the rest of his love songs.

Hampstead Heath, North London

My mother never stopped longing for her family and home, even though she lived away from them for nearly 65 years. In her late seventies, just as, unbeknownst to us, Alzheimer’s Disease was beginning to attack her mind, Mum joined a group called The Power of Now, after the book by Eckhart Tolle. In it she struggled with the idea of living in the Now and ceasing to dwell in and on the past. She argued with the group and with herself, asking how she could and why she should let go of what was, in her view, the very best of herself. Sadly, the fog of Alzheimer’s descended soon afterwards, progressively robbing her of her precious memories. However, even when she could hardly talk, evidence of her continued love for her family in England would still surface from time to time, and her remaining sister and brother in turn continued to express their love for her, calling to talk to her on the phone every week, even when she could no longer reply.

I have just started participating  remotely, via Zoom, in a daily mindfulness meditation session with John Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). As he says, we only are alive in this one moment, now”, and mindfulness practice trains us to make our default refuge our awareness in and of the now. Like most people’s, my mind has the habit of dwelling everywhere but here, and I am reaching gratefully for this gift of being fully present in the moment as one of the unexpected silver linings of this terrible pandemic. (This does not mean, though, that we censor or condemn our mind when it we find it reaching across time and space; just that we observe it, and bring it back here, to this breath.)

I want to close this reflection with a quote from the late, great Toni Morrison’s perfect novel, Beloved, which I have just finished teaching. In the penultimate chapter, Paul D, who came back into the protagonist Sethe’s life after an absence of two decades, left again, and now re-returns to find her in mourning for the lost ghost of her dead daughter. He attempts to comfort her, but Sethe is disconsolate, saying, “She was my best thing.” Gently, tenderly, and without any judgement, Paul D responds.

     “Sethe,” he says. “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”

     He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” His holding fingers are holding hers.

     “Me? Me?”

As immigrants, as human beings, we owe it to those we love who are here with us now, to give ourselves to them in the present. More importantly, we owe it to ourselves to live fully in the here and now. We are, each of us, our own best thing.

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453. Bangladesh

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, India, postcolonial, Stories, United States on April 2, 2020 at 11:48 pm

This is the second 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.


We had been in the United States for little more than a year when the news from the subcontinent started to get dire. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League had won the regional elections in East Pakistan (as it was called in 1947 after the British Partition of India), previously Eastern Bengal (after the British Partition of Bengal in 1905), previously still part of an undivided Bengal, but the Pakistani military ruler General Yahya Khan had refused to recognize the results of the election. Instead, he launched Operation Searchlight, a brutal military campaign of mass killings and rape designed to crush the resistance and resolve of the people of East Pakistan, a campaign that many, including the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared to be a genocide. The Awami League’s popular movement for recognition and then for autonomy had turned into a full-fledged war of independence as West Pakistan refused to acquiesce to any of its demands, and on March 26th, 1971, it declared its independence from Pakistan and a nine-month war of liberation ensued.

Bengalis fleeing for a safe refuge. PHOTO: (Mark Godfret/Muktijuddho e-Archive)

By the summer of 1971, millions of Bangladeshis had fled from the East into neighboring India,, which had been forced to set up dozens of makeshift refugee camps. Rape was deliberately used as major weapon of the war, and West Pakistani troops were under orders to rape Bangladeshi women. It is estimated that more than 200,000 women were held in rape camps by the West Pakistani army. On December 3rd India stepped into the conflict and fought a short and decisive war, forcing the West Pakistani Army to surrender in Dhaka on December 16th, 1971, which today is celebrated in Bangladesh as Bijoy Dibas, or Victory Day.

But why does the bloody formation of Bangladesh loom large in the year after my immigration to the United States? For three main reasons: as preoccupied as I was with my own teenage concerns: my boyfriend, graduation from high school and the imminent start of university, a growing feminist consciousness sparked by the women’s liberation movement, and the movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam, I was also aware that a war was raging in my part of the world, among people who spoke the same language as our Indian state of West Bengal, but that no one in the United States seemed to know or care. As the situation grew to crisis proportions, an even more disturbing truth emerged: the United States was supporting West Pakistan, building up its military and entirely complicit in the genocidal war. Why? For strategic Cold War purposes, to strengthen Pakistan’s hand and, through Pakistan, to build a diplomatic relationship with the People’s Republic of China. And then there was the Concert for Bangladesh.

Ravi Shankar, the internationally renowned sitar player under whom George Harrison had studied and who had famously performed at both the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California and the 1969 Woodstock music festival in upstate New York, approached George Harrison for his help in raising awareness of and funds for the refugee crisis in Bengal, where there were some 10 million refugees from the terror of Operation Searchlight. George, who had not played in public since the Beatles had broken up, galvanized into action, called in favors from friends, and in a matter of weeks, put on the first-ever big fundraising rock concert on August 1st, 1971, with a star-studded line-up including Ravi Shankar and sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, George Harrison himself and Ringo Starr, formerly of the Beatles, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. A three-album boxed set was released just on December 20th, 1971, and I’m pretty sure it was my big Christmas present that year. I have it to this day, its outer box battered and well-used, but the vinyl discs inside still scratch-free.

To tell you the truth, the only three tracks I listen to again and again on that album are Ravi Shankar’s heartbreakingly beautiful Bangla Dhun, George Harrison’s call for empathy with Bangladesh (and though I could not feel the pain I knew I had to try), and his moving rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The Concert for Bangladesh made Ravi Shankar the only artist to have performed at every one of the big three rock festivals. The clueless crowd cheered rapturously after the Indian musicians had finished their tuning, to which Ravi Shankar famously quipped, barely hiding his annoyance, “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the music more.” When I listen to old interviews and recordings now, I can never help cringing at what seems to me to be a willful mispronunciation of Ravi Shankar’s name, global superstar as he was, when there was no excuse not to know better. None of the musicians save George, few among the crowds who bought the records or cheered wildly through the tuning at the concert, knew or cared about Bangladesh; it was only George and his rock-star friends they wanted. But as Ravi Shankar noted, at least by the end of the concert they recognized the name.

As I was starting to write this piece, I remembered that I still had the October 31st, 1971 issue of the New York Times Magazine, with its cover story about Bangladesh and what became an iconic cover that I had kept all these years, but had somehow never read. Amazingly, I was able to lay my hands on it in pretty short order, and there was the cover photograph, of a young Bangladeshi woman in a refugee camp nursing her baby, that was and remains so painful to look at that it felt, still feels like a violation; in fact, a second violation when the viewer knew from the evening news that this young woman was a rape survivor, her baby born of repeated acts of war upon her body. Here she was blown up, mass-produced, and exposed to the American gaze, as she had been to the perpetrators of Operation Searchlight before it. And this was the country that had systematically built up the Pakistani military for its own strategic purposes ever since Independence in 1947, precipitating between the two neighbors so recently one country, a devastating arms race which still shows no signs of abating.

I read the cover story, by none other than the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, close friend of John F. Kennedy, and his Ambassador to India (see what he writes about the U.S. role in the military build-up between India and Pakistan). It is necessary here to recall the role of then-President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Bangladesh war, discussed in The Genocide the U.S. Can’t Remember, But Bangladesh Can’t Forget. Nixon had supported Pakistan throughout Operation Searchlight, in the midst of a world outcry and against all advice, even from his own appointees. After Nixon left office ignominiously in the wake of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, the notorious White House tapes that had revealed his guilt also revealed  a conversation between him and Kissinger at the time of the Concert for Bangladesh. In Unholy Alliances: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Bangladesh Genocide, journalist Pankaj Mishra describes Nixon shrugging off the mounting criticism of Pakistan’s military operation and the humanitarian concerns for the Bangladeshi refugees that were being inspired by the concert and by Ted Kennedy’s visit to the refugee camps in India as follows: “Biafra [the civil war in Nigeria] stirred up a few Catholics, … But you know, I think Biafra stirred people up more than Pakistan, because Pakistan, they’re just a bunch of brown goddamn Muslims.”

In contrast to the crude racism of Nixon and Kissinger, the piece of writing that has moved me the most about the Bangladesh war was a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri that captures poignantly the feelings shared by South Asians in the U.S. at that time. Funnily enough, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” my favorite story in Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1999 collection, Interpreter of Maladies, is set at Halloween in 1971, the exact publication date of the New York Times Magazine I have kept all these years. It is narrated by a girl much younger than I was at the time, but old enough to sense that her Indian Bengali immigrant parents bond closely with their Bangladeshi dinner guest, Mr. Pirzada, who is a visiting professor stranded in Boston while his wife and family are in the midst of the violence unspooling in his country. Timidly joking, he says to his Indian hosts, “Another refugee, I’m afraid, on Indian territory.” Every night the narrator’s parents and Mr. Pirzada are glued to the television, anxiously waiting for news of home, a place which nobody in their neighborhood or in her school knows or cares of. While carefree Americans roam the neighborhood in the dark wearing menacing masks, Mr. Pirzada’s helpless fear for his family back home comes out in his concern for the little girl’s safety among the trick-or-treaters, and she in turn feels protective of him. Everything in that gem of a story is understated, but as a 16-year-old I shared the same tender feelings for Bangladesh, the other half of the Bengal I had grown up in, and followed it whenever it was on the news, keenly aware that most Americans didn’t know or care to know its name.

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