Josna Rege

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405. Not So Grinchy

In Books, Childhood, Food, Music, seasons on November 27, 2017 at 1:10 am

Perversely, I’ve rather prided myself on being a Grinch at Christmastime. The adult I, that is; as a child I loved the whole season, from St. Nicholas’ Day to Twelfth Night, when the tree came down and we stopped singing carols: the anticipation, list-making, decorations, card-counting, opening each new window of the battered Advent Calendar, carol-singing (Good King Wenceslas with Dad roaring “Bring me flesh and bring me wine”), Mum’s sausage rolls and shortbread on Christmas Eve, waking up before dawn on Christmas morning, the  tree (magically decorated overnight), the specially embroidered (by Mum) pillowcases that were our stockings with whole walnuts and tangerines (rarities in India in those days) down at the bottom. It was Mum who made Christmas, though Dad was her willing helper, Mum who maintained a childlike delight in it and passed on that delight to us. I kept up her Christmas spirit, or tried to, throughout Nikhil’s childhood; but in recent years, now that he and his generation have grown and gone and all seasons are the same to dear Mum, it has become more and more of a strain, and I find myself wishing, with hardly any feeling of guilt, that I could just take off on my own and hide away until it’s all over.

Nowadays, as the frenzy of the season gets underway, I resist it actively. Some of that resistance comes from sheer hatred of shopping and consumerism; some of it from sheer busyness: with end-of-semester grades due a couple of days after Christmas and my biggest annual conferences just after New Year, it is an extremely hectic time for me; and I can’t deny that some of it is down to a mildly depressive frame of mind in which I question the point of it all—Christmas, that is, not life itself.  Nevertheless I persist, trying, albeit in small ways, to quiet the cynic within and quicken instead a sense of wonder.

This year had been no exception. I resolutely shut my eyes to the holiday hype that began even before Halloween. Then, after Thanksgiving as always, came the weirdly-named Black Friday, the day the Christmas shopping season officially begins, and one on which I usually observe the buy-nothing rule. This year, for once, I did venture out, with Andrew for support against the feared onslaught of Black Friday shoppers; but it was all very low-key (though admittedly we didn’t stake out a spot in line at midnight or darken the doors of any big-box stores), and I surprised myself by not only not hating it, but actually beginning to feel downright cheery.

We made a beeline for our favorite thrift store, the Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home, all done up for Christmas. I browsed at a leisurely pace, picking up a hundred things, putting down 95 of them, and coming home with a handful of treasures—nothing especially valuable, but little things that made me smile, like a soap dish for the olive-and-argan-oil soap that our old friend Tamara brought us back from Crete. The place was crackling with Christmas cheer, with a retinue of volunteers carrying in large, colorful gift boxes reminiscent of scenes from A Christmas Carol after Scrooge’s transformation.

We kicked it up a notch and went into the discount store, T.J. Maxx. Andrew was tasked with checking out their supply of Christmas crackers, but we rejected them all in the end because of the miserable quality of their prizes; still, we did find one thing we needed there, and emerged unscathed into the bargain.

Trader Joe’s was our last port of call—just for food, nothing more. It wasn’t particularly crowded but there too the atmosphere was electric, with everyone wreathed in smiles, scents of fir, rosemary, and pine, piping hot coffee on the go, and the shelves groaning with spiced cider, specialty cheeses, and boxes upon boxes of chocolates and pannetone. Despite my innate Grinchiness, I was moved. Not to buy anything, you understand; that would have been an unrealistic transformation. But I came home with a spring in my step, put the soap in the new dish and washed Mum’s new baby-blue flannel sheets with snowmen on them.

Come to think of it, the season had actually begun in earnest the previous week with my favorite church bazaar, always the weekend before Thanksgiving, where in the past I have been known to find most of my Christmas presents (which pleases me, but not necessarily my hapless victims). This year I picked up only a few little bits and bobs (as my Auntie Angy would say), but the big find was at the jams, jellies and pickles table, where I bought a small jar of shimmering violet jelly and a larger one of pear mincemeat with nuts and rum from a courtly old gentleman who told me that the violets were from his garden and advised me on how to make the mince tarts. He had just sold his last jar of Madras eggplant pickle or I would surely have borne that home as well.

Now it’s nose to the grindstone until classes are over and final grades are in. But now I am committed to washing my face and making mince tarts with custard. You’ll be seeing no transformation (to quote Fagin) but I can think I can report with some confidence that the plans for stealing Christmas are officially off. It’s beginning to look a little less Grinchy.

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402. Land Where Our Fathers Died

In Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, parenting, people, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 31, 2017 at 4:27 am

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second short-story collection, opens with an epigraph by Nathaniel Hawthorne that also provides its title:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.  (from The Custom-House, introduction to The Scarlet Letter)

Like Hawthorne’s children, I had a different birthplace from that of my father, and my son, in turn, had a different birthplace from mine. Do I feel that, as a result, I was raised in richer, more generative soil? I was born in my mother’s city and country, but we didn’t stay there long. For much but not all of my childhood I was raised in my father’s country, though far from the red earth of his coastal home. By the time I was coming of age we had landed on a third continent, far across the the sea and home to neither of my parents, where I was forced to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth. As a result, I will constitutionally and forever question settled concepts of home, country, and belonging.

While I reject the notion that blood and soil (Blut und Boden, that hateful Nazi slogan), race and place, have some sort of mystical unity, I know from personal experience that for some people, place is much more important than for others—that while they may be able to live anywhere (for humans are almost infinitely adaptable) they can only come fully alive in the place where they were born and raised. For them that place will always and forever be home. Some lose their minds, lose their way, even end their own lives. Do we then look at them as failed transplants, as Salman Rushdie describes some of the characters in The Satanic Verses? Should they never have been wrenched from their native soil?

But then, look at Ellis, the protagonist of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. When she emigrates from Ireland to the United States, she is forced to leave everything that was familiar to her. There is a long, lonely period of adjustment; but then she works for independence and education, finds love, begins to make the unfamiliar familiar, to put down new roots. Returning “home”, she finds that everything is easy in some respects, seductively, romantically comfortable; yet the growth she has achieved in unaccustomed earth has developed parts of herself that ultimately mean more to her.

One must return to “blood and soil,” the sickening chant of the Nazis and White Supremacists as they marched with flaming torches through the street of Charlottesville, Virginia just three short weeks ago. Why was it so chilling? These men—they were overwhelmingly male—had come together to claim that they, the self-defined “White Race”, belonged to the soil of this country as Blacks did not, as Jews did not, as immigrants would never do; and that they were fully prepared to shed blood defending this soil against racially alien intruders. This country was theirs, they snarled, in a way that it could never be mine, that as far as their children’s fortunes lay within their control, they would strike their roots deeper into their own native soil.

I’m with Hawthorne: that soil is played out; and so is that hate-filled song. Yes, we must be prepared to fight to preserve our sacred Earth, but in this century all earth must be unaccustomed. While I hold an abiding affection for the two places on earth that nurtured my dear parents, I myself am a cosmopolitan, even though at times the word sticks a little on my tongue. I want to belong to a place, but I do not. When I see the people forced from their homes by the flooding in Texas and Louisiana, my heart goes out to them, but then I read of the death and displacement caused by the flooding, not just in Mumbai, home to many members of my family, but also throughout South Asia, including Bangladesh and Nepal, and my heart breaks its bounds again. I cannot feel for one people to the exclusion of all the others.

Commuters walking through waterlogged streets, Mumbai (Reuters)

Where does this leave me? A global citizen, facing potentially catastrophic climate change in uncertain times with my fellow earthlings. I’m grateful to my father for having showed me, at a young age and by his example, how to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth; this radical unbelonging is the condition of our age, and it is a condition that will better prepare us, not to soak the depleted soil with yet more blood, but to come together with others for our mutual survival, and that of our planet.

CODA
I once heard it said that one did not feel a sense of belonging to a place until one’s fathers had died there. Well, now my own beloved father has died here in the United States, and though I can scarcely say how I feel, it’s not exactly belonging, but rather, a renewed sense of responsibility to a place that we all must share. Here’s how another revered ancestor, Pete Seeger, put it:

To My Old Brown Earth

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry. 

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine

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399. East of What?

In Books, Music, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories on May 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Illuminated Meridian Line (Royal Museums Greenwich)

People’s faces sometimes register impatience when I insist on putting the terms “East” and “West” in quotation marks. Okay, I see them thinking, we get it: you’re flagging them as fictions, or as intellectual shorthand, but there’s no need to be pedantic; everyone knows what they stand for.

Do they really? What is it then, that the West stands for? Liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry? As Anthony Appiah points out, these ideals are certainly not exclusive to Western civilization, and in any case the “West,” however it is defined, has spectacularly failed as a beacon of such enlightened principles.

What about the East? The late Edward Said argued that the East, or “Orient,” through the impressive body of 18th-19th-century Orientalist scholarship,  has been created as Europe’s Other, serving to justify and facilitate the ends of Empire. In European colonial thought, the East stands for everything that the West is not. Where the West has enlightened leaders, the East has “Oriental despots”; where the Westerner is active (manly), rational and capable of exercising self-control, the Easterner is passive and effeminate, superstitious, and sensual; where Western systems of governance are a model for the world, Eastern governments, without Western oversight and tutelage, cannot help becoming mired in corruption and intrigue. In a 1998 documentary by the Media Education Foundation, On Orientalism, Said and MEF founder Sut Jhally discuss these stereotypes and the purposes they serve.

How are East and West defined? During the era of European colonialism, the West was Europe and the East stretched from the Persian Gulf all the way to East Asia including everything in-between. During the Cold War, the West referred to the capitalist world: the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, while the East referred to the communist Soviet Union and its satellite states east of the Berlin Wall. Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the West refers, as far as I can tell, to capitalist democracies that are allies of the United States (and populated primarily by white people). Despite being in the Far East and the Southern Hemisphere to boot, Australia is considered part of the West; so is Israel, though it is located squarely in the Middle East; while democracies in Africa, South America, Asia, or the Caribbean will never be admitted to the club.

Where is the East? East of What? Well, the dividing line between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres is Longitude 0º, or the Prime Meridian. Here it is on a map:

The National Geographic Society helpfully reminds us that the prime meridian is arbitrary, meaning it could be chosen to be anywhere. However, it is no accident that the Prime Meridian runs right through Greenwich, England, which is also the center of world time. It won Longitude 0º in 1884 at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., by a vote of 22 to 1, with one No vote—Santa Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) and two abstentions—France and Brazil. Why was it chosen? Because Britain, with its far-flung empire, was then the reigning global superpower, and so it was able to claim centrality.

Ask yourself what the function of the East-West divide is in the 21st Century. Why divide the world up based on an arbitrary line that makes neither geographical nor philosophical sense? Why lump together all the diverse societies and cultures that fall into one or the other categories under a simplistic and patently false set of stereotypes?

The answer is pure, naked Power. The East-West divide serves the interests of power. That’s my view—biased, no doubt, but informed. Verify my claim if you like: start paying careful attention to where, how, and by whom you see the two terms employed and decide for yourself. But until I am persuaded otherwise, I will continue to put “East” and “West” in quotation marks.

Let me close with “The Funky Western Civilization” (a 1978 song by Tonio K from his album, Life in the Foodchain), that I danced and sang along to gleefully in my twenties, loving the irony. You can listen to it here and read the lyrics here. The Funky Western Civilization is a dance, and this is how you do it:

Grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there. . .

Oh get down
Get funky
Get Western
(Own up to it boys and girls)
And if you try real hard
Maybe you can even get
Civilized . . .

As Mahatma Gandhi famously quipped when asked what he thought of Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.”

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394. Scattergram, Spring 2017

In Books, Music, Politics, Stories, Teaching, United States, Words & phrases on January 14, 2017 at 4:33 am
Robert Rauschenberg, Scattergram

Rauschenberg, “Scattergram”

My Spring teaching semester begins right after Martin Luther King Day, with the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States (there, I said itfollowing hard on its heels. As I find myself struggling to bring order to my mental landscape, the word scattergram comes, unbidden, to mind.

scattergram would require me to map my wayward thoughts in relation to something fixed. But rather than being plotted between two axes, representing dependent or independent variables, everything appears to be in total disarray. Nothing can be held steady, allowing other variables to be plotted in relation to it. Even scattered is too controlled—splattered, more like it.

No matter, I must posit order; let the horizontal axis be calendar time, the vertical, hours per day or hours per week. There looms a 15-week semester moving inexorably onward into May, with four courses (3 different preparations) running—galloping—concurrently, three of them twice a week each, the fourth, blessedly, only once. Here they are, with their attendant syllabi and lesson plans and work schedules, their assignments and office hours, their grading, grading, grading. Subject matter is another diagram altogether, but of course it will color the whole experience, mine and my students’, in and out of the classroom.

shoppingThe courses will inevitably overlap with each other. Concepts of freedom and unfreedom frame my two first-year composition courses, with a focus on incarceration in the United States, mass imprisonment of black Americans, black men in particular, disenfranchising them all over again: The New Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander describes and amply demonstrates. The ideas in these two courses can be further illuminated through the lenses of the third, contemporary theory. To Jean Beaudrillard, U.S. society is itself carceral, though Americans will do almost anything to avoid facing this fact, with “truth” becoming a non-issue in the age of the hyperreal, when media images no longer need to correspond to any underlying reality. 

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Michel Foucault’s genealogies of prisons and punishment trace the advent of “corrections” and the rise of all-seeing surveillance, epitomized by the panopticonStuart Hall, author of Policing the Crisisredefines “black” and unites in resistance the diverse new ethnicities of contemporary Britain. The fourth course, my weekly Special Topics seminar, after dragging us, bedraggled and grief-benumbed, through the wake of terror, helps us come to some kind of healing through art—and through humanity, I hope, bedeviled though we are.

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Sure, we’re scattered, shattered, shell-shocked, mud-bespattered. But we’d best take heart, bestir ourselves and coalesce, soldiering on through the blighted landscape, casting a smattering of light upon these benighted post-truth times. 

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Come Together

from occupy.com (Abramsky)

from occupy.com (Abramsky)

 Belay there, me hearties! Let’s Work Together.

(And why have I just used so many words with the prefix “be-“? Begorrah, I cannot say.)

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388. It Wants To Be Found

In Books, Media, Music, Politics, reading, Words & phrases on August 17, 2016 at 2:17 am

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Happiness is a warm gun (bang, bang, shoot, shoot)/Happiness is a warm gun, mama
When I hold you in my arms/And I feel my finger on your trigger
I know nobody can do me no harm
—The Beatles

When I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as a child, the scene that most disturbed me was the diminutive hero Bilbo’s underground encounter with the etiolated Gollum, in which he found the Ring and got away by outwitting (cheating, actually) his opponent in a game of riddles. From then on, Bilbo kept the Ring and he kept it a secret, using it to make himself invisible whenever expedient, and thereby sealing his reputation as a brilliant little burglar. It was clear to me that Bilbo’s behavior, though justifiable, was not altogether ethical, and I even felt sorry for the light-deprived, near-translucent Gollum, left all alone in the underground tunnels without his “Precious.”

Gollum’s hissing to himself, “What has it got in its pocketses, my Preciousssss?” filled me with a terrible fascination, followed by the chilling realization that it wasn’t his own precious Self he was referring to, but the possession he had come to prize more than his own soul. In fact, his “Precious” was precisely what was in Bilbo’s pockets.

But the most terrifying realization came in the later Ring Trilogy, when it became clear that the possession of the One Ring had not only turned the benign Sméagol—once a harmless hobbit himself—into the slinking, sniveling, cringing, cadaverous Gollum, but threatened to do the same to anyone who held onto it for any length of time. How did it do this? It made its possessor feel powerful and it made him feel safe, especially when slipped on his finger, cloaking him in invisibility. But in fact, the feeling of safety conjured up by the Ring in his pocket was entirely false.

Here, in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf warns Frodo of the Ring’s active desire to be reunited with its true master.

You must remember, Frodo, the ring is trying to get back to its master…. it wants to be found.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo had found himself continually fiddling with the Ring while it was in his pocket, and on occasion it even seemed to slip itself onto his finger. The same thing happened to his nephew Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. The Ring actually compelled its wearer to slip it on, thereby making him, far from invisible, hyper-visible to the Dark Lord; far from a powerful agent, it made him an instrument of another’s evil designs.

*****

Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also pull the finger.
                                                                      —Leonard Berkowitz

It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” goes the ubiquitous anti-gun-control slogan. But what Leonard Berkowitz, the late, eminent professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin, Madison, found was precisely the opposite: the mere presence of guns in a given space excited and incited greater aggression. It came to be known as the weapons effect. The proximity of a trigger made a person want to pull it. Like the possessor of the Ring of Power, far from making him safer, it exposed both him and others to much greater danger. He became hyper-visible, because having a gun—in some studies, just seeing one—made him want to shoot it.

Guns do kill people, because, as with the Ring of Power, being in the presence of their terrible power evokes the desire to wield it. Sadly, one may not realize until too late that one is not the possessor, but the possessed. Efforts to conceal the weapon will be futile, because it wants to be found.

*****

Let’s not just leave things here, ascribing intent to the instrument but leaving its lord and master unnamed.

In the aftermath of the December, 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, there was plenty of talk of the deranged shooter and the need to prevent the sale of guns to the mentally ill. What was almost never mentioned was the curious fact that Newtown, Connecticut is also the headquarters of the NSSF, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, just three miles away from the elementary school. The NSSF is a non-profit organization, the trade association for the firearms industry and its foremost lobbying group, in recent years outspending even the NRA, the National Rifle Association.

NSSF Logo

The NSSF’s mission is “to promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports.” But its logo, with green deer, pine trees, and hunters with protective earmuffs, and its accompanying slogan: Promote · Protect · Preserve, suggest something very different from a trade association, more like an environmental conservation association. What purports to promote gun safety simply promotes more guns; as another of its slogans puts it more starkly: Always shooting for more. (See the Gun Violence Archive for more information on gun-related incidents in the U.S., including mass shootings.)

The NSSF runs and publicizes shooting ranges all over the country. Its website has a handy-dandy feature that allows you to find the range closest to you. Adam Lanza’s mother, a gun enthusiast herself, had taken him and his brother to one of these shooting ranges, where he learned how to wield the weapons he later took from her hoard to shoot and kill her and 26 others, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The New Republic ran an article soon after the shooting that made the link between the NSSF and the Sandy Hook mass shooting. However, it disavowed any suggestion of causation, that the presence of the NSSF headquarters in Newtown had anything to do with the young man’s shooting spree. Instead, it merely noted that there was “a certain tragic irony to it.”

It seems to me that this link underscores the illusory nature of the sense of safety conferred by the possession of a weapon. The NSSF claims to be all about safety: teaching people to use weapons safely at shooting ranges, even running youth programs that promote the responsible use of firearms. But what happened in the very belly of the beast? A mother took her son to one of these shooting ranges, and he made full use of his training, right in the backyard of the outfit that promotes them. What was touted in the name of safety and protection was in fact the very instrument of death and destruction, both for the de-ranged young shooter and for his innocent victims. As Gandalf noted: “The Ring is always trying to get back to its master”. To know its true nature, we would do well to track the smoking gun back to its source (bang, bang, shoot, shoot).

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365. Kindred

In blogs and blogging, Books, Britain, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, Words & phrases on April 14, 2016 at 8:35 pm

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  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

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K

 

There are those conversations with cousins and aunts during which you realize that not just your features, but your quirks, as well as those of your parents, are theirs too. My Auntie Angy, married to my maternal Uncle Len, used to joke with my husband and my cousins’ spouses, that they were the A-Team—united by a crime they didn’t commit and forced to live with members of the Sharp family. Thank goodness for the long-suffering A-team in every family that tempers and balances the eccentricities of the other side!

UnknownSharp by name and sharp by nature: that’s my mother’s family. They have a way with words, both spoken and written, do everything quickly (quick-witted, quick-tempered, quick to take offense), but are fiercely loyal to those they love. They are also just plain fierce. It can be infuriating to encounter this fierceness on your own; but when, commiserating with siblings and cousins you realize that, a) you have the same traits yourself and b) you’re all in it together, you gain a new understanding and tolerance for the behavior, and it even becomes endearing—well, sometimes and to some extent. You are all kindred, and that is so comforting.

Now, Reges, my father’s family, are another kettle of fish (Pomfret/pamflet, if you want to get specific). They are contradictory characters, artistic and free-thinking, yet set in their ways; gregarious and hospitable, yet solitary, even shy; high-performing but wracked by self-doubt; stoic on the outside, but nursing anxieties and worries to which they will never admit (or is that myself I’m thinking of?). Getting together with Rege cousins to share stories about our respective parents allows us to see how many of the traits that baffle us about our beloved seniors are shared among all their siblings. On a recent, rare visit from India, my cousin Vidya instructed my father—lovingly, but in no uncertain terms—to listen to his elder daughter. She knows: she too is an elder daughter, and her father is just two years my father’s junior. I can’t tell you how supported she made me feel.

It is a truism that you can’t choose your family. This is another wonderful thing about kindred. This lack of choice means that your family contains all sorts, including people whom you might never have got to know, or even meet, unless you were related. This is good for your soul.

Then there are the kindred spirits. You’re not related at all—not by blood. But as soon as you meet you find yourself completely at ease. There is no need to explain; everything you do, everything you say, is understood and accepted immediately. And you can trust them to the ends of the earth.

Kindred-octavia-e-butler-124291_408_600 The late Octavia Butler wrote a novel called Kindred. If you haven’t read it yet you’re in for a treat. Her protagonist Dana (interestingly close to DNA) has kindred of both kinds: those whom she wouldn’t go anywhere near if she weren’t related to them, but for whom she must risk her life because she is. (Sorry, that’s a convoluted sentence, but as they say about fraught relationships on Facebook, it’s complicated.) These kindred force her to recognize that she has to know them to know herself, however difficult that is for her. To her dismay she finds that, even as she hates the things they do, she continues to care for them. Thankfully, Dana has the other kind of kindred in her life as well: the kindred spirit whose love and integrity she finds that she need never have doubted.

I am lucky to have both kinds of kindred in my life. All of them, but all of them, bring me joy.

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356. Bookshops

In Books, reading, Stories on April 2, 2016 at 12:04 pm

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Theme:
Bringing Me Joy

FullSizeRenderOne of the doors to the beloved Black Sheep Deli in Amherst has a puzzling sign on it: BOOKSHOP. Only those who have lived in town more than twenty years know why. In those days the Black Sheep Deli was half the size it is now, and the long, narrow back room which now houses the stage was the home of Albion Books. I remember entering its mystic portal when I had just started my graduate studies, poring over the ponderous Theory titles and then diving into the novels in sweet relief. When Albion closed it felt like the end of an era. Atticus Books from New Haven set up shop in a large storefront just opposite and bought up Albion’s stock; softening the blow for us by calling itself Atticus Albion—at first, anyway. Soon it was just Atticus Books; now it is the fine, independent Amherst Books.

UnknownAs recently as seven years ago, there were seven bookshops (and six libraries to boot) in our little town, catering to our many students, professors, and avid readers, book lovers all. Now Amherst Books is the only one remaining. The Jeffery Amherst Bookshop, with its well-stocked college annex and its magical children’s section, closed its doors in 2009 after 31 years. Food for Thought Books, a worker-owned collective, lasted long enough to celebrate its 37th anniversary, but in 2014, despite the best efforts of the community, it too gave up the ghost.

Valley Books Amherst, MAOne of my favorites was Valley Books, a second-hand bookshop. Paying them a visit on my days off was a treasure hunt every time, as I ducked in and navigated down the book-lined alleys with shelves stacked up to the ceiling on either hand, always some impossible delight waiting to be discovered around the next corner. Eventually, in 2009, Valley Books closed too, after 34 years, because like all the others it couldn’t compete with the online book market. At least for its proprietor there was a reasonably happy ending, since he simply continued his business online. I bought two of the bookcases and, in memory of Valley Books, keep the signs on the shelves for the categories that used to be assembled there.

valleybooksbookcase

In neighboring Hadley, in a big old barn down an ill-marked driveway, one can find Grey Matter and Troubadour Books, two outfits sharing the space and together offering about a million second-hand books—a million—with a rich, dynamic, inventory that is a treasure trove for collectors. These two are bucking the trend of physical bookshops giving way to online behemoths by having started out as online businesses, but deciding to touch down with a physical presence as well.

troubadour

All these shops: Amherst, Grey Matter, Troubadour, and the legendary Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, our neighbor to the south, host readings and book launches, and do what they can to support local writers. Stepping in, one enters a hallowed space. The proprietors wisely leave one alone to disappear down one of the aisles, not to re-emerge, blinking and tousled, for a long, long time. There may be a nod of the head between proprietor and customer, the acknowledgement of a kindred spirit, perhaps a limited, book-related exchange of words; but mostly, there is the recognition that this book-hunting is a solitary pleasure and the seeker must be given space and time to indulge in it in his or her own, idiosyncratic way.

amherstbooks

Amherst Books

I almost forgot: the Bookshed at the Amherst town dump—uh, transfer station. When students graduate and leave town, professors retire, and Amherst readers do their Spring cleaning, they bring boxes upon boxes to the Book Shed, where they are shelved and sorted by category. There is even a table outside where the townspeople eagerly snatch up the new arrivals. Saturdays are its busiest day, and, when I have time, I join my father-in-law on his weekly outing there. I try to keep to my vow to take home no more than I bring in with me, and sometimes succeed. It’s almost miraculous the number of times I seem to have found exactly what I needed there.

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Bookshops, you will have gathered, bring me joy. It goes without saying that books do as well; that would be like saying that life itself brings me joy.

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349. A Chair for My Mother

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

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

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

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

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345. Reaganomics 101

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

Poor People’s March, 1968 (democraticunderground.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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342. Inscriptions

In Books, Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, India, parenting, reading, Stories, Words & phrases, writing on September 6, 2015 at 4:11 pm

My father has trained us to inscribe every book we present him, and if we forget, he never hesitates to instruct us—insistentlyIMG_2830 —to do so. As a result, I too am in the habit of writing a personal inscription in every book intended as a gift, one that I hope the recipient will keep, treasure, and re-read.

It saddens me when I find books left at the Book Shed (aka our town dump) with their flyleaves intimately inscribed by grandparents or (ex-) lovers. I myself would find it exceedingly hard to part with such a book. Perhaps this is part of the reason why inscriptions are becoming a lost art: our throwaway culture demands an unmarked commodity that can be discarded or resold more readily, without leaving a trace of its past.

Here are a few of the inscriptions in my books, books all the more beloved for them. Each one takes me back to a time and a place and reminds me of the giver, what it meant to him or her and what s/he hoped that it might mean to me.

In A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, sent to Kharagpur, West Bengal, India from England (by sea mail via Suez, no doubt):

Sent to India from England (sea mail via Suez, no doubt)

In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women:

endpapers, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women

endpapers, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

bearing the inscription:

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And in this book, at my request, an inscription to Nikhil, from the late great Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand, written at his home in Khandala, Maharashtra.

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Did I say that book inscriptions were becoming a lost art? Some of the most beautiful ones I’ve found today have been written by Nikhil and members of his generation. Theirs are inscribed in my heart and I am reluctant to wear them on my sleeve.

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