Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Britain’ Category

441. Mere Customers

In Britain, Politics, Teaching, travel, United States, Words & phrases, Work on September 21, 2019 at 6:49 pm

My first-year students have been reading and writing about citizenship, considering definitions that broaden the notion beyond a strictly legal one. I’ve been pleased that even when students have not previously encountered the idea of being a citizen of communities both smaller and larger than the nation, they have welcomed it. Recognizing that many residents of a given community are not voting members, most of them feel that they should nonetheless be considered citizens if they are active participants in it. They particularly like definitions that include working for the common good or for equal access to amenities for all the residents of a community, whether it is a college campus, a city, or a nation. And they love the definition of citizenship as a sense of belonging. But one thing almost all of them have reacted against is the narrowing of the definition of citizenship to the bottom line, reducing citizens with hard-won, inalienable rights to mere consumers or cash cows, where shopping (famously advocated by President Bush Jr. as national service after the September 11th attacks) and paying taxes mark the extent to which they can exercise those precious rights.

Toronto Transit Commission

Of all the articles and videoclips I posted on the course website, the students have cited two in particular. They were both Tedx talks, the first, Redefining Citizenship (2011) by David Miller, former mayor of Toronto, and the second, Modern Citizenship (2012), delivered in Sydney by Tim Soutphommasane, who was to serve as Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner from 2013-2018. I haven’t looked closely at their record of service when they held their respective offices and neither had my students, but they were taken with what Mayor Miller said about why he chose to emigrate from the United States to live and work in Canada: “because of our shared values. . . we judge our society by how well we treat those with the least, not by how many millionnaires we create.” Torontonians, he said, “wanted to live in a city that was marked by social justice…where no one was left behind.” To illustrate this he talked about the rapid-transit network collectively fought for and built by the citizens that served all the city’s neighborhoods, not just the wealthy ones.

Commissioner Soutphommasane, who immigrated to Australia as a toddler with his Laotian parents, sought to define citizenship by including all Australia’s ethnicities in its cultural identity, and not just superficially. Having grown up in Cabramatta, a suburb of Sydney that is home to its Southeast Asian community, Soutphommasane asserts that promoting it as a food and holiday destination, as amply illustrated in this Destination NSW site, is not meaningful inclusion. The site presents Cabramatta as a “delicious day trip” with a market “revered for Vietnamese food and other Asian cuisines,” but this is Soutphommasane’s case in point. The community remains an “enticing,” “exotic” destination where the (white) Australian visitor might want to do something daring like signing up for a food tour, but it is not described as an integral part of the country, whose citizens bring to the table cultural, moral, and philosophical perspectives that could transform Australian society for the better.

Forgive me, I have digressed; aging academics often forget that they are not in the classroom and get locked tediously into lecture mode. Where was I? Oh yes; what I really wanted to say was something that I noticed for the first time (albeit belatedly) when I was traveling to a conference in England last week: whether I was on British Airways, which was in the midst of a pilots’ strike (or “industrial action” as BA quaintly called it) or British Rail, which I used to travel up north from London and back, there were no longer any passengers, only “customers.”

I know why, of course: over the past 20 years these modes of transportation in the U.K. have become thoroughly privatized, and their services are no longer to be seen as a public good, but rather as products that the user “chooses” to purchase. No longer did I have that warm fuzzy feeling of belonging, that of a returning citizen whose well-being is the country’s raison d’être, but rather, as one of my students put it in her critical reading response, a mere product of commodification.

I see that the British Airways pilots have called off their next projected strike day, citing a period of reflection before the dispute “escalates further and irreparable damage is done to the brand.” On the day I traveled to England, British Airways apologized profusely for any inconvenience to their customers. Because I tend to support striking workers on principle and in any case, think it’s generally unwise to have disgruntled pilots bearing your life aloft, I tried hard not to be a disgruntled customer. But I’m sorry, for me, “customer” just doesn’t have a ring to it. As a customer, you get what you pay for, if you’re lucky; and you only have the right to demand decent service if you’ve paid top dollar—or pound.

I stubbornly persist in demanding more of citizenship, more than being a mere customer demanding services in return for payment. At its core, citizenship is membership in a community, as I see it, one that is collectively created and maintained by all its members. Like my students, I want to have a real sense of belonging, not just a responsibility to shop.

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423. P is for Passport

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Family, history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 20, 2019 at 7:02 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter P is for Passport.

Although my family had been on the move since I was six months old, it was not until I was nearly seventeen, little more than a year after we had immigrated to the United States, that I needed to apply for a passport, since I was taking my first international trip alone. Before then, as a minor, I had travelled on my mother’s British passport. Because I had not yet lived in the U.S. for the five years required to apply for naturalized citizenship, my first passport was a British one. (I learned too late that I would have been eligible to apply for both a British and an Indian passport at that point, and have always regretted that I didn’t.)

my first passport

My father became a naturalized U.S. citizen as soon as he possibly could, because the security of his job depended on it, but my mother kept renewing her British passport for the rest of her life. First she swore that she wouldn’t become a citizen while there was a Republican President in office, then, while there was a Democrat in the White House, she kept missing the window of opportunity to apply—accidentally or on purpose, I never quite knew.

Although for centuries, depending on whose domain they wished to enter, world travelers have had to obtain letters granting them safe passage, the passport as we know it is barely a hundred years old. None of those millions of immigrants from various parts of Europe who travelled by ship across the Atlantic in the late 19th Century had a passport. They were simply held for a time while they were processed and then let loose in the new land. According to the American Immigration Council,

Until the late 19th century, there was very little federal regulation of immigration—there were virtually no laws to break. A growing, increasingly industrialized nation needed workers, and immigration was “encouraged and virtually unfettered.” Immigrants would simply arrive at ports of entry (such as Ellis Island) where they were inspected and allowed into the country …The vast majority of people who arrived at a port of entry were allowed to enter; the Immigration Service excluded only 1 percent of the 25 million immigrants from Europe who arrived at Ellis Island between 1880 and World War I.

Of course, there were categories of people who were excluded from the U.S. even then, because they had contagious diseases, were insane, illiterate, criminal, or political radicals. But many people simply lied about their status and were allowed in. Racially based exclusion was much more rigidly enforced, starting with the exclusion of Chinese immigrants after 1882 and extending to almost all Asians after 1924.

(Courtesy Library of Congress)

As Guilia Pines tells us in The Contentious History of the Passport, it was not until 1920, in the aftermath of the First World War that the League of Nations began talking about the idea of an international passport system. From the outset, it was designed to give freedom of movement to some people, and to control and restrict the free movement of others. Cooked up by a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world, the passport was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others. Pines further reveals that critics of the 1920 League of Nations  resolution argued that the purpose of the proposed passport system was “less about creating a more democratic society of world travelers than it was about control, even within a country’s own borders.” And so it proved to be.

Even today, most people in the world have never held a passport. Either they do not have the wherewithal to travel abroad, or they lack the motivation to do so. If one’s family has never moved out of the country in which one was born, unless there are powerful “push” factors at work, such as unemployment, starvation, persecution, or war, it is unlikely that one will attempt to do so either. In the United States very few people held passports until very recently; most Americans didn’t feel the need or the desire to do so. In 1990, only 4% of Americans held passports—an astonishingly low figure; in 2007, only 27%; but by 2017, that percentage had risen to 42 percent. The principal reason for the increase was the change in U.S. law, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, requiring a passport for travel to Mexico, Canada, South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. In Britain, 76% of the population holds a passport. Perhaps this is partly because Britain is such a small island that the British would get stir-crazy without going abroad.

You never miss your water till your well runs dry. You take it for granted if you have never had any trouble obtaining or renewing a passport. But in this world of heavily policed borders, if you have no travel documents at all, you are a refugee or a stateless person; and that is a terrifying condition. The Refugee Convention of 1951 and the Stateless Convention of 1954 gave refugees and stateless persons the right to a Convention Travel Document (named after the Conventions that granted this right) in their State of lawful stay. Nevertheless, it is estimated that only 20% of refugees worldwide have access to Convention Travel Documents. And although stateless people have the same right to such documents as do refugees, while 73 States now issue ICAO-compliant Convention Travel Documents to refugees, only 30 States issue such documents to stateless persons. If a person has no such documentation, they cannot travel outside their country for any reason, even temporarily, whether for work, reuniting with their family, education, or even life-saving medical treatment. This forces them to attempt to do so illegally and puts them at the mercy of human traffickers and smugglers.

Guilia Pines closes her article on the history and politics of the passport by bringing us to the present moment: “As other nations join the new U.S. administration in toying with the idea of closed borders, it is worth meditating once again on the passport’s essential arbitrariness.” We can do so by reminding ourselves how relatively new the concept of the passport is, and how restrictive. The value of Free Trade—free movement of goods and services, free passage across international borders for corporate entities—is continually being touted; but the same people who promote it refuse to consider the free movement of human beings in this world of ours.

Imagine there’s no countriesTo end on a Utopian note, the World Government of World Citizens issues a World Passport. Citing Article 2 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to which “no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs,” they argue that the passport and visa system violates this clause:

Being exclusive political units, all nations collude in the frontier system, i.e., the division of the planet into separate political units. At the same time, they all agree through the United Nations Charter to “observe and respect fundamental human rights.” Through the national passport and visa system imposed on the world citizenry they deny and thus violate their pledged confirmation of human rights.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, tells us that there are 25.4 million refugees, 3.1 million asylum seekers, and 10 million stateless people in the world today. But if you are eligible for a passport and can afford to apply for one, you are a fortunate person indeed, and I strongly recommend doing so and renewing it promptly before it expires. Why restrict your mobility if you can help it?

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421. N is for Nationalists and Nationalisms

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, poetry, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 18, 2019 at 10:17 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today the letter N stands for nationalists and nationalisms.

Nationalists are walking contradictions; I speak from experience as a recovering nationalist myself. Nationalists believe that their nation’s identity is pure and ancient; but nationalist ideology is mongrel and modern. Nationalists believe that they are united in a warm security blanket of belonging; but their cozy togetherness is predicated on the unbelonging of others. Nationalists believe that their ideas and values make them unique; but nationalisms all have a family resemblance: one is very like another.

Bharat Mata (Mother India)

Of course, there are different brands of nationalism: anti-colonial nationalism and imperial nationalism, for example, two halves of the same coin, for one would not exist without the other. Then there’s inclusive and exclusive nationalism. The former welcomes all sorts in under its big tent, emphasizing common ground, while the latter defines its boundaries more strictly and goes for purity rather than pluralism. And as for the purists, there are the big three: linguistic, racial, and religious nationalism.

I forgot about cultural nationalisms; we literary types specialize in them. Writers imagine nations, fire up readers with romantic, righteous wrath, and then fan the flames of nationalist zeal.

A funny thing about nationalists; they each believe that their nation is unquestionably superior to all others. And if they are religious nationalists, then they are doubly in the right, since God is on their side. What happens, by the way, when two armies of religious nationalists duke it out? Is God two-timing them? Are they each appealing to a different God? Or are they both dead wrong? They’re likely to end up dead anyway, because nationalism is a hawkish ideology, and nationalists make good cannon fodder because they will walk willingly into the crossfire—for the good of the Nation.


Nationalism is an abstract idea, but it gives its followers a warm fuzzy feeling; that’s because the Nation always figures itself as a family. There’s the Motherland, whose children fight to the death to preserve her honor; or the Fatherland, whose grim-faced children goose-step in defense of his domain. Except for the black sheep, the traitors, who must be held up as an object lesson to others, lest they get any ideas. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Make no mistake, nationalism is a patriarchal affair, even if it does put its mother figures on a pedestal.

Nationalists are deeply ambivalent creatures, yet they will fight you to the death to prove that
they are loyal to a fault. Back in the 1970s, the Scottish political theorist Tom Nairn called nationalism “the modern Janus” because it looked both forward and backward like that Roman god of beginnings, endings, and transitions who is usually depicted as having two faces looking opposite ways, one toward the future and the other toward the past. So nationalism is both a progressive and a regressive force. That is probably why, however ardent a believer one might be most of the time, one is bound to have periodic paroxysms of doubt, when the dearly beloved nation inspires and incites periodic orgies of bloodletting.

New immigrants must prove their loyalty, and of course the ultimate sacrifice is to lay down their very lives for their new nation. It’s only natural that immigrants will have love for their country of origin as well as their newly adopted home. But nations are jealous gods, and from time to time they demand that their subjects undergo a trial by fire to prove their loyalty.

Speaking of trials by fire,  many Americans are unaware of how many immigrants are serving in the U.S. armed forces—in 2015 there were 65,000, or about five percent of all active-duty personnel (An Unheralded Contribution, 5). Just three days ago I read of the bereaved husband of a U.S soldier killed in action in Afghanistan who was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported to Mexico, leaving his 12-year-old American-born daughter alone in Phoenix, Arizona. It was only after media coverage of the case that he was allowed to re-enter the United States and rejoin his daughter. He has no criminal record. “After his wife was killed in Afghanistan, [he] was granted what is known as parole in place, which allows immigrants in the country illegally to remain in the U.S. without the threat of deportation” (U.S. deports spouse of fallen soldier). ICE went ahead and deported him anyway.

One of the saddest things I have read recently is the granting of posthumous citizenship to noncitizens killed in combat. As of 2016, “more than 100 noncitizens have been granted posthumous citizenship after dying in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Veterans for New Americans Factsheet). They made the ultimate sacrifice to prove their loyalty to their adoptive nation. But their reward came too late for them to enjoy it.

In 1917, while the poet and WWI soldier Wilfred Owen was recovering from shell-shock in a psychiatric hospital, he wrote the poem Dulce et Decorum Est. Owen was returned to the front when he was deemed well enough, only to be killed exactly a week before the end of the war at the tender age of twenty-five. Dulce et Decorum Est, which recalls in nightmare the ghastly victim of a gas attack, was published posthumously. The Latin phrase by the Roman poet Horace that is completed at the end of the poem translates as: “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”

Below is the last stanza, and here, the whole poem.


If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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419. Three Ks: Kamala Markandaya, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Kamila Shamsie

In blogs and blogging, Books, Britain, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, reading, Stories, Words & phrases, writing on April 15, 2019 at 4:29 am

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Arriving at the letter K, I refuse even to utter the name of, let alone consider naming a blog post after the abhorrent white supremacist organization that thrusts itself forward rudely, seeking my attention. The only three Ks that come to mind are names of world writers who are themselves migrants, whose works have migrated, and who—among other things, for they cannot be pigeon-holed—have explored the experiences of people displaced or marginalized in a changing world: Kamala Markandaya, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Kamila Shamsie.

Kamala Markandaya was the pen name of Kamala Purnaiya Taylor (1924-2004), a novelist and journalist who was active in the Indian independence movement and then moved to England in 1948, after Independence. She published 10 novels between 1954 and her death in 2004 (with one additional work discovered and published posthumously). However, she is remembered by her very first novel, Nectar in a Sieve (1954), an international best-seller and probably the best-known and most widely-taught work of Indian literature outside of India until Salman Rushdie came along in 1982 with Midnight’s Children.

Sadly, the rest of Markandaya’s writing career was a casualty of Nectar in a Sieve’s success. Global publishers and readers alike wanted more of its desperately poor, stereotypically fatalistic peasants, eternal victims (note the representations of Rukmani, the Indian heroine, on the covers of 1956 and 1982 U.S. mass-market paperback editions of the novel); but Markandaya’s subject matter did not oblige. In Feminize Your Canon: Kamala Markandaya, Emma Garman discusses the currency of her 1972 novel, The Nowhere Man, set in the 1968 of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. But it was a flop; it wasn’t exotically Indian, and the English weren’t ready for Indian colonial subjects to tell them what was wrong with their country.

I taught Nectar in a Sieve once or twice while I was in graduate school. But I was enamored of Midnight’s Children by then. Nectar was already old-fashioned to me, and I can’t teach novels if I have too many reservations about them. I did read Markandaya’s second novel, Some Inner Fury, and her fourth, Possession (A.S. Byatt, your Booker Prize-winning title was already taken), but there my familiarity with her work ends. Such was Markandaya’s fate. After that early success, she lived a quiet life in England, out of the limelight; but despite sickness, despite being lost in literary oblivion, as Manu S. Pillai discusses, she kept on writing. Eleven novels, not counting her early stories and her journalism; nothing to sneeze at.

Coincidentally, Kamala Markandaya was born in 1924, the same year as my father, and travelled to England in 1948, the very same year he did. I must seek out The Nowhere Man, belatedly, and return to Nectar In a Sieve with fresh eyes. Perhaps in the nativist climate of post-Brexit England Markandaya’s work will receive belated recognition.

(photo: David Levene for the Observer)

While Kamala Markandaya was my father’s contemporary, Kazuo Ishiguro (b. 1954) is mine. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, of Japanese parents, who moved with him to England when he was 5 years old. To date he is the author of seven novels and one short-story collection, as well as some screenplays. He won the Booker Prize in 1989 for his third novel, the quietly devastating masterpiece, The Remains of the Day; and, in 2017, the Nobel Prize for Literature (here’s his Nobel lecture). I jumped for joy when I heard the news, since I was teaching The Remains of the Day at the time. Apparently Ishiguro himself, unassuming as he was, thought at first that it was a hoax.

The Nobel Committee said of Ishiguro that: “in novels of great emotional force, [he] has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” I confess that although I have almost all of his novels in my possession, I have only read The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go: knock-outs, both. Why I haven’t yet read them all is inexplicable; but in the last year of his life my father read, one after the other, just about all of Ishiguro’s works, including his most recent, The Buried Giant.

If you’ve read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro, you’ve probably read The Remains of the Day, so anything I say about itis likely to be redundant. But if you’ve read P.G. Wodehouse, and know, or think you know, the consummate Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman through his character Jeeves, then check out Ishiguro’s Stevens, and see what you think of his inner life. As Salman Rushdie said, of the novel, contrasting it to the Downton Abbey genre, The Remains of the Day, in its quiet, almost stealthy way, demolishes the value system of the whole upstairs-downstairs world. You may know the 1993 Merchant-Ivory film production starring Anthony Hopkins as Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton. I must confess that I fell asleep during the movie, but the novel I was riveted to throughout.

Kamila Shamsie (b. 1973) is the youngest of my three K’s, born in 1973, nearly two decades after Ishiguro (and me). Born in Karachi, Pakistan, educated in Pakistan and the United States, and now living in London, Shamsie has already published seven novels and one book of non-fiction. She has worked to uphold the rights of free speech for writers at risk and has contributed to Refugee Tales II, in which poets and novelists  interview and retell the stories of asylum-seekers in Britain being held in indefinite detention. In November, 2018 she delivered the 2018 Orwell Lecture, Unbecoming British: Citizenship, Migration and the Transformation of Rights into Privileges.It is well worth watching in its entirety.

It was with Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel Burnt Shadows that I fell in love with her work. It is a novel of epic scope that starts out in Nagasaki just before the dropping of the atomic bomb, travels to India on the eve of Partition, to Pakistan in the 1980s during the period when the United States was providing covert aid to Afghan resistance fighters (or mujahideen) against the Soviets, to a training camp in Afghanistan, and to New York City in 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. How it links them all together is brilliant and beautiful.

Shamsie’s latest novel, Home Fire (2016), has become her most highly acclaimed. Home Fire is a contemporary reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone, but also an almost-prescient story that seems to anticipate the rise of British Asian Conservative MP Sajid Javid to the position of British Home Minister and, most recently, his controversial act of stripping a British subject of her passport. Life imitating art indeed. If you are moved to read the novel, I wonder whether you will be moved to empathize with a number of wildly differing characters, some of whom you could have sworn you would never feel for in your wildest dreams. But that is what great art does; and the works of these three postcolonial writers make us empathize with characters on the wrong side of wealth, power, and geopolitics.

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401. More Than Enough

In Britain, Childhood, Family, Nature, places, Stories on July 24, 2017 at 2:23 am

Hampstead No. 1 Pond (photo: J. Rege)

I ought to have known as soon as the ATM at the Hampstead branch of Barclays Bank swallowed up my debit card on the morning of my return flight; when the taxi driver who drove me to St. Pancras to catch the train to Gatwick took me to the wrong station; when the airline found my painstakingly-packed suitcase 5 kg. overweight; when the price of an overflow carry-on bag rivaled the excess baggage charges; when, after my rush to the airport, the plane was delayed by nearly an hour; and when, to add the ultimate insult to injury, I was told that my two precious jars of Marmite would now have to be confiscated because I had transferred them from the overweight suitcase into my carry-on bag. As I fought back the tears of fury, frustration, and self-pity that sprang to my eyes, I told myself that I ought to have known the universe would conspire to make my last day in England a disaster.

But all along the way, felicity had trumped misfortune. The Hampstead walk that last morning was an experience that no bank or ATM could possibly take away from me; the guide who led me astray was set straight by another one who knew the way; at the airport, those who would exploit hapless travelers were rendered powerless by an open-hearted stranger; the delay was rendered delightful by tea and an M&S custard tart, sprinkled liberally with nutmeg; and even the loss of the Marmite, tragic to be sure, was not total: while two were confiscated, a third made it through, with a lot more besides.

It was a compressed trip, as highly charged as it was fleeting. In just over a week I had travelled up to the West Midlands to see my dear Uncle Ted, back down to London to see regal Auntie Bette, the matriarch of the clan, and Auntie Angy, who had not let marriage into the Sharp family (Sharp by name and sharp by nature) rob her of her sweet disposition. Time had not permitted me to travel up to Norfolk to see my cousin Susan and her brood (including a new grandbaby), or to Bristol to see my old friend Cylla (who had become a double grandmother since my last visit), or to Hoddesdon to see Barbara, or to visit Robin, who had become a widower since the last time and Savita, my old schoolmate from India, who were based in London itself; and I had missed two cousins altogether. But, to quote my sister’s favorite Rolling Stones song, “You get what you need.” I had got plenty.

When they told me, at the airport check-in, that I could either incur 45 pounds in excess-baggage charges or, at the conveniently adjacent luggage store, that the smallest bag I could contemplate buying would coincidentally also cost me 45 pounds, I almost gave way to despair; but this Kafkaesque double-bind was to give way to a singular sweetness. At the airport outpost of Boots the chemists, where I attempted to buy their largest plastic carrier bag, the young cashier asked me if I would prefer a cloth bag. “Yes,” I breathed, “yes please. Do you sell them?”

No, they didn’t, but if I could wait a few moments, she had one that she could give me.
“Don’t look so surprised,” she said, as I stood open-mouthed at her generosity, “it’s nothing.” And sure enough, the sweet young angel stepped out and returned with a bag whose capacity rivaled the £45 offering at the price-gouging luggage shop. I was overcome by gratitude, but my heartfelt thanks only embarrassed her, so I left to find a set of scales where I could off-load some of the heaviest items in my suitcase (including, sadly, the large and ill-fated jars of Marmite).

Earlier that day, the sinking feeling in my stomach when the Barclay’s ATM on Hampstead High Street swallowed my debit card threatened to plunge me into the Slough of Despond, as I wrangled in vain with the bank clerk, all the while watching my last free hour in London ticking away. But as I continued my walk down Hampstead High Street, the feeling of well-being returned from my walk across the Heath earlier that morning. I walked past the Oxfam shop at the top of Gayton Road,  where Andrew, Nikhil, and I had lived for six weeks in 1997, while I was participating in an NEH Summer Seminar on postcolonial literature and theory, and where I now picked up a pair of bone china mugs and paid 5p for a recycled-plastic carrier bag that bore the heartwarming slogan, “Be Humankind.” Hurrying down Downshire Hill, into Keats Grove, past the poet’s house and gardens, I reached the 24 bus terminus at South End Green at last, in good time.

Well Passage, Hampstead

All that morning a feeling of homecoming had accompanied me every step of the way, as I strode confidently and alone down Mansfield Road, where my cousin Lesley had once lived, and up the steps to the Heath, where morning dogs and dog-walkers mingled and meandered at their leisure. This was where my mother and her brothers had rambled in their youth, where my parents met and courted, and where I had been born. There was a moment, walking down the narrow Well Passage, when I might have been my mother in a sepia photo c. 1952, in which she walks, swinging her arms, with her brother Ted and his best friend Curly, in a circular gypsy skirt with a wide cinched-waist belt and a dimpled smile on her face as if the world was new and she and her mates owned it. No bank nonsense could dislodge that feeling.


On the long summer evening before, Cousin Lesley and I had taken the 24 bus to South End Green, walked onto the Heath from South End Green, and stood overlooking the pond and the row of houses beyond. It was in one of those houses, in South Hill Park, where we had stayed for three months in 1963 with Auntie Dorrie and Tamara on our way back from Greece to India, where I had walked to nearby Gospel Oak School every morning with Lesley, where I first saw the Beatles on television, where I first saw television itself (see British TV, Fall of ’63). As we watched children watching the ducks and the swan and its half-grown cygnet, Lesley asked their mother to take our picture. We walked on, to the bathing ponds where Mum and her brothers and their friends had passed many long, happy hours in their teens and twenties. I passed and photographed a fallen horse chestnut branch, with the not-yet-ripe fruit still in its prickly skin. Come September, children would prise the glossy nuts out of their burst casings and play conkers, if children still played conkers today. But now was now. I was here, and on my last day in England, it was more than enough; it was plenty.

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393. Flying those Flags

In Britain, India, Music, Politics, Stories, United States on December 4, 2016 at 3:25 am
Eddie Izzard's Do You Have a Flag?

Eddie Izzard’s Do You Have a Flag?

I’ll try to keep this brief, because to me it’s cut-and-dried. Hampshire College has folded, following a firestorm of protests and threats, and has re-flown the American flag on its campus. I have not followed the controversy closely, but I want to make one observation: private colleges in the United States are not required to display the national flag.

As a student of nationalism, I feel compelled to note that although pennants and flags have long been used as signals (as in semaphore) and to identify armies in battle, national flags are very recent developments in world history, only dating back to the late eighteenth century, and not becoming universal until the 19th century. Rectangular pieces of fabric bearing national insignia, they have become potent patriotic symbols that often carry strong military associations, but it is important to remember that they are just that, symbols, displayed on bits of cloth and mounted on poles—or, in one of my favorite songs, printed on plastic and plastered on cars.

Allow me, and yourself, a little levity: watch Eddie Izzard’s classic sketch, “Do You have a Flag?” performed here by the comedian himself, and here by Lego men. Now treat yourself to John Prine’s classic song from his first album, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore. Back in 1971, he was referring to the Vietnam War when he said, in the next line, “It’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war”; but unfortunately it’s all the more resonant in this brave new world of perpetual war.

I recall with sadness the great Indian philosopher poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote Jana Gana Mana, the song that has become the nation’s national anthem. (He also wrote Amar Sonar Bangla, the song that became the national anthem of Bangladesh.) I can’t hear Jana Gana Mana without getting overcome by nostalgia—love for India, the aspirations of the–then newly independent nation, and memories of singing it at the top of my ten-year-old voice every time I went to the cinema with my father (the flag billowing on the screen for 52 seconds just before the running of the birth control advertisements: do ya teen—bas!). Tagore was a great patriot with a deep love for his country. But as he grew older, and began to understand what horrors nationalism was capable of wreaking, he came to see it as a modern scourge, and spoke out strongly and insistently against it. For this he was attacked and vilified by many of his compatriots, just as those who dare to question the military adventures of the United Statestoday are attacked and vilified as anti-national. As Tagore said in 1908, “I will never allow nationalism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.” For both yesterday and today, his words warn us of the danger and the travesty of bestowing upon a state apparatus and its symbols the love best reserved for our fellow human beings, the reverence best reserved for all things sacred.

While the British once paraded their flag with overblown pomp and ceremony as a symbol of their imperial power, now their erstwhile colonial subjects, rather than turning away from such vainglorious displays of worldly power, seek to reproduce them with a vengeance.

The Indian Supreme Court has just ruled that the national flag must be displayed in all movie theaters, and the national anthem played to a standing audience before film screenings. While in my childhood innocence I sprang to my feet and sang with all my heart, now it chills me to see that ritual made mandatory by the highest court in the land.

I opened with a reminder that private colleges—and indeed, private individuals—are not required to fly the national flag. In closing, permit me another reminder: the last time I checked, the United States was a free country, whose constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech included the freedom to question such symbols of military might. To the extent that the flag stands for freedom for us all, long may it wave! But to the extent that it stands for Might over Right, I must say, like Rabindranath Tagore, that it does not stand for me.

Oh, and another song: U.S. Blues.

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389. Exposing Whose Perversity?

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

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

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


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

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

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

In our case, the prefects were senior boys.

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

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

photo: Vantage

photo: Vantage

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

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384. Auntie Bette’s Litmus Test

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


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

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

Atrium, Trump Tower

Atrium, Trump Tower

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

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

photo by Joseph Burke (

photo by Joseph Burke (

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

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

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

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

(from the guardian.com_

(from the


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

(not at Trump Towers)


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374. Thrift Stores

In blogs and blogging, Britain, clothing, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on April 24, 2016 at 5:30 pm
The Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home

My favorite thrift store: The Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

TAs we know, there’s something about newness that adds value to a product like nothing else. A newly purchased car, for example, drops in value by a couple of thousand dollars the minute you leave the car lot. Even before it has left the lot, it starts dropping in value if it has sat there unsold for more than three months. I once bought a Toyota Camry that had been leased for two years for nearly five thousand dollars less than it would have cost me new, and it was still under warranty! That trusty car kept going for ten more years of heavy use and required very little maintenance. But in an economy where price is equated with value, if something is going cheap there must be something wrong with it.

There is a special stigma about buying and wearing cheap second-hand clothing, even if it is of excellent quality and has hardly been worn. Perhaps it has a whiff of charity about it, as if wearing used clothing suggests that one is the abject recipient of some wealthy person’s discards and hand-me-downs. I can’t quite identify my feelings when, as a ten year-old girl, I saw another girl wearing the outgrown dress, one of my favorites, that my mother had given away. In a society where most people cannot afford to buy new, storebought clothes, then wearing used clothes signifies that one is poor; and, in a consumer capitalist society, at any rate, there is something shameful about that. If one has money, one is supposed to buy new things continually and discard the old, even if there is still plenty of life left in them.


However, in societies glutted with “stuff” and a world of spiraling waste and dwindling resources, people have begun to value re-used things, and even to reject consumerism. In this environment, used clothing stores—called thrift stores in the United States and Canada, charity shops in Britain, and op shops (apparently) in Australia and New Zealand—are flourishing. People frequent these shops for a variety of reasons: to save money, of course, to hunt for a bargain, to benefit a charity, to step outside of the culture of wastefulness, and to pass on their unneeded stuff to someone who could make better use of it. I love thrift-store shopping with a passion rivalling my love of second-hand bookstores (and surpassing it when the thrift store carries books as well).

My favorite hometown thrift store is the Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home, my home away from home, you find me there so often. I don’t even have to buy anything; it’s fun dropping in when I’m out on errands, just to see if I can spot a “find.” It’s small and well-organized enough for me to be able to duck in, to have a scout round, and be back out in 5-10 minutes. It’s kept impeccably by a dedicated group of volunteers, with the stock in excellent condition, spotlessly clean, organized by category and size, rotated frequently, and replaced completely from season to season, and even a design consultant setting up a special theme—music, for example, or gardening, or back-to-school gear—every few weeks.

oAnd the finds! I have found Indian dupattas, fine china, a hand-tailored silk suit that fits as if it had been made for me, and a full set of professional-quality drawing supplies—for mere pennies. I have found delightful gifts that have saved me from my most-dreaded activity, Christmas shopping (and when all else fails, a gift certificate to the Hospice Shop gives terrific value). But most of all, I have found clothes: clothes for me and my whole family, clothes for everyday wear and clothes for work; nearly-new designer clothing and shoes that draw admiring comments from colleagues. Which of course, I immediately undermine by telling them that I picked it up at my favorite thrift store and then disclosing the price tag. I never know when to keep my mouth shut and simply bask in the praise. A visit to family in England is never complete until I have trawled the high street for charity shops, dragging my long-suffering cousin Sue with me and asking for her seal of approval before I clinch a deal. And, back in the U.S.A., whenever I happen to drive through a small New England town in the middle of nowhere, it’s always a thrill to check out the local thrift store and hope to find the occasional hidden treasure.

a recent find at the Hospice Shop

a recent find at the Hospice Shop

I’m cheap, and not ashamed to say so: thrift stores make me happy.

(Though I must admit that they don’t solve the problem of “stuff.”)

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369. the Outdoors

In blogs and blogging, Britain, clothing, Family, Food, health, Nature, parenting, Stories on April 18, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy



OWhen I was in secondary school in England, age 14-15, the prefects, older students with positions of authority, enforced the rule that we had to spend recess out of doors, in fair weather or foul. They would patrol the hallways, especially in the winters, rooting out any poor soul who might be huddling in a corner, hoping to avoid being thrust out into the cold and wet. I remember ducking into the girls’ lavatories with a friend of mine and hiding in the cubicles, only to hear the prefects’ footsteps loom louder and louder, until finally, they heaved open the door. In a trice we climbed up onto the toilet seats and squatted there, so that our feet could not be seen when they peered under the doors. Fortunately we were lucky, that time, and gloated at our victory over the fresh-air police.

But we were in grey school uniforms (

But in 1968 we were in grey school uniforms (

1024px-Traditional.Sunday.Roast-01We weren’t getting off so easily. During that year, my mother, sister, and I were living with our Uncle Ted and our two cousins, Jacky and Carol, while waiting for the arrival of our green cards so that we could emigrate to the States with our father, who was still in India. Uncle Ted, it turned out, was a fresh-air fiend, one of those parents who believed that children should spend as much time as possible in the Great Outdoors. So when, on the weekend, just as we were leaning back lazily, loosening our belts after a massive English Sunday roast with all the trimmings, Uncle Ted would invariably say, in hearty tones, “Who’s for a brisk country walk?” we would all groan, because we knew that it was a rhetorical question—we had no choice. We would turn appealingly to my mother, who wouldn’t let us off the hook, but sweetened the deal with the promise of tea and cakes when we returned; and so there was nothing for it but to put on our heaviest boots and plunge into the country lanes and byways with Uncle Ted.

It was always an adventure. Our sulks would be forgotten before we’d rounded the first bend and one of us had spotted our first artefact for the shelf back at home. We argued and speculated about everything we found, and eventually determined it to be an ancient Roman arrowhead, a nail from a hob-nailed boot, the tiny skull of a shrew, or an as-yet-undiscovered species of fern or fungus. We bore them proudly back home, covered in mud, like the rest of our persons, to be displayed on the special shelf, duly washed and labeled. And then we had tea and cakes.

Britain is famous for its footpaths, and one can still ramble the length and breadth of the island on both short-and long-distance national trails. Much as I detest the self-important officiousness of school prefects, and root for the rebels who refuse to catch their deaths out in the rain simply because it’s supposed to be good for the character, I can’t help but applaud the parents who instill a love of the outdoors in their children.

I just read a sad story in a British newspaper, reporting that some middle-class parents are refusing to let their children ramble around the countryside because they (the parents) can no longer read maps and, besides, their offspring might come home covered in mud.

Long live map-reading, and muddy boots, and the glorious Outdoors!

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