Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Britain’ Category

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.

(from michaelhaag.blogspot.com)

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.

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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

TrumpTower

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 and in her eyes, 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 (josephx.com)

photo by Joseph Burke (josephx.com)

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 guardian.com)

 

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)

(from 212access.com)

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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

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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.

too-much-stuff

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

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[hertfordshire life.co.uk]

[hertfordshire life.co.uk]

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 (emmahennessey.blogspot.com)

But in 1968 we were in grey school uniforms (emmahennessey.blogspot.com)

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.

country_1507294c
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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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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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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361. The Guardian

In Britain, history, Media, Stories on April 9, 2016 at 9:51 am

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GBack then it was the left-leaning, or at least staunchly social democratic Manchester Guardian, and it was my Uncle Ted’s daily newspaper. (Later he switched to the much more conservative Daily Telegraph, but I think it was for its legendarily difficult crossword rather than its politics.)

Founded in 1821, the Manchester Guardian has a noble history. Its initial prospectus promised:

It will zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty, it will warmly advocate the cause of Reform; it will endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of Political Economy.  

UnknownThe Guardian has stayed true to these principles throughout its nearly-two hundred year run, its editorial policy always on the right side of history—from my perspective, of course.

Back in the 1980s, when we were living on the farm in Winchendon, and in danger of being cut off from cosmopolitan currents, my mother bought me a subscription to the Manchester Guardian Weekly, which became my lifeline to the world outside. It was a selection of the best articles from The Guardian, Le Monde, and The Washington Post, including, crucially, the Guardian crossword (which, in truth, was sometimes the only thing I found time to tackle).

The late, great Araucaria's first Guardian crossword

The late, great Araucaria’s first Guardian crossword

Whenever I go to England, for however short a stay, I buy the print edition of the Guardian every day, trying to re-acquaint myself with the reigning Zeitgeist. Over the years I’ve saved cuttings (I know, I know, Hoarder Alert) from some of the most memorable headlines of the times, of massive demonstrations in Trafalgar Square protesting the September 11, 1973 military coup in Chile, Margaret Thatcher’s handling of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, race riots in the 1980s, cuts to the National Health Service, Booker Prize-winning writers, the Notting Hill Carnival.

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With the advent of the Internet, the Guardian took the lead among British newspapers in its online presence, starting with the Guardian Unlimited and now with the indispensable The Guardian dot com. This presence has helped it more or less sustain itself while print journalism has been facing formidable challenges. The Guardian made headlines itself in 2011 when it courageously broke and covered the Wikileaks story, and stood up to state ire. I regularly post links to its online book reviews for my students, and, perhaps perversely, am following the 2016 U.S. elections on their site, even though, disappointingly, they share some of the bias of the U.S. mainstream media in their coverage of the Democratic race.

imagesOne of The Guardian’s most important recent online initiatives has been The Counted. Because, incredibly, the United States does not keep national records of police killings of civilians, the Guardian took it upon itself to do so by establishing a searchable database that it has called The Counted. People can notify them of a killing and they will investigate and verify it. If it holds up, they will add it to their count. It can be broken down by race and ethnicity, gender, age, state, and whether the victim was armed or unarmed. The tally is a heartbreaking 281 people killed by the police in the United States in 2016 to date.

Despite its best efforts, The Guardian is struggling financially. Another highly reputable newspaper, The Independent, had to suspend its print publication earlier this year, and it is heartbreaking for me to contemplate the possibility of The Guardian going the same way. So much so that I am about to become a Guardian Supporter, in order to protect its fearless tradition of independent journalism. I feel a stronger allegiance to the Guardian than I do to, say, National Public Radio, which has become stodgier and more centrist over the years, catering openly to the wealthy. Without it, both in its online incarnation and its print editions, my life would be poorer and more isolated. The Guardian brings me joy.

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359. EastEnders

In Britain, Immigration, India, Media, Stories on April 7, 2016 at 10:31 pm

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

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EAfter a long day of work there’s precious little I look forward to more than settling down to watch the latest episode of EastEnders, a wildly popular, impossibly long-running, utterly lowbrow serial on British television. I really ought to dismiss it as nothing but a sentimental, sensationalist soap—which it is, unashamedly so. But dammit, I like it, and—dare I say—it brings me joy.

EastEnders? But why, why on earth would you want to watch that junk?” Cousin Sue asks me incredulously. I shrug my shoulders and mumble the names of certain handsome actors; but in truth, it’s more complicated than that. So complicated that I haven’t wanted to spoil my unsullied enjoyment by analyzing it too closely. But I suppose I have to come up with something resembling an explanation.

Cast member Danny Dyer arriving for the UK film premiere of Run For Your Wife, at the Odeon Leicester Square, central London.

Cast member Danny Dyer arriving for the UK film premiere of Run For Your Wife, at the Odeon Leicester Square, central London.

First of all, EastEnders is not an American soap; you wouldn’t catch me watching Days of Our Lives, although to an outside observer there might not be much difference between the two. No, it’s set in London, a (fictitious, factitious) working-class East London, rhyming slang and all. Don’t ask me if it’s realistic—it’s not. I doubt if there are many people younger than my mother who use Cockney Rhyming Slang anymore, and then too, only when they’ve put a few away. Certainly no one of Mick Carter’s (played by Danny Dyer) generation, who all speak American English now, as far as I can tell. But the odd English idiom is a delight to hear.

So no, realism isn’t what has me hooked. Something about the way it simulates real time is part of the magic, though. Each new half-hour episode is aired four evenings a week (GMT), and the show is so indispensable to its viewers that if another major event is going to pre-empt its regular slot, BBC One has to offer two episodes the day before to head off the fans’ outrage. On Mother’s Day, EastEnders celebrate Mothers Day, at Easter, Easter, on Halloween, Guy Fawkes’ night, Christmas, they are facing the family meltdowns that everyone else is having as well, only they do it with a vengeance.

For me the real-time feeling is particularly meaningful because of course I’m not actually in England but thousands of miles away; by the magic of the Internet I’m able to watch it almost in sync with my English relatives—except I don’t think any of them would be caught dead watching it. It’s a ritual all my own as I settle down with a cup of tea and fire up my computer to watch it on BBC iPlayer. Then, after the show is over, I can follow the fans talking about it on Facebook, and on occasion I even join in, chiming in with my opinions on their decision to kill off Fat Boy, one of my favorite characters, or on their routine massacring of the beautiful Shabnam Masood’s name. (Britishers take a fiendish delight in mispronouncing “foreign” names.”)

(C) BBC - Photographer: Adam Pensotti

(C) BBC – Photographer: Adam Pensotti

The Masoods are another reason I love EastEnders. They are a British Pakistani Muslim family who are becoming an integral part of life on the Square and the actors who play them, Nitin Ganatra (Masood), Himesh Patel (his son Tamwar), and Rakhee Thakrar (his daughter Shabnam) are talented and easy on the eyes, especially Nitin Ganatra, my personal favorite. I also tend to root for the characters of color on the show, and for the mixed relationships, which invariably break up, it seems, at least for the two years or so that I’ve been watching. Watching them is experiencing in some vicarious way what it might have been like if my family had settled in England instead of moving to India and then to the United States.

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Two years is but a moment in the thirty-one year life of EastEnders so far, and the main families—the Beales, Mitchells, Slaters, Brannings, and Carters, and more recently, the Masoods and the Hubbards—stretch across three generations at this point. That’s a large part of the attraction for me as well: the extended, intertwined families and close-knit community that cluster every night in the Queen Vic or the Prince Albert one of two (rival) pubs where they perform their daily dramas, rituals, and knock-down, drag-out fights. I have spent most of my life across oceans from extended family, so the idea is appealing, however fictional, of three generations living cheek by jowl and knowing and caring about every detail of each other’s lives, sharing in triumph and in tragedy.

The Carter clan in front of the Queen Vic

The Carter clan in front of the Queen Vic

It is a caricature of working-class life? Well, sure. If it was even remotely realistic, one would think that working-class people routinely went around murdering, raping, and robbing one another. It’s downright insulting, if you think about it. (Which I don’t.) But I must say that after watching EastEnders for two years, I understand the concept of catharsis. So much happens in the space of one episode, that the characters and the viewers are “reeling,” one of the favorite words used in the synopses of each episode. The blurb for today’s episode, for example, reads,

Ronnie is left shaken to the core. Abi’s world falls apart, but is there a way out?

I missed Tuesday’s show this week, so I am two behind. The previous episode reads:

Abi and Louise find themselves at each throats.

Catfight? Catfight!!

And now I really have to go, before my tea gets cold.

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357. Chillies and China

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Food, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on April 5, 2016 at 12:23 am

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Blogging from A to Z  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

China: I don’t know much about china, not the kind of things collectors know, but I love coming upon beautiful pieces in church bazaars, yard sales, and thrift shops. They must be  inexpensive, in excellent condition, and, with rare exceptions (I know it’s nationalist—what to do?), made in England. Being fine bone china is an added bonus but not at all essential. I don’t collect sets or anything like that; most of what I have is one of a kind. Bringing out my favorite china cups and plates for  afternoon tea with my friends never fails to make me happy.

chillies and china

Chillies: Just looking at fresh green chillies buoys my spirits; holding them in my hands produces an ear-to-ear grin; eating them sends tears—of joy, mind you—streaming down my cheeks. I can’t get enough of them. Memories: going alone into a Bangladeshi restaurant in Brick Lane, London. Must have been the 1980s. A tumbler of cold water on each table along with a bowl of green chillies. Macho me, woman on my own, needing to prove I knew the ropes, chomped manfully into the chillies while waiting for my lunch order and tried to pretend that I didn’t need more water. Hah! More memories: going shopping in the market in Delhi, in what must have been the early 1990s. Economic liberalization hadn’t quite taken hold yet, and neither had plastic bags. When the man had filled your cloth shopping bag with vegetables, he threw in a bunch of dhaniya-patta, fresh coriander leaves, and a handful of green chillies for good measure. And in the present: when burning the midnight oil, buttered toast and Marmite with my tea is pretty sweet, but add a slice of tomato or cucumber and a few pieces of chopped green chilli and I am good to go for another couple of hours. Chillies bring me joy. I couldn’t imagine my life without them.

[For more china, see TMA #273, Everyday Use; and chillies, TMA #294, Without Whom]

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