Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

501. The Small Things

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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494. Britishisms

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Childhood, culture, Education, Family, history, Stories, Words & phrases on April 2, 2021 at 10:57 pm

This is the second entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Of course one can’t generalize about a country’s idioms. What figures in one’s speech depends on class background, education, geographical region, and age, and a whole host of other variables. Although I only lived in England for short periods of time when I was very young, I also attended the British Embassy School when we lived in Athens, and my parents insisted on my speaking Standard English (along with Received Pronunciation, or RP) at home. So, ironically, my speech was more “English” than many of my British peers who had never left the country.

In school at age 9 I was learning not only decimals—centimetres, metres, and kilometres, grams and kilograms—and British measures: inches, feet, and yards, ounces and pounds; but also, for good measure, hundredweight (cwt) and tons, pecks and bushels. And, of course, until 1971, there was still the good old LSD (pounds (£), shillings(s), and pence(d)). (By the time I returned to India at age 9½  we already had the decimal system of 100 np (naya, or new, paise) to the rupee, but we still used the old system of 16 annas to the rupee as well, so that four annas were equivalent to 25 np.)

Here’s the kind of problem we might have had to solve in my British maths class:

Find the total cost of 2 ½ cwt. of metal at £2 3s. 6d. per cwt., plus a total charge of 4s. 6d. for cartage.

Cartage, I ask you!

But I’m digressing. I was supposed to be talking about anachronistic Britishisms. I ask you (meaning, Isn’t that ridiculous?) is probably one of them.  

Apropos of archaisms, back in the 1960s we were still saying, Give him a inch and he’ll take an ell, and learning what an ell was, just in case, even though “mile” had replaced “ell” by 1900, more than half a century earlier.

Having come from a working-class background—dire poverty, if truth be told— my mother and her siblings were possessed of an acute class consciousness and a strong sense of working-class pride. As such, they also had a nose for anyone putting on airs. When my imposing Aunty Bette put on her best fur coat and sailed out on the town with her head held high, Mum would call her beautiful elder sister “Lady Dunabunk” (though not to her face; she would never have dared). Apparently the more common expression was Lady Muck, with the scoundrel Lord Dunabunk as her male counterpart. The expression dated from the era of the Great War, which is about right, since Aunty Bette was born in 1919. The matriarch of the family, she died just over a year ago, going on 100, on the eve of the first COVID-19 lockdown.

On a lighter note, but speaking of contagious diseases, a Britishism that became popular in the year of my birth, but whose origin is lost in the mists of time is the dreaded lurgi (or “lurgy”). It refers melodramatically to any disease that’s catching but not fatal. My cousins Jacky and Carol used it and must have learnt it from their father, my Uncle Ted. I had rather assumed that it was a family joke, until I looked it up just recently and found that it had been popularized on The Goon Show, in Series 5, Episode 7 (November 1954), Lurgi Strikes Britain. That zany BBC radio comedy show (1951-1960) with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and others inspired Monty Python and a whole generation of British comedians and artists—including John Lennon. The dreaded lurgy is still in circulation in the U.K. (along with a contagious disease that is, sadly, a lot more fatal), but British readers will have to tell me whether you think it’s becoming archaic.

This journey through obscure and anachronistic Britishisms has been scattershot and highly idiosyncratic, but what else could it have been? It’s sad to think that the expressions of our parents’ generation are falling out of use, and yet it’s delightful when they crop up unexpectedly in the strangest places. I miss the expressions that only Mum would use, such as calling someone “slomocky” or a “Slomocky Maureen.” I never asked her to define it but to the best of my understanding it referred to someone who was slatternly, slovenly, unkempt, or uncoordinated. It can be found sporadically in newspapers and books dating from the 1890s to the 1920s, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s well on the way out.  

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493. Animalidioms

In culture, Stories, Words & phrases on April 1, 2021 at 11:58 pm

This is the first entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

As it happens, the title of my first-year composition classes this semester is Humans and Other Animals. We’ve been reading and writing about human and non-human animals, human-animal bonding, the ethics of “pet” ownership, animal rights vs. animal welfare, anthropomorphism, non-human personhood, sentience and consciousness. Soon we’ll have to look the future in the eye and contemplate the Anthropocene and its implications for us all. We’ve also been forced to recognize the depth of human cruelty to non-human animals as we use and abuse them for our own benefit in every arena in which we interact, whether it’s in the home or the shelter, in the farm, factory, or forest, in the zoo or the circus, the laboratory or the slaughterhouse, for sustenance or for sport. It’s inhuman, to say the least. We use them literally but also in a manner of speaking, not only shoveling them into our mouths by the millions but rolling them liberally off our tongues. I’m talking about animal idioms.

It’s been almost exactly 100 years since more Americans lived in urban areas than in the country, but we still use anachronistic agricultural idioms unthinkingly every day. We try to make hay while the sun shines, pity those with a long row to hoe, dismiss small potatoes, discriminatingly separate the wheat from the chaff. But these sayings are as nothing compared to the beasts of the field that we sacrifice in speech. Some of these sayings may seem relatively benign, but when you call a spade a spade benign enslavement is still enslavement.

Unnecessarily, we beat a dead horse; we take pleasure in someone’s else’s goose being cooked. Churlishly, we look a gift horse in the mouth and when we’re gobsmacked, we stone the crows. Some of us will talk the hind leg off a donkey, running our mouths, while others run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

We seem to have a special venom reserved for the humble pig, perhaps because of its intelligence, or its similar tastes to our own. We make it wallow in its own filth and then label it unclean. The heads of our households bring home the bacon, while our fools cast pearls before swine, or try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Our savagery and deceit are exposed when we let the cat out of the bag or try to make someone buy a pig in a poke, and when we say someone has had more fun than a barrel of monkeys. So much fun (not)!

“Man’s best friend” doesn’t fare much better. At his best, he looks like a dog’s dinner, but mostly, he leads a dog’s life, and is frequently in the doghouse being punished. Even when we tell ourselves that “our animals” are safe with us, our idioms suggest otherwise. Why, then, does the prospect of the chickens coming home to roost set off alarm bells? And why do those placid cows take their sweet time to come home?

Especially since I’ve been teaching about human treatment of non-human animals, I am struck anew by the violence of these images and the harsh light they shine on us. Sadly, even as I set out to explore anachronistic idioms, I find that this cruelty is alive and well, even when we may no longer be yoking our oxen to the plow every morning, or trying to drag that stubborn mule somewhere it is determined not to go. I can’t listen to Bing Crosby exhorting children to  Swing on a Star without wincing at:

A pig is an animal with dirt on his face
His shoes are a terrible disgrace
He has no manners when he eats his food
He’s fat and lazy and extremely rude
But if you don’t care a feather or a fig
You may grow up to be a pig.

But I don’t mind John Prine, in It’s A Big Old Goofy World, reminding us that we are the stupid ones:

Why it’s clear as a bell
I should have gone to school
I’d be wise as an owl
Stead of stubborn as a mule.

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487. Virtual RUSH II (post-election playlist)

In culture, Inter/Transnational, Media, Music, singing, Stories on November 11, 2020 at 3:24 am

Back in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck and we were sheltering in place at home, our monthly meeting of Rise Up Singing in Harmony, or RUSH (described here in TMA #331, No Rush), was one of the first casualties. It was quickly discovered that group singing was a highly contagious activity, since it releases aerosolized droplets with tremendous force; and furthermore, many of us in the group were of a particularly vulnerable age. That month I consoled myself by compiling and circulating a list of songs for A Virtual RUSH, never imagining that eight months later, there would still be no end in sight. Since the November 3rd presidential election I have found myself missing RUSH like anything, and wondering what people would choose to sing to mark the occasion if we were going to be meeting as usual this month. Here, then, is Virtual RUSH II.

The songs below are organized by book and page number, since we use two songbooks (both compiled by Annie Patterson and Peter Blood), Rise Up Singing and Rise Again. (For those of you who don’t have copies of either of the books, you can order them here, find indexes here, and learn the songs here.) Clicking on the titles will take you to renditions of the song on Youtube. Of course the choices here are all mine, when the great pleasure of RUSH is going round the circle in turn and singing the song that each person chooses. Please do share what your choice would be for a post-election song.



From Rise Up Singing
(the old blue book):
America the Beautiful (p.1)
Ray Charles leads here with one of its lesser-known verses of this song, which is arguably sung more than the official national anthem:
O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife 
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life 
America, America, May God thy gold refine 
Till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine

This Land is Your Land (p. 5)
In January, 2009, Pete Seeger led the singing of this Woody Guthrie favorite at President Obama’s inauguration. If I had my druthers it would be the national anthem.

How Can I Keep from Singing? (p. 43)
Singing has always sustained people in times of great hardship and oppression. This song is no exception, and Enya gives a haunting rendition here. It started out as a hymn, but Doris Plenn added the following verse in 1950.  
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize (Hold On) (p. 60)
This anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, sung here by Sweet Honey in the Rock, never gets old.

Lean on Me (p. 66)
This song, released back in 1972, has always been deeply comforting. Its writer, Bill Withers, passed away in March 2020, right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he left us this song, among many others. Here it is again, in a global performance by Playing for Change.

Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms (p. 149)
A simple love song (sung here by Doc and Merle Watson) in which nothing else matters:
Ain’t gonna work on the railroad
Ain’t gonna work on the farm

Gonna lay round the shack till the mail train comes back
And roll in my sweet baby’s arms.

Paradise (p. 149)
An elegy to the destruction wreaked by coal stripmining, this song was on the first album by John Prine, whom we lost to COVID-19 in April 2020.

Banks of Marble (p. 180)
A union favorite, sung here by Pete Seeger.

By the Rivers of Babylon (p. 193)
This song was written and recorded by The Melodians in 1970, and was made world-famous on the soundtrack of The Harder They Come.



From Rise Again
(the new brown book):
Redemption Song (p. 80)
On the last album Bob Marley released before he died.
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Siyahamba (We Are Marching) (p. 80)
This song, performed here by the Mwamba Children’s Choir,  originated in South Africa and was sung around the world in the 1980s and 1990s, as part of the global solidarity movement against the hateful Apartheid regime. I learned it, along with other South African freedom songs, from Jim Levinson, who directed our a cappella group The Noonday Singers back in the late 1980s, while Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island.

Dear Abby (p. 90)
Another song from John Prine’s first album, reminding us to pull ourselves together: “stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on wood.” (And yes, it’s a repeat from my first Virtual RUSH playlist).

Many Rivers to Cross (p. 136)
Jimmy Cliff sings this song in the movie The Harder They Come, when the hero is between a rock and a hard place. (Another repeat from my first virtual playlist! But then, RUSH members are noted for requesting their favorites month after month, and their favorites become our own.)

Shelter from the Storm (p. 138)
This song, released by Bob Dylan in 1975, was one of my mother’s favorites.
Come in, she said, I’ll give ya
Shelter from the storm.

I Can See Clearly Now (p. 193)
Johnny Nash, who released this song in 1972, is another of the artists we lost this year, October 2020. I’ve always been intrigued by these words:
I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way

He celebrates not having cleared the obstacles in his way, but having cleared his mind so that he can see them for what they are.

Monster Mash (p. 233)
This was always a favorite in our RUSH group, and I hope it will continue to be a favorite when it is safe to sing together in person again. Sung by Bobby “Boris” Pickett with The Crypt-Kickers.

Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key (p. 255)
The lyrics of this song are by Woody Guthrie, the tune by Billy Bragg, who sings it here with the band Wilco.

Route 66 (p.280)
Oh, for a long road trip! This song was written by Bobby Troup, and famously covered by Nat King Cole, but my favorite version is this one by the Rolling Stones.

Pressure Drop
Toots Hibbert, of Toots and the Maytals, was another beloved artist whom we lost to COVID-19 this year, in September 2020. They first recorded this song in 1969, and it has been covered by many different artists since then. (Pressure Drop is not in either of the Rise Up books, but if we had been meeting in September I might have brought copies of the lyrics with me and taught it to the group.)

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482. Knowledge and Right Action

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

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

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

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

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


First Edition (wikipedia)

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

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

The same verse in the American Standard Version reads,

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Complete and unabridged Mahabharata (Penguin, 2015)

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473. Violence

In 2000s, 2010s, Aging, blogs and blogging, Britain, culture, Family, Immigration, Media, Politics, Stories, United States on April 27, 2020 at 2:11 am

This is the twenty-second entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

The United States is characterized by violence. After 50 years in this country, I am still not inured to it. Is it more violent than other countries? Certainly more violent than other wealthy countries. And the violence is not only measured in firepower, although there is plenty of that, but in the less visible structural violence of a dog-eat-dog society, and the epistemic violence that creates and marginalizes people whose lives are expendable.

I could write a long, mind-numbing piece documenting the violence at every level: the permawar, the mightiest military by far on the planet by just about every metric, a military presence in the most countries–of military bases, combat troops, and counter-terrorism forces–the preemptive strikes, the drone bombings, the U.S. as simultaneously the world’s foremost arms exporter and the world’s policeman. I could write all that; but you already know it, don’t you?

What about the culture of violence at home, the militarization of our society that goes so deep we no longer even notice it? Take the top-grossing movie in the U.S. in 2019: Avengers: Endgame. It had been one of the most expensive to make, but soon paid off and became the highest-grossing movie of all time. I haven’t seen it, but watched the trailer (which, like the succession of trailers one is forced to watch whenever one goes to the movies, was absolutely draining, and robbed me of any desire I might have had to watch the whole film). Take a look and see what you think of both the violence and the militarization. I read the plot summary, then went to the parents’ guide to the movie to see what they had to say. By the way, it is rated PG-13, and according to Commonsense Media, not only have films got much more violent over the past few decades, but the rating have changed accordingly as viewers have become desensitized to the violence. Most films rated PG-13 today would have been R-rated in the 1970s. The parents’ guide described the scenes that might be experienced as disturbing, of which here are just two:

At the very beginning, Thanos is decapitated by Thor. We briefly see it fly off. This is somewhat graphic, but later on in the film we see a flashback through Nebula’s eyes showing it up close. This is extremely graphic and gruesome. However the disturbing aspect of this scene is lessened by the fact that the character deserved it.  

As long as we label the recipient of the violence the bad guy, it seems that we need not be disturbed by the gruesomeness of the violence inflicted on him. Interesting too, that beheadings are supposed to be the province of the barbarians. But when the good guys decapitate the enemy, it is something to revel in.

During the battle at the Avengers’ headquarters, the final battle between the Avengers and their now restored allies against Thanos, numerous filler characters / minions die, including getting blown up, tossed about, stepped on, impaled, blasted or shot, etc. None of it is bloody or dwelt on, less so than the climactic battle of Wakanda in “Infinity War”, but it’s still rather brutal and it has an even higher body count.

I flinched when I read the term “filler characters”, since the deaths of these characters were clearly not expected to be as disturbing because those killed weren’t the main characters with whom the viewers identified. In a battle with say, ISIL forces in Iraq, would ISIL and Iraqi casualties alike be in that same category of “filler characters” to an American TV audience, even though the Iraqis were U.S. allies and would be on the ground taking the direct hits, while the U.S military personnel provided the supporting firepower from a place of safety on high?

SWAT team prepared (Wikipedia)

It has been increasingly evident over the past decade—actually, since the beginning of the never-ending War on Terror in September, 2001—that U.S. society itself has been becoming more militarized, as has the police force and policing in general. A recent study has demonstrated that the police use of SWAT teams more often deployed on communities of color, is counter-productive: they do not reduce crime or protect the police but they do hurt the reputation of the police in the eyes of the public. Whether studies like this one will affect policy remains to be seen.

The violence at home has also been amply documented and, I have already prevailed upon your forbearance too long. Suffice it to say that the U.S. rate of incarceration is the highest in the world bar none, that there were more mass shootings than days in the year in 2019. The Gun Violence Archive documents them, and the Giffords Law Center both document and seeks to prevent gun violence in general, pointing out in its informational brochures that Americans are 25 times more likely to die of gun violence than residents of peer nations—France, Canada, Germany, Australia, the U.K. , and Japan.

But there is yet another pervasive violence that is less visible but no less deadly. It’s the jungle of unregulated U.S. capitalism, a structural violence that creates ever-deepening economic inequalities in American society. The more than half-a-million Americans homeless on any given night attest to it, as do the 8.5% or 27.9 million Americans uninsured against medical expenses as of 2018; of the people who were insured, 29% were underinsured. The uninsured and underinsured people are disproportionately poor and people of color; and for those whose health insurance coverage came with their jobs, the massive job loss that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions more Americans without health insurance in a global pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made American society’s structural violence starkly visible in the shockingly high percentages of the coronavirus fatalities who are African American and Latino who are dying at two to three times the rate of white Americans. On the Navajo Reservation during COVID-19, where the death rate is nearly 10 times higher than in the State of Arizona, many people are unable to take the basic preventive measure of hand-washing because 30% of homes do not have running water. Similarly, in the hard-hit hotspot of Detroit, Michigan, where approximately 80% of the population is African American, the city shut off water to 11,000 homes in 2019, and many have still not had it restored.

This is the daily violence of pervasive inequality in the richest and most powerful country in the world, which shows in poor health, high rates of chronic disease such as diabetes and respiratory conditions, higher rates of poverty, incarceration, and death. Poverty is violence; and so is our political system with its roots in slavery and dispossession. The very language we use is structured in violence, epistemic violence that dehumanizes whole groups of people and makes their lives cheap.

The English side of my family always thought we were fabulously wealthy because we had moved to America. Little did they know that even the poorest among them, at least before the recent cuts to the National Health Service, were more at peace than my immigrant parents were in their old age, despite their house and car and bank account. The Welfare State that was put in place after the Second World War was a safety net for elderly and vulnerable Britons, providing a sense of security that my parents, who had both worked hard to enable us to attain a comfortable middle-class life in the States, just didn’t have.

It’s a jungle out there.

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458. Graduate School

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, culture, Education, Immigration, parenting, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 9, 2020 at 2:01 am

This is the seventh entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Graduate School. 

In 1987, twelve years after having completed my B.A. in English, I found myself in graduate school in an English MA-PhD program. I say “found myself” because never in a million years had I considered going for a doctorate until I was actually doing it. After moving to the farm in the early 1980s and casting about for some worthwhile employment in the surrounding towns, it struck me that since the local schools were failing to teach the children to read, I might usefully get my M.A. in Teaching and become a reading specialist. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but reading had always been my passion. However, the local state college didn’t offer enough courses to enable me to complete the MAT, so they recommended that I apply to the nearest state university, some 30 miles away. With a two-year-old baby a 60-mile roundtrip commute already pushed my limit, so UMass Amherst was the only graduate school to which I applied, and the English department only had an MA-PhD program. Though initially I told myself that I could simply stop at the M.A., it was soon clear that I was going to go all the way. But if my graduate studies came about by accident, then—despite the inevitable, and not inconsiderable, costs to other areas of my life—it was a fortunate accident, because in some very important ways they brought me back to myself.

I have always been told that I talk too much. My primary school report cards said so, and so did my high-school friends’ entries in my autograph book. The move to high school in the U.S. at fifteen didn’t shut me up either, as I felt fully accepted by my small group of friends, all of whom for one reason or another were not part of the myriad cliques that divided the school. But college did silence me. My typical mode as an undergraduate was to slouch in the back with dark glasses on, metaphorically speaking, feeling completely out of place, and routinely tormenting myself at the thought of all my parents’ hard-earned money that I was wasting. I made few friends in my first two years there and spent more time wondering what I was doing there than actually doing something. It was only after taking a year off to study in London that I returned to the States with a sense of purpose, and finally learned a great deal in my final year. But most of the time I felt like an outsider in an alien environment with people who didn’t understand or include me and didn’t have the least interest in doing so. No doubt many fellow-students felt that way too, but my old gregarious self went into eclipse during those years, especially in classroom settings, where I hardly said a word unless called upon.

Merle Hodge

Returning to university for graduate school, I was a few years older than most of my cohort, and had the confidence of the intervening years of life experience. It was also very lucky for me that at the outset I met a group of young international faculty from India and South Africa, barely older than I was, who mentored and introduced me to an emergent field that I seemed to have been waiting for all my life. Looking at the course catalog for my first semester I noticed that a Dr. Ketu Katrak, a professor with an Indian-sounding name, was offering a course called “Commonwealth Literature.” Interesting, I thought, literature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? But it turned out to be literature of the British Commonwealth, the name the Britisher gave to an emergent body of writing that, in the late 1980s, was about to rename itself postcolonial literature.

Chinua Achebe

In that first course we read works by Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ousmane Sembène and Ama Ata Aidoo from Africa, by Merle Hodge and George Lamming from the Caribbean, Anita Desai and Mulk Raj Anand from India, and I was hooked. Where had these works been hiding all my life? As an undergraduate I hadn’t been able to read anything other than British and American literature written well before the Second World War. A Passage to India (1924), the most recent British novel on the curriculum there and the only one set in India, had been written by an Englishman, albeit a wonderful writer deeply critical of British colonial rule. With Ketu Katrak graciously consenting to become my dissertation director, I immersed myself in the study of twentieth-century literatures from India, Africa, the Caribbean, and the postcolonial diaspora and the years just flew by, until one day Andrew gently reminded me that perhaps it was time for me to finish up, and at last I did, eight years after I had begun.

I was only taking two courses a semester because I was teaching at the same time and Nikhil was only two years old when I began my studies. Both my guys were nothing if not supportive. Andrew and I barely saw each other during those first years of grad school, because he was with Nikhil in Winchendon while I was away at UMass and I was with Nikhil while he was away at the press in Boston. Dear Andrew would occasionally nod off while reading bedtime stories to Nikhil and I would return to find the baby wide awake, beaming from ear to ear, with his dad fast asleep and snoring. Returning to Winchendon the day of my PhD qualifying exam, little Nikhil told me that he had kept all his fingers crossed for me all day. As a three-year-old he rode to the administration offices on my hip when the unionizing graduate employees were calling for family health insurance and childcare support (both of which we won). And he met many of the postcolonial writers and scholars who passed through the five-college area, including Anita Desai and her teenage daughter Kiran, who babysat for him for a semester while I was taking an African literature class with Chinua Achebe.

Shakespeare-Wallah (1965)

I’ll close with an anecdote from graduate school that exemplifies what I’ve been trying to feel my way toward. One semester I was auditing a Shakespeare class with the brilliant Normand Berlin (who at twice our age put us students to shame with his energy). My classmates knew their Shakespeare much better than I did; but of a class full of Shakespeare lovers, the two students who were head-and-shoulders above the rest came from Asia: one woman from Manila, the Philippines, and the other from India, a Bengali woman from Calcutta. My point is that in this particular context in the late 1980s, foreigners and immigrants like us were not outsiders, but at the center of an exciting new literary-cultural movement. We didn’t have to slouch in the back with dark glasses on as I had as an undergraduate. (America’s honeymoon with the Other didn’t last long; but that’s another story.)

The point is that this new field of literary studies gave me permission to delve deeply into literature and history that told my story and the stories of my parents. While the British Empire had invaded countries around the world and grown wealthy at their expense, my father had traveled to study in England, where and my mother had met and fallen in love, returning to India with her after my birth. I had grown up in newly Independent India in English-medium schools reading English children’s books (very good ones, I hasten to add). But it was only after coming to the United States that I started studying the literatures, cultures, and histories of the countries I had left behind. Now it became my mission to help students who might not have been exposed to this wealth of literature from around the world to fall in love with it as I had, and to see that the world was there to learn from rather than to dominate.

I was still talking too much, but now I had a captive audience.

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454. Cooperation

In blogs and blogging, culture, Food, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on April 3, 2020 at 11:26 pm

This is the third entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Cooperation. The United States is proud to be an emblem of capitalism. It believes religiously in capitalist ideology, and sees the spirit of competition as its engine, associating competitiveness with good health and individualism with freedom. When Americans speak of fostering “healthy competition” I’m never quite sure whether they mean that there is a healthy and an unhealthy way to compete or whether they consider competition to be inherently healthy. Most of the time, it seems quite clear that they mean the latter: that competition itself is healthy, and any other way of engaging with the business of living is suspect.

What of competition’s opposite, cooperation? Despite the lip service given to cooperation, I find that in the U.S. it tends to be thought of as a sign of weakness or passivity, certainly not a leadership quality or a source of creativity. When someone is labeled “uncooperative,” it really means that they aren’t a “team player”—that they aren’t willing to shut up and do what they’re told. Funny, that contradictory message: you are supposed to be a self-motivated individualist, but only when carrying out the orders of your superiors. If you’re a maverick, as John McCain called himself in his 2008 presidential campaign, is that a good thing? It depends who you ask or what you’re refusing to fall in line with.

Is she ever going to stop this rambling, you may well ask. Sorry, I digress. I want to tell you about how I discovered various kinds of cooperatives in the 1970s, my first decade in the United States, and how they changed my life. To varying degrees, they all sprang from dissatisfaction with the dominant modus operandi—which is, Get the best deal for yourself and screw the rest.

at a Co-op reunion

I was introduced to cooperatives as an undergraduate, when I decided to move into a cooperative  house in the Spring semester of my senior year in college. Had I discovered it much earlier, I would have had a much happier college experience. What was the difference between living in the co-op house and living in the college dorms?

First, we saved money by cutting down the college’s profit margin, cutting out middlemen, and doing much of the work ourselves. Although the two houses that made up the Co-op were owned by the college, they were relatively autonomous in that while we rented them, we were relatively autonomous. We lived in a residential neighborhood a bit of a walk from campus. We didn’t have custodians cleaning and making repairs, neither did we have to purchase a college meal plan; instead, we bought our food in bulk from the local food cooperative federation and did all our own cooking and cleaning. We did have a resident advisor based in the house, a graduate student, but his presence was low-key and he maintained a strict hands-off policy with regard to just about everything. One of the college’s main deterrents to students trying to save money by moving out of the dorms was a hefty Off-Campus Fee that wiped out all possible savings; but if one moved to the co-op house, the Off-Campus Fee did not apply. Perhaps they saw us as a necessary safety valve for misfits and malcontents.

Second, because the college removed itself from our lives at the Co-op House, we had a much more interesting group of housemates, students who, for a wide variety of reasons, wanted to put a little distance between themselves and the prevailing culture on campus. Boyfriends and girlfriends who didn’t attend our college were embraced by the community as well. We had a resident Elder, a homeless man who moved in one night and never left (see TMA 158, The Pagli and the Tramp. Co-opers generally eschewed displays of class status, intellectual arrogance, or academic competitiveness; tended to be less politically conservative than the average student; accepted everyone, regardless of their personal idiosyncracies; and even tolerated a wide range of culinary skills on the part of the self-selected cooks.

I signed up to make dinner once a week because not many people ventured to prepare meals for 40 people, so cooks were in demand. A bonus for me was that if you cooked at least once a week you never had to perform any of the onerous house-cleaning duties, which were decidedly not my strong suit. An endearing Co-op custom was to cheer for the cook at every meal, and people did so religiously no matter what fare had been served up, though they would cheer more full-throatedly for meals they really loved. The trick was to keep both the meat-eaters and the vegetarians happy, which I could reliably do with Indian food, which was universally liked, even when it was all-vegetarian. In contrast, living in the college dorms as a vegetarian in the mid-1970s was miserable.

The third difference was the feeling of family, best exemplified one evening when the phone on the landing rang for a housemate. Now, even though we were close, I didn’t know all the co-opers equally well; but I was able to tell that caller exactly where the person they were trying to reach had gone and when she would be home, realizing in that moment that I could have done the same for just about everyone in the house. We listened to music, attended concerts, and took trips together, enlisted each other in improvement projects and contributed to murals for the house, enrolled in some of the same courses, helping each other with assignments and deadlines, created and tended a garden, compost heap and all, and played group volleyball every evening, all the while having the delicacy not to pry into each other’s private or family lives unless our housemates chose to share them with us.

It’s hard to how explain exactly how co-op house culture differed from life in the college dorms. The Good Old Boy, secret-society, prep-school, legacy ethos was entirely absent. We had a dartboard with the images of notorious dictators like the Shah of Iran and President Marcos of the Philippines, and took bets on who would be the first to be bumped off. We had a Workers of the World Unite! mural with that slogan in numerous languages—my contribution was Hindi. We held periodic multi-course banquets to which we invited non-Co-oper friends. We had a housemate whose sole duty it was to cultivate and maintain our supply of yoghurt. It was a gentle, nonjudgmental space where I never felt out of place as I regularly had in the dorms.

That early experience of cooperative living set a standard for me in my life after college, where I went on to live in a series of group houses with like-minded friends who shared the cooking and cleaning and much else besides. Even after our marriage, Andrew and I lived for seven years in a group house in the country where our son Nikhil was born and lived until age five. When we moved into our first home as a nuclear family, we did appreciate the new experience of privacy, but missed the company. For Nikhil, group living was the norm; he had never known anything else. When someone he liked came over for dinner, he would regularly ask them if they were going to stay over; if he really liked them he would ask hopefully if they were moving in.

I have not discussed the many other kinds of cooperatives and cooperation that have been so important to my life, and only have time to mention them here: participating in unions at work (TMA 375, 400) co-founding a cooperative news service (TMA 102), and engaging with food cooperatives at a number of levels (see TMA 114). They all had a spirit of egalitarianism, sought to reduce profit margins and eliminate the profit motive, and emphasized the sharing of knowledge and working for the common good rather than seeing others as an obstacle to one’s own individual advancement. Fundamentally, I believe, competition is inherently unhealthy and cooperation is eminently sane. Don’t mean to be pompous or polemical; cooperation has been a lot of fun.

I realize that after 50 years in the United States, I am fundamentally out of step with it in my beliefs about the unhealthiness of competition. However, I also know that there is a strong and perhaps growing minority of Americans who are sick of what rampant U.S. capitalism has brought us and, in this time of the Coronavirus pandemic, who know that the system itself is just plain sick.

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450. A Virtual RUSH

In Books, culture, Music, singing, Stories on March 14, 2020 at 11:10 pm

Nearly every month for nigh on ten years I have been heading up to the Pelham Free Public Library of a Saturday night for RUSH, Rise Up Singing in Harmony, founded by Roger Conant, who passed away less than nine months ago. RUSH is based on the group singing songbooks compiled by Peter Blood and Annie Patterson which have given rise to hundreds of groups like ours all over the world. You show up, with or without musical training, with or without a musical instrument, with or without the Rise Up Singing (1988) and Rise Again (2015) songbooks (there will be extra copies on hand if you don’t own one), and go round the circle singing your hearts out for as long as the group agrees to stick around.

We all count on RUSH for camaraderie and courage through good times and bad. Roger passed the baton to Dan and Nancy, and they have faithfully carried it forward, until just yesterday, when the coronavirus shut just about everything down, including the library. We received two messages from Dan and Nancy, the first one saying stoutly that we would meet as usual and just sit a little farther apart; and the second, just a few hours later, sighing, “The guitarist is willing but the library is closed.” And with it, RUSH. I suppose it’s just as well, since it must be said that most of us are in getting up there in age, and therefore in the population most vulnerable to the virus.

Today, as the afternoon wore on, I found myself singing on my own and lamenting the sad, RUSH-less state of affairs,
until I decided to take matters into my own hands by selecting a handful of songs from each songbook—a baker’s dozen in all—and sharing them below with hyperlinks. Many of the Youtube listeners have posted the lyrics, so perhaps some of you will click on a few and sing along in the spirit of RUSH, even if you don’t have the books.

From the Old Blue Book (Rise Up Singing):

Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore (p. 6)
This is the original, by John Prine, from his first album.
Pack Up Your Sorrows (p. 67)
Richard and Mimi Fariña with Pete Seeger on his television show Rainbow Quest. (Check out Mimi’s beautiful descant.)
Banks of the Ohio (p. 99)
Doc Watson sings with Bill Monroe. (Oh, the harmonizing!)
Catch the Wind (p. 122)
Donovan (at 19).  And here’s Sara Lee Guthrie’s cover.
Shake Sugaree (p. 185)
Elizabeth Cotten on the guitar, with her granddaughter singing.
John O’ Dreams (p. 133)
Christy Moore sings Bill Caddick’s beautiful lullaby.

And from the New Brown Book (Rise Again):

Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie (p. 9)
I love Sweet Honey In the Rock’s rendition, and their harmonies.
Dump the Bosses off Your Back (p. 284)
from the Wobblies’ Little Red Songbook (“to fan the flames of discontent”)
Dear Abby (p. 90)
John Prine again (I can’t help it), a bracing tonic for these hard times: get over yourself!
Many Rivers to Cross (p. 136)
Ah, Jimmy Cliff, from The Harder They Come.
Don’t Worry Be Happy (p. 104)
Bobby McFerrin, with some advice we could all use.
On the Sunny Side of the Street (p. 145)
Billie Holiday’s version has always been the only one for me.
Iko Iko (p. 105)
A New Orleans favorite, sung here by The Dixie Cups (1965). (And here’s another, grittier, version, by the late Dr. John.)

Until we meet again, take care of yourselves and let’s take care of each other.

P.S. Here are a couple more RUSH-related stories from the TMA archives:

No Rush (May, 2015)
“I never died,” says he (August, 2019)

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446. Musings on Multiculturalism

In culture, Education, Food, Inter/Transnational, reflections, Stories on December 7, 2019 at 1:49 pm

Our new house is just a block away from the campus of the University of Massachusetts, the largest public research university in the state. For the past four years in a row its dining program has been ranked the best in the nation, bar none. My family can attest to this; my nephew Tyler completed his four years of undergraduate studies at UMass this year and in his first year, I remember, the often-rocky path from home to dorm life was made smooth by the fabulous food. Better still, family members eat free, so we would regularly be invited to join Tyler for an all-you-can-eat meal with a dizzying array of choices, master chefs and fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Since Tyler graduated we don’t go as often, but it’s a terrific side-benefit of having UMass on our doorstep. Last night Andrew and I walked over to the nearest dining commons for dinner, since we didn’t feel like cooking and on Fridays there’s fried fish on the menu. Among a great many other things.

During the stressful last 12 days of classes, UMass Dining is additionally featuring special treats, comfort foods, and student favorites every day. Yesterday, according to the schedule, the special was the intriguing-sounding Jian Bing crepes, today, sticky rice with mango, and tomorrow, Tonkotsu Ramen bar. But when we entered the main dining hall all we could see were the regular stations—the fish with roasted acorn squash and stuffed red peppers, the gluten-free Jamaican jerk chicken and sesame collard greens, the risotto bar, made to order as you watched, stir fries, also made to order with a choice of ingredients and sauces, the obligatory pasta and pizza sections, burgers of course, including vegetarian black-bean burgers, salads of all descriptions, organic teas, milk from the local dairy farm, fresh fruit and hot chocolate to go, in compostable cups. But ornery as I am, I was disappointed. Where were the advertised specials?

We started with the fish, but even though it was melt-in-the-mouth fresh and flaky, I fretted about what wasn’t there. Still, we enjoyed our first course as I looked around and people-watched. Having endured an undergraduate experience in the early 1970s with a pretty homogeneous group of classmates in terms of race and class, I delight in the international diversity of the UMass student body with so many students from South and East Asia. In my day I had not a single South Asian classmate. But where was the Asian food this evening?

Finally I made inquiries and was directed to an adjacent dining room. There I saw students with promising-looking deep bowls, suggesting the proximity of ramen. But all I could find behind the food counters was the dessert special, freshly made waffle bowls filled with the ice cream and topping of your choice. With ramen on my mind, these failed to tempt. Eventually I was directed to a third room adjoining the second one, and Bingo! There were all the missing specials I’d seen on the online menu. And there, too, were almost all the Asian students.

After racing back to tell Andrew the good news I loaded up a bowl and a plate and came back later for a second plate. After filling the bowl at the ramen station with dumplings and a choice of toppings, I found the Indian food station: pullao rice, naan, chicken, paneer and vegetables, channa (chickpeas), and mini-samosas. Reminding myself that we could make this at home, I took a very modest helping, so as to save space for other choices. It was ridiculous–I was already full, but this food was begging to be enjoyed. The Jian Bing crepes were delicious, made with besan (chickpea flour), egg, and chopped scallions and filled with lettuce, crunchy fried wonton strips, and shredded chicken, and the obliging cook made an all-vegetarian one for Andrew. The station next-door was making sushi to order, but I reluctantly had to give it a miss this time. We ate our fill, followed up with a bowl of sticky rice with mango (delicious) and a gratuitous slice of chocolate mousse pie (too much, I know, but not to be missed) and waddled home clutching cups of hot chocolate (me) and coffee (Andrew). But what I really wanted to talk about was the people.

As I was finding my way to the dining hall with all the deliciousness, I noticed that there were more and more students of color sitting at the tables in the room adjacent to ours, and when I found what I had been looking for, I realized why. On the way back with my first bowl of ramen and plate of Indian food, I saw a long table filled with beautiful, happy, animatedly-talking South Asian students and—I kid you not—a row of young men who all looked like twin brothers of Hasan Minhaj. Now you know that I don’t think all South Asians look alike, but this was completely true, even taking into account my penchant for exaggeration. I was happy to see East Asians, South Asians, students with hijabs, students fresh from sports practice and still in their shorts (it was snowing outside, mind you), students with Santa hats, all laughing and chattering and being warmed inside and out with that delicious comfort food.

Back at our table in the “traditional” room, as the empty plates piled up and I slowed down considerably, my eyes strayed to the students at the tables around us. Even in this room there was a diversity of students, some eating alone, some in couples, and some of the small groups were mixed: men and women, Asians and African Americans, jocks and gaming aficionados, all bonding over food. I can’t say for sure if there were any mixed couples, though, and wondered whether the past fifty years had seen much change in this area, one particularly dear to my heart. There were two women across from us, one South Asian and the other East Asian, and the East Asian student had a large, soft, buttery piece of naan which she was trying to eat with chopsticks. I watched her out of the corner of my eyes with a huge smile spreading over my face, as she tried to handle the naan daintily with the chopsticks, nibbling away at the edges and, as it kept lurching dangerously and threatening to escape, she bit off larger chunks to get it to a manageable size. It looked like one of those contests in which people have to try to take bites out of apples on a string with their hands tied behind their back. By the end of it she was a pro, and, undaunted by the rising carb count, began to tuck heartily into a bowl of sticky rice and mango.

I couldn’t help reflecting on U.S. multiculturalism. It was all here—the benefits of diversity showing in the mixed groups, the exposure of meat-and-potatoes Irish American students to stir fries and sushi, of strictly-stir-fries Asian students to pizza and burgers that their mothers might never prepare at home, the options to suit every dietary restriction. Andrew asked a server to put some kale on his plate of beer-battered fish, but they insisted on giving him a separate plate so as not to accidentally mix a gluten-free dish with a gluten-containing one. But on our way home I thought of the table of Hasan Minhaj lookalikes and the dining room filled almost exclusively with students of color. I thought ruefully of my own student days with not a single South Asian student to be seen (and no vegetarian options but cottage cheese and pasta without sauce), but also, with a pang, of the tables of laughing Latino and African American students to which I didn’t belong any more than I did among the prep-school white American students (we had only immigrated to the U.S. the year before). Much of the time I ate hastily alone and then smuggled some of the meager vegetarian options, such as there were, up to my dorm room for Andrew. Here at UMass, there was not only hot sauce, there were choices of hot sauce, from the ubiquitous tabasco, to Mexican salsas, to the glorious Sriracha. What I would have given for even one of those back in college!

But the celebration of multiculturalism has notoriously meant exposing students to a diversity of holidays and foods but not much else in terms of meaningful structural change. For the most part, despite the diversity in the UMass student body, they still sat together in their separate racial and ethnic groups; and the dramatic demographic difference between the two dining halls was sobering. Still I consoled myself that there had been progress. Asian and Caribbean American students had a taste of their own home cooking and people of their own ethnicity and cultural background to bond with. Although UMass Amherst, out in the boondocks of Western Massachusetts, has far fewer African American students than UMass Boston does, it was heart-warming to see a small group of South Asian and African American students together. And the image that stays with me: the delightful hybridity of that young East Asian student working to maneuver that unmanageably large piece of fresh naan bread into her mouth. Even now, in my mind’s eye, it makes me smile. It’s messy, but we’re getting better at it.

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