Josna Rege

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400. Why Pay those Union Dues?

In Education, history, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on June 30, 2017 at 4:18 am

I do like Roger Miller’s 1965 country hit, King of the Road, a song in the American hobo tradition of the lone drifter, continually movin’ on. But in the second verse, one line never fails to infuriate me. The verse begins:

Third boxcar, midnight train, destination, Bangor, Maine.
Old worn out clothes and shoes,
I don’t pay no union dues. . .

So retrograde! I can’t stand it. Instead I sing out defiantly, no doubt to the irritation of anyone in earshot, I pay my union dues!

Why pay your union dues? I’ll tell you why. Pay them because a union negotiates a contract for the benefit of all the employees. The dues allow the union to function, to organize, to advocate on behalf of the workers. If an employee proudly refuses to pay his dues, like Roger Miller’s self-styled “man of means by no means,” then he is just getting a free ride on the backs of his fellow-workers. That’s shameful in my book.

This pride in refusing to stand with one’s fellow-workers is ornery American individualism, and although I have lived nearly fifty years in this country, it still sticks in my throat. It’s the same individualism that says, Because my children are no longer in school, I will vote against funding the public schools; or Because I’m young and healthy at the moment, I don’t need to pay into the Medicaid or health insurance systems. This flouts the basic principle that makes a national insurance system work: it can provide coverage for all because everyone helps to support it. If only the elderly, the sick, and the disabled paid into the system, it would sink under the weight of the expenses; but if healthy people pay in as well, healthy people who do not draw upon it as much, then the system stays afloat. What the young, healthy, able-bodied people fail to recognize is that they will be old and sick and vulnerable one day, and then the system will support them.

What don’t people get about this principle? Damn it, you don’t have to be a dirty Commie to understand it. It’s the same principle that life insurance companies bank on: actuarial tables demonstrate that young people will pay into a policy for many years and are unlikely to draw on it before it has made a tidy sum of money for the company. If only old people bought life insurance, the premiums would have to be prohibitively high in order to make the company viable.

What makes a seemingly simple and self-explanatory principle so difficult for people to grasp? What makes it not just difficult, but downright un-American? For one, there’s that strong streak of ornery individualism I mentioned earlier, that makes Americans say, How dare they make laws that require me to wear a seatbelt in my own personal car? I’ll ride without a seatbelt if I damn well please, because I’m a free man. A free man, yes; sadly, all-too-often a dead man as well. But hell, they say, if I wanna kill myself, ain’t no government gonna stop me.

cartoon by Evelyn Atwood

Also responsible for this confounding anti-union sentiment in the United States are the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and the so-called Right-to-Work laws. Although Taft-Hartley allowed for the setting up of union shops (which require all new workers to become members of the union), it also allowed individual states to pass laws prohibiting union shops, laws that required workers who refused to pay union dues to receive the same benefits as those who paid their fair share of the union’s operating expenses. These states, which now number 28, are known, in a fine example of Orwellian Doublespeak, as Right-to-Work states. No wonder labor activists referred to Taft-Hartley as the slave-labor bill.

Someone, please write us a new verse for King of the Road that makes it crystal clear how idiotic it is to wear the refusal to pay union dues as a badge of pride. If you don’t want to pay dues, that is your prerogative, I suppose, though you should realize that you thereby weaken the bargaining power of the workers as a whole; but then, American hustler, be principled enough to recognize that you don’t deserve the union’s benefits either. (As an example and a healthy corrective, here’s Peggy Seeger adding some new words to Woody Guthrie’s 1940 favorite, Union Maid.)

King of the Road was that quintessential American loner, a figure that many American men see as attractive, and many American women as downright sexy; I don’t. I suppose I just can’t see the glamor of going it alone when it hurts others as well as oneself.

Note: I got the idea for this post from the June 26th, 2017 edition of The Resistance Report by Robert Reich, a programme broadcast live from Professor Reich’s office most weekdays, and one I watch avidly. In it, Reich, formerly a Secretary of Labor, explains the basic principle on which universal health insurance works and makes it clear how self-defeating it is for working people to oppose it.

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397. Why Should Not Old Women Be Mad?

In Education, Stories, Teaching, Words & phrases, Work on April 28, 2017 at 10:21 pm

St. Trinians girls (Ronald Searle)

I’m so old that when I was in secondary school in England, the teachers still addressed the boys by their last names, as if, anachronistically, we were in some sort of Monty Python sketch. (I’m so old that I was in secondary school before the advent of Monty Python.)

I’m so old that I become enraged by fundraising emails that address me by my first name.

I’m so old that students sending me their late essays via cell phone infuriate me, not by their lateness, or by the fact that I am forced to print them out, but by their failure to include a cover note.

I’m so old that when a student sends me an email message without a cover note, I reply with a cold (and to them, bewildering), “Were you addressing me?” or “Excuse me, but did you intend to send that message to me?”

I am so impossibly old that when, in their essays, students call eminent scholars like Edward Said “Edward,” or Martin Luther King, Jr. “Martin,” I say, with withering sarcasm, “Oh, I didn’t know you were on a first-name basis with him.” (It goes right over their heads.)

It’s contradictory, I know, that in email messages to my students I sign off with my first name, but have the urge to (cyber)slap them if they dare to address me as such. Although to tell you the truth, I am grateful when they address me at all. Nowadays one is lucky if a message from a student starts with a “Hey!”

By the way, while I’m giving vent to righteous indignation, Woe Betide any student who makes any of the following cardinal slip-ups, whether orally or in writing:

Pakistan is in the Middle East;
India is in Southeast Asia; or
the Mahatma’s name is spelled G-h-a-n-d-i.

I’m not done yet: on the subject of names, if you are giving an oral presentation on an eminent writer or scholar from Elsewhere, you are responsible for finding out how to pronounce his or her name beforehand. S-a-i-d is pronounced with two syllables; it emphatically does not rhyme with ‘head’. Why is it that you can do Dostoevsky without hesitation, but—like the British—balk at Bandopadhyay? Stay after class and repeat “Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak” as many times as it takes to get it right.

By the way, I’m so old that in my day they still sent the boys to the Headmaster to be caned. Just sayin’.

Mr. Quelch and Billy Bunter

All right; I’m done now.

With apologies to William Butler Yeats: Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?

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375. Unions

In blogs and blogging, Education, history, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on April 26, 2016 at 2:40 am


Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

UI’ve just returned from a 25th anniversary celebration of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), UAW 2322, a union of graduate students that organized and went on strike to gain recognition while I was in graduate school. We went from abjection to dignity through standing up and demanding that our work be recognized as the work it patently was, and not merely as part of our graduate education. We also won year-round family health insurance, fee waivers, a decreased workload, and a substantially increased rate of pay per course.

I am extremely thankful for the trade union movement, for the struggles of workers in the past to secure rights, benefits, and working conditions that I take for granted today. Andrew’s grandfather was a union man, and I have written before about how, when his union won a half-day on Saturday, he began taking his son—Andrew’s father—on a special outing on that half-day. My mother has always been a strong supporter of unions, and it was a great disappointment to her that by the time her workplace finally got around to unionizing, she had technically been promoted to management. As for me, I have been a member of three different unions over the years, the IWW in the 1980s, GEO in the 1990s, and the MSCA over the past 10 years. Without them, I would be insecure, lonely, alienated, and broke.

UnknownWhetstone Press was organized as a three-person worker’s cooperative. We collectively owned and operated the business and gave ourselves excellent health insurance but very little else; we couldn’t afford it. A significant portion of our business involved printing for non-profit organizations who would only use a union shop, so it was imperative that we unionized, but at a grand total of three, we were too small for just about any union to accept us.

Except for the Wobblies. Their slogan was One Big Union, and no one was too small for them. We paid a pittance in dues and became proud members of the Industrial Workers of the World. I used to enjoy reciting the preamble to the IWW Constitution, which begins:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

imagesThe funny thing was, of course, that in our case we were the workers as well as the employers! The irony wasn’t lost on us; it just gave us all the more delight in declaiming the “revolutionary watchword, ‘abolition of the wage system.’” That worked, since we didn’t make any wages to speak of and had few prospects of doing so in the future.

I tease gently, but make no mistake, I do not mock, for the Wobblies, the union of Joe Hill, have a noble history and I’m proud to have been a tiny part of it for a short while.

Now I’m thankful to be teaching at a public university whose faculty is unionized as the MSCA, under the umbrella of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. It’s strange indeed that we are forbidden to strike; everyone knows that the strike has historically been the principal weapon and ultimate recourse of a union. Then, too, not all professors think of themselves as workers. But we are workers nonetheless, and I’m glad of the solidarity across disciplines in a system that can be stratified and competitive.

Unions bring me joy. Sing it!

Solidarity Forever

Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
For the union makes us strong

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358. Darjeeling

In 1960s, blogs and blogging, Education, India, Nature, places, Stories on April 6, 2016 at 12:19 am

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

photo by Karl Hagen

photo by Karl Hagen

DDarjeeling is a hill station in West Bengal, India, set mile-high in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was formerly part of Sikkim and its name derives from Dorje Ling, abode of the thunderbolt, a monastery built for the Chogyal of Sikkim in the mid-nineteenth century. Its diverse population of about 130,000 includes Gorkhas, Lephchas, Bhutias, Bengalis, Marwaris, Anglo-Indians, Chinese, Biharis, and Tibetans. It is justly famous for its flowery, faintly orange-scented tea, its cool climate, its ancient narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that chugs up from the plains, its botanical garden, its Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (founded by Tenzing Norgay), and, when the mists clear, its stunning views of Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world.

I love Darjeeling because it was my home for two and a half years during my teens, when my parents sent me to boarding school there, to Mount Hermon, where the snows of Kanchenjunga were the view from our dormitory window. Keeping in touch with my MH friends and classmates (Batch of ’69), drinking whole-leaf Darjeeling tea, lifting my voice and my eyes to the mountains as we did every day, and recalling the awe-inspiring beauty of the Himalayan landscape, all continue to bring me joy.

Some 17 years ago the Batch of ’69 celebrated its 30th anniversary in Kathmandu, hosted by Lobsang, our classmate who is settled there. Three of us, Tsognie, Marianne, and I, being based in the U.S., were unable to travel to Nepal at that time, and so we got together at the same time for a mini-reunion at my house. We made a video in which we reminisced, sang MH songs, and sent our greetings to everyone. In it, Marianne, who has the clearest, purest voice I have ever heard, sang To Sir with Love, that she had first learned as a tribute to our class teacher, Mr. Mellor. In short order, we converted the videocassette from the U.S. NTSC format into the Indian PAL, and sent it to Kathmandu by Global Express Mail. (This was before Skype or Youtube were founded (2003 and 2005, respectively) and email, even if some people had access to it, was slow and unreliable.)

Our video got to Kathmandu on time, but on that day it was either a long weekend or the post office was closed due to a strike. Our classmates celebrated without us while it languished in the mailroom. Months later, Mr. Mellor, who was retired back in Australia by then, visited Calcutta (just before it became Kolkata again), where we believe that members of our batch of ’69 showed him the video. We hope it meant half as much to him to receive it as it meant to us to record it for him. Mr. Mellor passed away not long afterwards, and so did dear Santosh, our classmate who had brought us all together on an email list after many years.

I realize that my tone here is nostalgic; but Darjeeling is a place of such sublime natural beauty that, even half a century later, it is still able to cast its mountain mists upon my inward eye, bringing with it that emotion recollected in tranquility so treasured by the Romantic poets.

I had to leave Darjeeling a year before the rest of my class graduated. While it was a wrenching parting for me, Darjeeling itself was devastated almost immediately afterwards by the terrible landslide of 1968. It was not until twenty-five years later that I returned again, and I haven’t been able to return since. How is it that a place lived in for such a short time, and that too so long ago, still means so much to me?

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352. Parents Modeling Manners

In 2010s, Education, Family, Food, parenting, Stories on January 30, 2016 at 8:35 pm


While out on Saturday errands with Mum this afternoon, I had the opportunity to witness three different parents modeling manners to their children, consciously or otherwise. In each case the parent was alone with one child; and in each case the child’s behavior mirrored the parent’s perfectly.

Our first errand was to pick up some take-out Chinese food for dinner. Mum negotiated the walk from the car to the restaurant and back like a good sport, though it was a bit of a rigmarole. On the way back out I had one hand full with the bag of food and the other one holding Mum’s, so I was happy to see a little girl, maybe ten or eleven years old, run up from behind us and hold the door open for us; I thanked her, and then heard her mother giving her quiet directions in a language I couldn’t readily recognize (Polish, perhaps, or Albanian?), after which she hurried back through the first door and opened the outer door as well. After thanking her again, I said to Mum in a voice loud enough for both mother and daughter to hear, “What a nice girl!”—at which she gave us a shy smile and skipped back to her mother’s side.

rsz_5d7a5851_grandeOn to our favorite small supermarket, which is usually ridiculously crowded on the weekends; but Mum doesn’t mind because she likes seeing all the children and babies. We only needed a couple of things, and when I saw the long lines at the checkout counters, I half-regretted having come, but it was too late. So we took our place in a queue and I hoped that the ice cream wouldn’t melt before we were through.

Parallel to us in the next line over was a dad with his son, also ten or eleven, I would guess, and a shopping cart loaded to overflowing with provisions. The father had just realized that he had forgotten a particular item, and was describing it to his son so that he could go and look for it. He was a foreigner or a new immigrant, I guessed, since he was speaking quietly in French to his son, who listened attentively and then darted away with a will, as if on a treasure hunt. While he was gone, his father was continually looking around, clearly a bit worried that the boy might be getting lost. He returned eventually, brandishing a packet of pre-made guacamole, but it turned out to be not quite the right one. It was the spicy variety, and Papa had wanted the plain; close, but no cigar, as Andrew’s Grandpa Victor used to say. So off went the boy again, while the father resumed his alert waiting.

Now came a third parent and child into the mix: a father with a girl-child, perhaps eight or nine. He stepped up behind the man with the overloaded shopping cart, and said to the girl, in a rather-too-loud voice, so that everyone in the vicinity could hear: “This looks like the shortest line—only an hour to wait, maybe two; unless you would rather put this back.” It could be seen that the little girl was in a fine fury, and that the only item they were purchasing was the bar of chocolate that she was clutching. The father was clearly just about out of patience with her, but she, just as clearly, had no intention of giving it up.

Of course the soft-spoken man with the overloaded shopping cart told the girl’s father that they could go on ahead of him, since they had only the one item. Without a word of thanks that I could hear, and certainly without a “Say thank you to the nice man who has offered to let you go through first,” the girl’s father gave her a five-dollar bill and instructions on where to stand, told her that he would be waiting up front for her, and promptly disappeared. Now the boy’s father was not only looking round anxiously for his son but also feeling compelled to keep an eye on the girl, whose face was screwed up into a fixed scowl, and brow beetled into a dark thundercloud.

(from The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies)                                                                    (from The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies)

The boy came back, this time with two packets of guacamole. Bingo! One was the right one, but the other needed to be returned, and since it was going to be a few minutes more before their turn came, Papa gave him one last errand to run. Off he went, without a murmur of complaint. Meanwhile Sulky Susan was waiting impatiently to get to the top of the line, and, without anyone on whom to vent her spleen, was getting furiouser and furiouser. Well before the checkout clerk had finished with the shopper in front of her, she was leaning in with both elbows on the counter, shoving her purchase and her money in front of him and scowling even more ferociously. The clerk was keeping his temper by studiously ignoring her, which, of course, only infuriated her still further. Dad was still nowhere to be seen, probably taking long draughts on a cigarette out in the parking lot.



At last the boy returned triumphant, bearing with him the special box of hot-chocolate preparation that his father had described. Rewarded with a loving high five from Papa, he took his place beside the cart just as they got to the top of the line. I didn’t see the reunion of father number two and darling daughter. Mum and I had got to the top of the line ourselves, and Mum had waited uncomplainingly all that time, just watching the world go by.


A couple of additional pieces of information, which may or may not be pertinent here: the French-speaking father and son were black, while the father-daughter duo were white Americans, the little girl a blonde who might have been pretty if it hadn’t been for the grimace, which made her look like a gargoyle.

IMG_3380If someone had offered me a place ahead of him in that long line today, I would have thanked him profusely and instructed my child to do the same. However, if she had been behaving as that girl was, I might have said, “Thanks a lot, it’s very kind of you, but I think we’ll wait our turn.” That would have modeled politeness and fair play, and might even have made her ask herself whether she really wanted that chocolate bar after all. But surely a thinking American could also have considered the recent history of his or her black compatriots being relegated to the back—the back of the line, of the class, of the bus—while whites took their place in front as a matter of course. What kind of manners was that father modeling to his child, who was likely to grow up taking her (white) privilege for granted, pouting her way to the top, and quite certain all the while that she was the one being hard done by.

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337. Lessons from a Historian

In 1970s, Books, Education, Family, history, parenting, people, Stories, United States on July 4, 2015 at 9:49 am
Howard Zinn addressing an anti-war rally on the Boston Common, 1971 (Boston Globe)

Howard Zinn addressing an anti-war rally on the Boston Common, 1971 (Boston Globe)

Years ago, around 1978, I participated in an anti-nuclear rally on the Boston Common where Howard Zinn spoke. I can’t remember the exact occasion of the rally or the main thrust of his talk, but one piece of advice in it stuck. Zinn’s words of wisdom have since come back to me in numerous very different situations involving negotiations with those in power.

“Always ask for what you want,” he told us, “never what you think you can get.”

He went on to explain what we have all experienced in one setting or another, but I had never quite articulated to myself as a political principle.

If an employee asks for a pay increase, for instance, probability is that the employer will come back with a lower offer rather than meeting the demand—that is, if he entertains it at all. People who feel themselves to be powerless start negotiations timidly and self-defeatingly by asking for less than they really want; but this guarantees that they will never get it, since the rules of power dictate that the powerful will always drive it down.

Power is (almost) never relinquished voluntarily, only under pressure, and of course a group of people can collectively exert more pressure than most individuals could ever hope to do. Another reason to articulate what you want, then, is to inspire other people. An individual going up against Power alone may gain something for him/herself, but the gain will be individual and limited; it cannot spark a movement for lasting social change.


When I heard Howard Zinn speak all those years ago, he must have been in the process of writing A People’s History of the United States (first published in 1980, most recent edition, 2005), which sets out to present American history through the eyes of the common people rather than political and economic elites. Of course, historiography—and the book’s title—tells us that this is one of many approaches to telling a story, and not the dominant one; Zinn’s popular and influential book has been challenged by many who question his political perspective. It is axiomatic that history is written by the powerful, so his approach is an important corrective to the history that most of us have been taught in school.

(from Occupy Oakland)

(from Occupy Oakland)

Children become masters in dealing with power in the persons of their parents. So it is no wonder that our son had internalized Zinn’s lesson long before he even learned to read; in fact, he went one better. His strategy was to make an outrageous demand, asking for much more than he knew was possible and then bargaining us down to what he really wanted. He invariably ended up with much more than his parents, putty in his hands, ever intended. So at bedtime, for example, he might ask me to finish reading the book and then bargain me down to “just” three chapters. (Come to think of it,  that doesn’t make a good analogy, since what he really wanted was usually what I wanted too.)

I write this on July 4th, Independence Day in the United States. Yesterday, a public radio station was asking listeners to share what it was that made them feel patriotic. I started making a mental list, which included national parks and public libraries. Add to that list the late Howard Zinn. howardzinnreadin

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333. Like Some Forgotten Dream

In Britain, Education, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, postcolonial, reading, Stories on May 31, 2015 at 11:42 am


And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream
That we’ve both seen
             Hello In There, John Prine

When I was younger I was a news hound. In the late 1970s a group of us founded No Nuclear News, a cooperative anti-nuclear clipping service which covered newspapers and relevant journals across the United States and around the world. As an expatriate I kept up with the news from India and Britain religiously so as not to fall out of touch, subscribing to India Abroad and The Manchester Guardian Weekly, which was then a compilation of the best stories from The Guardian (UK), Le Monde, and the Washington Post. During that same period I was also an avid reader of Race Today, a British monthly produced by a collective based in Brixton under the mentorship of C. L. R. James and edited by Darcus Howe. To me it was a model of engaged journalism, covering stories over the long term, and assigning a member of the collective not only to follow but to participate in the initiative being covered. Throughout my 20s and 30s I made sure to keep abreast of current events both locally and globally, at least on the issues and in the places about which I cared the most.

7. Race Today JOU_1_1_87_17cm

In my 30s I embarked, belatedly, on post-graduate study, embracing joyfully the then-emergent field of postcolonial studies, which seemed designed for me personally. Inevitably my reading habits changed, but because more than half the reason I chose this particular field was to maintain my connection with South Asia and Britain, keeping up with the news was still important to me. From India I read everything from Femina and India Today to Manushi, The Hindu, DawnFrontline, Seminar, and Economic & Political Weekly. From Britain I started reading the New Statesman and the London Review of Books.


Post-PhD in the mid-1990s, I started full-time teaching around the same time email and the internet were becoming a source of news. The demands of teaching and scholarship were both an incentive and an impediment to keeping up. I had to scan scholarly periodicals in my field as well as newspapers and more popular magazines. To save time, I began to subscribe to email news digests and to receive notices of the new issues of journals I followed. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, over the next decade or so I found myself slipping. My father-in-law Ted renewed my LRB subscription annually and faithfully clipped articles for me on India, Britain, and my favorite writers from his beloved New York Times, and I counted on Andrew to update me on the many international issues which he followed. My father took over the India Abroad subscription and alerted me to new novels by South Asian and South Asian diaspora writers. But somewhere along the way, especially in the mass-media environment after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City (which I still resist referring to as “9/11”), it all caught up with me; I felt myself caring less.

In my late 40s and through my 50s I became overloaded with information. I still tried to keep up, but in vain. The increasing demands of everyday life, both personally and professionally, and the media-saturated internet environment were responsible in part, but so was my world-weariness. In the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, the idea of imperialism underwent media rehabilitation and in many quarters was no longer a dirty word. When the U.S. occupied Iraq and began bombing several other countries without even declaring war on them, it was more urgent than ever to combat colonial ideology; but now there was a new buzz-word: globalization. Despite the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the nuclear power industry began going on the offensive again after a couple of decades in hibernation. Even as the neo-liberal ideologies espoused by politicians on both the left and the right (these categories not making much sense any more) touted post-nationalism and free trade across national borders, rabid nationalisms seemed to be on the rise the world over while, for ordinary people, borders and boundaries became more impermeable than ever. Never had these issues been more urgent, but never had I been so tired: I had heard it all before.

While my father-in-law still clips India-related articles for me from the New York Times, I no longer read a print newspaper or magazine on a regular basis, let alone from cover to cover, as he does. I still receive my LRB every fortnight, but it is my father who reads it from cover to cover, while I scan the Table of Contents and read selected reviews, then too several weeks late. With the hyperlinked news stories one’s friends post on Facebook and other social media, it is easy to be under the illusion that one is keeping abreast of the news; but in fact one is consuming superficial and highly selective fare. Of course there are now excellent online news sites, journals, and news blogs that one can follow for free or subscribe to digitally; but again, just because one subscribes to them one does not necessarily read them consistently or in depth. (For instance, I have a digital subscription to The Nation, but only read it from time to time. I have downloaded special issues of Himal Southasian that still await my perusal.) More frequently one (okay, I) merely scans the headlines, skims a hyperlinked story that catches the eye on Facebook over a cup of tea, and clicks “Like.”


Lately, though, my old craving for currency has revived. Although I still feel, like the old couple in John Prine’s song, that “all the news just repeats itself/like some forgotten dream,” I can’t stop believing that it matters. It is precisely because the powerful will keep on acting in their own interests and manipulating the news media to reflect them, that one has to keep abreast of the news behind the headlines, following stories in depth, not as soundbytes, and offering informed interpretations to counter the constant commercial media barrage.

This morning I visited The Hindu online. In the past couple of hectic weeks the only Indian/Indian diaspora news stories that have filtered through to me in headlines and on social media have been the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to China, the heat-related deaths in India, and the Indian American winners of the National Geographic spelling bee. How much more there is behind those stories, and how much more pressing! Similarly in Britain where, since the recent elections all I seem to have heard about is the FIFA scandal, half an hour browsing the world news and opinion pages of The Guardian (UK) website suffices to remind me of recent developments on a dozen fronts from immigration to youth culture.

So much news, so little time. For me the solution is a combination of selective skimming and in-depth reading. Yes, the news repeats itself; all the more reason why we oldsters who have seen it before must continue to weigh in. It is not a dream, and those who would wish us to go on sleeping are not our friends.

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322. Stereotyping

In blogs and blogging, Education, Media, reading, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases, Work, writing on April 23, 2015 at 1:43 pm

atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910





I’ll never forget the time when, as a post-graduate teaching associate, I discovered that I had been guilty of stereotyping. There was a blonde-haired student in one of my classes, someone who sat at the back of the class and, by the provocative way that she dressed, seemed to fit to a T the stereotype of the dumb blonde. I wrote her off as a student who wasn’t serious and as we entered the last month of the semester, I still hadn’t learned her name. One evening toward the end of the teaching semester, I was reading student essays when I came across a brilliant paper from a student whose name I didn’t recognize. I took it to the next class with glowing comments on it, and began to call out students’ names as I returned their papers. To my surprise and shame, the writer of the exceptional essay had been that nameless “blonde” in the back row.

Now I began to sit up and take notice. Sure enough, everything that came across my desk from her was stamped with the same brilliance that it had taken me nearly 10 weeks to recognize. Her final paper offered an explanation I hadn’t considered. As a child, my student had been abused by a close male relative. Somehow, despite her intelligence, she continued to present herself as a knowing and precocious little girl, dressed to please men. And this self-presentation, reinforcing as it did the prevalent stereotype, effectively masked the articulate, intellectually sophisticated, deeply hurt young woman underneath.

I hope that I learned a lasting lesson that semester. Ever since, I have worked hard to refrain from labeling my students, no matter how much they might play to my prejudices.

We all know the tendency within ourselves, in society at large, and in the mass media, to fall prey to stereotyping whole groups of people, seeing all members of that group as cast from the same mold. Whether the stereotyped images are perceived to be positive or negative, stereotyping is harmful, since it oversimplifies—and inevitably, dehumanizes—the multifaceted and continually shifting complexities that make up a human being.

Social psychologists tell us that we engage in stereotyping because society continually bombards us with stereotyped images, especially through the mass media, that reinforce the dominant ideology. They also explain that stereotyping is a quick, convenient, even at times, life-saving, means of gaining information about a person. In our prehistoric past, a stranger’s external features and trappings could identify him or her as an ally or as member of a hostile tribe. Presumably one could kill first, ask questions later. The alarming numbers of police killings of persons of color in the United States today are a terrible result of such racial profiling—stereotyping by another name.

Stereotype, 1725

Stereotype, 1725

It turns out that the words ‘stereotype’ and ‘stereotyping’ have their origins in letterpress printing. Here is the definition and description of the process of stereotyping on the website of The Museum of Printing in North Andover, Massachusetts.

STEREOTYPING: For large (or repeated) runs of books or newspapers, neither hot-metal machine-composition type nor hand-composed foundry type is ideal. Having large quantities of type metal in standing forms is expensive inventory; also both kinds of type wear (machine comp wears faster than the harder foundry, but the wear on foundry is capital depreciation). In addition, only one press can print the result of one composition; to have multiple presses running hand comp would require multiple settings (and multiple errors and proofings). The solution to this problem is the stereotype (or in French, the cliché), by which each multi-page form, in a special chase, is cast into a solid thin metal plate, which may be printed either upon patent bases on standard presses or on rotary presses built for stereo plates. Multiple plates can thus be made from one setting (hence stereo); and once the plates are made, the type can be distributed or melted for reuse. Mats taken from the type form can be expressed to remote sites for casting, allowing coordinated advertising and syndicated copy without resetting.

A stereotype, then, was originally a “‘solid plate of type metal, cast from a papier-mâché or plaster mould (called a flong)

A stereotype mold (

A stereotype mold (“flong”) being made (wikipedia)

taken from the surface of a forme of type’ used for printing instead of the original” (OED Vol. 9, qtd. in Wikipedia). So the casting of type into metal plates enabled printers to save time and money, protect valuable type from wear, and make multiple copies from an original simultaneously in different locations. In English, these metal plates were called stereotypes; in French, clichés.

Interesting, isn’t it? A stereotype is a shortcut in time and money that allows for the mass production of an image, the danger being the widespread dissemination of a single image, quite likely at the expense of others. A cliché is a well-worn image or phrase that loses meaning and accuracy because of its overuse.

George-Orwell-at-his-typewriter-771x1024In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell described clichés as worn-out and useless metaphors, pre-fabricated phrases, short-cuts that sacrifice freshness, accuracy, and meaning itself. “A lump of verbal refuse,” he called every last one of them, that should be thrown “into the dustbin where it belongs.”

Today, with the dominance of digital typesetting, offset printing, and online publishing, printing stereotypes have largely been rendered obsolete (thank goodness for The Museum of Printing and others like it). But sadly the mental short-cut of stereotyping our fellow human beings is still very much alive. Let’s cast it into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

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304. Against the Grain

In blogs and blogging, Books, Education, Nature, Politics, reading, Stories, Words & phrases on April 1, 2015 at 11:53 pm

UnknownWorking in a small letterpress job shop and not being much of a printer, I had to do a lot of hand-folding—of invitations and announcements, diplomas, greeting cards, programmes, menus, and the like. If the paper was lightweight, 20 or even 24-lb stock, then folding was easy, particularly with a good folding bone. But when it came to card stock, it was essential to design the job so as not to have to fold against the grain, since that produced a jagged line, full of cracks. As long as you went with the grain of the paper, your fold would be smooth and straight, and the task effortless.

I can’t remember how young I was when I first encountered the expression “against the grain,” but I seem to recall that it was generally used to refer to an action that would trouble the conscience; something out of character, at odds with a person’s very nature. For a generous person it would go against the grain to turn away a beggar, as would anything crooked for a straight arrow.

In those innocent days I took the conscience to be an inbuilt barometer of right and wrong, so that going against the grain would necessarily mean doing something wrong. Much later, after my effortless girlhood, after my paper-folding twenties, I went in for postgraduate study, where I learned, as one does in grad. school, that everything I thought I knew for sure was in fact wrong; everything I thought had been in place from time immemorial had in fact been invented in the nineteenth century; and going against the grain, troubling that smooth, straight fold, was in fact the responsibility of educated men and women.

Cracked-spine paper (

Cracked-spine paper (

Why, you may well ask? Because what we have been taught to see as part of the natural order of things is in fact socially constructed. It is because it is part of the dominant discourse it is made to seem natural and is internalized as such. Thus, in the nineteenth-century hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, we are made to believe that just as God made “each little flower that opens/each little bird that sings” he also made,

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Peter Barry cites this verse in his Beginning Theory (a text I use in one of my undergraduate classes), noting:

It is obvious here that social inequality is being ‘naturalised’, that is, literally, disguised as nature, and viewed as a situation which is ‘god-given’ and inescapable, when actually it is the product of a specific politics and power structure.

When an idea becomes ingrained—established, entrenched—it becomes the path of least resistance for one’s thoughts and inclinations. Reading against the grain, then, becomes an important act of resistance.

It is late at night, and for some reason what keeps coming to mind is Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic. Surely Jimi was going against the grain, and delighting in it. But tonight, when I finally climb into bed, rather than counting sheep I will imagine myself folding stacks of freshly-cut, creamy-white card stock, in long, smooth, strokes, with the grain, effortlessly.

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283. Categories or Continuums?

In Education, India, Inter/Transnational, Nature, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases on September 6, 2014 at 3:20 pm


I’m a Cancer, but born on the cusp of Gemini. So I’m home-loving, even deeply traditional, on the one hand, extroverted and edgy on the other.

Why do I find myself accounting in this way for the fact that I’m a bundle of contradictions, even though I really believe that astrology—at least as a way of understanding and explaining character and personality—is a load of old bollocks? Does a superficial recourse to the Zodiac and other manmade categories like it really help me to know myself, is it just an easy and acceptable way of accounting for my nature, of reducing my complexity and variability to something to which I can give a name?

It’s true that there’s little I love more than savoring a cup of tea in my favorite china tea-cup or, all things being equal, curling up with a packet of Digestive biscuits and a book I’ve read umpteen times before. At the same time I am a creature of strong opinions, frequently full of enthusiasm for everything I do and with the drive that enables me to do battle with the outside world (even if, in my heart of hearts, I’d rather not).



When I was a child I distinctly remember thinking how glad I was that I was a girl. Why? Because, I reasoned, a girl doesn’t have to go to war and a girl doesn’t have to make the first move. But then I was also a chatterbox who loved to perform, the kind of annoying child who sits in the front row and shoots her hand up the instant the teacher asks a question. When I was a teenager I remember agonizing over the dilemma of liking a certain boy, but wanting to be sure of his interest in me before I actively pursued him. Otherwise, I asked myself, how would I ever be sure whether he really liked me or whether he had just fallen prey to me? But after holding myself back for a few short days, hoping to discern whether he had any particular interest in me, I couldn’t stand it any longer and pursued him anyway. After all, this was 1970, the era of women’s liberation, no longer the dark ages when a young woman (we rejected the word “girl”) either had to wait passively for a man to pursue her, holding him at bay until she had extracted a pledge of marriage from him, or subtly exercised her feminine wiles to attract and entrap her unsuspecting man, all the while allowing him to think that in fact he had been the pursuer. But all along, in my heart of hearts, I would rather that he had pursued me from the beginning.


Curious, isn’t it, society’s investment in the difference between the sexes, when 22 out of the 23 pairs of human chromosomes in every human cell are the same, and only one, the pair of sex chromosomes, is different. Do we ever know how much of this difference is inherent in our very natures, our hormones, our genetic makeup, and how much is imposed on us and inculcated in us by society? I teach contemporary theory to undergraduates, and there too, even as social construction is a buzzword so too is la différence (not to mention Jacques Derrida’s différance). When it comes to the study of gender theory, I show them how concepts of femininity and masculinity vary both temporally and spatially, across centuries and societies, which argues for the constructedness of their identities. At the same time we discuss French feminists and others who celebrate the essential, biological differences between men and women. Moving on to current gender politics, we discuss genders and transgenders, both those who identify with one or the other and those who seek to break with gender binaries altogether.


My students, even the most conservative, find it relatively easy to accept that there are people with different gender identities and sexual preferences from their own, and even to accept that they deserve equal rights under the law. What they find much more difficult, though, is to entertain a questioning of their own gender identity in anything other than fixed or unitary terms. And yet the older I become, the more I come to believe that all these socially constructed categories, whether they are the notion of two genders, or nine Enneagrams, or twelve signs of the Zodiac, merely seek to simplify the complex and shifting mystery of who we are. The most accurate explanatory concept that I have come across is that of the continuum.

A critical contribution to feminist theory in the 1970s and 1980s was the late Adrienne Rich’s 1986 landmark essay, Compulsory Sexuality and Lesbian Existence. In our contemporary theory class, discussion often focuses on her notion of the lesbian continuum. It sought to create a stronger sense of community between heterosexual feminists and lesbian feminists by proposing that the concept of gender identity was not binary, but could more accurately be seen as a continuum; further, that being a woman-identified woman need not be narrowly limited to sexual activity, but could include a whole range of non-sexual intimate relationships with other women.

My heterosexual female students tend to accept Rich’s argument, but only to a certain point, sadly, missing most of Rich’s point as I understand it. They are quite willing to accept that their relationships with their best girlfriends have an importance to them that could not be replaced by relationship with a man, even if that man was their lover or husband. They resent it when their preference for spending time with their girlfriends, whether it’s having sleepovers with them or walking down the street arm-in-arm, is labeled as “lesbian” by onlookers or jealous boyfriends. They are willing to embrace and defend these homosocial relationships and even to elevate them over relationships with the opposite sex. But they stop short of seeing them as part of Rich’s lesbian continuum, which posits “all relations among women as different in degree but not in kind from erotic love” (Eric, Engendering Theory). That is, no matter how much the idea of a continuum makes eminent sense to them, as soon as there is any danger of their being perceived as homosexual, they reject the continuum and rush to shore up the wall between themselves and lesbians. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homosexual panic takes hold.

Arhdanareeshwara (kamat.com_

Ardhanareeshwara (

When I am in India I love nothing more than wearing a sari. In the United States, it tends to exoticize and embarrass me (see TMA 154, Saraswati and Sari-wearing), but in India, where it is the norm for women, it gives me pleasure on so many levels, from the ritual of draping it, to the flowing feel of walking in it, to the sense of belonging it offers to an insider-outsider like me. Yet when I return to the States, the beautiful saris languish in my closet in favor of a nondescript, socially acceptable uniform at work and, at home, the same pair of worn old jeans day after day. When I was last in India having a videochat with a new American friend, she was startled to see my apparent transformation. Suddenly I looked like “one of them,” someone she didn’t know. In her sudden panic, she couldn’t help but blurt out that she hoped that I would be myself again when I got home.

The truth is, each and all of these shifting and changing identities is/are me, severally and together. I continually slide back and forth between and among them, and resent the notion that I should have to hide or deny any of them, just as I reject the notion that one of them is my “real self.” That self, still elusive after all these years, is much, much more than can be contained in a set of clunky categories. In my view (with apologies to Believers), “Cancer on the cusp of Gemini” gestures towards it, perhaps as well as any categorizing system, but really doesn’t have a clue.

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