Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

438. “I never died,” says he

In Family, history, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Stories on August 19, 2019 at 2:23 am

This past weekend, August 16-18, was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the “three days of peace, love, and music” on a dairy farm in New York State, attended by 400,000 people and including musicians Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe and the Fish, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Sly and the Family Stone, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Santana, and Jimi Hendrix. Although my father came to the United States that same month, in August, 1969, my mother, sister and I didn’t follow until February of the following year, and I always felt that my arrival was somehow belated, that at not-quite-sixteen I had already missed the height of the youth movement that found its expression there. When the three-hour concert film came out, just a month after our arrival, and the triple album a few weeks later, I watched and listened avidly, again and again, until it became, if not entirely part of me, then certainly a part of how I saw this strange new country and my generation in it. Watching the PBS documentary, Woodstock, the other night, and listened to a young and pregnant Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill”:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died,” says he
“I never died,” says he.

I thought about what that song had come to mean to me since. Joe Hill or Joel Emmanuel Hägglund (1879-1915) immigrated to the U.S. from his native Sweden in 1902 and became a union organizer. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the “Wobblies,” and wrote labor organizing songs for them, fought in the Mexican Revolution, and then was charged and executed for two murders that he hadn’t committed. Joe Hill, sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock, was written by Alfred Hayes, set to music by Earl Robinson, and popularized in the 1930s and 1940s by the great Paul Robeson.

In the 1980s, while we were in our twenties, Andrew, Eve, and I founded Whetstone Press, a letterpress print shop, and made the IWW our union label. We delighted in being part of the Wobbly heritage and in The Little Red Songbook (first published in 1913), full of songs by the likes of Joe Hill and Utah Phillips. Through the years, in the movement against nuclear power and weapons, protests against U.S. interventions in Central and South America, solidarity with the South African people’s struggle against apartheid, forming a graduate-student union, these songs became old standbys.

Much later, around 2011, now in my 50s, I joined a monthly singing group called RUSH (Rise Up Singing in Harmony), based on Annie Patterson and Peter Blood’s songbook, Rise Up Singing, and organized by the indefatigable Roger Conant, who, in the tradition of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, and Joe Hill, believed in the power of song to bring people together in solidarity. It was a loose fellowship, and people came and went, though there were regulars, and I became one of them. One of the people who attended from time to time was an elderly gentleman called Ward Morehouse, whom I didn’t know outside of the group, but who always requested labor and union songs, like The Banks are Made of Marble, sung here by Pete Seeger; “Joe Hill” was one of his favorites.

Not long after Ward and his wife Carolyn Oppenheim had started coming to RUSH, we received the sad news that he had passed away. It was only then, after reading his obituary, that I learned that he himself had been an active labor organizer and, furthermore, that he had led the movement in the U.S. against Union Carbide on behalf of the workers killed and incapacitated in 1984 by the deadly gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide facility in Bhopal, India. That led me to write a new verse of “Joe Hill” in his honor* and to attend Ward Morehouse’s memorial service along with my mother.

In 2012 Mum was 85 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for at least five years. However, she could still sing along to the songs on the programme for the service, and it turned out that she knew most of them. Carolyn had asked Roger Conant to lead the singing, and I was happy to see that Mum was really entering into the spirit of it. While everyone was singing the international workers’ anthem, “The Internationale”, I glanced over at her, and as she sang the rousing chorus, her fist was raised high in the air.

Here are the lyrics to Billy Bragg’s updated version of The Internationale. And here is a moving rendition of it being sung en masse in Leicester, England. One verse in particular speaks to me loud and clear at this moment in time:

Let no one build walls to divide us
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone
In our world poisoned by exploitation
Those who have taken, now they must give
And end the vanity of nations
We’ve but one Earth on which to live

My dear mother has since passed away and, just recently, so has Roger Conant. They are sorely missed. But just as the spirit of Woodstock lives on, wherever people gather in solidarity and song, they will be with us.

Joan Baez at Woodstock


*The verse of “Joe Hill” for Ward Morehouse:

From Bhopal to Atlanta,
When companies don’t play fair
Where working folk defend their rights
Ward Morehouse will be there
Ward Morehouse will be there.





Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents


433. No particular place to go

In Education, Family, people, Stories on May 12, 2019 at 2:20 pm

For the first time ever I’m starting a post with nothing particular in mind. It’s a cold, rainy Sunday, and there’s a pile of student papers waiting on my feedback. It wasn’t on my radar that rain was forecast, so when I woke up the cushions on the outdoor furniture were soaking wet and I’ve brought them indoors to dry on a tarp and turned the heat on for the first time in a couple of weeks. There’s laundry to do, and a long To Do list. But the past two days have had more highs and lows packed into them than I can process, so after a Sunday morning lie-in I’ve made a pot of tea, eaten the last Digestive biscuit with my first cup, and am sitting at the dining table looking out at the raindrops dripping off the pine needles and onto the ivy.

Andrew just texted a Mother’s Day message from a family breakfast in New Jersey. He and my sister-in-law Vera will soon be heading back from the funeral of John, Andrew’s dear cousin Juliana’s lovely husband, who passed away earlier this week. I rode down with them on Friday for the wake, and rode back with Nikhil and Melissa for my nephew Tyler’s graduation from UMass Amherst. It was a fittingly overcast Friday in New Jersey for the wake, and a fittingly glorious early-May Saturday to celebrate our graduate with all the trees on the campus dressed in their Spring finery. So, two days of sharing rites of passage; first with Andrew’s family—all his siblings, Juliana, her beloved and dearly remembered sister Nadia’s two sons, Matt and Phil, who were there to support their aunt every step of the way, Nikhil, who had his car totaled at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel on his way down and had to get it sorted and then drove down with his girlfriend Melissa in her car. Thank goodness no one was hurt. So many memories, since Juliana and John’s wedding 45 years ago was one of the first big occasions I celebrated with Andrew’s family, and Juliana and John had held the family together, always inviting the elders, hosting Easter feasts at their home, and meeting at Mount Olivet cemetery on Cemetery Day (the first Sunday after Orthodox Easter) where we would visit all the graves on both sides of the family. Yesterday Andrew and the family, including John’s two brothers and their families, drove from the funeral home to the church for the funeral, then the church to Mt. Olivet for the burial ceremony, then out for a meal together, and finally back to Juliana’s house. As the Ukrainians say, Memory Eternal!

For our part, Nikhil, Melissa, and I took our leave on Friday night for a long drive back to Amherst in the rain and a few short hours of sleep before heading down to the Mullins Center the big indoor stadium at UMass where justly-proud parents Sally and Kevin had saved us seats, a brass band was playing and everyone was in celebratory mode. We cheered Tyler as he processed in in his robes and accepted his diploma in Environmental Resources Conservation (with a minor in Environmental Science) and then went on to celebrate at a department reception, a last lunch at his dining hall (the food at UMass Dining was deservedly voted #1 in the country), and finally basking in the afternoon sun on our terrace with the Man of the Hour popping a bottle of bubbly for a toast. Mum and Dad would have been so proud and so happy to see us all together.

Now I know why I don’t start my blog posts with no particular place to go (thanks, Chuck Berry). I wrote and posted a piece almost every day throughout the month of April, hoping that it would jump-start my blog again after it had been lying fallow for more than two years, since my parents’ deaths. I’d like to return  to writing a new story every week; but for now, I’m still sitting here at the dining table looking out at the rain and my first cup of tea has gone cold.

It is Mother’s Day, and a day to honor my dear mother, who passed away a little more than a year ago. I spent an hour in bed this morning looking through photographs of Mum to post on my Facebook page, but eventually gave up. Instead, I’ll light a candle for her and remember her sweetness. Her Easter cactus, a gift from Kimberly, is blooming, and on Friday Andrew picked a posy of flowers for me, including some of Mum’s primroses, which come up anew every year.

Now I know why I started writing this morning, although it took me a while to get here.

Love you, Mum.


Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents


432. Zero-tolerance Policy

In Family, history, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on May 3, 2019 at 7:49 pm

(Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. This is the last entry, for the letter Z.

Although I’ve known from the start that Z had to stand for zero-tolerance policy, now that the time has come I can hardly bear to write it. My very worst nightmare was one I had when my son was a baby, only just able to stand. I was standing, with Nikhil clutching my hand, on the crowded Howrah Station in Calcutta (Kolkata), with two million people boarding 617 trains leaving from 23 platforms to points north, south, and west every single day. I must have been distracted for just a minute, but that’s all it took. Suddenly something was wrong with the universe; those warm, chubby little fingers were no longer gripping mine. I looked down: he was gone. I looked around, wildly: I couldn’t see him anywhere. Everywhere I cast my eye, it seemed, I saw a baby, but none of them was mine.

Utter despair ripped through me as I saw, as if in a movie, the endless train of people of people moving inexorably outward from the high-ceilinged central hall to their designated platforms and thence dispersing themselves throughout India. The odds of finding and recovering my helpless, innocent baby, however many years I combed the subcontinent for him, were several millions to one and I had only myself, my irresponsible, inattentive self, to blame. All the dire warnings our parents used to try to frighten us with as children when we travelled from our quiet university campus to the big City—those lurid tales of unscrupulous men who kidnapped and maimed children to make them more lucrative beggars—now came flooding back to my mind, all too late.

That nightmare held me in its grip for hours. Long after I knew intellectually that it had been a dream, a terrible, terrible dream, I couldn’t shake the guilt and the sense of utter devastation. Imagine, then, the parents who had just made the more-than-one thousand-mile trek from Guatemala to the Mexico-U.S. border, on foot, with children, to seek asylum in the United States. But starting on April 6th, 2018 when they finally reached there, bone-weary after weeks of walking, they were arrested and their children taken from them. This was the administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy at the border. Under this policy, the Department of Justice started criminally prosecuting all adult “aliens” apprehended crossing the border illegally, with no exceptions for asylum-seekers or those with minor children. Since children cannot be held in federal criminal facilities, after 20 days in a family immigration detention center they are taken into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS).

After the U.S. public got wind of this Draconian policy and large-scale protests ensued, on June 20th, 2018 the Trump Administration issued an executive order “claiming to end family separation but without providing instructions on how DHS should reunify more than 2,300 children with their parents” (Congressional Research Service). A week later, on June 26th,2018, a U.S. district court ruled “that children cannot be separated from their parents and [set] a timeline for reunifying children who have already been separated (younger than 5 years within 14 days, all others within 30 days) unless the parent is unfit, presents a danger to the child or declines to be reunited with the child” (Catholic Legal Immigration Network).

Children sit for breakfast after spending the night sleeping on church pews or the floor in a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, April 25, 2018. (Meghan Dhaliwal/The New York Times)

Unfortunately, as time went on, not only did the DHS fail to meet its court-mandated reunification deadlines, but in January, 2019 it was revealed that thousands more children than initially reported may have been separated from their parents since June 2017, that the government had not kept proper track of where they had been sent, and that many of them could not be located. The Justice Department wanted up to two years to locate the missing children, many of whose parents had been deported without them (Spagat). And on April 28th, 2019, instead of redoubling his efforts to find the missing children, the U.S. President went on the offensive, saying that “ending the practice of separating children from their families at border crossings [had] been ‘a disaster’ that…resulted in a surge of people coming into the country illegally” and that it “had served as an effective ‘disincentive’ for illegal immigration” (The Washington Post). He followed that statement the next day with a quick one-two punch, calling for still-further restrictions on asylum within 90 days, including charging a fee for asylum applications (Horpuch).

(Source: Instagram)

Zero tolerance refers to a policy of “giving the most severe punishment possible to every person who commits a crime or breaks a rule.” The hard-line zero-tolerance policy at the United States’ southern border has criminalized what was formerly a misdemeanor, making the already difficult crossing a nightmare that will haunt many families for life: the loss of one’s children, the very reason one has undertaken the wrenching decision to leave the country of one’s birth in the first place.

As I write this piece, the death of a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy in U.S government custody alone and unaccompanied by parents or family, has been announced, the third such death in the last few months. The first two children, seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin and eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonso, had been traveling with their parents and then apprehended. In December, 2018, when the news of little Jakelin’s death broke, then-U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan put the blame for the tragedy squarely where he thought it belonged: on the bereaved family: “‘No one should risk injury, or even death, by crossing our border unlawfully,’ said McAleenan. ‘This is why I asked Congress on Tuesday to change our laws so that the United States is not incentivizing families to take this dangerous path’”(NPR). Incidentally, onApril 11th, 2019, President Trump names Kevin AcAleenan as Acting Secretary of U.S Department of Homeland Security, following the resignation of Kirstjen Nielsen. He still holds the position of CBP Commissioner as well.

As refugee children cry themselves to sleep in converted Walmarts, the nightmare continues. When are we going to wake up? Demand zero tolerance for the real criminals, those who have hijacked American democracy and are violating every principle of human decency!

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

423. P is for Passport

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

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

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

my first passport

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

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

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

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

(Courtesy Library of Congress)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

418. J is for Journey

In blogs and blogging, Books, Family, Immigration, postcolonial, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on April 13, 2019 at 1:22 am

I have just received the sad news that dear Nana, my paternal uncle, just two years younger than my father, has passed away in India. He was the last of my seven uncles to complete this life’s journey, four on my father’s side, three on my mother’s. Nana was a high-court judge, who commuted to work by train on Mumbai’s fantastically busy locals for years, long after most people retire. One day, during catastrophic monsoon flooding, he went to work but didn’t return. He was in his eighties by now, mind you, and the family were beside themselves with worry. Nearly 20 hours later he called from a family member’s house many miles away. He had had to get off the train and walk for hours in chest-deep water.

In 2007, the year he turned 80, when my father was 82, Nana came to visit, with Tarakaki my aunt, and their 13-year-old grandson Prathamesh. In all the years Dad had lived out of India, Nana was only the second of his seven siblings to visit him, and Dad was overjoyed. He waited on him hand and foot and delighted in serving him fresh, local corn-on-the-cob, which Nana loved. After dinner, they would sit side-by-side, reading the newspaper—they were both avid readers—thoroughly content.

The last time Dad had travelled back to India was in 1996, the year my nephew Tyler was born. On his previous journey back, 12 years earlier, he had missed his first grandchild’s birth, Nikhil having arrived a couple of weeks before he was expected; this time he was determined to return in good time, so as not to miss this second birth. Before returning, though, he was able to participate in the celebration of his brother Nana’s grandson’s second birthday. As it turned out, it was his last trip to India. He was 72 by then, and India, especially the cities, had changed quite a bit since 1984. Dad was deeply shaken by the whole experience and when he returned he said that it would be his last visit. He never fully explained why, but said that it was the noise and the crowds and the pace of life, and the pollution. He had taken a videocamera with him to film the family and when he returned we were eager to see what he had recorded. To our disappointment, the screen was completely black. “What happened?” I asked, with dismay.
“Shhh, listen,” he said, impatiently, as he did when I made gratuitous comments while he was watching TV; “Can you hear the bird singing?”
It turned out that he had risen in the dark to sit quietly on the back verandah to record a bird that sang before dawn.

I kept asking Dad if he would return to India with me, promising to take him directly from the airport down to his peaceful family home; he shook his head decisively.
“But don’t you miss your family?” I asked insensitively.
“Of course, I do,” he replied, annoyed that he needed to explain to me at all. “But I have made my life outside India. If I thought about how much I missed my brothers and sisters all the time, I would only be miserable all the time. How can one live like that?”


Reading, my lifelong passion, is, happily, essential to my profession as well; and transcontinental journeys feature centrally in many, many works of postcolonial literature. “The Third and Final Continent,” the last story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Interpreter of Maladies, has always been my favorite. In it, an Indian man arrives in America in 1969 at 36 years old to start a job at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had left India to study in England five years before, right after cremating his mother. Then he had returned to India briefly, to get married, before leaving again for the States. For the first six weeks he rents a room in the house of an ancient, idiosyncratic old woman, who, despite her crotchetiness, becomes family of a kind. When his wife receives her green card she joins him, almost a stranger, since they had been married only a few days before he had left for America. They get to know each other, alone in this new country. With her, he makes a home in the States, has a son, and grows old. The old woman dies, “the first death I mourned in America.” All the rest of the elders in India die too. This country is his third and final continent. It is a quiet, sad story, but it always touches me deeply. It ends like this:

While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the last. Still, there are times when I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.


Dad’s journey, Nana’s journey, each long and noble. Both were highly intelligent, independent-minded men, but also family men. Both had two children and two beloved grandchildren. Both had strong, loving, highly capable wives who took care of business every day so that they had time to dream a little. I don’t know if Dad was amazed and bewildered by the ground he had covered in his lifetime, but whenever I think of it, I certainly am. Everything was harder then; tickets could not be booked with the click of a computer key; you had to go and stand in line for hours. Take-out could not be ordered carelessly if you didn’t feel like cooking; you couldn’t afford it, and even when you could, you wouldn’t dream of wasting your hard-earned money on it. That money he saved for his and my mother’s old age, and to pass on to us when the time came. But now the time has come and he is no longer with us in person. His journey, this stage of it, at least, is complete, and he has passed the torch to the next generation.

Rest In Peace, dear Nana-kaka.
Heartfelt thanks to our parents’ generation.


Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

414. F: Family Separation

In blogs and blogging, Family, history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, Work on April 7, 2019 at 4:41 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Unfortunately, the letter F has to stand for family separation. Those in the news at the moment are the family separations that have been taking place at the southern border of the United States as a result of the Trump Administration’s disastrous zero-tolerance policy; but I will be talking about that debacle when I get to the letter Z. Today I want to take a few minutes to consider the family separations that accompany migration in the modern world.

There are more than 150 million migrant workers who must leave their families for another country, sending money home that not only their family but their entire nation comes to depend on. Migrants sent home $574 billion in 2016 alone, surpassing aid funds to developing countries and, in many cases, accounting for a significant percentage of their country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In 2017, for example, 32.4% of Haiti’s GDP was sent home by Haitians working abroad. But the human costs of this system are incalculable.

Take the women, 11.5 million of them according to the International Labor Organization, who must leave their families to work as domestic workers for wealthy families continents away. As mothers, they have no choice but to do so if they want their children to survive.

Take the many men, Indians who have been working in the Gulf States since the 1970s (there are whole villages that are populated only by women, children, and old men); and before them West Indians who went to work in Britain after the Second World War; and before them Chinese who built the western half of the transcontinental railroad in the United States (the Irish built the eastern half). Most of them went alone, without their wives and families, and if they were married their wives waited to join them. Sometimes they waited in vain. Sometimes their children grew up without ever knowing their fathers. Sometimes the migrants tried to bring their wives to join them but racist immigration laws prevented them from doing so.

Today, if an immigrant to the United States applies to bring one or more of their immediate family members to join them, the wait can be interminable, even if they are eligible. Many families live separated while they wait for a visa, living their lives in limbo. Despite the fact that the professed priority of the U.S. immigration system is family reunification, many immigrants have to wait for decades. For example, a U.S. permanent resident’s unmarried son or daughter, who is 21 years old or older, will have to wait roughly 21 years to file an application for an immigrant visa if they’re from Mexico. Many Americans echo their President when he rails against “chain migration” and asks why these “illegal aliens” don’t “play by the rules” and simply take their place in the queue for legal immigration status; they know full well how long that takes and if they had their way, it would take forever.

My own family’s experience was nothing compared to what so many others have to endure; we were separated for nearly a year and a half, but even that separation took its toll. My father had applied to the U.S. for permanent resident visas for our family long before I even knew that there were emigration plans in the works. By the summer of 1968 they fully expected the visas to come through by September and the start of the school year in the States, so my mother took my sister and me to England to visit her family, whom she hadn’t seen for five years, while my father stayed on in India to wrap things up at work and pack up the house. As it turned out, the visas were delayed (corruption, incompetence, and a comedy of errors), and my father didn’t get to start his postgraduate program in the U.S. until the fall of 1969, more than a year later. But the visas for the rest of us weren’t granted at the same time, and my mother, sister, and I had to wait another six months in England before we were called to the U.S. Embassy in London, made to swear the oath of allegiance to our new country (well, thankfully, my mother swore for us, since my sister and I were minors), and finally permitted to join my dad in Massachusetts.

Short as that period was, it was a difficult one for us all, though differently so for each of us, and our first years in the new country did not only involve adjustment to its culture and mores, but readjustment to each other after our separation. My mother regularly lamented that “we should never have come here,” that everything had started going wrong with our family after we came to this country. As heartless teenagers, we teased her for it; but I think there was truth to what she said. Life was never the same again when we came back together after that family separation.

Tell Me Another(Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents


409. A is for Alien (also Arrival, Assimilation, and Asylum)

In blogs and blogging, Family, Immigration, Stories, Words & phrases on April 1, 2019 at 12:19 pm

A is for Alien, the first post of my Blogging from A-to-Z April Challenge, on the theme of Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. A is also for Arrival, Assimilation, and Asylum.

Shutterstock photo

It all begins with the figure of the Alien; what an image, evoking comic-book extraterrestrials,  greenish Martians with pallid faces and googly eyes, utterly foreign. Aliens are a breed apart, not even human. When my family immigrated to the United States back in 1970, we were admitted with immigration visas, which gave us “Resident Alien” status. That is what was printed on our alien registration cards, or “green cards”, those coveted certificates of legality, if not belonging. Thankfully, in 1997 the Alien Registration Card  was officially renamed the Permanent Resident Card, which conveys a greater sense of security.

Nevertheless, the Alien persists, and is still in everyday use in terms such as the recently resurrected illegal alien and, in reference originally to Jewish immigrants and later to Asian Americans, the repugnant unassimilable alien. You can find this product advertised on Amazon, amply demonstrating how at least some of our fellow Americans see their undocumented brothers and sisters.

In my youth I would speak of my “alien” status with bravado, wearing it as a badge of pride, perhaps attention-seeking, perhaps compensating for my feelings of alienation by self-exoticizing. But as I grew older and was excluded from voting, even from Town Meeting membership in my own hometown, I was ashamed of not doing my civic duty. And especially after September 11th, 2001, in the hostile climate after the terrorist attacks in New York, I realized that it was now unsafe to be an alien in America, even a “resident alien” with the privilege of legal status. So began the long process of applying for citizenship; another story for another day.

To Karl Marx, alienation is a state where human beings no longer feel fully human because capitalist society values things over people (“commodity fetishism”) and their unrewarding work enriches others and gives them no fulfillment. To paraphrase something Cornel West said many years ago, as human beings there is no fellow-human or human experience, culture, civilization that should be alien to us. A noble vision for us all: Alien no more!

I cannot entirely overlook other important A words: Arrival, Assimilation, and Asylum.

Arrival in a new land is only the beginning of a long process of adjustment and assimilation. In Trinidad and Tobago, Indian Arrival Day is celebrated on May 30th, in commemoration of the arrival in 1845 of the first ship bearing Indians to work as indentured laborers on the sugarcane plantations which had until recently been maintained by enslaved Africans. To arrive is to reach a place at the end of a journey or—importantly—a stage in a journey. Someone who has “arrived” is said to have achieved success. Immigrants will be familiar with the phenomenon when relatives back home all think that you have arrived and now you are sitting pretty, when in reality that is far from the case. Those high expectations can be a source of shame and stress, in addition to the stress of being a newly-arrived immigrant.

Assimilation is one of those double-edged swords. Every immigrant both wants and is expected to assimilate to the new society, to adopt and adjust to its language, customs, and norms, to “fit in.” But immigrants can be regarded as unassimilable, made to feel unwelcome or face downright hostility, even violence. In such situations, the natural human response is to withdraw to a place of safety which, for immigrants, may be to a group of other immigrants like themselves. Then, however, they are blamed for mixing only with their own kind and for refusing to assimilate. There have been many different models of assimilation over the years, in the United States and around the world. The Melting Pot model prevailed for much of the twentieth century, in which immigrants shed their old cultures and “melted” into the new. The problem with that model was two-fold: one, is it desirable, even humanly possible, to leave behind entirely everything that made you and that you hold dear? And two, what if you are not allowed to melt? Oh, and there is a third problem: the melting was not conceived as a reciprocal process in which the newcomer contributes some of their own culture to the host society; rather, it was an entirely one-sided process in which the onus was on the immigrant to adapt to the dominant cultural norms of the society. Later, during the era of multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s, the “mosaic” or “salad bowl” model of assimilation replaced the melting pot; but that in turn was challenged after the September 11th, 2001 attacks, when the failure of immigrants to melt came to be seen as a threat.

Asylum is the protection granted by a nation to someone who has left their native country as a political refugee. Asylum-seekers are currently in the news, since there is a record number of refugees worldwide. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) describes asylum-seekers as those who come to the United States seeking protection because they have suffered persecution or fear that they will suffer persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, and political opinion. Until recently refugees were allowed to enter the U.S. temporarily, pending resolution of their asylum application. Now, however, U.S. policy with regard to refugees who arrive at its southern border seeking asylum is to make them wait in Mexico until their asylum case is heard, which, given the current backlog, is an indefinite period of time. Many refugees have thereby been forced to return to their countries of origin, where they may face persecution and even death. We will return to the border tomorrow, with the letter B.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents


408. Every Light in the House Burnin’

In Books, Family, Immigration, people, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on March 24, 2019 at 12:42 pm

I have a clear memory of my Brookline High classmate Amy Saltzman visiting me a couple of years after high school in my college dorm; not the visit itself—that remains hazy—but one piece of extremely useful information that she gave me, which I have put tried to put into practice ever since. Amy was an all-round genius, and a science wiz in particular, so I asked her whether, from the point of view of electricity usage, it was worthwhile to turn off electric lights if they were only going to be turned back on again a little while later. She confirmed that it was worthwhile, even if it was only for a minute or so, vindicating my father in his continual reminders to turn the lights off whenever we left a room.

I’ve just looked up this question again, to make sure that what Amy had told me was in fact correct, but I had no reason to do so back then; you see, I trusted her implicitly. And yes, current wisdom backs up hers of nearly 50 years ago. Here’s the scoop: apparently the slight surge of power when turning lights on is not considered significant in comparison with the energy savings. It’s always better to turn off modern lights if leaving for more than a minute.

Recently it struck me how much I rely unthinkingly on passing advice from friends and family in almost everything I do. Just yesterday I had an argument with Andrew about leaving milk out. He thinks it’s fine to leave a milk jug out for several hours, while I obsessively return it to the fridge as soon as it has been used. I told him that our old friend Victor Manfredi had once informed me, in urgent tones, that it was unsafe; as I had with Amy, I trusted him implicitly, and made sure to follow his advice from then on. But yesterday, to make sure, I looked it up; what I found confirmed Victor’s admonitions: Milk should never be left out at room temperature.

I am indebted to dear ones for so many more things I do every day. Mum passed on the advice of her mum: When cooking, clean up as you go. Mum’s eagle eye and acute sense of smell force me to notice dust everywhere it settles and to discern any food or drink going “off” in the fridge; Dad, bless his heart, used to drive me crazy with his repeated reminders to shake the orange juice carton before I opened it, and his example reminds me to water the orchids on the same day every week, exactly as written in the instructions. My mother-in-law Anna called forks, knives, and spoons that had not been used during a meal “sunbeams”, because they didn’t have to be washed. Uncle Ted was frustrated beyond measure when I kept the tap running while I rinsed dishes, wasting precious and expensive hot water. Maureen couldn’t bear it when I left washed dishes in the drainer without putting them away. Eve advised me to use oregano sparingly, since it can be overpowering; a little goes a long way. Thyme, on the other hand, can be used generously. Andrew, teaching me how to drive, told me to keep a long focus in general, but to shift to a short focus and back as needed; also, to maintain a distance from the car in front of me of as many car lengths as miles per hour in multiples of ten. All these I follow religiously to this day (except, I confess, for putting the dishes away; it’s all I can do to get them washed).

Friends and family guide me in the care of myself and my affairs, and even in the words and phrases I use. My cousin Kalyani taught me how to tie a sari safely and efficiently (See TMA 154, Saraswati and Sari-wearing). Sabine taught me, by example, to deal with mail as soon as it arrives rather than adding it to the pile and leaving it for later (full disclosure: this I am still learning). Cousin Lesley reminded me to slow down and not to work myself into a frenzy trying to fit too many visits a day into my infrequent trips to England. Uncle Ted always insisted on getting us out for a “brisk country walk” at every available opportunity, and Dad warned me of the increasing danger, as one gets older, of giving way to inertia (See TMA 19, Lively Up Yourself). Fab and Brill, exclamations from the 60s and 80s respectively, are a part of my vocabulary thanks to Lesley; Nikhil has contributed “It is what it is”; and Sartaz, Inshallah, which reminds me that very little is actually in my control, no matter how much I might wish otherwise.

There are so many more people whose words and example have become part of me. Let me close by returning to my father, and to Mr. Jacob, Angela’s dad in British writer Andrea Levy’s first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’. Like Levy’s own father, who came to England from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush in 1948, and like my own, who sailed to England from India on the P&O steamship Maloja that very same year, Angela’s dad had the immigrant’s lifelong habit of thrift. When he came home from work to a houseful of women, “he’d chastise us with, ‘Every light in the house burnin’, if he saw a light on in a room that nobody was in.”  Heartfelt gratitude to all three fathers, real and fictional, and Rest In Peace, Andrea Levy (1956-2019).

Andrea Levy in 2010. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Tell Me Another(Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

406. Of Piercings, Pain, and Authenticity

In Books, culture, Family, Immigration, India, Stories, United States, women & gender on January 7, 2018 at 2:27 pm


For the past nine days and counting it has been a low-grade irritation at best; at worst, almost as excruciating as the opening scene in Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel, Ambiguous Adventure (L’Aventure Ambiguë, 1961), in which the young protagonist’s teacher, to drive his Qur’anic lessons home more deeply, grips Samba Diallo’s tender earlobe between the nails of his thumb and forefinger and pierces right through it. As the tenth day dawns, my dwindling hopes are at vanishing point, and there is no consolation. What else did I expect?

Let me start at the beginning. It’s about ear-piercing. In India, at least in Dad’s generation, ears were pierced at birth, during infancy or in early childhood, boys and girls alike. But mine were not done, and for some reason I can’t remember, I wasn’t inclined to get them done when I came of age. As I grew older, I came to consider it a barbaric practice, or so I retorted loudly whenever someone asked me why my ears weren’t pierced. For was ear-piercing different from any other form of ritual or cosmetic body-modification? Why would one want to violate the body’s integrity by piercing and scarring it?

Then I started getting earrings for presents. Dad returned from his first trip to India after our immigration to the States with beautiful silver necklace-and-earring sets, of which I could only wear the necklaces. And when Andrew and I went to India after our marriage, various relations wanted to present me with earrings fashioned from family gold, and were downright annoyed with me for not having pierced ears. What Indian woman didn’t have her ears pierced? Just more evidence of my cultural inauthenticity.

After dear Leela-kaki in Pune presented me with a pair of custom-made gold post earrings, my cousin Kalyani, with her characteristic no-nonsense efficiency, took me out into the alley behind the jeweller’s, where they did the job unceremoniously over an open flame. We continued on our travels with my newly-pierced ears, in the heat of May.

The outcome was predictable, I suppose. It was impossible to care for my ears properly while on the move, and they became infected. I can’t remember when I took out the earrings, but I kept them in until the situation was untenable. Upon returning to the U.S., I made the mistake of not leaving them in permanently, so every time I put on a pair of earrings, my ears would bleed afresh. Eventually I gave it up as a bad job and decided to let the hole seal up.

Ten, fifteen years went by. After Nikhil graduated from university he started going to India quite often and bringing back beautiful earrings for me, so I decided to try again. But when I got to the ear-piercing place at the local mall with my gold studs from India in hand, I found that they wanted you to purchase special earrings from them, and so I changed my mind and came away with nothing to show for it.

Fast forward another decade and my dear friend Marianne presented me with beautiful silver earrings, expecting me to put them on right away. Like everyone else, she had simply assumed that my ears were pierced: whose weren’t? I determined then and there that I would get the deed done this time, come what may, as a Christmas present to myself. Well, I did, and “what may” has now come to pass.

On my first free day after Christmas I set out for the mall, resolute. When I got to Claire’s, recommended because they regularly pierced children’s ears, I saw a pre-teen girl perched on the high stool waiting, her mother by her side, supporting her in this small coming-of-age ritual. Slim and leggy, like a young deer, she was shivering with equal parts eager and anxious anticipation, anticipation of the piercing itself, to be sure, but also of the solemnity of the occasion, of the adulthood into which it was initiating her, and all that it signaled, both pleasure and pain. I told her that I was nervous about my own coming ordeal, and was watching her carefully. If she cried, I would run a mile. She giggled, shivered again, and came through the ordeal sporting pretty pearl ear studs. Wreathed in smiles, she leaped off the stool to join her mother in shopping for new earrings. Her life was all ahead of her; what was I thinking, undergoing this ritual at my age? But now I was trapped: it was my turn.

It was a straightforward procedure, except for the numerous forms I had to sign releasing Claire’s from legal responsibility for anything and everything that might possibly go wrong. Besides whether to stay or to run a mile, there was just one choice to make: which one of their selection of post earrings I wanted put in my ear while the piercing healed. But I made the wrong choice.

I was all set to go ahead with a low-priced pair featuring gold clasps and a clear shiny stone of no particular value when the manager arrived and came on strong with a recommendation of the diamond earrings. They were “only” 40-odd dollars more, but they were smaller, sat closer to the ear, and came with a full replacement warranty should they break or get lost. Best of all, they were nice enough for me to wear them all the time as my default pair. Stupidly, I relented. After all, this had been a long time coming; why economize now?

But from the second that I heard the click of the hole punch, the problems began. One side felt relatively normal after the initial sharp pain of the piercing, but the other one felt wrong from the start. Both ears were soon red and swollen, accompanied by a persistent dull throb. I followed the cleaning and care instructions religiously for several days, but to no avail; things only got worse, to the extent that the sharp diamond studs were actually starting to get absorbed into my ear. I looked it up and found that it was called embedding; now that was truly frightening. A week out, I went to my doctor, who took one look at the studs and told me that they were on too tight. The problem, we soon discovered when we went to loosen them, was that the posts were too short and they were already on their loosest setting. She prescribed an antibiotic and recommended adding a saline wash and a thrice-daily heat pack  to the treatment regimen—if I didn’t want them taken out, that is. She said there was only a slim chance that things would improve, but that it was up to me how to proceed. So here I am four days later, and things aren’t appreciably better, although I keep telling myself that there is a slight improvement and I’ll give it just one more day.

Why didn’t I simply ask the doctor to remove the earrings and be done with it ? It was because I would have to give up on wearing earrings for the rest of my life (not to mention leaving scars from two failed attempts on my earlobes). But why was this such a daunting prospect? After all, I haven’t worn them all these years and here I am in my sixties. Was it because deciding to let go of the idea of piercing my ears once and for all would force me to accept that the time of self-adornment was over for me? Or because now, all those earrings lovingly given to me as presents would never be worn? Or was it because I would have to acknowledge one more sign of my ethnic inauthenticity? All of the above, I think, but there’s something more.

(from india24)

As postcolonial theorist R. Radhakrishnan concluded in an early essay, “Is the Ethnic ‘Authentic’ in the Diaspora?”, the answer is inevitably Yes: the culture and consciousness of those living outside of their country of origin are bound to depart from its norms. Migrants, minoritized and marginalized in their new environment, often cling all the more to their ethnic identities unquestioningly, frequently shoring up outdated identities in the process. We can all think of examples of ethnic  subcultures in the New World preserving beliefs, practices, and cultural forms (including language) that have long been obsolete in their home countries. But is that the point? After all, people who have never left their country of origin also flout its cultural—and its political—norms. One can be out of touch and uninformed no matter where one lives; conversely, one can remain current with and critically informed about one’s country and culture no matter where one lives. But what does any of this have to do with my inflamed ears?

Going back to the young Samba Diallo in Ambiguous Adventure, one can safely say that the painful corporal punishment meted out to the boy in his religious tradition was extreme, even barbaric. However, in that powerful and haunting novel, the pain that Samba Diallo was to encounter later, as a young man, was far more excruciating—the pain of cultural alienation. Realizing that in order to survive under French colonialism, they would have to adopt the tools of their new masters, his family made the decision to give their beloved son a French education, and with it came the wrenching loss of everything he held dear, alienating him from all that made him who and what he was. I suppose that, deep down, I fear that loss for myself, even though I know that true authenticity is not something worn on one’s sleeve—or my case, in one’s ear—but something deep and inward.

In my heart of hearts, I believe that my ears are inflamed simply because I am allergic to earrings. My body reacts violently to any foreign object piercing holes in it, even if it is made of pure gold. I can keep delaying the inevitable, loth to relinquish that last flicker of hope that my system will finally accept the intruders; but in the end, I will have to accept what I knew all along: that this will never happen, and being authentic, being true to myself, means acknowledging and accepting this fact.

In the meantime, I will continue with the treatment regimen three times a day, continuing to kid myself until I can do so no longer. And when that time comes, there will be no consolation; what else did I expect?

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

404. Colo(u)rs

In Family, Music, Nature, reflections, Words & phrases on October 22, 2017 at 5:43 pm

In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, set in the aftermath of slavery, the protagonist Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs (“Baby Suggs, Holy” when she was a lay preacher teaching newly freed people to love themselves), having lost just about everyone she had ever loved, gave up on people, particularly whitepeople, and spent her last days contemplating colors, one color at a time. She spent a long time on yellow.

The colors in my father’s oil paintings are rich and warm, the watercolors luminous, filling every square inch of the canvas. Migmar always brought him flowers because he loved them so much. “He is like a woman,” she would say every time, full of wonder at his passion for them. Even when he no longer had the energy to paint, he continued to derive great pleasure from just drinking them in. Taking scraps from his art studio out to the trash last week, I found a list of colors, probably a shopping list for oil paints. There were also pages and pages of elaborate color-mixing formulae and charts, bringing home to me all over again how much colors had meant to him.

I love colors too, but being a person who has derived my greatest pleasure from words, I enjoy rolling their names off my tongue (and the English spelling rolls best): Prussian blue, chrome yellow, rubine red, Havana lake, burnt umber, raw sienna, jet black, carmine. Alert to intertextuality, I mentally reference writers from Aldous Huxley (Crome Yellow) to Toni Morrison, The Rolling Stones to Donovan. Here’s the Mexican folk song  De Colores, a celebration of Nature, freedom, and unity in diversity (Spanish and Engish lyrics here).  And Donovan’s Wear Your Love Like Heaven, which, belated Hippie that I am, I continue to love despite the fact that it was coopted in an advertisement for make-up.

Colour in sky, Prussian blue
Scarlet fleece changes hue
Crimson ball sinks from view
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)
La-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

Colour sky, Havana lake
Colour sky, rose carmethene
Alizarin crimson
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)
La-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

Can I believe what I see
All I have wished for will be
All our race proud and free
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)


Words need not replace things-in-themselves. Sometimes I too feel like taking to my bed and simply contemplating colours, slowly, deliciously, one at a time. But there is work to be done, and I’m not dead yet. In these times, when the light of freedom is being dimmed all over, colours are falling out of favor. Time to celebrate them all the more. In the meantime, I can still sing, mix, and continue to dream, in glorious color.



Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

%d bloggers like this: