Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category

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


402. Land Where Our Fathers Died

In Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, parenting, people, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 31, 2017 at 4:27 am

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second short-story collection, opens with an epigraph by Nathaniel Hawthorne that also provides its title:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.  (from The Custom-House, introduction to The Scarlet Letter)

Like Hawthorne’s children, I had a different birthplace from that of my father, and my son, in turn, had a different birthplace from mine. Do I feel that, as a result, I was raised in richer, more generative soil? I was born in my mother’s city and country, but we didn’t stay there long. For much but not all of my childhood I was raised in my father’s country, though far from the red earth of his coastal home. By the time I was coming of age we had landed on a third continent, far across the the sea and home to neither of my parents, where I was forced to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth. As a result, I will constitutionally and forever question settled concepts of home, country, and belonging.

While I reject the notion that blood and soil (Blut und Boden, that hateful Nazi slogan), race and place, have some sort of mystical unity, I know from personal experience that for some people, place is much more important than for others—that while they may be able to live anywhere (for humans are almost infinitely adaptable) they can only come fully alive in the place where they were born and raised. For them that place will always and forever be home. Some lose their minds, lose their way, even end their own lives. Do we then look at them as failed transplants, as Salman Rushdie describes some of the characters in The Satanic Verses? Should they never have been wrenched from their native soil?

But then, look at Ellis, the protagonist of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. When she emigrates from Ireland to the United States, she is forced to leave everything that was familiar to her. There is a long, lonely period of adjustment; but then she works for independence and education, finds love, begins to make the unfamiliar familiar, to put down new roots. Returning “home”, she finds that everything is easy in some respects, seductively, romantically comfortable; yet the growth she has achieved in unaccustomed earth has developed parts of herself that ultimately mean more to her.

One must return to “blood and soil,” the sickening chant of the Nazis and White Supremacists as they marched with flaming torches through the street of Charlottesville, Virginia just three short weeks ago. Why was it so chilling? These men—they were overwhelmingly male—had come together to claim that they, the self-defined “White Race”, belonged to the soil of this country as Blacks did not, as Jews did not, as immigrants would never do; and that they were fully prepared to shed blood defending this soil against racially alien intruders. This country was theirs, they snarled, in a way that it could never be mine, that as far as their children’s fortunes lay within their control, they would strike their roots deeper into their own native soil.

I’m with Hawthorne: that soil is played out; and so is that hate-filled song. Yes, we must be prepared to fight to preserve our sacred Earth, but in this century all earth must be unaccustomed. While I hold an abiding affection for the two places on earth that nurtured my dear parents, I myself am a cosmopolitan, even though at times the word sticks a little on my tongue. I want to belong to a place, but I do not. When I see the people forced from their homes by the flooding in Texas and Louisiana, my heart goes out to them, but then I read of the death and displacement caused by the flooding, not just in Mumbai, home to many members of my family, but also throughout South Asia, including Bangladesh and Nepal, and my heart breaks its bounds again. I cannot feel for one people to the exclusion of all the others.

Commuters walking through waterlogged streets, Mumbai (Reuters)

Where does this leave me? A global citizen, facing potentially catastrophic climate change in uncertain times with my fellow earthlings. I’m grateful to my father for having showed me, at a young age and by his example, how to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth; this radical unbelonging is the condition of our age, and it is a condition that will better prepare us, not to soak the depleted soil with yet more blood, but to come together with others for our mutual survival, and that of our planet.

I once heard it said that one did not feel a sense of belonging to a place until one’s fathers had died there. Well, now my own beloved father has died here in the United States, and though I can scarcely say how I feel, it’s not exactly belonging, but rather, a renewed sense of responsibility to a place that we all must share. Here’s how another revered ancestor, Pete Seeger, put it:

To My Old Brown Earth

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry. 

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

391. buying up the whole store

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, parenting, United States on October 23, 2016 at 6:26 pm
Birthday haul from the Indian store

Birthday haul from the Indian store

Dad was never one to cocoon himself in the comfort of “his own people,” however one might define one’s own. In his teens he left his small hometown on the Konkan coast of India for the big city of Bombay, where he apprenticed himself to an accomplished watercolorist for a year, then took a diploma in architecture from the Sir J. J. School of Art. Soon afterwards he boarded a steamship for London, where he was to stay for 5 years, studying, working, and befriending and sharing digs with Indians and Britishers alike. He met and married an Englishwoman (soon to become my mother), withstanding and wearing down the opposition from his bewildered family. Back in India, at I.I.T. Kharagpur, my parents’ friends included Indians, some mixed couples like themselves, and a few visiting foreigners. Later, in Athens, their friends included many Greeks and a cosmopolitan crowd including Australians, Austrians, Americans, Britishers, Germans, Indians, and Pakistanis. And when Mum and Dad moved to the United States, at a time when there were still very few Indians in the country, their closest friends here in New England were both American and Indian.

But despite his diverse circle of friends and acquaintances, in the last few years of his life Dad admitted, almost guiltily, that he pined for Indian faces. He looked forward eagerly to the local Indian association’s annual Diwali event, when they laid on a catered Indian feast and everyone took out their gold ornaments and dressed up in the silks that lay folded in boxes all year. Dad would put on his best Indian woolen jacket and Irish tweed hat and pace the front hall for hours in advance, while I fussed anxiously over the draping of my sari. Funnily enough, though, once he was surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a lively, multigenerational, multilingual Indian crowd, he wasn’t much interested in interacting with anyone; he was content to eat, take pleasure in the sights and sounds, bask in the warmth of the organized chaos, and just be.

We don’t live in an area with a high concentration of Indian Americans, so the nearest Indian grocery store is in Springfield, about twenty miles away, and we usually managed to get there only a couple of times a year, when Dad had an eye doctor’s appointment. Last year we paid them a special visit on his birthday and came away with a highly satisfying haul that would last us until the next time. Just looking at all the choices made us ravenously hungry, so we always bought a fresh samosa each and ate it in the car on the way home, with Dad pronouncing it “Delicious.”

Our last visit to the Indian store, back in late May or June, had been delayed due to Dad’s second hospitalization of the year. He was now having to be on supplemental oxygen day and night, trundling a small oxygen tank in front of him in a little three-wheeled walker wherever he went.  On this visit, he put the oxygen tank in a shopping cart and pushed that around the store instead. We oohed and aahed at everything we saw: packets of savory snacks of every description (“munchies”, Dad called them); tins of pure ghee; frozen chapatis from Malaysia that tasted almost as good as home-made; heaps of fresh curry leaves, dhaniya-patta (cilantro), and green chillies; sweets of all kinds by the pound, driven up from New York; several varieties of  mangoes, sold by the box; blocks of jaggery made in Kolhapur, right near Dad’s hometown of Ratnagiri; cans of mango pulp made in Ratnagiri itself; and, of course, a myriad varieties of rice, tea, and spices.

As the clerk rang up our order and we began to maneuver our cart out to the car, Dad said wistfully, “one feels like buying up the whole store.”

The next month, the day after his 92nd birthday, we had to call an ambulance for what turned out to be Dad’s final hospitalization. Most of the Kohlapuri jaggery and the pure ghee still sits here at home, looking as lonely and bereft as we feel. Diwali approaches again, but this year it will be a quiet one. We will simply be content to attend the function and to be surrounded by Indians for a while.


Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

382. What’s Wrong with “Oriental”?

In history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on June 5, 2016 at 12:31 pm


“Perpetuating Oriental Stereotypes” (

On May 20th, 2016, during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, President Obama signed a bill that will eliminate all references to the words “Oriental” and “Negro” in U.S. law, and replace them with “Asian American” and “African American.” U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens, NY), the chief sponsor of  bipartisan bill H.R. 2438, said, “The term ‘Oriental’ has no place in federal law and at long last this insulting and outdated term will be gone for good.”

On hearing the news I breathed a sigh of relief: something that had troubled me on an almost daily basis had now been recognized as derogatory at the highest level of government. This is critically important, because many people, even some Asian Americans themselves, don’t realize it. Just minutes before I read the news of H.R. 2438, I received an emailed reading response from a student on a short story by a Malaysian writer, in which my student used the term “Oriental” to make a sweeping generalization about life in ‘that part of the world’. Clearly the bill has not gone far enough, and neither has its coverage in the media, because they don’t explain why the term is derogatory. It’s not enough to be told, as H.R. 2438 does, that many Asian Americans find it offensive, since this can be dismissed as their problem, their hypersensitivity. Isn’t it just a descriptive term, its apologists ask, like “Westerner”?


No, “Oriental” is not merely descriptive (and neither, for that matter, is “Westerner”–or, to use parallel terminology, “Occidental”, which, tellingly, is rarely used). It is a term designed to categorize, generalize, dehumanize, and dominate. Let me explain, as briefly as I know how.

3First “Oriental” is an outdated term, based upon a 19th-century colonial concept of race that divided humankind into a hierarchy of racial types, with the Western European (man)–born to rule–at the top: Caucasoid, Negroid, Australoid, and Mongoloid, or Oriental, as it came to be known a little later. These terms have come to be associated with skin color and physical appearance, but also with stereotyped character traits, temperaments, and predelictions (again, with the Caucasian on top). All this has been debunked by scholars across the disciplines as a lot of baloney, and it is now generally accepted that this scientific racism was an ideology conveniently constructed to justify colonization of the “lesser breeds” by the naturally superior ones. In sum, “Oriental” was invented by Europeans for Europeans.

Second, “Oriental” is a blanket term covering huge swaths of the world. It has been used to refer to the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia,  and given the tremendous differences among all these regions, is on the one hand  almost completely meaningless and on the other, extremely harmful in encouraging people to lump them all together in their minds. For example, the student I mentioned above who wrote on the short story, Leng Lui Is for Pretty Lady, failed to notice that it was set in Hong Kong, its protagonist was from the Philippines, and its author Elaine Chiew, is of Malaysian origin and has lived in Hong Kong and the United States, but now lives in London. To tell the truth, I myself failed to tease out these specificities while teaching the story, which is about the predicament of women who must leave their families and go abroad to work as maids in the global economy. My failure, and the term Oriental, allowed the student to conclude that this was “what it is like to be a woman living in servitude in an oriental country,” as my student put it. First, it generalized about the condition of all women in “the Orient”, and second, in allowing him to disregard the fact that there are women working as maids in exploitative conditions all over the world, including Europe and the United States, it performed the work for which, according to the late Edward Said, Orientalism was designed: to create an inferior Other which is the polar opposite of the so-called West, upon which the “West” projected all that it did not want to accept in itself.

Third, with regard to the term “Orient”, better known as “the East”, I ask the question, East of what? The answer, of course, is East of Greenwich, England, which Britain at the height of its empire declared the central reference point for measurements of longitude, for which Greenwich is the arbitrarily designated Prime Meridian. Everything East of Greenwich is East and everything West of it, West. But we are now a world with many centers, and it is time we changed our language to reflect this new reality. Now that Britain is just a small island again, with little power if it does not attach itself to the new global superpower, what sense does it make for people in its former colonies to continue to see it as the global Center and  themselves as marginal, always obliged to look Westward for success and self-affirmation?


imgresFourth, “Oriental” is used to demean, divide, and exclude. It is natural for people to see themselves as the central reference points of their lives, and it is understandable, if not desirable, for people to want to identify themselves with power. Perhaps that is why one still finds Asian Indians in the United States internalizing Orientalist stereotypes and identifying themselves with  the “Caucasian” rather than “Oriental.” More than once I have heard  Indian students of mine declaring that they are not Orientals, which prevents them  from making common cause with other people of Asian origin under the useful umbrella of Asian American. And yet U.S. vs. Bhagat Singh Thind, the Supreme Court ruling of 1923, made it clear why it is in their interest to do—and in fact, to extend themselves still further to identify with all people of color. This was during the long period of first Chinese and Asian Indian, then Oriental Exclusion, when no one of Asian origin was allowed to immigrate to the U.S. or gain U.S. citizenship. The complainant in the Supreme Court case, an Asian Indian, had claimed that he should be granted citizenship because Indians are Caucasians, not Orientals. The judgment acknowledged, that Yes, he was Caucasian, but No, he could not be granted citizenship because he was not white, revealing the true purpose of these racial categories.

46912a66e79e4982da5469f3484b4341Calling someone an Oriental, even if their families have lived, worked, paid taxes, and died in the United States for generations, excludes them from full Americanness by relegating them firmly to the status of permanent outsider, unassimilable alien, regardless of their American citizenship. It designates them as Other, not one of Us, not from here, and in the end neither equal nor fully human. Just a glance at the stereotypical images of “Orientals” that are rife in the visual media makes this abundantly clear. These stereotypes also ought to make it obvious why the term is so hurtful.

My final point—and forgive me, I am an English teacher—is about the politics of grammar. “Oriental” is an adjective, not a noun. So to call a person “an Oriental” is to define him or her based on physical appearance and an imaginary repertoire of pre-ordained traits seen as belonging to that racial category. It is derogatory, dehumanizing, and high time for it to be defunct.

I hope it is now clear to you what’s wrong with “Oriental.” Hooray for the passage of H.R. 2438, and Thank You, Congresswoman Grace Meng!

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

359. EastEnders

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

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(C) BBC - Photographer: Adam Pensotti

(C) BBC – Photographer: Adam Pensotti

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


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

The Carter clan in front of the Queen Vic

The Carter clan in front of the Queen Vic

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

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

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

Abi and Louise find themselves at each throats.

Catfight? Catfight!!

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

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

351. Slow Food from Way Back

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, seasons, Stories, United States on November 25, 2015 at 3:06 am


Dad always eats the food put in front of him without complaining, but the effusiveness of his appreciation when I serve even the most basic Indian meal of rice and dal bespeaks his craving for it. As a painter, he occasionally clips photographs of dancers or other elegant female forms from the New York Times, but three years ago as Thanksgiving approached he cut out a recipe and casually mentioned to me that it looked like a good use of leftover turkey. I glanced at A Dish for Pilgrim or Maharajah, noting mainly that it looked elaborate and time-consuming, but, since it was so unusual for Dad to actually suggest that I make something, took it under advisement. That is, I added it to a pile of papers, where it soon got buried, while Thanksgiving came and went.


A month later, though, when Nikhil’s birthday and Christmas-New Year came around, I happened upon the recipe again, and this time decided to give it a go. It was indeed elaborate, but I made sure I had all the ingredients and decided to give myself over to the task, however long it took. As the house filled with the mingled fragrances of onions, cashews, and raisins fried in pure ghee and basmati rice cooked in spice-seasoned broth, all my earlier reservations were swept away. If leftover turkey is capable of inducing a flow state, I was well into it.

The turkey biryani was such a hit that my double batch was completely devoured before the evening was over, and I made it all over again just two days later by popular demand. That too was polished off in short order. The recipe was posted proudly on the refrigerator door, where it sat until the following Thanksgiving, when I prepared it again. That was two years ago now, and I confess that since then my cooking hasn’t extended much beyond the same old everyday fare, and quick-and-easy frozen dishes. As for anything new or experimental, just thinking about it makes me tired.

Let_s_not_eat_up_our_climate1-350x245During the same period of time my friend Anna has become interested in the Slow Food movement, which emerged in the late 1980s “to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.” She starts from scratch, making nutritious bone broth and simmering the food on very low heat for hours, until it is saturated with goodness. She has drastically reduced the quantity of food that she eats but dramatically increased the quality, buying nothing but the best ingredients and taking great pains—no, tremendous pleasure—in its preparation. Joining her for dinner is always deeply relaxing, as we eat in her kitchen by candlelight from her mother’s old china and savor each precious spoonful.

But of course until only very recently all cooking was slow, of necessity, since everything was made from homegrown ingredients. In our twenties and thirties, before children and when the children were small, we emulated the old ways, growing and canning our own vegetables, buying whole grains and beans in bulk, fresh-grinding the grains, and soaking the beans overnight, then cooking them for hours on the woodstove. Nowadays I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that I buy my beans in cans, already cooked, and make my cornbread from a mix.

photo: Bill Hogan/TNS /Landov (

photo: Bill Hogan/TNS /Landov (from

My first cookbook was an American one that that my mother found, circa 1962, while we were living in Greece. It was a hardcover children’s cookbook, lavishly illustrated and printed on glossy paper, the likes of which I hadn’t seen before. But when I set out to make some of the recipes, I was completely stymied: all the ingredients were processed foods, and all the steps involved opening a can of this or a packet of that, none of which were available in any of the shops we frequented. The only recipe I was able to make with the ingredients I had available to me was homemade potato chips (crisps), which turned out wonderfully well and made me inordinately proud. I was reminded of that cookbook today while listening to a pre-Thanksgiving radio program which described green bean casserole, a horrible-sounding dish that is apparently a beloved American seasonal staple, made entirely from canned and packaged ingredients.

Indian cooking is slow food from way back. While living on the farm in Winchendon in the 1980s, we would take it in turns to cook. When it was my turn I would frequently make a full-course Indian vegetarian meal, with rice, dal, chapattis, and at least two vegetable dishes. The preparation would take most of the afternoon, and Charlie, tired of waiting, would invariably lose his patience (and frequently, his temper) and make himself a hefty cheese sandwich just as I was entering the home stretch. A dismissive comment by one of my housemates about my “Third-World” cooking still rankles, and probably only strengthened my commitment to the stubbornly, pleasurably slow process of conjuring up a simple banquet from scratch. But with Charlie getting hypoglycemic, the babies getting tired and fretful, and the frying spices filling the whole house with their heady fumes, I can see how my insistence on slow cooking must have tried my housemates’ patience.

I took the yellowing turkey biryani recipe off the fridge today, considered it for a moment or two, then shook my head. Slow cooking is just not on this Thanksgiving, when, for the first time ever, I have succumbed to the idea of buying and re-heating a pre-cooked turkey. But at least I’ll be serving fresh steamed green beans. And the biryani still beckons as I promise myself the pleasure of slowing down for Christmas. Thank you, Dad.

Evan Sung for The New York Times

Evan Sung (New York Times)

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents


343. European Border Crossings

In Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, travel on September 16, 2015 at 11:12 pm


In August of 1963 my father and mother, three-year-old sister Sally, and I traveled by train from Greece to Belgium and then by ferry across to England. The journey took three or four days and is all a pleasurable blur in my mind now, from the long bus trip from Athens to Thessaloniki (the first trip by automobile when I did not get car-sick) to the lurching ferry ride across the Channel to Dover, and finally on to London. It was a student train which my thirty-something parents had somehow managed to get on, and the noisy, polyglot young people adopted the nine-year-old me as their mascot, taking me into their compartments as they talked, sang, and laughed all the way across Europe.

Old train station, Skopje (Jeff Rozwadowski)

Old train station, Skopje (Jeff Rozwadowski)

I was in a kind of dream throughout, as we rocked our way through the days and nights in the self-contained world of the train. I was aware, though, that we were passing through Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Skopje, Macedonia. From there we crossed into Hungary, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and finally, England and the bosom of our mother’s family. I remember riding through long stretches of countryside with the train running parallel to a wide, slow-flowing river (I felt sure that it was the Rhine, but never really knew), and remember pulling into a grand train station at Frankfort. But besides the spectre of Skopje that hovered dimly at the edges of my consciousness, there were the grim, grey overcoated border guards who boarded the train periodically in the night—in what must have been Yugoslavia and again in Hungary. I knew nothing then of the Eastern Bloc or the Cold War, and thankfully there was no need for me to have any dealings with them nor they with me, but I felt the chill of their presence in contrast to the carefree merriment of the students returning from their summer holidays.

Refugees on a train in Macedonia (by Lindsey Hilsum in Granta Magazine)

Refugees on a train in Macedonia (“She will always remember this journey”: Lindsey Hilsum in Granta Magazine)

That long-ago journey has returned to my mind again and again over the past few weeks, as thousands of displaced families have braved perilous Mediterranean crossings from Turkey to Greece and on foot to Hungary, where they have waited day after day for a train to take them across Europe. The memories of the children in these families will be so different from my sunny recollections of the Sixties youth culture, as I rode through the days and nights in the students’ boisterous embrace, moving from country to country with only the slightly jarring awareness of the border guards to remind me that we were crossing a national border.

In 1963 the European Union (then the European Economic Community (EEC)) included only six countries; Britain was still hemming and hawing over whether or not to join and wouldn’t do so until 1973, ten years later; Greece, not for eight years more, in 1981; Austria, not until 1995; and Hungary still later, in 2004, when the Eurozone swelled to include ten more countries. Yugoslavia was to go through a protracted and bloody breakup in the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by economic restructuring, crusading Serbian nationalism (remember Slobodan Milošević?), and violence against ethnic minorities. But back in 1963 Yugoslavia had just been renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Marshal Tito was firmly in power, holding it all together—for a time.

Refugees tear-gassed at Hungarian border (Gultuysuz on Twitter)

Refugees tear-gassed at Hungarian border (Gultuysuz on Twitter)

The European Union sought to unite Europe as a regional economic community, doing away with separate passports and working to develop a culture of inclusion. But with politicians and anti-immigrant groups whipping up panic over ‘barbarians at the gates,’ Europe has developed a siege mentality and is shutting down its borders again, fearful of the ‘swarms’, ‘floods’,  tide’ of refugees, most of them non-Christians. As writer after writer reminds us in Granta Magazine’s timely special issue, The Refugee Crisis, Europe itself was torn apart by war not so very long ago, thrusting out thousands upon thousands of refugees seeking asylum elsewhere, many of them non-Christians as well.

Solidarity with Refugees in London (Photo: Randi. Sokoloff/Demotix/Corbis)

Solidarity with Refugees in London (Photo: Randi. Sokoloff/Demotix/Corbis)

When I see the heartbreaking images of the child victims of this conflict, I am reminded of how fortunate I was to have been given a warm welcome into Europe. My family was taken up into that train full of returning European holidaymakers and transported readily across its rolling green countryside; many of these families were driven from their homes, herded into camps, fleeced by unscrupulous smugglers, and then denied entry as they arrived sick and bedraggled at the fences of Fortress Europe. Europe and the United States are deeply embroiled in that war in Syria. The more than four million people displaced by it are the responsibility of us all, as the solidarity demonstrations across Europe have affirmed, as ordinary people march under banners urging, “Open the Borders,” shaming their governments, welcoming the refugees. As one homemade placard declared: We are One: there is no “Other.”



Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

335. Are you Black or White?

In 1980s, 2010s, Britain, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on June 14, 2015 at 12:56 pm

2840Back in 1980, while living in Concord, Massachusetts, I worked for a time on a newspaper at MCI (Massachusetts Correctional Institution) Concord called Concord Community Inside-Outside. Those were the days when prison policy still included an element of rehabilitation, and inmates could participate in all kinds of programs, educational, skills-training, cultural, even community service and fund-raising. For my part it was an eye-opener, as I became aware for the first time of conditions in U.S prisons and began to get an inkling of what it might feel like to be on the inside. The non-inmates were allowed to go right into the prison to work on the paper with the insiders, and I had some memorable discussions and interactions, one of which became a friendship that lasted 30 years. Many of the participants in the program were lifers and, because of the racially skewed nature of the U.S. criminal justice system, many of them were African Americans.

I remember one conversation in particular, at the end of which one of the inmates asked me whether I considered myself white or black. Put on the spot, and without pausing to consider the question and its implications, I replied, “Black.” No one in the room ventured further into that racially fraught territory, so the subject was dropped, until later, the next time I visited my friend. He asked me curiously why I had answered in that way, and gave me the opportunity to consider the question a little further. My reply was that given only two options, white or black, my choice had been clear. Since I most certainly didn’t consider myself white, I had to be black. My answer had been based on my mixed background, personal identification, and political perspective.

Given my skin color and class background, I was in a position to choose my answer. Whatever people had thought of it, they kept their thoughts to themselves. Thirty-five years later, I would have challenged that black/white binary formulation and said that I was brown. As a racially and ethnically mixed 1.5-generation immigrant, I considered myself both Asian American and European American. Politically, I identified with people of color, both in the U.S. and globally, and I was still most definitely not white. Everything about that category disturbed me. However, I was in a position to pass for white, something that most other Asian Americans could not do, and I recognized the privilege that it afforded me.

However, being in a position to choose my answer by no means guaranteed that I would be accepted as such. At university in the early Seventies, there was simply no question of my sitting with the black and the Latino students at lunch. And though there were a few Japanese- and Chinese American students, at that time there were virtually no other students of South Asian origin at university. Nearly half a century of Asian exclusion and restrictive national-origin quotas had seen to that, and the children of the post-1965 immigrants had not yet come of age. It was a very different racial and cultural landscape for me then, as a new immigrant to the U.S. not understanding its very strange and particular system of racial categorization, coming out of the universalist ethos of the 1960s when we were all one, and not yet having entered the multicultural 1980s when everyone was expected to celebrate their difference rather than their unity.


It was not until graduate school in the late 1980s that I came to study the history of race and ethnicity as both reality and construct. I learned that despite the painful reality of race to the people who were at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, and who had to live with racism on a daily basis, “race” was a socially constructed category, something that had no scientific validity and that varied from society to society. Whiteness was a strange identity whose definition has changed over time and which, in the U.S. context, had been deployed by different immigrant groups from Irish to Italians to gain themselves leverage and social status as they struggled to assimilate. They might be poor and discriminated against, but they could claim whiteness and thereby position themselves as superior to blacks. (See Toni Morrison’s 1993 essay, On the Backs of Blacks.) Similarly, the dubious distinction of the model minority had been conferred selectively on certain Asian immigrant groups, with the effect of rendering them perpetually non-white, but simultaneously raising them above native African Americans (or all blacks, since African, Latin American, and Afro-Caribbean immigrants were lumped into the catch-all category of Black). The effect: a whole lot of “Others” rendered permanent outsiders to full Americanness, and pitted against each other as they struggled for a slice of an ever-shrinking economic pie.

Every society constitutes its racial categories in different ways. Those with histories of slavery and colonialism are still struggling to dismantle the racialist ideologies that were used to justify their oppression and disenfranchisement. In Britain in the 1970s, when post-colonial immigrant populations of color were under attack, and a movement had arisen to “repatriate” even those who had been born there, they adopted the term Black British to unite across categories of race, religion, and national origin, giving themselves greater moral support and political leverage. By that definition, when I was asked to identify myself racially in 1980, I could have called myself black, but not in the United States. There, an acceptable equivalent might have been person of color, but not black; not for me, anyway.

These reflections have been prompted by a news story that has been making the headlines this week: the case of Rachel Dolezal, a Howard University graduate, NAACP leader, and Africana Studies instructor who has long identified herself as black but whose parents have suddenly outed as white. There has been a furor in the media at this unusual instance of racial passing, in which the person in question has chosen to adopt the identity of a particular race, but not, as is most common, of the more privileged one. It seems that Dolezal decided that her own racial identification was all that mattered, and that she could disregard biology altogether. I understand the anger of African Americans who, by virtue of their skin tone and history of race-based discrimination, do not have the privilege of choosing a racial identity, and who see her as not only having lied, but having taken advantage of the scant programs and hard-won privileges for which African Americans have frequently laid their lives on the line.

Although I understand that anger, I do not find myself sharing it. I wonder, like Al Sharpton when interviewed here, why Dolezal’s parents felt the need to expose their daughter publicly in this way, why she was drawn to identify racially with her black adopted siblings and to represent herself as black. But I do think that in the wider scheme of things, this is a storm in a teacup, and a distraction from the ongoing racial injustices in U.S. society, where being black, or perceived as black, still puts one’s very life in danger.

If I were asked that question again today, whether I considered myself black or white, I would challenge the false binary and the whole premise of the question. But if I had to choose one of them, I would most probably give the same answer as I did then. Did that answer make me a liar, a wannabe, or wrong in the head? I don’t think so. I had my reasons; Rachel Dolezal probably had hers.

Then again, I could have chosen to walk out of that prison anytime.


Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

331. No Rush

In 2010s, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, United States on May 17, 2015 at 12:08 pm


It has been exactly five years since I joined Rise Up Singing in Harmony. In the words of Roger Conant, its founder and coordinator, RUSH is “a group which meets monthly to sing together, largely using the Rise Up Singing book but not exclusively.” That’s a pretty accurate description; in fact, RUSH is not exclusive in any way. Anyone can show up at the local library at 7 pm for the group sing, or an hour earlier with something to contribute to a potluck meal. People stay as long as they can, taking it in turns to choose a song for the group to sing, and as someone bids the group goodnight, the others pull their chairs in to close the gap in the circle. Staying longer means that one’s turn to choose a song comes around faster, but funnily enough, if one thinks of a song but doesn’t have time to request it, it is often the case that another group member will spontaneously choose that very song. Oh, and there are musical instruments. Two or three people always bring guitars, and occasionally someone comes with a fiddle or a banjo. Eventually, after two or three hours of non-stop singing, one of us—usually Roger—says that he really has to go to bed now, and after helping to pack up, we disperse into the country night with a song on our lips. And in our hearts.

For those who aren’t familiar with Rise Up Singing, it’s a compilation of lyrics and chords to 1200 beloved songs, mostly from the United States and the British Isles but with a sprinkling from around Europe and Latin America. The contents are organized into a number of categories, such as Golden Oldies, Gospel, Home & Family, Rich & Poor, Hard Times & Blues, and Hope, and also indexed by first line, genre, and composer.

Most of the songs and most of the RUSH regulars are of the 1960’s and 1970’s-era folk revival and social movements, politically conscious and left of center. Annie Patterson and Peter Blood, the two compilers of Rise Up Singing, live just down the road from the library where we meet and were deeply inspired and influenced by Pete Seeger. (They are also Quakers, as are the founders of RUSH, but don’t wear their religious affiliation on their sleeves.) As such, Peter and Annie believe in singing as a collective activity, and travel the country and, indeed, the world helping to establish and encourage group sings in which there may be a coordinator, but every participant is equal and equally welcome. Our RUSH, one of many, is based on this model.

In the five years that I’ve been going to RUSH more or less every month, it has become something I count on. Contrary to the implications of its name, it is not an adrenaline-induced experience, but brings with it a quieter pleasure, thrilling nonetheless. There’s a certain calm and predictability about it that is deeply comforting. After a while one gets to know the tastes of each of the regulars, and to love them, even if they aren’t necessarily one’s own. (When they are, it’s a double delight.) One of us always requests Danny Boy or Loch Lomond, preferably both. Another loves Home on the Range, another the bleak Four Strong Winds, yet another anything by Phil Ochs. This Land is Your Land is a regular, along with anything by Woody Guthrie. Our fearless leader likes to bring us new songs he has picked up at the People’s Music Network or the Old Songs Festival, and another regular member likes to write new lyrics for old songs; for the most part, though, we sing a whole lot of Oldies. But when we really harmonize—now that‘s a rush.

Because most of us are of a certain age, people often request songs in memory of one of their parents or songs that evoke their own children’s childhoods. Waltzing with Bears is a favorite in this latter category (with a new verse by Joy written from Uncle Walter’s wife’s perspective), and Joni Mitchell’s nostalgic number, The Circle Game. Occasionally, very occasionally, some of our children or grandchildren come along, and the group is super-welcoming and deferential to their tastes. Still, despite the demographics of our group, the next generation is carrying on the tradition. There’s one young man, Matthew Vaughan, who has made it his personal mission to record and upload to YouTube a video of himself singing every single song from Rise Up Singing. You can find his playlist here.

RACoverwtext-resize-border-web_1For me, RUSH is a kind of homecoming. Even though I think I’m the only regular member who is an immigrant, I grew up with these songs, many of which I learned from my mother or from two books of American folksongs—one that I discovered in the summer of 1962 in Greece, another compiled by Peter Seeger and Alan Lomax that my mother gave me in 1969, the Christmas before we came to the United States. Then there were the songs I learned after coming to America, through the anti-war or anti-nuclear movements, or that were simply in the air while I was in high school, university, and in my twenties. There is always a part of me that wishes that we were more open to singing in different languages or that the selection was more international. Perversely, given that we are a group of folkies (of which I count myself one), I find myself wishing for more recent and raucous numbers, for more rock, punk, and Reggae. Some of the songs, like Oklahoma, date from an America before my time, and remind me that I am a bit of an outsider to this society. But in truth I find that I know and like more than 90 percent of all the songs we sing, and by now am as much of an insider as just about anyone in the group. Peter and Annie are now taking advance orders for a sequel, Rise Again, with 1200 new songs that do update and diversify the selection in Rise Up Singing. You can order it here.

Yesterday I took a solo trip to Maine and back to visit dear friends and family, driving nearly 500 miles in all (couldn’t resist rounding up so as to link to the song). I knew that it was a RUSH Saturday and was sorry to have to miss it, especially since I had missed last month’s RUSH as well, but some things can’t be helped. Besides, a road trip always brings a rush of its own, as one not only meets up with loved ones and drives through places that spark a rush of old memories, but encounters new people along the way. I find that even the tollbooth operators are a trip, and the workers and customers at the convenience stores where I stop for a quick cup of tea-to-go.

Mass-festival-signLast night, on my way back, when the Global Positioning System on my cell phone informed me that I would reach home by 9:23 pm, it occurred to me that I might be able to get back in time for the last round of songs at RUSH. If so, I would request Gordon Bok’s Isle au Haut Lullaby, doubly fitting because I would be Maine-returned and because people often choose lullabies as the evening draws to a close. But at the gas station in Leominster where I always stop to tank up on gasoline and caffeine, I was delayed because the kind store clerk refilled the milk dispenser for me (I can’t abide half-and-half in my tea) and because the young man ahead of me in the check-out line was in distress. His knee was all swollen up (he rolled up his sweatpants to show us) and he was awaiting the results of tests that would diagnose him with either Lyme Disease or rheumatoid arthritis. As I rushed out with my tea, I realized that my estimated time of arrival would now be closer to 10 pm and that I would most probably miss RUSH altogether. (To make matters worse, I found that the small amount of half-and-half I had already put in my tea before the clerk filled the dispenser must have been artificially flavored with hazelnut, and it tasted foul.) But I was determined not to speed, not least because I had had a close encounter with a moose on the same road less than a month earlier. Besides, I wanted to stay in the peaceful mood of my visit to Maine and honor the leisurely pace of RUSH.

As I neared the library, I saw cars leaving and my heart sank. Still, there was a handful of cars in the parking lot, so I drove up anyway. As I walked in, a little breathless, half a dozen of the organizers and diehard members were standing in a loose circle saying their goodbyes. They greeted me with surprise and when I explained that I’d just this moment driven back from Maine, they offered to sing one last song of my choice. Of course I asked for “Isle au Haut Lullaby” and before we all dispersed into the country night, they sweetly obliged. They were in no rush.

Isle au Haut Lullaby (Hay Ledge Song)
by Gordon Bok

If I could give you three things,
I would give you these:
Song and laughter and a wooden home
In the shining seas

When you see old Isle au Haut
Rising in the dawn,
You will play in yellow fields
In the morning sun.

Sleep where the moon is warm
And the moon is high.
Give sadness to the stars,
Sorrow to the sea.

Do you hear what the sails are saying
In the wind’s dark song?
Give sadness to the wind,
Blown alee and gone.

Sleep now, the moon is high,
And the wind blows cold;
For you are sad and young
And the sea is old.

If I could give you three things
I would give you these:
Song and laughter and a wooden home
In the shining sea.

© Folk-Legacy Records, Inc.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

296. The Hundred-Foot Journey after Charlie Hebdo

In 2010s, Food, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Media, Politics, postcolonial on January 18, 2015 at 3:51 pm


A couple of days ago, invited by my friend Jude, I went to a movie night at the Leverett Library, where the feature was to be Lasse Hallström’s 2014 film, The Hundred-Foot Journey. All I knew about the film ahead of time was that it was set somewhere in Europe, involved an Indian restaurant at war with a competing establishment, and co-starred Om Puri and Helen Mirren. I can’t deny that I had my doubts, since the synopsis immediately put me on guard. Not the tired trope of Indian spices again: Mississippi Masala, The Mistress of Spices, Chutney Popcorn, Today’s Special (actually a thought-provoking film starring and written by Aasif Mandvi). And warring restaurants: hadn’t that already been done by Farrukh Dhondy in Tandoori Nights, the 1980s British TV sitcom starring Saeed Jaffrey? But I decided not to read reviews in advance, just to go out and enjoy myself on a frigid January night. After all, Om Puri and Helen Mirren were world-class actors, worth watching for their own sakes.

As it turned out, the timing was apt, since the film turned out to be about a family of Muslim immigrants to France, and the screening happened to come less than ten days after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, amidst an international uproar about Europe’s Muslims, whom many are damning simply because they are Muslims, as the perpetrators declared themselves to be. In this context, the movie could be taken as the ultimate antidote to the virulent Islamophobia that has ensued. After the screening, an acquaintance in the audience asked me what I thought. Without engaging any of my critical faculties, I responded, “Sweet. And we need sweet just now.” He gave his head a dismissive toss and left without further comment. Evidently he was disappointed with my answer, and immediately, so was I. So I set myself to give it some further thought.

Since then I have read a few reviews, which mostly accuse the film of being simplistic and middlebrow, and of engaging in “food porn.” All fair points. Certainly it’s a safe film, anodyne in that it softens sensitive subject matter with a lightly humorous touch, smooths over possible political edginess, and conveniently dispenses with any attempt at realism.

To take one of many examples: based on their names, and other signs such as eating beef and shunning alcohol (at least, in the case of the daughter and youngest children), the family are clearly Muslims, but the words ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islam’ are never once uttered. They leave India after their restaurant is burned down and the children’s mother killed when a Mumbai (presumably Hindu) mob storms the gates, but the film merely offers the vague explanation that in an election there are always winners and losers, and the Kadam family happened to be on the losing side. Unlike most of the Muslim population in France, they are also exceptionally wealthy, easily able to buy the gorgeous old country house in which they open their restaurant. None of the family is portrayed as religious. The film does not show them interacting with any other immigrants, Muslim or otherwise (of whom there seem to be none in the small town where they find themselves settling), although they do interact with the locals. The Kadams are also atypical in that they are of Indian rather than Maghrebi (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) origin like most of France’s Muslim population, so in their case the French colonial legacy doesn’t come into play.



imagesWhen the smoldering resentment of the chef of the competing, Michelin-starred French restaurant opposite unleashes right-wing French nationalist goons on “Maison Mumbai,” Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), the proprietress of “Le Saule Pleurer” (the Weeping Willow) realizes that the competition has gone too far. She herself undertakes to cross the road to wash the racist graffiti off their wall and it is she who gently admonishes Mr. Kadam Senior (Om Puri) for defensively—and quite understandably—exhibiting an Us vs. Them attitude in the wake of the attack, pointing out that this is the attitude of the attackers themselves. In contrast with a film like My Son the Fanatic (1997, based on Hanif Kureishi’s short story in which the immigrant father (also played by Om Puri) is secular and his British-born son a religious fanatic), both father and son Hassan (Manish Dayal) are secular and open-minded. Rather than turning to a rigid interpretation of his religion when faced with French racism, Hassan is all for hybridity, allowing for delicious new flavors to enter traditional French cuisine, a two-way “hundred-foot journey” whereby both warring sides eventually cross over and mingle, and an inter-racial happy ending for both generations.

99e8778be50f534c8da6fcdca72c8740As for engaging in “food porn,” the film is guilty as charged. But in the dead of a New England winter, when we won’t see a real tomato for months, can’t one be excused for indulging in a little harmless ogling of the bodacious bounty of French market stalls? Or enjoying the orgasmic effects of the handsome Hassan’s sauces and omelette on Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) and Madame Mallory (Mirren) respectively?

So what are my conclusions? The film is a harmless fairytale. Yes, it’s historically and culturally inaccurate; yes, it portrays anti-Muslim violence as simply part of the political landscape in India, whereas in France it is portrayed as fringe behavior, not tolerated by decent people; and yes, it disingenuously avoids the difficult realities of the lives of Muslims in France, French insularity and racism, and the turn to a fundamentalist form of Islam on the part of some French-born Muslim youth. The Kadam family is quirky and atypical of the French Muslim population, but surely no more atypical of it than those who were responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack. I believe that that tragic incident has contributed to a dangerously polarized climate that must be countered with sober critical analysis. But I appreciate why Oprah Winfrey decided to co-produce the film. I’m going to stick by my original response to The Hundred-Foot Journey: it’s sweet; and, in the face of all this hatred, we need sweet just now.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

%d bloggers like this: