Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘India’ Category

503. Five Years Out

In Aging, Family, Immigration, India, parenting, Stories on September 17, 2021 at 3:57 pm

It has been five years since my father died. There is so much that I have yet to understand and to process about this remarkable and complex man, and I have to accept that there is so much that I will never and can never know about him. In the immediate aftermath I wasn’t able to sit with my thoughts and feelings, mostly because my mother was still with us and with Dad gone she needed my attention all the more. We had the memorial only 10 days later, and that time is a blur. The teaching year had just begun and for some reason I took no bereavement leave, simply carried on. In fact, I conducted my evening class on modern Indian literature the very next day, and only told the students at the end of the session, dedicating the rest of the seminar to him. Six months later my father-in-law passed away and eighteen months later my mother breathed her last. A year after that my sister and I sold our parents’ house. After Mum’s death, Andrew and I moved to a new house, his siblings sold their parents’ house and, just last week, we finally sold our old one. All that time is another blur. Now, five years on, there are still a few loose ends to tie up with our parents’ estate taxes, which I dearly hope will be finally done with this year. But as the late Agha Shahid Ali put it, Rooms are Never Finished. Somewhere, somewhere, from in amongst the detritus of life, from under the endless burden of paperwork, one has to make a start.

Dad would start working on his taxes in January, dedicating a chunk of time to the task every day that Mum was out at her day program. He didn’t enjoy the process and wasn’t particularly good with numbers and figures, but knew it had to be done and had a horror of lateness. He would painstakingly copy out long columns of figures in his distinctive architect’s hand, adding them up and checking them twice on a pocket calculator before passing everything on to the tax accountant. The accountant told me after his death that even in his 90s Dad was by far the best prepared of any of her clients, that the material he sent her was complete and meticulously documented.

Dad was stoic about pain and loss. He didn’t make a habit of talking about his health problems, even when he was struggling to draw every next breath. Only Mum knew when he had a toothache or something heavy on his mind, because flashes of bad temper betrayed it. To me he only remarked, just once, “growing old is not for sissies.” He didn’t dwell on the loved ones he had lost or left behind, either, but that didn’t mean he loved them any less. Every year he sat down to write Christmas and New Year’s greetings cards to every single member of his family in India and the United States, checking with me to make sure of the addresses for those who had moved and for the names of all the grandchildren whom he had never met. Only the occasional comments betrayed his true feelings, as when he would ask from time to time, in some exasperation, why he never heard back from them, why only his elder sister Kumud faithfully kept him abreast of family news.

One November, the arrival of a large package via courier from Mumbai, sent from his niece Meena and grand-niece Sucheta, was nothing short of miraculous for him. We opened it to find it full of traditional Diwali sweetmeats and savory snacks, all perfectly fresh and utterly delicious. For days Dad fully savored every single one, between sips of tea and reminiscences. That one delivery brought him so much joy that it revealed the depth of his unexpressed feelings.

                                   Diwali treats

He hated phone calls. This was understandable for someone coming from an era in which long-distance phone calls were rare, wildly expensive, hard to hear through the static, and likely to bring bad news (See TMA #181, The Silver Hairpin). But once most of our relatives had excellent phone service in their homes and could direct-dial their international calls, once I had a calling code that allowed me to make calls to India for pennies a minute, I felt that Dad had no excuse not to phone his family from time to time. One day, while trying to talk him into calling his beloved younger sister, I asked him in some frustration whether he missed them all. That was hurtful and unnecessary, I realize now. But he stopped everything and tried to find the words to explain. “Of course I miss them,” he said. “But I have made my life outside India. If I allowed myself to miss them too much I would be miserable all the time.”

Dad was not by nature a man to wallow in misery. He believed in getting on with life and in the joy of living, taking great pleasure in the natural beauty around him, in his art, in reading, and in the visits of friends and family. He was an optimist by nature, and this habit of optimism persisted, even when he was very ill. In his last decade, visits to the emergency room by ambulance were almost an annual affair, until the very last year, when he had four hospitalizations. But each time, upon admittance, when the ER doctor came in and asked him how he was, the answer was, “Fine.” It fell to me to contradict him and explain the seriousness of his condition and the nature of the emergency. During the last visit, though, when he was breathing with great difficulty, one of the myriad healthcare workers asked him, in that infuriatingly cheerful way, how he was feeling. In the exasperated tone that those who love him know so well he snapped back at her, “How do you think I’m feeling?”

I miss you, Dad. I pray that I continue to learn from you. I promise to screw up my courage to call your dear sister, my dear Mandatya—for I, too, fear phone calls. I promise to send New Year’s greeting cards to our family in India this year, all the more important while it is still not possible to simply hop on a plane. And I promise to do my best not only to take care of the business of life (to finish those damned taxes) but also to engage more fully in the joy of living.

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482. Knowledge and Right Action

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

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

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

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

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

***

First Edition (wikipedia)

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

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

The same verse in the American Standard Version reads,

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

Complete and unabridged Mahabharata (Penguin, 2015)

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480. A Burning

In Books, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases, writing on July 12, 2020 at 5:51 pm

I’ve just finished reading A Burning, Indian American writer Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, which I ordered back in June, as soon as I heard about it. Although it ought to have been a quick read, I had to put it down while I met a few deadlines, and only just took it up again this morning, when I read the rest of it all at once. Now here I am, devastated; and impressed, in spite of myself.

I must admit that when I first started reading I was skeptical and prepared to find fault, which is not how I generally approach a novel. Why? Well, partly because of the book design, which featured short line lengths, large type, and short chapters, with short paragraphs separated by lots of asterisks as if it was written to be consumed by an attention-deficit public. As I began reading, it became clear that that was indeed the effect; the book was a page-turner and despite my reservations I soon began to care about the characters.

Small things still niggled, though; I took note of them even while aware that I was being ungenerous. The first was the author’s device of making Lovely, the hijra, a transgender woman and one of the three central characters, continually speak in the present or past continuous tense, as many Indian English speakers tend to do. While this trademark tense, along with Lovely’s many malaproprisms, certainly identified her in the rapid-fire chapter changes (each featuring a different character), I couldn’t help finding it jarring, and being unsure whether it was necessary, since it was so overused and clearly meant to add humor. Were we supposed to be sorry for her or laughing at her? Here’s an example, with Lovely’s own first-person narration:

“Don’t say such things, please,” I am protesting, even though I am secretly thinking that maybe he is right. My performances are always outshining. In fact, I am having the same thought myself. But I am always being humble. “I have to learn a lot more than you,” I am saying to him. (143)

Seven present continuous constructions in five sentences, short sentences at that. But I withheld judgment, and I’m glad I did.

What else grated? Well, Indian novels in English are almost always double-coded. If they use a term unfamiliar to non-Indians they follow it immediately with a descriptive phrase or word of explanation. This makes the work more easily accessible to a wider readership, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how much it is done, and whether or not it is desirable to make the readers do a little work and make sense of the word in context or (gasp) look it up in a glossary at the back of the book. This novel either double-codes every possible unfamiliar word or dispenses with it altogether and replaces it with a familiar one. Even Indian street food (at a time when “authentic” global street food is all the rage) has to be translated into terms a global audience would understand, with kadai translated as wok and fresh coriander translated as cilantro. One incidence of double-coding particularly irked me: Jivan’s harried defense lawyer visits his guru. Okay. I think that in 2020, most English-speakers know what a guru is. But this novel is taking no chances: just in case, “my guru” is followed by “my spiritual leader” (106).

The fact that one of the main characters is a hijra: did that bother me? Was I being transphobic? I confess that I mentally raised half an eyebrow when remembering that Anjum, one of the main characters in Arundhati Roy’s last novel, was also a hijra. Were they trying to cash in on the moment, especially in the Global North, or were they helping to bring marginalized voices to the fore? I remember the late Marathi writer Gauri Deshpande’s reaction to Arundhati Roy’s celebrated first novel, The God of Small Things, in which she wondered whether Roy was trying to cater to the West’s appetite for titillation by featuring not only a star-crossed inter-caste love affair and incest between twins but adding child sexual abuse for good measure. Gauri certainly did not make this charge out of political or social conservatism, since her own avant-garde novels challenged class and power inequities and included transgressions likely to simultaneously scandalize and titillate her Indian readers. Ultimately, the test would be in whether these characters were drawn with complexity and whether these elements were essential to the plot.

During the weeks A Burning had to be set aside, I found myself thinking of it from time to time. Did I want to be won over, or did I want my first impressions confirmed? I wasn’t sure. Was I being mean-spirited out of envy of this first-time novelist’s privilege? But hadn’t I been given all the same privileges? And wasn’t I often troubled by the all-too-ready dismissal by writers and critics based in India of the global successes of their fellow writers in the diaspora simply because that success was rarely extended to them, no matter how good they were?

Now that I have finished my first reading of A Burning, I recommend it heartily, despite my initial and admittedly petty reservations. It is a fine novel, fast-paced and powerful. It kept me guessing throughout, filled with hope and dread in equal measure. The three main characters are all drawn with complexity and pathos and I found myself rooting for every one of them. The outcomes for each of them were completely understandable, given their respective situations and the situation in India today; and yet, not entirely inevitable. They could have been different, if only. . .

A Burning couldn’t be more timely, and, as Majumdar herself said in a radio interview shortly after its publication:

I think there are these really close links between what’s happening in India and what’s happening in the U.S. And I hope that through this book, which, yes, is about oppression and yes, is about systems of discrimination, I hope that people also do pay attention to how the characters in this book dream and make jokes and strive even in conditions of great oppression, and I hope that feels meaningful to anybody picking up the book in the U.S.

The title, which somehow felt grammatically off to me at first, also turned out to have been just right on so many levels. Congratulations, Megha Majumdar, for a terrific first novel!

Majumdar, Megha. A Burning. Knopf, 2020. Buy it from your local independent bookseller.

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475. XR — Extinction Rebellion US

In 2010s, blogs and blogging, Britain, India, Inter/Transnational, Nature, Politics, Stories, United States on April 30, 2020 at 5:02 am

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

It is heartening that young people have taken the lead in confronting government denial of climate change and are making it clear that we are already in a state of climate emergency.  Extinction Rebellion is committed to non-violent mass action, including civil disobedience, to forcibly draw attention to the crisis. The group launched itself in Britain in 2018 with a series of high-profile actions, and chapters sprung up the world over as millions of young people prepared to take to the streets in September 2019 for a Global Climate Strike. An April 2020 article in Rolling Stone proclaims Extinction Rebellion the new eco-radicals, rejecting a politics of petitions for one of disruption. They will not be swept aside.

Andrew and I attended a rally in support of the climate Strike at UMass and were delighted to see and hear from students ranging from grade school to grad school, informed, passionate, and committed to global environmental justice. XR was there, as was the Sunrise Movement, and several other local organizations. Despite the global situation looking impossibly dire and the United States closing its eyes to the problem, the students were clear-eyed about the challenges ahead but resolute, with faith in their own resilience.

           Logo, Extinction Rebellion US

May 3, 2020: When I began to research this piece, I had no knowledge whatsoever of the internal workings of XR. However, I began to suspect an internal schism when I discovered that there were two different XR websites, one called Extinction Rebellion US and the other called Extinction Rebellion America. I performed a search on the issue but found nothing. Now, three days later, I have found what I was looking for. Apparently there is a split; however, it’s not just a question of the natural tendency of organizations to split (think of the warring factions, the Judean People’s Front and People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python’s Life of Brian) but something much more serious, the question of whether a group resisting the climate emergency is willing to stand up for those most affected by climate change: Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities (Demands, XR US). Here is the text of XR US’s fourth demand in full: ‘

We demand a just transition that prioritizes the most vulnerable people and indigenous sovereignty; establishes reparations and remediation led by and for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities for years of environmental injustice, establishes legal rights for ecosystems to thrive and regenerate in perpetuity, and repairs the effects of ongoing ecocide to prevent extinction of human and all species, in order to maintain a livable, just planet for all.

In an April 28, 2020 article  by Geoff Dembicki, A Debate Over Racism Has Split One of the World’s Most Famous Climate Groups, a faction within the newly formed US organization objected  to making environmental justice one of the group’s demands, fearful that it would drive people (read: white people) away from the cause. The group has split off to form XR America, whose statement of demands and principles do not include XR US’s fourth demand that prioritizes those most vulnerable to climate change. Instead, the splinter group argues that they are a decentralized single-issue group that doesn’t endorse any particular ideology but works “alongside other essential movements and organizations which focus on, among many things, racial, social, and economic justice; political reform; positive legislation, and sustainable alternative energies, lifestyles, and systems.”

In the article, published by VICE, Dembicki interviews Jonathan Logan, one of the founders of the new splinter group, who argues that those fighting the climate emergency cannot afford to waste time making social justice a priority:

“Let me put it this way, and please get me right on this. . .If we don’t solve climate change, Black lives don’t matter. If we don’t solve climate change now, LGBTQ [people] don’t matter. If we don’t solve climate change right now, all of us together in one big group, the #MeToo movement doesn’t matter… I can’t say it hard enough. We don’t have time to argue about social justice.”

Had I known about this split, I might not have chosen to feature XR in my A-to-Z series. But on the whole I’m glad I have, because it highlights an important weakness of single-issue political movements. By focusing on one overriding issue they hope to include as many people as possible; but in so doing they fail to draw attention to structural inequities and as such, they lose the ability to make transformative social change. As Dembicki points out, it is not only poor people and people of color who are most heavily affected by climate change, but it is they who have the greatest stake in the fight against it. To say that the needs of the most vulnerable people on the front lines of the climate crisis worldwide should not be given a priority in the movement against climate change is like diminishing the struggles of black people in the Black Lives Matter movement with the inane counter-slogan, All Lives Matter.

Be warned: Even XR US is still not firmly committed to environmental justice; the internal debate continues. A disclaimer on top of their list of demands reads: These demands only represent XR US. They are still in the process of development.

Meanwhile, the climate emergency rages on. Under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the price of oil dips down below zero at times, the current US administration has loosened a number of important pollution control regulations. In the effusive April 1, 2020 article in Rolling Stone, which makes no mention of a split, author Josh Eels says that XR deems the politics of older environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club as being “insufficiently confrontational.” Sadly, this new group that prides itself on disruption doesn’t seem to be sufficiently committed to disrupting race and class privilege. We may have to look elsewhere and to other organizations for positive change in the fight for environmental justice.

A disclaimer of my own: Having only just learned of this split in XR, I recognize that I may not fully understand the ongoing internal debate. Nevertheless, I have enough experience in environmental organizations myself to recognize a familiar pattern here. I hope that XR US will stick to its firm position; if not, it may find itself becoming irrelevant.

Here are some images from the Fall 2019 climate strike in New York City and worldwide. Note that Extinction Rebellion is only one of the many groups taking action here.

Young demonstrators flooded the streets of New York City as fellow youth climate strikers rallied in thousands of other locations around the world [Ben Piven/Al Jazeera]

London–Fashion Week September, 2019

NEW YORK CITY: Hundreds of environmental activists with the group Extinction Rebellion descended on New York City ‘s Financial District to protest against climate change.


Kenya Environmental activists march carrying placards as they take part in a protest calling for action on climate change, in Nairobi [Simon Maina/ AFP]

Extinction Rebellion, India (Facebook)

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463. Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment

In Books, Britain, Family, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, poetry, reading, reflections, Stories, United States, writing on April 15, 2020 at 1:51 pm

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

Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment.

 

Loch Lomond, looking south from Ben Lomond (Wikimedia Commons)

For migrants, longing comes with the territory. Many migrants—especially women—did not choose to leave a place they loved, where they themselves were known and loved, and where many of their nearest and dearest still live; it is only natural, then, that they would yearn for home and for those they left behind. At the same time, they must love and protect those who migrated with them and who may be particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of everyday life. Finally, they have a duty to themselves, to allow themselves to live in the present, to open themselves to the possibility of love flowering anew.

In the 1990s, after not having traveled much in the 1980s, I took three or four short trips to England, one for an NEH summer seminar that allowed me to stay in London for the better part of a summer with Andrew and Nikhil joining me for a month, and one long trip to India, where Andrew, Nikhil (then 8 years old) and I stayed with family for nearly six months while I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation. These visits allowed me to renew my connections with the beloved people and places of my own childhood and of my family, which, in an important sense, helped me maintain my equilibrium back in the United States. By the mid-1990s I had lived in the U.S. for 25 years. Was it still not home for me, and if not, was I living too much in the past?

                             Early-morning view of Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling

So many expressions of love are outpourings of longing. Langian, the old English word for ‘long’, means to grow long, prolong, and also to ‘dwell in thought’. It is also related to the German langen, ‘reach, extend.’ Immigrants in particular, unless they choose to burn their bridges completely, to cut themselves off surgically from their past lives, are particularly susceptible to this complex and persistent emotion. But if you think about it, many if not most of the most moving poems and songs of love are in fact songs of longing or loss. Kālidās’s Meghadūta, or Cloud-Messenger, comes to mind, a lyric poem written in the 4th-5th century CE in which a yaksha (nature-spirit) in exile for a year asks a passing cloud to convey a message to his wife. In song, think of The Water is Wide, Loch Lomond or Danny Boy. In fact, songs that celebrate love fulfilled are few and far between. The Beatles’ And I Love Her is a beautiful expression of love realized in the present. John Prine’s The Glory of True Love springs to mind, too, mostly because it is so uncharacteristic of the rest of his love songs.

Hampstead Heath, North London

My mother never stopped longing for her family and home, even though she lived away from them for nearly 65 years. In her late seventies, just as, unbeknownst to us, Alzheimer’s Disease was beginning to attack her mind, Mum joined a group called The Power of Now, after the book by Eckhart Tolle. In it she struggled with the idea of living in the Now and ceasing to dwell in and on the past. She argued with the group and with herself, asking how she could and why she should let go of what was, in her view, the very best of herself. Sadly, the fog of Alzheimer’s descended soon afterwards, progressively robbing her of her precious memories. However, even when she could hardly talk, evidence of her continued love for her family in England would still surface from time to time, and her remaining sister and brother in turn continued to express their love for her, calling to talk to her on the phone every week, even when she could no longer reply.

I have just started participating  remotely, via Zoom, in a daily mindfulness meditation session with John Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). As he says, we only are alive in this one moment, now”, and mindfulness practice trains us to make our default refuge our awareness in and of the now. Like most people’s, my mind has the habit of dwelling everywhere but here, and I am reaching gratefully for this gift of being fully present in the moment as one of the unexpected silver linings of this terrible pandemic. (This does not mean, though, that we censor or condemn our mind when it we find it reaching across time and space; just that we observe it, and bring it back here, to this breath.)

I want to close this reflection with a quote from the late, great Toni Morrison’s perfect novel, Beloved, which I have just finished teaching. In the penultimate chapter, Paul D, who came back into the protagonist Sethe’s life after an absence of two decades, left again, and now re-returns to find her in mourning for the lost ghost of her dead daughter. He attempts to comfort her, but Sethe is disconsolate, saying, “She was my best thing.” Gently, tenderly, and without any judgement, Paul D responds.

     “Sethe,” he says. “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”

     He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” His holding fingers are holding hers.

     “Me? Me?”

As immigrants, as human beings, we owe it to those we love who are here with us now, to give ourselves to them in the present. More importantly, we owe it to ourselves to live fully in the here and now. We are, each of us, our own best thing.

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461. John Prine

In blogs and blogging, Family, Immigration, India, Music, parenting, postcolonial, singing, Stories, storytelling, United States on April 12, 2020 at 3:40 pm

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

John Prine.

John Prine’s music is so much a part of me that upon hearing he was in intensive care I felt a blow strike my very core. It was the first time that the enormity of the coronavirus pandemic hit me personally. When he died last Tuesday after 13 days on a ventilator I was gutted, as they say in England. I haven’t been able to write the tribute that he deserves because nothing I can say could possibly measure up; but I must, because in my fifty years living in this country, John Prine’s songs have probably done more than anything else to make me feel that I belong here. I could write a book about what they mean to me, but for now I’ll focus on what they mean to me as an immigrant.

At age three, in 1987 or 1988, my son Nikhil’s first joke was sparked by John Prine’s Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone, a song with that distinctive blend of pathos and quirky humor. Of course Nikhil was too young to know anything about the 13-year-old Indian boy’s induction into a string of stereotyped Orientalist roles in the British and American film industries until they didn’t need him anymore;* but something in the song made an impression on him. Here are the lyrics:

 The movie wasn’t really doing so hot
Said the new producer to the old big shot
It’s dying on the edge of the great Midwest
Sabu must tour or forever rest.

Chorus
Hey look Ma here comes the elephant boy
Bundled all up in his corduroy
Headed down south towards Illinois
From the jungles of East St. Paul.

His manager sat in the office alone
Staring at the numbers on the telephone
Wondering how a man could send a child actor
To visit in the land of the wind chill factor.

Chorus

Sabu was sad the whole tour stunk
The airlines lost the elephant’s trunk
The roadie got the rabies and the scabies and the flu
They was low on morale but they was high on …

Chorus

That day we were recording Nikhil and Eric on cassette tape. I remember our friend Bill Beardslee commenting that Nikhil must be the only three-year-old who knew all the words of John Prine’s Paradise (that devastatingly beautiful anti-stripmining anthem), and it was true of the Elephant Boy as well. He started out, performing in his inimitable toddler’s accent, with all the ‘l’s replaced by ‘y’s.

By the time he came to the second verse, he knew he had a captive audience, so he decided to play us a little. He sang the first line:

The manager sat in the office ayone

paused as if to make sure he had everyone’s attention, and continued:

Staring at the numbers on the teye. . .

Then he went silent. We were unable to say a word since the tape was running, as Nikhil waited; so did we. We were eating out of his hand. Had he forgotten what came next, I wondered? But no, here it came:

. . .tree!

And he went off into peals of three-year-old laugher. One of the principal elements of comedy is the unexpected, and of course we had expected him to finish the line with, “…phone.” He had got us grown-ups, all right!

All this is just to say that John Prine was practically a member of our family. Andrew and I saw him in concert several times over the years, starting with Passim’s in Harvard Square, Cambridge in 1972, on tour for his very first album; later, in 1973, outdoors at the Music Inn in Lenox, Mass, still later that decade in a club near Boston University, and at least once in the Calvin Theater in Northampton. I’m so glad that Nikhil was able to join us to see him at that last concert, in 2007.

It had never occurred to me how sad most of John Prine’s songs were until my cousin Jacky remarked on hearing a JP cassette that I had made for her; I just knew how often they got it exactly right: about how I felt in a whole gamut of moods (mostly sad, I’ll grant) about small-town small-mindedness (The Accident), about self-destructive bloody-mindedness (My Own Best Friend, Sweet Revenge), about the glorification of war (Take the Star Out of the Window), about love, longing, and loss ( “Wait a while, Eternity” from Christmas in Prison), respect for marginalized people (Forbidden Jimmy) and yes, about being an immigrant, even though this was not part of his own direct experience.

In my view, a few lines of John Prine’s Common Sense explode the myth of the American Dream like nothing else:

They came here by boats, they came here by plane
They blistered their hands and they burned out their brain
All dreaming a dream that’ll never come true
Hey don’t give me no trouble or I’ll call out my double
We’ll play piggy-in-the-middle with you
. . .
It don’t make much sense that common sense
Don’t make no sense no more.

My all-time John Prine favorite, if it is possible to say that I have one, is the song about the longing and dread of a lonely migrant in Mexican Home, whose chorus goes,

Mama dear, your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican Home.

How did he get it so right, I often wondered. Several years ago I came upon a one-and-a-half-hour “literary evening”with John Prine that Ted Kooser, then-U.S. Poet Laureate, had conducted in 2005 for the Library of Congress. At 47:05 minutes, Ted Hooser asks a question from the audience: “What is the song ‘Mexican Home’ about?” and then asks John Prine to play it. Here’s what he replied, as he introduced it:

It was just a feeling I was trying to capture in “Mexican Home.” Actually, the song began with one of those spells I used to have. And I hadn’t had one in years and years and I had one when I was about 23 or so. I pulled the car over and tried to write down what I was feeling, because it was such a strange way to look at the world.

After he put his guitar down, he continued,

A lot of times after I write a song it’s not until I put it on a record that anybody ever asks me, How come you wrote that song?, ‘cos I never figure out an answer until somebody asks me. . . . I was just trying to capture an emotion that was very strong to me.

The answer to the question remains a mystery, but he sure did capture that emotion; he nailed it. And that feeling expressed by a migrant in this song is quintessentially American, quintessentially human, so that hearing it and singing along, too many times to count, this immigrant felt less alone, because John Prine got it.

Thank you for the huge body of music you have given us, and for the soundtrack to my fifty years in America.** As you asked us to in Please Don’t Bury Me, we’ll pass you all around, and not just in this country, but the world. And I’m so glad that you found love, and happiness. I want to close with Spanish Pipedream, the favorite of Andrew’s cousin Mischa, who first introduced us to you, way back at the beginning.

* Sabu was the son of a mahout working for a maharaja in a princely state in Mysore, India, who was literally scooped up from a stable at age 13 to star in a series of Orientalist roles (a mahout in Robert J. Flaherty’s Elephant Boy (based on Rudyard Kipling’s “Toomai of the Elephants,” Mowgli in the Korda brothers’ Jungle Book, Abu in The Thief of Baghdad, Ali Ben Ali in The Arabian Nights–you get the idea) in 1930s and 1940s films by British and American filmmakers, until they didn’t want him anymore. John Prine captures with perfect economy the incongruity and desolation of this Indian child star at the mercy of heartless minders, a beautiful young man cast in the stereotypes of their tawdry colonialist imagination and forced to traverse the frozen wastelands of the American Midwest to market a failing movie.

** Doing a search, I find at least 14 stories in Tell Me Another that quote or refer to John Prine, at least as often as my closest friends.

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455. Dual Identities

In blogs and blogging, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, women & gender on April 4, 2020 at 9:57 pm

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

Dual Identities. Back in the seventies there were very few Indians in the United States–Asian Indians, that is. Most of them had immigrated since the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, that did away with the racially discriminatory national origins quota system, which had governed admissions to the country since the 1920s. It wasn’t until the 1980 Census that there was even a separate category for Asian Indians, and not until 2000 when Americans could check more than one ethno-racial category. However, it is estimated that in 1970 there were only 51,000 India-born immigrants in the country, only one half of one percent of all the foreign-born immigrants, and only 6.2 percent of the immigrants from Asia. By 1980 that number had risen to 360,000 and 10% of all Asian immigrants. But most Indian immigrants were living in New York-New Jersey, California, or Illinois.

In the Boston area, the Indian community in the seventies was a tiny one. There was only one Indian grocery store, India Tea and Spices in Cushing Square, Belmont, where we bought our essential ingredients, and where I picked up my first copy of India Abroad, a weekly paper founded in 1970, the year of my arrival in the U.S. (and which discontinued its print edition just last week). There were no other students of Indian origin in my high school nor, to my knowledge, in my college class, unless they managed to operate under the radar, or moved in very different circles from mine.
Every Sunday, IAGB, the Indian Association of Greater Boston, would screen a Hindi movie in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, in collaboration with Sangam, MIT’s Indian student organization, and the whole community, it seemed, would make the scene, with saris, babies, loud talking all at once in multiple languages, and of course, plenty of snacks. Meanwhile the week’s movie provided the necessary background music and a feeling of home. Sometimes we would go with our friend Subhash, who knew all the songs and all the names of the stars. He named his son Amitabh, after Amitabh Bachchan, of course.

At that time the Boston-area Indian community was so small that just meeting an Indian was remarkable enough for me to go home and tell my family about it. It wasn’t until later in the decade that we would start to use the broader term “South Asian” to describe ourselves, to assert solidarity and commonality with our fellow subcontinentals: Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalis, even the odd Burmese. And it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that I began to see myself as “Asian American.”

But in any case, “identity” wasn’t a thing back in the seventies, not for me anyway. For one thing, you had to have a community to have an identity, and I didn’t. In April 1977 the Combahee River Collective, a group of black feminists, issued a statement.  In it, they asserted their differences from the predominantly white, middle-class American  women’s movement and coined the term identity politics to describe the need for women of color to focus on their own oppression, rather than be subsumed under a larger umbrella that claimed to speak for them but in fact silenced them. Was I silenced? I don’t suspect that anyone who knew me would say so now, but I frequently felt obliged to be different things to different people.

Source: SAADA

Soon after I graduated from college in 1975, India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and, in a series of Draconian moves, arrested many opposition political leaders, and muzzled the press. The Indian community in the U.S. hadn’t yet come of age, but it galvanized into action, organizing for the restoration of democracy, demonstrating at Indian consulates, speaking out on the issue at public meetings, making documentaries on the subject, writing speeches, articles, and letters to the editor, signing petitions, hosting speakers from India, and generally bringing global pressure to bear on Mrs. Gandhi to live up to India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy. I became active in that effort as part of a group of mostly graduate students in and around MIT and Harvard, and these like-minded people from every country in South Asia became my fast friends. Together we forged a community of support and solidarity.

At the same time, I also found myself getting heavily involved in the flowering anti-nuclear movement, galvanized by the Clamshell Alliance’s opposition to the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plants in New Hampshire. For seven years, from 1977 to 1984 when our son was born, Andrew and I printed posters and bumper stickers, marched, organized civil disobedience (with me, not yet holding American citizenship, as a member of the support team), rallies, marches, and pickets, engaged in debates with nuclear industry spokesmen, published newspapers and magazines, wrote letters, speeches, press releases, and papers, and attended too many meetings to count.

The funny thing was, there was no overlap between these two groups, my South Asian activist friends and my anti-nuclear friends. So different were they that I found myself taking on a completely different identity in each, even to the extent that each  knew me by a different name. My group household consisted of young white Americans, all anti-nuclear activists, members of a food cooperative, living an “alternative” lifestyle (what would have been called countercultural back in the sixties). They wore faded denim jeans and plaid flannel shirts and listened to punk rock and the Grateful Dead. My South Asian cohort, most of whom lived in the same general neighborhood, were a little older and more highly educated, getting married and completing PhDs. Like my white American friends most of them came from respectable upper-middle-class families but had become more social and politically conscious after coming to the U.S. They were secular, intellectual and highly serious, opposed race, class, and caste discrimination, and lived for study and argument. My anti-nuke friends knew nothing of my life with my South Asian friends, and my South Asian friends thought the No Nukes crowd were naïve, earthy-crunchy, and not very serious.

In my group household I always knew when a phone call had come in from an Indian friend because one of my roommates would answer and when they heard the voice on the other end of the line their tone would change. “Jyotsna”, they’d call out to me teasingly, using the Indian form of my name and emphasizing the ‘y’ and the ‘t’, “phone for you.” There was only one fellow-South Asian, Hayat, who was active in the anti-nuclear movement at the time and I was overjoyed when I met her. Andrew and I printed the wedding invitations for her and Joseph and we became lifelong friends. There were a handful of friends in the South Asian group who accepted me as I was, rather than seeing me as a bit of an oddball. One of them was a couple whose apartment we all practically lived in and whose wedding celebration Andrew and I attended. We also became lifelong friends and, more than 40 years later, we had the pleasure of attending their daughter’s wedding. Only one of the group took the anti-nuclear movement as seriously as I did and I loved him for it. Then there were my mixed group of friends who didn’t belong to either group, with whom I shared a love of music, literature, and social concerns. Boy, were they a breath of fresh air!

I don’t know what the moral of this story is, except that if I have any identity at all it is plural; that, like everyone else, ‘I’ am made up of an infinity of constantly shifting and evolving elements. But there is another ‘I’ who looks on at this play of identities with amusement and waits for me to quiet down, drop my masks and performances, and just be. The people with whom I feel the most at ease know and love (or are annoyed by, as the case may be) the many parts of me. In my youthful insecurity, I tried too hard to fit in with the norms of one group or another, wanting to be liked, approved of, accepted. Nowadays I still hold back on sensitive subjects depending on the group I’m with, sometimes out of tact, sometimes out of respect. But older now, I am what I am, and what others think doesn’t matter so much to me anymore.

America of 2020 is a very different place from what it was half-a-century ago. As of April 2019 there were nearly 5.4 million people of South Asian origin in the United States, more than four million of them claiming either a singular or a mixed Indian identity. My heart doesn’t leap anymore when a South Asian passes me by on the street. Racism, xenophobia, and social segregation have not abated, however, and questions of identity are still fraught and hard to negotiate. But there has been cross-fertilization and change as a new generation of South Asian Americans have become engaged in all kinds of social activism both in the U.S. and in South Asia. In the 1970s there was no group like today’s South Asians for Climate Justice, which could have brought my disparate worlds together.

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453. Bangladesh

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, India, postcolonial, Stories, United States on April 2, 2020 at 11:48 pm

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

Bangladesh.

We had been in the United States for little more than a year when the news from the subcontinent started to get dire. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League had won the regional elections in East Pakistan (as it was called in 1947 after the British Partition of India), previously Eastern Bengal (after the British Partition of Bengal in 1905), previously still part of an undivided Bengal, but the Pakistani military ruler General Yahya Khan had refused to recognize the results of the election. Instead, he launched Operation Searchlight, a brutal military campaign of mass killings and rape designed to crush the resistance and resolve of the people of East Pakistan, a campaign that many, including the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared to be a genocide. The Awami League’s popular movement for recognition and then for autonomy had turned into a full-fledged war of independence as West Pakistan refused to acquiesce to any of its demands, and on March 26th, 1971, it declared its independence from Pakistan and a nine-month war of liberation ensued.

Bengalis fleeing for a safe refuge. PHOTO: (Mark Godfret/Muktijuddho e-Archive)

By the summer of 1971, millions of Bangladeshis had fled from the East into neighboring India,, which had been forced to set up dozens of makeshift refugee camps. Rape was deliberately used as major weapon of the war, and West Pakistani troops were under orders to rape Bangladeshi women. It is estimated that more than 200,000 women were held in rape camps by the West Pakistani army. On December 3rd India stepped into the conflict and fought a short and decisive war, forcing the West Pakistani Army to surrender in Dhaka on December 16th, 1971, which today is celebrated in Bangladesh as Bijoy Dibas, or Victory Day.

But why does the bloody formation of Bangladesh loom large in the year after my immigration to the United States? For three main reasons: as preoccupied as I was with my own teenage concerns: my boyfriend, graduation from high school and the imminent start of university, a growing feminist consciousness sparked by the women’s liberation movement, and the movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam, I was also aware that a war was raging in my part of the world, among people who spoke the same language as our Indian state of West Bengal, but that no one in the United States seemed to know or care. As the situation grew to crisis proportions, an even more disturbing truth emerged: the United States was supporting West Pakistan, building up its military and entirely complicit in the genocidal war. Why? For strategic Cold War purposes, to strengthen Pakistan’s hand and, through Pakistan, to build a diplomatic relationship with the People’s Republic of China. And then there was the Concert for Bangladesh.

Ravi Shankar, the internationally renowned sitar player under whom George Harrison had studied and who had famously performed at both the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California and the 1969 Woodstock music festival in upstate New York, approached George Harrison for his help in raising awareness of and funds for the refugee crisis in Bengal, where there were some 10 million refugees from the terror of Operation Searchlight. George, who had not played in public since the Beatles had broken up, galvanized into action, called in favors from friends, and in a matter of weeks, put on the first-ever big fundraising rock concert on August 1st, 1971, with a star-studded line-up including Ravi Shankar and sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, George Harrison himself and Ringo Starr, formerly of the Beatles, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. A three-album boxed set was released just on December 20th, 1971, and I’m pretty sure it was my big Christmas present that year. I have it to this day, its outer box battered and well-used, but the vinyl discs inside still scratch-free.

To tell you the truth, the only three tracks I listen to again and again on that album are Ravi Shankar’s heartbreakingly beautiful Bangla Dhun, George Harrison’s call for empathy with Bangladesh (and though I could not feel the pain I knew I had to try), and his moving rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The Concert for Bangladesh made Ravi Shankar the only artist to have performed at every one of the big three rock festivals. The clueless crowd cheered rapturously after the Indian musicians had finished their tuning, to which Ravi Shankar famously quipped, barely hiding his annoyance, “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the music more.” When I listen to old interviews and recordings now, I can never help cringing at what seems to me to be a willful mispronunciation of Ravi Shankar’s name, global superstar as he was, when there was no excuse not to know better. None of the musicians save George, few among the crowds who bought the records or cheered wildly through the tuning at the concert, knew or cared about Bangladesh; it was only George and his rock-star friends they wanted. But as Ravi Shankar noted, at least by the end of the concert they recognized the name.

As I was starting to write this piece, I remembered that I still had the October 31st, 1971 issue of the New York Times Magazine, with its cover story about Bangladesh and what became an iconic cover that I had kept all these years, but had somehow never read. Amazingly, I was able to lay my hands on it in pretty short order, and there was the cover photograph, of a young Bangladeshi woman in a refugee camp nursing her baby, that was and remains so painful to look at that it felt, still feels like a violation; in fact, a second violation when the viewer knew from the evening news that this young woman was a rape survivor, her baby born of repeated acts of war upon her body. Here she was blown up, mass-produced, and exposed to the American gaze, as she had been to the perpetrators of Operation Searchlight before it. And this was the country that had systematically built up the Pakistani military for its own strategic purposes ever since Independence in 1947, precipitating between the two neighbors so recently one country, a devastating arms race which still shows no signs of abating.

I read the cover story, by none other than the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, close friend of John F. Kennedy, and his Ambassador to India (see what he writes about the U.S. role in the military build-up between India and Pakistan). It is necessary here to recall the role of then-President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Bangladesh war, discussed in The Genocide the U.S. Can’t Remember, But Bangladesh Can’t Forget. Nixon had supported Pakistan throughout Operation Searchlight, in the midst of a world outcry and against all advice, even from his own appointees. After Nixon left office ignominiously in the wake of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, the notorious White House tapes that had revealed his guilt also revealed  a conversation between him and Kissinger at the time of the Concert for Bangladesh. In Unholy Alliances: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Bangladesh Genocide, journalist Pankaj Mishra describes Nixon shrugging off the mounting criticism of Pakistan’s military operation and the humanitarian concerns for the Bangladeshi refugees that were being inspired by the concert and by Ted Kennedy’s visit to the refugee camps in India as follows: “Biafra [the civil war in Nigeria] stirred up a few Catholics, … But you know, I think Biafra stirred people up more than Pakistan, because Pakistan, they’re just a bunch of brown goddamn Muslims.”

In contrast to the crude racism of Nixon and Kissinger, the piece of writing that has moved me the most about the Bangladesh war was a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri that captures poignantly the feelings shared by South Asians in the U.S. at that time. Funnily enough, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” my favorite story in Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1999 collection, Interpreter of Maladies, is set at Halloween in 1971, the exact publication date of the New York Times Magazine I have kept all these years. It is narrated by a girl much younger than I was at the time, but old enough to sense that her Indian Bengali immigrant parents bond closely with their Bangladeshi dinner guest, Mr. Pirzada, who is a visiting professor stranded in Boston while his wife and family are in the midst of the violence unspooling in his country. Timidly joking, he says to his Indian hosts, “Another refugee, I’m afraid, on Indian territory.” Every night the narrator’s parents and Mr. Pirzada are glued to the television, anxiously waiting for news of home, a place which nobody in their neighborhood or in her school knows or cares of. While carefree Americans roam the neighborhood in the dark wearing menacing masks, Mr. Pirzada’s helpless fear for his family back home comes out in his concern for the little girl’s safety among the trick-or-treaters, and she in turn feels protective of him. Everything in that gem of a story is understated, but as a 16-year-old I shared the same tender feelings for Bangladesh, the other half of the Bengal I had grown up in, and followed it whenever it was on the news, keenly aware that most Americans didn’t know or care to know its name.

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442. Rest In Peace, Kumud Rege (June 29, 1922 to October 5, 2019)

In Family, India, travel, women & gender, Work, writing on October 5, 2019 at 10:45 pm


My dear Mai-atya, my father’s elder sister Kumud Rege, is no more. She passed away in Mumbai on October 5th, and the cremation rites are taking place as I write this.  She spent her life serving others in the Gandhian spirit of local self-reliance, and was especially beloved in her hometown of Ratnagiri on the Konkan Coast of Maharashtra. She lived in and looked after the family home until it was sold, after which she moved to Mumbai with her younger sister, who cared for her lovingly in the last years of her life. The last time I saw her was in June, 2014, when I had just turned sixty and she, ninety-two. Although she appeared to have dementia by then, when we arrived she immediately insisted on speaking exclusively in English. When Nikhil asked to take a short video of her sending a message to his grandfather—her brother—she spoke movingly and articulately, looking directly into the camera. In an elegant Marathi I cannot fully understand or reproduce, she said, “Bapu (as she called Dad), we are enjoying here with Josna and Nikhil. It is almost as if you were here with us.”

Rest In Peace, dear Mai-atya. You have been a good and faithful servant, devoted to the education of women, and a role model for us all. So grateful for your well-lived life. In my heart, it is almost as if you were here with us.

I am copying below a short oral history of Mai-atya that was published in the SPARROW (Sound and Picture ARchives for Research on Women) Newsletter in 2006.

O R A L   H I S T O R Y

Interviewing Kumud Rege

In May 2006 I had the opportunity to interview Kumud Rege, who is a social worker in Ratnagiri District, on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. At 84, Kumud has been a doer all her life. She speaks rapidly, as if she has no time to waste. In a June 2000 SPARROW interview with fellow-Ratnagiri native Urmila Pawar, she acknowledged,“I’m not really fond of writing. I like to work rather than write about it.” While writing her memoir, Vegalya Vatene Jatana, or Traveling by a Different Path, she dictated it to a scribe, in-between meetings with a steady stream of people whose lives she has touched, either seeking her advice or simply coming to pay their respects, even though she has officially been retired for many years. Kumud was born in the district headquarters town of Ratnagiri, and lives very simply in the family home where she grew up with her parents and seven siblings (she was the fourth of eight children, and the second of three girls). In adulthood, she was the only one among her siblings who stayed in Ratnagiri and carried out her life’s work there. Kumudtai is well-known and beloved in the whole district, where she has worked and remained active with almost every social institution, including mahila mandals and balwadis, schools and colleges, the juvenile court, the remand home, the mental home, and particularly the Smt. Janakibai (Akka) Tendulkar Mahilashram in Lanja.

Kumudtai began her vocation of Gandhian social work in 1942 when, as one of only 10 female students living in the hostel at Willingdon College, Sangli, she participated in the Quit India Movement. Her father had written to her giving her permission to take part in the movement if she so desired, and also wrote a letter to her college principal to that effect. Her father wore khadi and it was at that time that Kumud started wearing khadi herself, a practice she continues to this day. She told Urmila Pawar light-heartedly that over the years her family members have tried to persuade her to wear colored blouses or printed saris, but to no avail. Speaking with her nieces Shubha Desai and me in May 2006, she explained her attraction to khadi as something beautiful made entirely by hand and most often by women. Although khadi is associated with politicians, she distanced herself from khadi-wearing as a symbolic political statement.

In 1945, after completing her B.A. in sociology, Kumud participated in an intensive 6-month workshop in Saswad run by the newly-established Kasturba Gandhi trust fund for development of village women and children in Maharashtra under the leadership of one of her mentors and role models, Prematai Kantak. The daily programme consisted of lessons in environmental cleanliness (including cleaning around toilets), ayurvedic medicine, spinning, and agricultural skills, as well as prayers and other subjects such as psychology. In 1946 Kumud and Akka Tendulkar co-founded a Village Service Center in Lanja Taluka, Ratnagiri, and soon began to focus on the many interrelated needs of women and children. This center developed into the Lanje Mahilashram, which for the past 60 years has continuously served women of all ages with a wide variety of programs.

In 1950, after completing a second Bachelor’s Degree in Teaching in Pune, Kumudtai went to Bordi in Thane District to complete a diploma in Basic Education, following which she lived and worked for four years in a village development program in Gopuri (Kankavali taluka) with Appasaheb Tendulkar, popularly known as the Konkan Gandhi. For the next seven years, Kumudtai directed the Kasturba Gramsevika Vidyalaya in Saswad, where she ran a women’s social worker training college and inspected village development efforts carried out all over Maharashtra. During this time, while Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement was in full swing, she received a Central Government scholarship for doctoral study at Mouni University in Gargoti, where the subject of her research and dissertation was “Mutual Relationship between Primary Schools and Village Social Institutions.” In keeping with her hands-on approach, this was no library-based study, but one that required her to travel through many villages and schools to investigate how they worked.

In 1961, at the invitation of then-Chief Minister P.K. Sawant on behalf of the Jotiba Phule Education Society, Kumud returned to Ratnagiri as Principal of Desai Teacher’s Training College. She has continued to live and work in her hometown ever since, heading the college for two decades, serving as Honorary Magistrate of the Children’s Court, on the Board of the Remand Home, and, since 1982, as President of the Janakibai (Akka) Tendulkar Mahilashram. When asked to look back on all her different activities, Kumudtai considers the mahilashram to be her greatest achievement.

The mahilashram in Lanja serves many different aspects of women’s needs at different stages of their lives: it takes in teenage mothers, runaways, referrals from juvenile courts or abusive homes; offers a range of education and training for self-sufficiency; helps to arrange marriages for the women if returning to their families is not an option for them, and allows them to stay on and contribute to the work of the ashram if they so desire. It also finds shelters and raises orphaned children, runs a balmandir for older children, and arranges adoptions. The ashram received very limited government funding, and relies for its support on donations and fund drives.

Starting in 1993, the mahilashram added another wing, Shantisadan, for women over 60. There is space for ten women in Shantisadan, and it has never yet had more than a handful in residence. Reflecting on this, Kumudtai notes that any woman who leaves her home to come there, comes somewhat unwillingly, either because she has no family or because she cannot live with them. The women who adjust and settle in best are those who enter into the life of the ashram as a whole, serving as teachers, telling stories, being grandmothers to the children, participating in weddings at the ashram, singing or leading prayers at various functions. Kumud does not call Shantisadan an old-age home, with the stigma of social isolation attached to that term, but rather a place within the ashram where elderly women can live, or simply come to stay for a while. At the conclusion of her memoir Kumud has written movingly about what the mahilashram means to her in her own old age. “The idea that children are a stick to lean on in old age has been shaken. Just to speak for myself, the stick of the ashram has become the main support for my later life. This is my stick and these are my children.”

Kumudtai speaks about her various activities unassumingly, never volunteering information on the many awards she has been given over the years. Like many other women, she tends to downplay the significance of her own role in a project, emphasizing instead the collective nature of the work. When I asked her if she would donate her documents and photographs to SPARROW’s archives, she replied with some surprise that she didn’t have any such records. Because she is a doer, one gains the best insights into her work through observation. In my intermittent visits to Ratnagiri over the years I have observed her steady work with Dalits and the poor, especially women and children, her thriftiness (she uses less cooking oil in a month than I use in one meal), her emphasis on service and giving rather than consumption (she asks all her family members to contribute to her various projects and gives away her award shawls to her nieces), her egalitarianism (she refuses to have servants, but rather lives with young companions, whom she educates and trains toward self-sufficiency), her experimentation with energy-saving technologies (her simple solar cooker cooked her rice, dal, and vegetables while she was away at work). I invariably find her arranging a marriage for a man left widowed with small children, giving advice to a woman whose second husband is mistreating her child from her previous marriage, inaugurating a balwadi for Dalit children, or taking long, hot state transport bus trips to speak to village women on a job training course.

At the end of our interview my cousin Shubha and I asked our aunt about the title of her book, Traveling by a Different Path. We wanted to know how she had made the decision to do so, and what she thought about that choice now. However, she replied that at the time she did not think in these terms. Participating in the Quit India Movement of 1942 had influenced her, particularly the principles underlying Gandhi’s idea of individual satyagraha, but it was only later on that she realized that she had in fact taken a different path in life. When we asked about her choice not to marry, she similarly insisted that she had not made a decision as such, either to marry or not to marry, but rather that she did what felt right at the time. Asked about whether she has had the support of her family, she replied unhesitatingly, “Not the slightest resistance from anyone. They used to buy me cloth for colored blouses. They said, Why must you wear white all the time? Use some printed stuff….They do that out of their love for me. But nobody asked me, Why don’t you wear ornaments? or Why don’t you get married? They know that I have done what I wanted to do.”

Urmila Pawar’s June 2000 SPARROW interview with Kumud Rege is available in audiotape and Marathi transcription and has been translated into English by Kumud Rege’s sister and my aunt, Mrs. Suneeta Kulkarni. The May 2006 SPARROW interview with her is in the process of transcription. Some information for this piece was also drawn from Kumudtai’s autobiography, Vegalya Vatene Jatana (Traveling by a Different Path, Ratnagiri: Konkan Marathi Sahitya Parishad, 2000) which is available in the SPARROW library. Thanks also to my late father, Madhukar Rege, who was responsible for most of the translation from Marathi, and to my cousin, Dr. Shubha Desai, who helped me with the interview with our aunt.

 

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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!

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