Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Inter/Transnational’ Category

516. Stamped by the Empire

In Britain, Childhood, Greece, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, postcolonial, Stories on September 20, 2022 at 2:24 am

As a child, first in Greece and then in India, I maintained a stamp collection. I ought to add that I maintained it only after a fashion, since I have never been a particularly well-organized or patient person, so I frequently cut corners on the finer details of systematization, such as putting stamps from different countries on different pages. From 1960 to 1963 I had a steady supply of them thanks to my father’s international set of colleagues at Doxiadis Associates in Athens and our other expatriate friends from all around the world. After we returned to India in 1964 my parents bought me a new album and I continued to build my collection for a few years, waiting almost as avidly for letters from overseas as my mother did for news from her family in England. My zeal waned as I entered my teens and eventually petered out altogether in the 1970s, after we had been in the United States for a couple of years. I still kept the collection, carrying it around with me wherever we moved, but mislaid it for a decade or two and almost gave it up for lost until just recently, when it resurfaced in a box of old papers. Looking at it today, when the body of Queen Elizabeth II has just been laid to rest, I realize what a time capsule it is, since many of the countries represented in it were still colonized by Britain or other European countries or had only recently won their independence. It also reminds me how recently large swaths of the world were under British colonial rule, and brings home to me yet again the historical significance of this moment.

It is indeed the end of an era, as the pundits have been proclaiming ever since the Queen passed away just ten days ago. For her reign coincided with decolonization and she identified herself with that process through her particular interest in the (British) Commonwealth of Nations, over which she presided as the British Head of State. (“British” was removed from its name in the aftermath of India’s independence in 1949, as a gesture toward the idea of free and equal membership.) Those 15 member-states who, as Commonwealth realms, still recognize the British monarch as their head of state will have to replace Queen Elizabeth’s silhouette on their stamps with that of King Charles III, who is already the head of the Commonwealth following a 2018 vote to that effect. Additionally, there are five member-states ruled by other monarchs and 36 more that are republics for whom King Charles’ leadership, like that of his late mother, is merely symbolic. Going forward, it seems likely that other Commonwealth realms will follow the example of Barbados, which became a republic in November, 2021, thereby removing the Queen as their head of state.

Unsurprisingly, the death of the Queen has become an occasion for debate over the function and future of the Commonwealth, and as a scholar of postcolonial literature  I have plenty of opinions on this issue. Though billed as a voluntary association of free and equal nations, the Commonwealth has always been led by Britain. As its direct political control of country after country was lost, the Commonwealth became an instrument of soft power for Britain, uniting former colonies under its cultural mantle to uphold shared humane and democratic principles. English itself has been an important element of that benign leadership, much as, back in the 19th century,  English language and literature were employed in the colonies as Masks of Conquest (discussed brilliantly in Gauri Viswanathan’s 1989 book of the same name). But I will defer further postcolonial critique for the time being, in favor of a selection from my stamp collection of the early 1960s, to commemorate the end of the second Elizabethan era and also to remind us that the colonial era and everything associated with it is still very much in living memory, and in many cases still very raw.

The island of Mauritius, colonized by France in 1715, was taken over by Britain in 1810 and became a plantation-based Crown Colony. Unlike the dodo, which went extinct in 1690, its colonial past ended only recently, in 1968, when independent Mauritius joined the Commonwealth as a republic. 

New Zealand is a Commonwealth realm and a founding member of the Commonwealth. It became a British colony in 1840, gained Dominion status like many of the predominantly white settler colonies in 1907, and remains a constitutional monarchy to this day.

The British took over Hong Kong in 1842 after the first Opium War and gained further ground in 1860, after the second. In 1898 Britain signed a 99-year lease with China for control of the highly lucrative port and surrounding islands, a term that ended in 1997 as Britain relinquished its last economically significant colony. You might be interested in watching these two short videos in which writer Amitav Ghosh talks about about the Opium Wars, waged to force so-called “free trade” on China, and offers some historical background to his gripping Ibis Trilogy.

Australia, a British penal colony that became a federation of British settler colonies, gained independence in 1901 and, further, in the Australia Act of 1986, “formally severed all legal ties with the United Kingdom except for the monarchy”. In 1999 a republic referendum was defeated, maintaining Australia as a Commonwealth realm, at least for the time being.

This page, labelled “Africa,” is not a shining example of my grasp of geography, since the four triangular stamps glued firmly into the bottom row are from Croatia. Furthermore, there is no system of organization of stamps from the various African countries, several of which were not colonized by Britain, and, in the case of Ethiopia, not colonized at all. I see stamps from Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a short-lived British colonial federation of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and Nyasaland (now Malawi).  Zambia and Nyasaland joined the British Commonwealth in 1964. Southern Rhodesia had a rocky road. Originally controlled by the Matabele tribe under Chief Lobengula, it was fought over by the Boers and the British, especially with the discovery of gold in the 1880s, and named Southern Rhodesia after the British imperial adventurer Cecil Rhodes. By 1899 it was governed by the British South Africa Company and was to be incorporated into the Republic of South Africa, but the white settlers of Rhodesia rejected that move and broke off from Britain in 1923. In 1965, Ian Smith’s white racist government issued its Universal Declaration of Independence (UDI), but was not recognized by the Commonwealth. Amidst international disapproval, black Rhodesians organized to fight for independence and won majority rule in 1980 with the formation of Zimbabwe. The country was a Commonwealth member until 2002, when it was first suspended and, a year later, withdrew. A 2018 application to rejoin is currently under review. 

Other former British colonies on my Africa page are Nigeria (independent since October 1, 1960), Uganda (independent since October 9, 1962), and Kenya (independent since December 12, 1963). All three are still members of the Commonwealth, despite the widespread detentions, torture, and killings perpetrated by Britain in Kenya from 1952-1960 during the state of emergency imposed to crush the Mau Mau rebellion. However, in 2013 a lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 survivors managed to wrest some monetary compensation and an expression of regret from the British government.

South Africa also had a long and bloody struggle for independence from colonial rule, starting with Dutch (Boer) settlers and British colonizers fighting each other for control, the Afrikaner government gaining first independence from the Britain and establishing a white-ruled apartheid state violently segregated by race, and then in 1994, a long and hard popular struggle winning independence for the new Republic of South Africa in a free, democratic election participated in by all its citizens. South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961 after its membership was opposed by several member states due to its policy of apartheid and rejoined by invitation in 1994, after apartheid had been dismantled.

While most of my stamps feature the image of Queen Elizabeth II, I have a handful from the reign of King George VI and even one from that of King George V. Here’s my messy half-page from Canada, which was officially declared a Dominion in 1926 and remains one of the Commonwealth realms. I’m not sure, but I think that the image on the second row, second from left, is George V. The three to its right feature George VI, Queen Elizabeth’s father.

George VI also appears on my only stamp from Aden, which became a British Protectorate in 1839 and was a Crown Colony from 1937-1963. South Yemen was under British rule until 1967, when the British finally withdrew after a bloody struggle. Aden was the only Arab territory to have been a British colony. I remember docking there as a child when traveling by ship to and from India. It was the location of the port on this important shipping route that gave it such strategic importance for Britain.

My last stamp featuring King George VI is a rare one from the Indian princely state of Gwalior during the British colonial period. Since India was a republic, the 16 princely states were abolished in 1947, with the holdouts removed  by the Indian army. (But the erstwhile rajas and ranis were provided with princely pensions that put quite a strain on the newly independent nation.)

By now you will have recognized the outsize power and presence of the British Empire as recently as the 1960s. I will leave you with stamps from four countries that are dear to my heart, all of which are members of the Commonwealth but only one of which features a British monarch’s image: India, Ghana, Jamaica, and Britain itself.

India (an independent dominion since August 15th, 1947 and a republic since January 26, 1950):

Ghana (independent since March 6th, 1957):

Jamaica (independent since August 6th, 1962 and one of the 15 Commonwealth realms):

The United Kingdom (itself a Commonwealth realm and not yet free of its colonial complex):

In closing, here is Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of Independent India (from 1947 until his death in 1964), and founder of the non-aligned nations which refused to be stamped by either superpower in the Cold War.

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487. Virtual RUSH II (post-election playlist)

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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478. Sheer Cruelty

In Family, health, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on May 14, 2020 at 2:48 pm


In 2018, 18.3 million people lived in mixed-status families in the United States. A mixed-status family has at least one member who is an undocumented immigrant. Hundreds of thousands of young DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients live in these mixed-status households with one or both parents undocumented as well as younger siblings who are citizens. Everyone in these households is subject to tremendous stress at the best of times, living in poverty, having to keep their precarious status a secret, and living with the knowledge that one of their loved ones could be deported at any time. Even when the citizen children are old enough to sponsor family members there are roadblocks put in their way; and family members who are citizens are frequently denied benefits for which they are eligible.

Soon after Donald Trump took office as President he announced his intention to do away with the DACA program, established by President Obama in 2012 as a stopgap since Congress had been unable to pass the DREAM Act, which would have offered a path to citizenship to millions of hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding undocumented Americans. At one point he floated a deal to DACA recipients that he would offer them a path to citizenship in exchange for getting the funding he wanted to build the massive border wall between the U.S. and Mexico . To their credit, DACA recipients refused to throw their even more vulnerable fellow-immigrants under the bus in return for their own security. Now DACA is before the U.S. Supreme Court and hundreds of thousands of young people are waiting anxiously for the decision that is due any day now.

Now add the COVID-19 pandemic into this nightmarish situation. Here are two diabolical moves that the administration has made:

First: According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are 15.4  million people in mixed-status families who have been denied their federal stimulus checks. Joint filers cannot receive a stimulus check under the CARES Act if one spouse does not have a Social Security Number (SSN). Stimulus checks are even being denied to immigrants who have Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) instead of SSNs. According to the Center for Migration Studies, “ITIN filers pay over $9 billion in withheld payroll taxes annually.” Several lawsuits have been filed challenging this CATCH-22, on the grounds that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to exclude someone from financial assistance because of who they married. Meanwhile millions of hardworking people are being denied emergency help.

Lorena Espinoza de Piña, ready for work as a registered nurse

Second: US Foreign-Born Workers by Status and State, and the Global Pandemic, a May, 2020 report from the Center for Migration Studies, shows how many immigrants are putting their lives on the line as essential workers at this time. The report shows that there is a larger percentage of immigrants than US-born Americans working in essential jobs. It lists by state and occupation the numbers of immigrants doing essential work, and breaks it down by immigration status. You can see for yourself how many undocumented Americans are risking their lives taking care of our elderly and sick, cleaning our buildings, and growing and processing our food, among many other essential occupations.

President Trump and his senior adviser Stephen Miller are itching to crack down even further on immigration, taking advantage of COVID-19 fears to make sweeping changes to the U.S. immigration system. In this climate, will the U.S. Supreme Court vote to strike down DACA? According to the Center for American Progress, more than 200,000 DACA recipients alone are working on the front lines of the coronavirus response. Public health experts have made the case to the Court that their deportation would be catastrophic for the nation at this time, vital as they are to the fight against the coronavirus. Of course, it would be catastrophic for them as well and for their families: sheer cruelty.

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477. Zoom

In 2010s, blogs and blogging, Inter/Transnational, Stories on May 1, 2020 at 1:03 am

This is the twenty-sixth and final 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.

Having covered the past half-century in a panoramic sweep, I zoom right into the present moment where I sit up in bed with my laptop, red-eyed from staring at the small screen, wondering how all this is going to play out over the next few months. I remind myself to pull back from the future and take refuge in awareness, in this moment, just sitting here breathing.

I have just finished watching a live virtual town hall on Facebook from the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). Asian and Asian Pacific American journalists, activists, writers, actors, comedians, all remind us that this moment of anti-Asian hate is not an aberration but as American as apple pie. They remind young Asian Americans experiencing racist attacks for the first time to report them of course, not to stay silent, but also to remember to support other vulnerable Americans in their struggles and to look back to history  to gain perspective on this moment. They remind us of other moments in time chillingly similar to our own, such as the Chinese workers after the railroad had been built who didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance; the killing of Vincent Chin in the Reagan era, when Americans losing their factory jobs directed their anger at anyone who looked Japanese because of the success of the Japanese car industry. They remind us of the aftermath of 9/11 when anyone brown was fair game. But they also remind us of solidarity: how Frederick Douglas spoke out against the Chinese Exclusion Act, how Jesse Jackson spoke out in the wake of Vincent Chin’s murder embracing Asian Americans as part of the Rainbow Coalition.

Zoom in, zoom out
Breathe in, breathe out

Today was an online teaching day, four hours with students on discussion forums and email and another with colleagues, planning a union meeting on Zoom. It’s the penultimate day of classes and because of the pandemic my students are nowhere near done with their assignments. With final paper deadlines pushed back, and back again, and Incompletes still looming, I remind myself not to worry on their behalf; pull back in and breathe.

One hour on Zoom with a thousand people around the world for mindful meditation with John Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Hundreds more joining live on YouTube because Zoom cannot accommodate more than 1000 people. The meeting app allows one to zoom out to gallery mode and see dozens of people at a time; then, when a person is speaking, the camera zooms in on them. We too zoom in. We close our eyes, take refuge in awareness, the body just sitting here, breathing.

Breathe in, breathe out

After submitting the penultimate post for the Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge, the letter Y, I visit other bloggers doing the Challenge, in Australia (where it’s May Day already), Atlanta Georgia (U.S.), and close to home, in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Zoom in, zoom out

Now my sore eyes are closing. Must complete my final entry.

Zed for Zoom. Zoom the videoconferencing software we all suddenly find ourselves installing to reach out to others while we must stay physically at home. Not that. Zoom zoom that sound made by many small children, the sound of cars revving up, planes taking off. Onomatopeia. Zoom zoom. Not that either.

This: the continual zooming out, taking the long view, gaining perspective on our individual situations, reaching out; followed by zooming in, back home to this body, this breath.

Just this breath; breathing in, breathing out. Just this. Just this.


Over and out.

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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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470. Social Media

In 2000s, blogs and blogging, Inter/Transnational, Media, Stories, United States on April 24, 2020 at 12:53 am

This is the nineteenth 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.

In reviewing the texture of my life in America, I can’t reckon without social media. It slipped into our lives and became indispensable so fast, that it is easy to forget how recent a phenomenon it is. While intellectually I object to it in almost every way, as an immigrant it helps me keep in touch with family and friends on five continents and allows me to imagine that the distances between us are malleable.

This evening I got to thinking back to when I first got attached to various forms of social media, and found myself looking up when each of them was launched or when they became publicly available. And being that kind of person, I looked up some definitions. So I thought I’d share this list with you, without much comment, and invite you to think back on when you first starting using these different networks and applications and how or whether they changed your life.

First, some definitions:

The Internet is an electronic communications network that connects computer networks and organizational computer facilities around the world. By the year 2000, 54% of adults in the U.S. used the internet; by 2015 that had risen to 84%, with differences based on age, income, race and ethnicity, educational attainment. However, there is a serious global digital divide, the gap between under-connected and highly digitalized countries. Our World in Data is a source of information on the global rise and disparities in internet access, broadband access, mobile phone use, and rise of social media.

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

The World Wide Web is part of the Internet accessed through a graphical user interface and containing documents often connected by hyperlinks. The World Wide Web became publicly available on 6 August 1991.

Social Media are forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos)

Email was first developed in 1965, and was used first in the military, then in industry in academia, but it started to become widely available in the early 1990s and by the late 1990s there was no stopping it. I started using email toward the end of graduate school, I think, perhaps in 1993 or 1994.

Also by the late 1990s, text-messaging, or sending short messages over cell phones, became common practice, although it was slower to be adopted in the U.S. than in other parts of the world. In the year 2007 Americans first sent and received more text messages than phone calls.  However, text-messaging peaked in 2012, when there was a rise in texting apps such as Facebook Messenger, Wechat, and WhatsApp.

Various mobile apps and platforms of social media (I’ve also included the iPhone and the iPad) and the dates when they were launched publicly:

WordPress: May 27, 2003
At the prompting of my son, I started this blog on WordPress on February 28, 2009.

Skype: August 29, 2003
I must have joined Skype in 2006 or thereabouts. At the time it was very widely used in the global Asian—particularly Chinese—diaspora.

Youtube: Feb 14, 2005
Listening (and singing along) to music on Youtube brings me hours of delight.

Facebook: July 15, 2006
According to Facebook, I opened my account in 2007. Boy, is it a time-waster! I post a lot of photos on it and “like” other people’s.

Twitter March 21, 2006
I’ve never used Twitter much, but opened an account in July 2009, and re-tweet this and that from time to time.

iPhone: June 29, 2007
I was a latecomer to the smartphone; didn’t get an iPhone for years after most of the family had one, and can’t for the life of me remember when that was. Still have an ancient 5S.

WhatsApp: May 3, 2009
I was a latecomer to WhatsApp as well, but am now a member of two groups in India, my family group and my batch at school. Love it for the free international phone calling, hate it for the fake news that gets circulated on it and the videos that downloaded themselves until I learned to make them stop. 

iPad: April 3, 2010
My dad never took to the computer, but he loved the iPad I got him. He never wrote an email in his life, but he would listen to music (Saigal) and look up wildlife of the Western Ghats on Youtube.  Mum, on the other hand, took to the email and the internet like a fish to water, and Dad was happy because her emailing saved them hundreds of dollars on long-distance phone calls to her brothers in England. But when she developed Alzheimer’s, the emailing tapered off, and they had to revert to the telephone again. One day my cousin and I set up a Facetime call between Mum and my Uncle Ted. He was delighted to see his sister, but Mum wouldn’t utter a word, although he implored her to speak to him. When we ended the call, I asked Mum who we had just spoken with. “My brother,” came her ready reply. “But why didn’t you talk to him, Mum?” After a minute, she replied: “He wasn’t really there, was he?” 

Instagram: October 6, 2010
Never joined, but occasionally look at beautiful young people on it.

By the way, some of us are digital immigrants and some, digital natives. Guess which one I am.

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469. Return

In blogs and blogging, Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, singing, Stories, Teaching, travel, United States, Words & phrases on April 22, 2020 at 6:43 pm

This is the eighteenth 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.

Here in the United States there is a general impression that, given the choice, just about everyone in the world would want to immigrate to this country. But in fact, this is far from the truth. The experience of emigrating from the place of one’s birth is a wrenching one, and migration is never taken lightly, whether or not it is driven by choice. Even when a migrant has settled into their new home, they continue to have home- thoughts (from Robert Browning’s poem), and even a parallel phantom-life, comparable to phantom limbs felt by amputees. What Americans may not realize is how many immigrants eventually return to the countries of their birth by choice, sometimes even resulting in a net loss, with more leaving the U.S. than coming to it.

Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins (Jim Sullivan)

Let’s take Mexican immigrants, for example. It will not have escaped anyone’s attention that Donald Trump and his administration have given the impression that hordes of Mexican immigrants are overrunning the United States, threatening our livelihoods and our daughters. However, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, between 2009 and 2014 there was a net loss of 140,000 Mexicans, as fewer came to the U.S. than returned to Mexico. In its discussion of return migration, the 2015 Handbook of the Economics of International Migration reported that “until recent decades, most Mexican migrants did not settle in the US. Instead, they spent an average of six months to a year in the US per trip and made four to five such trips over a lifetime.” Ironically, they found that the harsher border enforcement in recent years has had “a significant negative effect on migrant outflows” because it “deters return migration, leading to permanent settlement among illegal immigrants from Mexico.” What I take from these studies is that, left to themselves, immigrants would come and go freely, based on need. They need to support their families but their greater desire is to be with their families. So U.S. anxiety about a Mexican “invasion,” is actually having the opposite of the desired effect, because it is no longer possible to move back and forth seasonally, as needed.

Recently I watched an interview with one of my favorite singers, Linda Ronstadt, who is Mexican American and grew up in Arizona, close to the Mexican border. She remembers a childhood of easy, fluid back-and-forthing across the border for shopping, socialization, visits with family and friends. I don’t see why it couldn’t continue to be like this if we in the U.S. would let go of our siege mentality. By the way, here she is talking about the lack of interest in Spanish recordings on the part of the U.S record industry, until she became a superstar and could prevail on them to release her Canciones de Mi Padre. Here she is singing Mexican songs with her father Gilbert Ronstadt and Mexican singing star Lola Beltran and here, a song of my Indian childhood, Perfidia, in Spanish.

Returning to return migration, a 2018 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two scholars at the University of Washington, Jonathan Azose and Adrian Raftery, used a new statistical method to estimate the global flows of migrants found that yielded higher immigration numbers, that also showed, over time, a much higher percentage of migrants than previously thought returned to their countries of origin.

Estimated global migration flows by region from 2010 to 2015. Numbers indicate millions of people (Azose and Raftery, PNAS, 2018)

Azose and Raftery . . . broke down migration rates by emigration, return migration and transit migration, in which migrants move between two countries that are not their countries of birth. In general, from 1990 to 2015, more than 60 percent of migration was emigration. Transit migration never topped 9 percent. Return migration accounted for 26 to 31 percent of migrants, more than twice the rate of other migration estimates. That high rate of return migration added up over time. From 1990 to 2015, approximately 45 percent of migrants ultimately returned to their home countries. (Urton, UWashington News)

Focusing their results on migration between the United States and Mexico from 2010-2015, they found that during that period 2-1 million people migrated from Mexico to the United States, but 1.3 million returned from the U.S. to Mexico.

Americans may similarly assume that the flow of immigrants to the U.S. has historically been a one-way movement. However, Immigrants Who Returned Home: You Can Go Home Again, a short but informative essay by genealogist Donna Przecha shows that the real story has always been more complex, with immigrants moving back and forth, and a substantial number return permanently. She lists eight major reasons for return, whether temporary or permanent, and significantly, notes that women tended to have less reason to return than men did, since they found they enjoyed a greater degree of freedom in the United States. I can attest to the fact that many immigrants or children of immigrants I know maintain dual citizenship if they can, and flow back and forth as often as they can afford to do so.

During the recent era of rapid transnational networks and globalization, it seemed more likely that this two-way flow would only accelerate with time. However, from the current vantage point of the coronavirus lockdown, our families and ancestral homes across the oceans seem very far away indeed, and we wonder when we will be able to make the pilgrimage again.

There is another kind of return that I must mention, though I hesitate to do so, and that is the forced return or deportation of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, something that ICE, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, is prosecuting aggressively, both at the border and in cities and towns across the country. In 2019 alone, according to their own statistics, ICE deported (“removed”) more than 267,000 people. The coronavirus lockdown has not slowed their activities; deportation flights are continuing from detention facilities, risking the spread of coronavirus to countries like Haiti and Guatemala that are ill-equipped to handle an outbreak.

Here are some prominent artists, writers, and activists who have been deported from the United States over the years: Charlie Chaplin, C.L.R. James, Marcus Garvey, Emma Goldman, Claudia Jones, and Mohamad Mustafa Ali Masfaka; and two well-known figures who fought deportation and won: Dennis Brutus and John Lennon.

To close with some highly recommended reading, here are two novels that address the issue of return or being returned: Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, and The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai.

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467. “Post-9/11”

In 2000s, blogs and blogging, history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 20, 2020 at 12:33 am

This is the sixteenth 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.


Why do I put this tiny but explosive phrase in quotation marks? Because I object to it. I don’t like the way this tragic event has been packaged and sold, and what has been done in its name over the past nearly-nineteen years. I don’t want to be a part of its perpetuation in this form. Why, then do I devote an entry to it? Because if I am documenting my experience as an immigrant to the U.S. over the past 50 years, however impressionistically, I cannot possibly fail to mention the terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on September the 11th, 2001.

First, a few words on the buzzword, “9/11”: I must irritate my students no end every time I query their use of “9/11” in an essay, asking them instead, at least at the first mention of it, to name the event to which this shorthand is gesturing. They probably think I’m being pedantic, that everybody knows what is being referred to, but they don’t ask me why. I tell them anyway.

The bombing of La Moneda on 11 September 1973 by the Chilean Armed Forces

Do you know, I say to them, most of the world would refer to September the 11th as 11/9, not 9/11. When writing a date in numbers people from most countries put the day of the month first, then the month. That’s the first assumption you cannot make about your readers understanding you. More importantly, you cannot assume that the date, however it is written, will mean the same thing to all readers. In Chile, for example, the Eleventh of September, 11/9, refers to a day in 1973 that is branded into the collective memory of all Chileans: the day when the military overthrew the democratically-elected President Salvador Allende and began a reign of terror under the rule of General Agusto Pinochet, that lasted until March 11, 1990—nearly seventeen years. The United States supported Allende’s opponents and was quick to recognize the military junta. It is estimated that under that regime, more than 3,000 people were killed or went missing, tens of thousands were tortured, and 200,000 were driven into exile. The point is, if you want the rest of the world to know what you mean by “9/11”, and more importantly, to care about what you mean by 9/11, then have the humility to recognize that they may already have their own, different associations with that date.

Sadly, people in the rest of the world do know what the U.S. means by “9/11,” and that is because, post-9/11, directly or indirectly, they have suffered the consequences of those terrorist attacks on U.S. soil many times over. The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute has been keeping track of the data, measured in dollars and human lives, for a decade. You can read their extensive findings and watch an introductory video (made in 2016) on their site, but some of their summary data are as follows

    • Over 801,000 people have died due to direct war violence, and several times as many indirectly
    • Over 335,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting
    • 21 million — the number of war refugees and displaced persons
    • The US federal price tag for the post-9/11 wars is over $6.4 trillion dollars
    • The US government is conducting counterterror activities in 80 countries

So, yes, the world knows what Americans mean when we say “9/11”; how it feels about it is another matter.

Post-9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans came under intense scrutiny, and the profiling they underwent made them deeply insecure about their place in this country, creating a state of “homeland insecurity,” as one study’s author Louise Cainkar put it. Their personal stories are heartbreaking. It wasn’t only Arab Americans who were targeted, but also Americans from a host of other countries in West and South Asia, from Turkey to Bangladesh and everywhere in-between, as well as a number of Americans from Central and South America. The early post-9/11 period was a nightmare for them, because overnight, anyone who looked even vaguely as if they might be “one of Them” was suspect, and to many of their fellow-Americans, the enemy.

Post-9/11, businesses run by Arabs, Asians, and Muslims of all ethnicities and national orogins were shunned. My sister told me that about a month after the attacks she went into one of her favorite restaurants to order some quick take-out food. The place was completely empty, despite a huge American flag and “United We Stand” sign on the door, and the proprietor, a Pakistani Muslim, told her that she was his first customer in a month.

In this Aug. 19, 2016 photo, Indian Sikh immigrant Rana Singh Sodhi kneels next to a memorial in Mesa, Ariz., for his murdered brother, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was gunned down at this site four days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by a man who mistook him for a Muslim because of his turban and beard. Sodhi has preached a message of peace and tolerance in hopes of helping others better understand the Sikh religion, the fifth largest in the world with some 25 million adherents including a half-million in the United States. (AP Photo/ Ross D. Franklin)

Hate crimes against anyone with brown skin went through the roof. Sikh men, many of whom wear turbans, were particular targets. According to the Sikh Coalition, there were more than 300 documented hate crimes against Sikhs in the month after 9/11 and on September 15th, a Sikh American, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who worked in a gas station in Arizona was profiled as an Arab Muslim and murdered.

Few Americans are aware that in the immediate post-9/11 period, “thousands of men, mostly of Arab and South Asian origin. . .were rounded up and held in secretive federal custody for weeks and months.” Even their families didn’t know where they were. Some were even “held for additional months even after a court ordered their immediate release” (Penn State Law). One of the casualties of 9/11 was the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In 2002 the INS was abolished and subsumed into the newly-formed cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. The experience of immigration and naturalization has been much more punitive ever since (Penn State Law 4).

Although I was not as vulnerable as many others, I wasn’t entirely exempt. Immediately after 9/11 I was asked to speak at a forum being organized at my college with the title, “Why Do They Hate Us?” The title alone was all wrong. The “they” and the “us” made me wonder which category the no-doubt-well-meaning organizers saw me in. Nonetheless, I did speak, and tried to explain, complicating the question, as any good postcolonial critic would do. A makeshift border patrol checkpoint was set up on the highway of my weekly commute, and I was regularly stopped and asked for identification as I was driving home exhausted at the end of a teaching week. The first time I didn’t have my Alien card with me and was taken out of the car and into a small trailer set up in a highway rest area while they checked my details on multiple databases and gave me a threatening warning.

As a result of the post-9/11 climate—when, as I recall, the then-President of Harvard suggested that it was a time for professors to show loyalty to their country—I decided, at the repeated urging of my husband, that it was time for me to apply for naturalized citizenship. Nearly two decades later, in February 2020, I notice that the current administration has set up a Denaturalization Section under the aegis of the Department of Justice. Homeland insecurity indeed.

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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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