Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘parenting’ Category

402. Land Where Our Fathers Died

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commuters walking through waterlogged streets, Mumbai (Reuters)

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

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

To My Old Brown Earth

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

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

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

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

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391. buying up the whole store

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

Birthday haul from the Indian store

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

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

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

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

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

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


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385. On Two Girls Running

In 2010s, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, parenting, Stories, United States, women & gender on July 7, 2016 at 12:05 pm

by kokamo77 (

The other day I had the same experience twice within the span of half an hour. It was a warm summer’s evening, the Saturday of a holiday weekend with July the Fourth coming up on the Monday, and our usually-quiet neighborhood was humming with activity. When we first moved to this area it was a combination of retirees, empty nesters, and young families. But over the years, as we ourselves have aged, many people have moved on, one way or another, and a number of the once owner-occupied homes have become student rentals.

There is another category of home on my regular walking route up the hill and back, especially after crossing the town line, which has always been a bit of a mystery to me. These houses have always appeared to be empty, even abandoned, as if they were summer homes, or as if their owner had died some years back but the family had not yet gotten around to clearing and selling them. The signs of emptiness are an eerie quiet, absence of light in any of the windows, canvas-covered cars parked in the driveways, overgrown banks and walkways, crumbling stone steps. It is in the front garden of one of these mysterious houses where the untended quince bush lives, the one I always pass on my route, flowering in the spring, and producing a small, hard fruit that I watch developing, ripening, and eventually shriveling and drying out, unpicked. Every now and then, at the end of the season, I pluck one and bear it home with me, feeling a little guilty, but mostly indignant on the quince’s behalf as it persists year after year, valiantly coming to fruit with no one nourishing or pruning it, or appreciating its efforts.

by kokamo77,

But I digress. On this particular summer’s evening, I was driving up the hill, nearing our house, when a young woman  suddenly burst out of a side street not far ahead of me, running at full tilt, and sprinted athletically across the road without slowing down at the curb and with nary a glance to left or right. My heart began to beat fast at the close call and I didn’t know whether to be relieved, angry, or admiring in the face of her youthful abandon, her confidence and invulnerability, her evident muscular power.

Soon after getting home I set out for my evening walk further up the hill. I usually turn around at the town line, where the sidewalk ends, but on this particular evening I continued on a little further. As I approached one of the houses that usually lies empty, I heard music and laughter, and saw holiday lights strung all around the front porch. The overgrown steps had been cleared and swept and the grassy bank was newly mown. Suddenly and without warning an adolescent girl bolted out of the house. Déjà vu! Hadn’t the same thing just happened to me not half an hour ago? But just as I began to tense up in anxious anticipation of her darting out into the street like her predecessor, she pulled herself up short, as if she had hit an invisible electric fence, then meandered leggily round to the back of the house and out of sight.


This girl aroused even stronger emotions in me. I found myself wondering what had propelled her out of the house as if shot from a cannon, and what had made her come to such an abrupt halt. Instead of the annoyance I had felt toward the earlier runner, I felt sympathy and approval; instead of admiration, I felt protectiveness. Who can forget those times in adolescence when one feels so stifled in a roomful of adults that one must get some air immediately or die, those times when every instinct tells one to get away as fast as possible, no matter where? Then, too, every girl can recall the times when one longs to burst out, but Reason points out that there is nowhere to run. Instead, more often than not one simply settles for some time alone, to simmer down and prepare oneself to face the fraught family atmosphere again. This girl, her family new to the neighborhood, may have bounded outside and then realized that she was in unfamiliar territory; so instead of breaking through into the unknown, she put on the brakes and walked slowly and thoughtfully into the her family’s new back garden.

One part of me—the parent, probably—applauded the girl’s good sense, while another part felt a little sorry that she didn’t have the boldness, and no doubt the foolhardiness, of the earlier, older runner who had so startled me a little earlier. Sure, there was time for her to gain that confidence in herself, but time is not always on the side of adolescent girls; as often as not, they lose, rather than gain confidence as they advance into their teens.

On the other hand, thinking back to the older runner, I found myself wondering what her parents were thinking. Had they not warned her to take care when crossing that busy road? Or perhaps she was in college, living with a group of other students; if so, she was old enough to know better. Even as I admired her athletic physique as against my woeful lack of muscle tone, my exasperation was stronger, since she had potentially endangered her own life and mine. Was my disapproval of that fearless girl greater than my approval of her younger counterpart’s cautiousness? And weren’t all these feelings of mine deeply gendered, despite my feminism and my own rebelliousness at their age?

Adolescent and teenage girls have so much power and potential. They need experience in order to develop maturity and good sense; but we are afraid to give them that leeway. In the name of protection, we continually underestimate them, rein them in, and hold them back, as parents and as a society. And as grown women, we hold ourselves back as well.

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379. Young People

In blogs and blogging, history, Inter/Transnational, parenting, Politics, Stories on April 30, 2016 at 11:45 am
UMass students calling for social justice (

UMass students calling for social justice (

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

YI remember having a passionate argument at age 16 with Richard, a philosopher-friend of my parents, who was middle-aged to me then, but in fact was only in his early thirties at the time. In what seemed to be impossibly patronizing tones, he assured me that I should just wait until I was a little older, and I would no longer feel so strongly about the state of the world. This only infuriated me all the more, and I screamed back that I would, I would; I would always feel passionately about it.

Now that I am older, almost twice as old as he was then, I think that Richard was both wrong and right. I still feel strongly about the state of the world, and, if anything, he feels more strongly about it than he did then. But the quality of that feeling is different, since I am battle-scarred, world-weary, and just plain tired. Young people throw their whole selves into a cause with all the idealism and energy of youth, invincible, unheeding of their own human frailty. I remember, as a 20-something anti-nuclear activist, preparing to occupy the construction site of the Seabrook nuclear facility, and declaring that we would set up camp there indefinitely, establishing a model alternative community. I must have believed this, although I can’t imagine how I could have imagined that the authorities would allow it for a moment; and they didn’t.

Students all over India in solidarity with students at JNU (Hindustan Times)

Students all over India in solidarity with students at JNU (Hindustan Times)

But I tell this story not to patronize my younger self. We accomplish impossible tasks when we believe that we can and act upon that belief, without hesitation or self-doubt. For a long time I was under the impression that “the younger generation” was selfish and self-involved. But in fact the current generation of people in their teens and twenties are more socially aware and politically active than any generation since the Sixties. Young people are on the move the world over, intensely concerned about the state of the planet, putting their bodies on the line for social and environmental justice. If at times I express irritation with them, it is really because I see in them my younger self, and hope against hope that they do not fall prey to the same mistakes that I—that we all—made at their age.

As we grow older and face our own mortality, we look to the younger generation as the hope for the continuation of the efforts we will not live to see completed. Their energy energizes us, their idealism inspires us, and their naïveté fills us with a protective tenderness. We need them; they are our future.

Model for multi--generational living in Germany  © picture-alliance/dpa

Model for multi–generational living in Germany © picture-alliance/dpa

The saddest thing to me is the way the elderly in many societies today are segregated with other old people, rather than living in multigenerational communities. I watched a documentary once about a community in Southeast Asia whose old people who were the happiest of any other group of elders on earth. Why? Because they had a useful social function, meeting the children from the school buses and looking after them until their parents came home from work. It was a win-win-win situation for everyone: them, the children, and the parents. I hope that we can work to create more and more such communities for ourselves and our age group.

When my son was in his twenties I used to look forward to the youthful energy in the house when he came home at holiday times. With the instantaneous communication of social media, he had hardly been home for a minute when his friends would start calling, dropping by, and sleeping over, with me fussing over them, serving snacks, and pulling out sleeping bags, as I used to when they were schoolchildren. iPhones were hooked up to the speaker system, and their music filled the house again, while the joyful noise of their boisterous play was music to my ears. Now they are setting up homes of their own and the house is quiet most of the time, the occasional visitors chatting sedately over tea with the subdued energy of my generation.

Let me make a couple of things clear: this is not a nostalgia piece, neither do I crave the presence of the young merely to vicariously recover my own lost youth. Furthermore, we oldsters still have plenty of fight left in us, and I would not want to give the impression that we simply want to let go of our responsibilities and pass the world’s problems on to the next generation; no, we will work for positive change as long we have breath in our bodies. But we mortals crave continuity, and the creativity and commitment of the young gives me hope for the future. And joy. Young people fill me with joy.

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369. the Outdoors

In blogs and blogging, Britain, clothing, Family, Food, health, Nature, parenting, Stories on April 18, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy



OWhen I was in secondary school in England, age 14-15, the prefects, older students with positions of authority, enforced the rule that we had to spend recess out of doors, in fair weather or foul. They would patrol the hallways, especially in the winters, rooting out any poor soul who might be huddling in a corner, hoping to avoid being thrust out into the cold and wet. I remember ducking into the girls’ lavatories with a friend of mine and hiding in the cubicles, only to hear the prefects’ footsteps loom louder and louder, until finally, they heaved open the door. In a trice we climbed up onto the toilet seats and squatted there, so that our feet could not be seen when they peered under the doors. Fortunately we were lucky, that time, and gloated at our victory over the fresh-air police.

But we were in grey school uniforms (

But in 1968 we were in grey school uniforms (

1024px-Traditional.Sunday.Roast-01We weren’t getting off so easily. During that year, my mother, sister, and I were living with our Uncle Ted and our two cousins, Jacky and Carol, while waiting for the arrival of our green cards so that we could emigrate to the States with our father, who was still in India. Uncle Ted, it turned out, was a fresh-air fiend, one of those parents who believed that children should spend as much time as possible in the Great Outdoors. So when, on the weekend, just as we were leaning back lazily, loosening our belts after a massive English Sunday roast with all the trimmings, Uncle Ted would invariably say, in hearty tones, “Who’s for a brisk country walk?” we would all groan, because we knew that it was a rhetorical question—we had no choice. We would turn appealingly to my mother, who wouldn’t let us off the hook, but sweetened the deal with the promise of tea and cakes when we returned; and so there was nothing for it but to put on our heaviest boots and plunge into the country lanes and byways with Uncle Ted.

It was always an adventure. Our sulks would be forgotten before we’d rounded the first bend and one of us had spotted our first artefact for the shelf back at home. We argued and speculated about everything we found, and eventually determined it to be an ancient Roman arrowhead, a nail from a hob-nailed boot, the tiny skull of a shrew, or an as-yet-undiscovered species of fern or fungus. We bore them proudly back home, covered in mud, like the rest of our persons, to be displayed on the special shelf, duly washed and labeled. And then we had tea and cakes.

Britain is famous for its footpaths, and one can still ramble the length and breadth of the island on both short-and long-distance national trails. Much as I detest the self-important officiousness of school prefects, and root for the rebels who refuse to catch their deaths out in the rain simply because it’s supposed to be good for the character, I can’t help but applaud the parents who instill a love of the outdoors in their children.

I just read a sad story in a British newspaper, reporting that some middle-class parents are refusing to let their children ramble around the countryside because they (the parents) can no longer read maps and, besides, their offspring might come home covered in mud.

Long live map-reading, and muddy boots, and the glorious Outdoors!

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352. Parents Modeling Manners

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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349. A Chair for My Mother

In 1980s, 2010s, Books, Inter/Transnational, parenting, reading, Stories, United States, women & gender, Work on November 7, 2015 at 10:58 am


BK100160AWhen Nikhil and Eric were young, one of our favorite picture books for them was Vera B. Williams’ A Chair for My Mother (1982). It became a Scholastic title as well as a Reading Rainbow book (remember LeVar Burton of PBS’s Reading Rainbow?), and Maureen, who taught kindergarten, must have brought it home as she did all the new and classic Scholastic books she would order to preview for her students. I don’t know who loved it more, the boys or us. We also read and enjoyed Vera Williams’ Cherries and Cherry Pits (1986), which, like all her books, she both wrote and illustrated in her distinctively bold, colorful style. A Chair for My Mother, though, was far and away my favorite.

I won’t spoil it for you by summarizing the plot; do pick up a copy and read it to the children in your life. Just know that its characters are a little girl, her mother, her grandmother, and, of course, the eponymous chair. They don’t have much in the way of possessions; the mother works hard for their living; and the love and warmth of its spare text and lavish illustrations continue to light up American children’s literature through the generations.


When I heard of Vera Williams’ death last month, I felt a pang and a deep sadness. I read in her obituary that after her divorce she moved from New York to a houseboat in Vancouver, British Columbia, where, in her late 40s, she began to write and illustrate children’s books. What constitutes the sense of home is personal and elusive, but A Chair for My Mother captures what’s essential. That stage of my life is long gone, but the chair, and all that it stands for, sits squarely in my heart, inviting me to come home.


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342. Inscriptions

In Books, Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, India, parenting, reading, Stories, Words & phrases, writing on September 6, 2015 at 4:11 pm

My father has trained us to inscribe every book we present him, and if we forget, he never hesitates to instruct us—insistentlyIMG_2830 —to do so. As a result, I too am in the habit of writing a personal inscription in every book intended as a gift, one that I hope the recipient will keep, treasure, and re-read.

It saddens me when I find books left at the Book Shed (aka our town dump) with their flyleaves intimately inscribed by grandparents or (ex-) lovers. I myself would find it exceedingly hard to part with such a book. Perhaps this is part of the reason why inscriptions are becoming a lost art: our throwaway culture demands an unmarked commodity that can be discarded or resold more readily, without leaving a trace of its past.

Here are a few of the inscriptions in my books, books all the more beloved for them. Each one takes me back to a time and a place and reminds me of the giver, what it meant to him or her and what s/he hoped that it might mean to me.

In A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, sent to Kharagpur, West Bengal, India from England (by sea mail via Suez, no doubt):

Sent to India from England (sea mail via Suez, no doubt)

In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women:

endpapers, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women

endpapers, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

bearing the inscription:



And in this book, at my request, an inscription to Nikhil, from the late great Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand, written at his home in Khandala, Maharashtra.


Did I say that book inscriptions were becoming a lost art? Some of the most beautiful ones I’ve found today have been written by Nikhil and members of his generation. Theirs are inscribed in my heart and I am reluctant to wear them on my sleeve.

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337. Lessons from a Historian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

(from Occupy Oakland)

(from Occupy Oakland)

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

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

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301. Babysitting

In Family, India, Nature, parenting, seasons, Stories, United States on February 27, 2015 at 12:43 pm
Jamun tree (

Jamun tree (

(from chennaiNature on

(from chennaiNature on

My parents have always loved birds. In India, Mum would look up and identify all the birds that came to feast in our jamun trees when the purple-staining fruit was ripe. After immigrating to the U.S., they always maintained a well-stocked, squirrel-proofed bird-feeder and kept the water fresh in the bird bath. One spring they rescued a baby bird which had fallen out of its nest, keeping it warm overnight and returning it to the base of the tree the next morning, when its parents managed to coax it back up to safety.



In their retirement Mum and Dad have remained avid bird-lovers, keeping binoculars handy for distant hawks and eagles, and checking off in their Massachusetts bird book every new variety that they spot in the garden. Especially in the spring and winter, during the nesting season and the bitter cold, their trips and outings have been seriously curtailed as they have watched anxiously over the eggs and worried about who would refill the feeder if they went out of town.

I remember one spring day in particular when I dropped by to ask my parents if they’d like to accompany me on an errand. They were both a bit agitated, and told me that they couldn’t make any commitments just then because a pair of birds (not being a birder, I can’t remember what kind) had built and laid eggs in a low-hanging nest just under the eaves of their deck, and the eggs had just hatched. They explained that they had been watching over the nest while the parents were out getting food, and on this occasion it had been unattended for some time. With the open fields behind the house, the nestlings were exposed to all sorts of predators, so they couldn’t think of going out.

They were babysitting.


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