Josna Rege

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396. Missing Ted

In Family, people, places, poetry, Stories, United States on March 18, 2017 at 2:56 am

My father-in-law Theodore (Ted) Melnechuk passed away on March the first, at the age of eighty-nine. There is a void where he once was, and we cannot fill it. Science writing was his profession—neuroscience writing in particular, but his interests and expertise were broad and eclectic. Poetry was his avocation, and he loved form in verse, from sonnets to limericks, which he wrote daily, for years, thousands of them. He wrote a poem for every occasion in our lives, on my mother-in-law Anna’s birthday and their wedding anniversary and, also for Anna, every Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. He was kind enough to read and edit all my writing for years, and I still follow his rules about the serial comma, the adverb following the verb, the title of an essay stating its thesis. Gently, he pointed out some of my tendencies to verbal excess, noting only that a second adjective tended to cut the impact of the word in half rather than doubling it. Once, wistfully, he expressed a wish that I would evaluate literary works for their intrinsic beauty, the way he had learned to do, rather than merely interrogating them politically.

For more than 40 years he marked, clipped, and sent me and many others articles of interest from The New York Times, which he read religiously every morning. He read the print issue, of course, and if for any reason it was not delivered he would fret, fume, make phone calls, and eventually drive down to the newsagent’s to pick up a replacement copy. Only then would his day take its proper shape.

Ted loved words, puzzles (crossword and jigsaw both), word games, games of all kinds. Puns, anagrams, acrostics, homonyms, palindromes, all endless sources of pleasure. He loved playing games with his children and together they made up their own idiosyncratic rules for them. In the ten years after his beloved wife, my dear mother-in-law Anna, passed away he had taken to organizing a games day on the third Saturday of every month, when all four children joined him for lunch followed by an afternoon of high jinks and tiddlywinks, Melnechuk-style, followed by Scrabble in teams. Ted always kept score, meticulously, and the family not only kept them in perpetuity, but compared their new scores to old ones, delighting in besting themselves. But the older he got, the less Ted, once super-competitive, cared about winning; he simply enjoyed finding good words, a place to put them on the board, and the company of his children.

Still, as much as he loved his children, my father-in-law had his priorities. He did move up his daily nap time on games days to accommodate the special schedule, but even Games Day had to give way to big football and baseball games; sometimes he would peremptorily announce that it was time for us to leave. Other events that could not be missed: all three of the horse races that make up the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes (on television of course). For every one Andrew and I would receive a cordial invitation to join him half-an-hour before the race began, when we would be given a photocopy of the line-up and invited to pick our first three choices for the winner. Ted would always pick the horses with the best odds of winning, while Anna would pick the names she liked best. Another must-watch ritual was the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving Day—mostly, I think, because it was held in his native New York City.

Ted loved New York. As a son of Ukrainian immigrants, he was born (in 1928) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attended high school at Brooklyn Tech (where even then he brought the arts to a science and technology high school as Editor of their literary magazine), and college at Columbia, where he studied science, took literature classes with Mark Van Doren and wrote poetry with classmates Alan Ginsberg and John Hollander. Although he left New York for Massachusetts in the early 1960s, he followed the New York scene avidly and, as long as he was able, used to travel down to the City with an old friend once a year to go to the opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Amherst he was a member of a group called the Ex-New Yorkers, who used to gather once a month to reminisce about their hometown, choosing a different theme every time.

Also every month, from the very beginning of his stay in Amherst, Ted held a men’s poker game on a Friday night—low stakes, high seriousness. He cancelled the game only once that I recall— the month after Anna’s death. In the last month of his life he moved into assisted living in Amherst, and one of his poker mates moved in soon after. But they didn’t have time to get Poker Night going again in the new venue.

So many daily, weekly, monthly, annual rituals, now all gone. Will any of us ever manage to be as faithful to them? Which of them will we keep up? Now that I no longer receive my regular envelope of clippings from the Times, I must subscribe on my own, though mine will have to be the digital edition. Nights, when I am at a loose end, I will play Canfield’s Solitaire, Ted’s favorite, though I won’t keep a running score as he did. When I need to soothe my soul, I must remember to play music, like Ted, who always listened to classical music on the radio or CD player as he worked at his desk. And on Saturday mornings I will visit the Book Shed at the Amherst town dump to see if there’s anything of interest; but I won’t get there as often, or keep my eyes peeled anymore for British murder mysteries, Ted’s favorites (he went through hundreds of them, some of the best ones many times over, since he claimed that he always forgot whodunit).

His house is empty. This weekend Andrew and his siblings are clearing his room at the assisted living place, where he stayed for only six weeks. He had insisted on continuing to live in his own home, resisting home help, remaining independent to the end. Here is the obituary that he wrote himself; a shorter version will run in his beloved New York Times this Sunday.

Rest in Peace, dear Ted.

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386. When the Law Breaks the Law

In 1970s, 2010s, history, places, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on July 16, 2016 at 10:47 am


I remember vividly the first time I witnessed law enforcement breaking the law, and it was terrifying. It was one evening in the fall of 1970 on the way to an anti-Vietnam War rally on the Boston Common. Two of my Brookline-High classmates and I had taken the trolley in together, and our English teacher, Mrs. Metzger, had said that she would give us credit if we wrote an essay on the experience. (She was that kind of teacher—we adored her.) I was sixteen.

Boston Common (

The Boston Common (

The Boston Common, dating all the way back to 1634, is the oldest city park in the United States, a 50-acre haven of green smack-dab in the middle of downtown Boston, with the State House directly to the north of it, the shopping district to the east and south, and the Public Garden to the west. The Common and the Public Garden are criss-crossed by a well-kept network of internal walking paths, flanked by flower-beds, benches, and bronze sculptures depicting George Washington and Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings.

Make Way for Ducklings sculpture in Boston Public Garden; photo by Lorianne DiSabato (

Make Way for Ducklings sculpture in Boston Public Garden; photo by Lorianne DiSabato (

Gail, Caren, and I were strolling down one of the paths without a care in the world, happy to be out together, and chatting away nineteen to the dozen (or at least, I was). We must have been heading toward the square within view of the golden dome of the State House, where many of the events, including public demonstrations, are centered. But suddenly, on a dime, things turned nasty. While we were talking, an army of police vehicles had encircled us, crashed onto the Common, and were not only driving down the walking paths, but across the lawns. They were shouting something through bullhorns, but we couldn’t make out any words. It was terrifying to see them coming at us from all directions, and to see the public order we had always observed obediently and taken for granted being overturned by the very forces of law and order.

Although I was the one whose idea it had been to come, I was also the one who panicked, while Gail, heretofore the apolitical one, now took charge, keeping perfectly calm. She steered us to the side of the path and we waited, keeping as much out of the way as was possible, while cop cars cut across the Common in all directions and people scattered chaotically, screaming and scrambling to get out of their way.

Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, Ohio, May 4, 1970. Four students were killed when Ohio National Guard troops fired at some 600 anti-war demonstrators. A cropped version of this image won the Pulitzer Prize. (Photo by John Filo/Getty Images)

Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, Ohio, May 4, 1970. Four students were killed when Ohio National Guard troops fired at some 600 anti-war demonstrators. A cropped version of this image won the Pulitzer Prize. (Photo by John Filo/Getty Images)

That was 1970, and looking back, it sometimes seems like an age of innocence. But in fact it had only been a few short months since May, when college students at Kent State and Jackson State had been shot and killed by police and the entire country had erupted in protest. The war was raging at home as well as in Southeast Asia, and we were well aware of it. Nevertheless, this first-hand evidence of police over-reaction came as a shock to us, sheltered teens from the suburbs and especially for me, as an immigrant who had been in the country for less than a year.

Still, protests and all, 1970 was an age of innocence in comparison to the state of affairs today. Since then, it seems, police forces across the United States have become increasingly militarized (see this clip and another from The Colbert Report), and police killings of civilians are a daily occurrence. (See the U.K. Guardian’s site, The Counted, for a continuously updated record of all the people killed by the U.S. police: the year-to-date count is 587,  in mid-July 2016.) 

Paramilitary police forces face off against peaceful protesters, Baltimore , 1 May, 2015. (Bryan MacCormack/Left in Focus)

Paramilitary police forces face off against peaceful protesters, Baltimore , 1 May, 2015. (Bryan MacCormack/Left in Focus)

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that “no person shall. . .be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Since when has the practice of law enforcement forces, both at home and abroad, been Shoot to Kill? Are we living in the Wild West, with a practice of Shoot first, ask questions later? What happened to the hallowed democratic principles of the rule of law, due process of law, and habeas corpus (more like habeas corpse these days), let alone the presumption of innocence, the concept that a person charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty?

Black Lives Matter Protest, Chicago, 2015 (from Christian Science Monitor, photo: Paul Beaty/AP)

Black Lives Matter Protest, Chicago, 2015 (from Christian Science Monitor, photo: Paul Beaty/AP)

The ubiquity of guns, in the hands of people and the police alike, surely has something to do with the frightening escalation, as does the ideology of perpetual war that has militarized our culture and society, with warspeak pervading the news media and our vocabulary so as to cover up the naked truth and numb our natural responses with euphemisms for killing such as “neutralizing” and “taking out”.

With the general public belatedly becoming aware—thanks to the courageous Black Lives Matter movement—of the reality of police violence in the U.S. that people of color have been experiencing first-hand all along, people are finally saying, Enough!, and in numbers too large to ignore. The charge of the police is To Protect and to Serve: it’s time to remind them who it is they are supposed to be serving. Even conjuring up the specter of global terrorism is no longer enough to scare people into submission. The mask has come off, and the face underneath is ugly. We must demand that law enforcement upholds the law. 


Police Take Notice: Make way for ducklings!

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376. Verandas

In blogs and blogging, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 27, 2016 at 7:22 am


Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

V-1In the United States they’re more commonly called porches. In India, though, and around much of the world, they are veranda(h)s—roofed, sometimes partly enclosed porches that extend from a house at the ground-floor level.

The word’s origin is disputed, but it comes to English from the Hindi varanda and other Indian languages and is also found in Portuguese and Spanish, so it is one of the many that entered the English language during the colonial era.

We have a hundred-year old New-England farmhouse with porches in front and back, but I prefer to call the front extension a veranda, because as soon as I set foot in it I breathe different air and seem to enter a different world altogether.

Situated on the north side of the house, it is a cool, peaceful place. A small sign reminds visitors to remove their shoes. Cane chairs and a comfy couch present themselves, evoking a slower past. Stress and striving fall away. The whir of ceiling fans shuts out the hum of traffic on the road outside and the workaday world recedes. A green shade; a homecoming.

Verandas of my youth were shady, protected spaces neither in nor out. Drinking water sat cooling in earthenware jugs on our back veranda, which looked out on an old hammock slung between two jamun trees.

While the veranda beckons, the workday ahead of me demands attention. I reluctantly bid it farewell, for now. But life is as it should be on the veranda. I intend to sit quietly there, alone or with friends, fans swishing slowly, through many a long, hot summer evening; the definition of happiness.

Not long now.

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363. India

In blogs and blogging, India, Nature, places, Stories on April 13, 2016 at 4:16 am


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IOver the centuries, India has gone by many names; and these, like most names, differ according to the speaker, the language, and the context. The Greeks called it India, back in the fourth century B.C., a name that comes from the Sindhu, or Indus river. Today, India officially calls itself both India and Bharat, and a third name, Hindustan, has also been in use since the days of British colonial rule.

The British like to say that India was not an entity until they came along to unite a motley collection of kingdoms and chieftaincies. That is, they make the arrogant and ridiculous claim that they created India. But they are wrong; Indians have known their land for millennia, criss-crossed by life-giving rivers and mapped by pilgrimage sites. Lifelong scholar of India, Diana Eck, puts it beautifully in her new book. India: A Sacred Geography:

Considering its long history, India has had but a few hours of political and administrative unity. Its unity as a nation, however, has been firmly constituted by the sacred geography it has held in common and revered: its mountains, forests, rivers, hilltop shrines.

This geography has not just been held holy by Hindus—or the wide range of beliefs and practices now called Hinduism—but by many Indian Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs.


I, who have lived so much of my life outside India, still hold it dear. When I try to catch hold of what India means to me, it is the land itself that returns again and again to my mind’s eye, until I am awash with it. The paddy fields, coconut palms, rivers and forests, fast disappearing; the Himalayas, the Western Ghats, the coasts lined by the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal; I traverse them in my dreams as if on a steam train rushing through the night. It is, always and forever, the Indian people—their energy, curiosity, diversity, resilience and zest for life, despite tremendous hardships and poverty. The flora and fauna—banyan trees, the luxuriant growth of flowers, fruits, and vegetables through every climate zone. The animals: the emblematic and endangered Indian elephant, first and foremost; tigers, monkeys, jackals, cobras, scorpions, ants, mosquitoes. It is the Indian climate—the building heat in March-April, the deadly drought that drives deep cracks and crevices into the parched earth, the blessed return of the drenching monsoon rains. And the full-spectrum, heady smells of India: flower garlands, incense, ripe fruit, raw sewage. Every time I set my feet down on its soil again, I feel tremendous relief and joy. Yes, India brings me joy.


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362. Henion’s

In blogs and blogging, Food, places, Stories, United States, writing on April 9, 2016 at 9:09 pm


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HThe Henion Bakery has been in business in our little town for 22 years ago now. I can’t imagine that they need to advertise because if you have been there once, you talk about it to everyone you know. My cousins were visiting from India last year and I thought I had shown them all the local sights, until they asked whether we could pay a visit to Henion’s, since the last family visitors had returned home raving about it. Of course we did, and no one was disappointed.

Henion’s opened just as I was in the final crunch of writing my doctoral dissertation. Not that I was even close to done, but time was running out for me to get it done. During those sleepless nights and stressful days, Henion’s saw me through. When I told co-proprietor David Henion—Barbara Kline is his partner—that his jam doughnuts were the bright spot in my life, he looked quite alarmed at my vehemence, as if he wasn’t sure whether he should be worrying about my state of mind. But I was quite serious, and if I was overwrought, then I had an antidote. Stopping in at Henion’s for a hot cup of tea and a jam doughnut fresh out of the oven made time stand still and all my work and worries melt away.

doughnut+I have mentioned before (TMA #41, Eating for Four) that you must put Dunkin Donuts right out of your mind when you try to imagine a doughnut from the Henion Bakery. This is the real thing. It is doughy rather than spongy, giving you something substantial to sink your teeth into, filled with fresh raspberry jam, and rolled in crumbly sugar.

But Henion’s is by no means just a doughnut shop. The pastries are to die for, and besides the regulars and favorites, they vary by season. They make rugelach and babka, poppy seed slices and Russian tea loaf, sticky rolls and Danish, croissants and brioche. There are fruit tarts with custard, lemon squares, delicate heart-shaped confections for Valentine’s Day and Hot Cross Buns that I order in bulk for Good Friday (see TMA #182). At Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, every kind of pie can be ordered, including mince and pecan pies. My focus on the doughnuts tends to make me forget their cakes, each one a work of art.


And the bread! It’s a bakery, of course, and carries everything under the sun, plus Challah on Friday. For a time I had a standing order for a weekly loaf of Anadama bread which, if I went in early enough to pick up, would still be warm. There’s tea and coffee, David’s pottery for sale on the shelves, exhibits by local artists on the walls, and half a dozen small tables with the daily papers out on them. There’s an ancient bread-slicing machine that makes a godawful racket, but it is all part of the charm of this happening place where it seems that everyone in town, including the mailman, stops in regularly for an extended chat.

When Andrew and I went into Henion’s today, they washed one of David’s tiles for me to display their doughnut on.


The Henion Bakery brings me joy.

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358. Darjeeling

In 1960s, blogs and blogging, Education, India, Nature, places, Stories on April 6, 2016 at 12:19 am

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photo by Karl Hagen

photo by Karl Hagen

DDarjeeling is a hill station in West Bengal, India, set mile-high in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was formerly part of Sikkim and its name derives from Dorje Ling, abode of the thunderbolt, a monastery built for the Chogyal of Sikkim in the mid-nineteenth century. Its diverse population of about 130,000 includes Gorkhas, Lephchas, Bhutias, Bengalis, Marwaris, Anglo-Indians, Chinese, Biharis, and Tibetans. It is justly famous for its flowery, faintly orange-scented tea, its cool climate, its ancient narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that chugs up from the plains, its botanical garden, its Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (founded by Tenzing Norgay), and, when the mists clear, its stunning views of Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world.

I love Darjeeling because it was my home for two and a half years during my teens, when my parents sent me to boarding school there, to Mount Hermon, where the snows of Kanchenjunga were the view from our dormitory window. Keeping in touch with my MH friends and classmates (Batch of ’69), drinking whole-leaf Darjeeling tea, lifting my voice and my eyes to the mountains as we did every day, and recalling the awe-inspiring beauty of the Himalayan landscape, all continue to bring me joy.

Some 17 years ago the Batch of ’69 celebrated its 30th anniversary in Kathmandu, hosted by Lobsang, our classmate who is settled there. Three of us, Tsognie, Marianne, and I, being based in the U.S., were unable to travel to Nepal at that time, and so we got together at the same time for a mini-reunion at my house. We made a video in which we reminisced, sang MH songs, and sent our greetings to everyone. In it, Marianne, who has the clearest, purest voice I have ever heard, sang To Sir with Love, that she had first learned as a tribute to our class teacher, Mr. Mellor. In short order, we converted the videocassette from the U.S. NTSC format into the Indian PAL, and sent it to Kathmandu by Global Express Mail. (This was before Skype or Youtube were founded (2003 and 2005, respectively) and email, even if some people had access to it, was slow and unreliable.)

Our video got to Kathmandu on time, but on that day it was either a long weekend or the post office was closed due to a strike. Our classmates celebrated without us while it languished in the mailroom. Months later, Mr. Mellor, who was retired back in Australia by then, visited Calcutta (just before it became Kolkata again), where we believe that members of our batch of ’69 showed him the video. We hope it meant half as much to him to receive it as it meant to us to record it for him. Mr. Mellor passed away not long afterwards, and so did dear Santosh, our classmate who had brought us all together on an email list after many years.

I realize that my tone here is nostalgic; but Darjeeling is a place of such sublime natural beauty that, even half a century later, it is still able to cast its mountain mists upon my inward eye, bringing with it that emotion recollected in tranquility so treasured by the Romantic poets.

I had to leave Darjeeling a year before the rest of my class graduated. While it was a wrenching parting for me, Darjeeling itself was devastated almost immediately afterwards by the terrible landslide of 1968. It was not until twenty-five years later that I returned again, and I haven’t been able to return since. How is it that a place lived in for such a short time, and that too so long ago, still means so much to me?

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353. Solapuris

In Family, India, places, Stories, Words & phrases on February 28, 2016 at 12:09 pm


Just thinking about them makes me feel happy. Solapuri chaddars, or, simply, Solapuris, after the district in Maharashtra where they are made, are beautiful, long-lasting cotton Jacquard-style bedspreads. Actually, they are blankets-cum-sheets-cum-bedspreads, because they serve as all three in one—warm, light and breathable, and highly decorative. The wonderful thing about them is that they get softer with each washing and, well cared-for, can last for generations. When I am visiting relatives in India and they bring a soft, carefully folded family Solapuri out of the almirah for me, I sleep like a baby. Wherever I may be, when I cover myself with one, I am at home.

So named because it was made up of sixteen (sola) villages, Solapur has been known for its handloom weaving since the 18th century, during the time of the Peshwas, when there were many small artisans and the whole family participated in the production process. While the cottage industry has changed over the years with colonialism and industrialization, there are still several different companies weaving these chaddars in an array of designs at once traditional and inventive. Solapuris were the first product in Maharashtra to gain Geographical Indication status; meaning that they are inextricably tied to place. You cannot call a chaddar a Solapuri unless it was actually made in Solapur.

We have three Solapuris, all pictured here. The first one, the largest, must be nearly 33 years old by now. Andrew and I bore it home triumphantly after Andrew had scrutinized and rejected what seemed like dozens of designs. He kept finding a flaw in the weave, until the salesman, who was the soul of patience, finally said, “Sir, these are handloom chaddars; naturally they will have a flaw. That is how one knows that they were woven by hand.” Andrew, who has a quietly stubborn streak, did not concede, but he took the point, and soon concluded the purchase. It has been washed countless times, and is now getting a little threadbare because we used it as a cover on our old living room sofa for several years. Even though it is showing its age, it is heavenly-soft and its colors are as brilliant as ever. I cannot bear to part with it.


The second Solapuri is a single-bed size, bought in Bombay, I think, and brought back from a trip to India in the 1990s. We have not used it as much as the first, and I was beginning to despair of its ever getting as soft as the old heirloom Solapuris brought out of storage by my relatives. But just recently it has begun wearing in at last, and by this summer I predict that it will be my bedsheet of choice.


The newest arrival has only been admired as yet, never even washed, and with all its labels still on it. Nikhil and I picked it out in a Solapuri-only store in Pune, where we were directed by my cousin Kalyani, who knows all there is to know about where to get what, and for the best price. It is stiff and new, with all its potential ahead of it. I hope that it will bring visiting friends and family a sound night’s sleep and sweet dreams for many years to come.


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347. Free Speech: Goodbye to All That?

In 1970s, 2010s, blogs and blogging, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, writing on October 25, 2015 at 12:47 pm
Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, ©Manolis Daloukas (from

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, ©Manolis Daloukas (from



It must have been during our stay in London in the autumn of 1973 when Andrew and I were visiting Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, that 150 year-old emblem of Britain’s commitment to free speech and freedom of assembly. On our previous visit we had encountered a succession of people making impassioned speeches, heavily peppered with oddballs ranting about the apocalypse and the Second Coming. Along with the other passers-by we listened politely for a short time, perhaps asking a question or accepting a flyer before edging out of their line of vision.

This time it was an altogether different scene, so weird that it refuses to come to focus in my mind’s eye. I see not one, but a group of people, mostly young, who have set up some sort of table—dining table, operating table, it isn’t clear—on which is set what looks like a monstrous loaf of bread baked in the shape of a phallus. They are cutting it into slices and offering a piece to any and all takers brave enough to sample it. For they declare openly that, quite apart from its priapic form, there is more to the loaf than meets the eye: marijuana has been baked into it. Further, they insist that they are not advocating the recreational use of this substance—which would be illegal and actionable, even at Speakers’ Corner—but rather, that they are partaking in a religious sacrament.

9780374289331Here’s where my memory gets even more hazy. The group claimed direct descent from Robert Graves, long-resident outside of England in Majorca, Spain (then known to me only as the author of I, Claudius, which was on my parents’ bookshelves in my childhood and which I had read surreptitiously and with considerable bewilderment). They were even flourishing some kind of founding document with Graves’ signature on it, bestowing authority and legitimacy upon them. As I recall, they were a revival of some sort of ancient fertility cult, perhaps one of those described in Graves’ work, The White Goddess. Somewhere, in my old five-drawer file cabinet or buried deep in a box in our basement, I may still have the flier that we brought away with us. I didn’t ingest their offering, though, and cannot testify to the veracity of the group’s claims, with respect to either its ingredients or their origin myth.

Robert Graves regularly comes up in my teaching, either as the author of the autobiographical Goodbye to All That (1929), or as a mentor in to younger writers like Alan Sillitoe in the 1950s and 1960s, or as a character in Pat Barker’s novel, Regeneration. It was only once, in a contemporary British fiction class, that I ventured to tell my students the story of the phallus-worshipping fertility cult at Hyde Park Corner purportedly founded by the man himself. Their jaws dropped and the room fell silent.

The funeral procession for M. M. Kalburgi, a writer who was shot at point-blank range in his home in Karnataka, India, in August 2015. Photo Credit STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

The funeral procession for M. M. Kalburgi, a writer who was shot at point-blank range in his home in Karnataka, India, in August 2015. Photo Credit STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

This would just be a colorful tale from my chequered past if it were not for the serious threats to free speech around the world today, even in the nations that enshrine this sacred principle in their own origin myths. In country after country, United States, Britain, Australia, even Canada, free speech is being curtailed in the name of security, swept away as the spectre of terrorism is conjured up. In India as I write, the leadership of the ruling party is refusing to condemn the recent murders of writers who held views, such as rationalism or atheism, that run counter to the crusading beliefs of the Hindu Right. In so doing—or rather, in refusing to do so—the Center gives the extremists tacit license to kill. In such a climate, people who practice minority religions or hold dissenting views are afraid to speak out, indeed, afraid to be who they are.

Meanwhile, in the Land of the Free, even giving utterance to certain words online, let alone out loud, is sufficient to put one on a watchlist, or worse. Nowadays, simply being on a watchlist, whether or not the suspicion has any foundation, gives the government license to kill, and to get away with it.

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, © Manolis Daloukas (

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, © Manolis Daloukas (

It seems that the time-honoured tradition of free speech at Speakers’ Corner is under threat as well. It is incumbent upon us all to uphold free speech by exercising it, refusing to be silenced in a climate that has cast a chill over our fundamental human right. Thinking back to that performance in Hyde Park more than forty years ago with its flagrant, joyous disregard of convention, I may gently tease, but will never trivialize the open society that permitted it.

P.S. Thanks to fellow-blogger Don Scrooby, whose photographs of Hyde Park in Candid Impressions sparked this memory.

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344. Tropical Botanicals

In 1970s, Nature, places, Stories, travel, United States, Words & phrases on September 25, 2015 at 9:36 am
Rhizophora mangle, or Red Mangrove (

Rhizophora mangle, or red mangrove (

Forty years ago, in April 1975, a group of us in the co-op house at university decided to go down to Key West, Florida for our Spring Break. We drove non-stop, getting from Boston to the northern border of the state in just 24 hours, and headed first to Miami. Unusually for college students on Spring Break, our first destination was not the beach, but, because we had a budding botanist among us, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Once there, we made a beeline for the area where the Garden maintains a small simulated tropical rainforest; visiting that hot, moisture-drenched paradise alone made our entire trip worthwhile.

Erythoxylum coca

Erythoxylum coca (

Peter, our resident botanist, had inside knowledge about the Garden; he knew the exact location of plants that were not labeled for fear that they would be stripped and stolen. The plant he took us to visit was Erythroxylum coca (var. coca), or, in common parlance, coca, notorious because it is the basis for the production of HCl, or cocaine, a dangerous, illegal substance, highly lucrative for black-market drug traffickers. However, coca is not illegal in South America, where its leaves have been used medicinally for centuries, and workers chew them for energy and stamina during their long hours of hard manual labor. Being a conservationist, not a Yahoo, Peter carefully, reverently, pinched off a few sprigs, which we slipped into a bag as we slipped away unnoticed, leaving the little bush all the healthier for its expert pruning.

Next on our botanical tour of Florida was the Everglades National Park, when we headed straight for the mangrove swamps along the coastline. The term mangrove refers not to one particular plant, but to a number of species of trees that grow along the coast and are tolerant to salt. Mangroves thrive in the tidal waters of the Everglades, where saltwater and freshwater mix, and the national park protects the largest contiguous stand of protected mangrove forest in the hemisphere.

Rhizophora mangle, or the red mangrove, is a strong and adaptable plant, the most common mangrove on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in both tropical and subtropical zones. Its Latin name, Rhizophora, which means rootbearer, refers to its aerial prop roots, which also give it the common name (one among many) walking tree, because it looks as if it is walking on water. Its propagule (what a terrific word!), or unit of propagation, drops live off the parent plant, and is immediately capable of rooting and creating a new tree.

Propagules growing before dropping from the parent plant (wikipedia, uploaded by Hlucha)

Propagules growing before dropping from the parent plant (wikipedia, uploaded by Hlucha)

The red mangrove is in no danger of being over-picked—in fact, it has become an invasive menace in Hawai ‘i, where the climate in ideal for it. Still, Peter oversaw the careful removal of a small red mangrove plant to try propagating back home in New England (where it is in no danger of becoming an invasive species).

The rest of our trip, as we continued down through the Florida Keys to Key West and back, though memorable, was probably not very different from the typical Spring Break experience: beach by day, bars by night, camping, companionship, and in my case a chance to relax before the last big exam period of my senior year in college. On the trip home, when it came to my nighttime driving shift, I chewed some of the Erythroxylum coca leaf we had brought back with us. Like a Peruvian worker from the Andes, I was able to drive steadily through the night without a trace of fatigue, my only other symptom being a mild numbing sensation in my mouth and throat.

When we got home, we put our little mangrove in one of the bathtubs of the Co-op House, and tried to make it a home away from home, complete with salty water and simulated tides twice a day. It lived and even thrived until sometime later that summer, when one of us went away and others forgot to refresh its water, as students are wont to do. But that one short trip so many years ago helped to instill in me a lifelong respect for plants, miraculous living beings like ourselves, that share our planet and make our own lives possible.

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340. Coastal Connections

In Family, Inter/Transnational, Nature, people, places, Stories, United States on August 2, 2015 at 11:07 am

Anna and I had managed to get away for three whole days and were finally on the road, heading up the Maine coast and on to Monhegan Island. We planned to spend a quiet overnight in New Harbor and to catch the first ferry out the next morning.


Maine’s mid-coast region has a number of peninsulas that sprout from the mainland like fingers and reach towards the sea. Driving up from Portland we passed a succession of signs for small towns: Brunswick, Topsham, Bath, Boothbay Harbor, Wiscasset, Georgetown, Damariscotta, Pemaquid, all known and loved by my brother-in-law Charles, who had just died right here, much too young, after a long and painful illness. It felt strange for me to be in his old haunts, while he himself was gone. When he was with us, Charles almost never left Maine; he was ill at ease anywhere else.


Passing through the little community of Bristol (formerly Pemaquid), only a mile from our destination, we noticed a handmade sign announcing an “Artisan’s Reception” in a barn next-door to a tiny public library. My sister-in-law Vera has worked in the Maine public library system for years, most recently in Brunswick’s Curtis Memorial Library and prior to that in the children’s room of Bath’s beautiful Patten Free Library. No doubt she knew the Bristol Area Library as well. We stopped on a whim, thinking to browse for a few minutes and perhaps buy a gift or two before checking in to our lodging and going out for dinner. But as it turned out, we were not to emerge until two hours later.

printed at Saturn Press, Swan's Island, ME

printed at Saturn Press, Swan’s Island, ME

We did browse the collection of handcrafted work by area artisans: weavings, pottery, fine printing, feltwork, handmade clothing. We bought letterpress-printed cards from Saturn Press on Swan’s Island, and I found a felt bird’s nest with two small felt eggs to go in it for my friend Cylla, whose two daughters had miraculously made her a double grandmother in the space of four days just the previous week. Then we moved outside to the generous reception in the garden, and a series of encounters that made me see why Charles and Vera loved this part of Maine so much.

We met a young dress designer whose clothes, we had been quietly telling each other, were outrageously expensive. But then we met her, modeling one of her creations beautifully, and so open and vulnerable as she spoke of her struggle to market her clothing. Her boyfriend was an artisan, too, she said, a skilled worker in metal and wood, who always sold himself short though he did wonderful work.

may-coverWe had a long talk with an earnest and articulate young writer and editor at Maine’s Down East magazine, who had recently relocated to the area from the Midwest with his wife and baby. He talked about the upcoming issue focusing on the islands of Maine, and said that they themselves had almost moved to Isle au Haut, which was encouraging couples with children or of childbearing age to “build a sustainable year-round population” and keep open the school, whose “enrollment ha[d] fallen to the single digits” (Town of Isle au Haut Comprehensive Plan). This story recalled my favorite Isle au Haut Lullaby, and also Two Thousand Acres of Sky a British television series I used to enjoy about an odd couple who did just that, moving from inner-city London to a tiny (and fictional) island in the Scottish Hebrides.

asian-university-for-womenBut for me, the most astounding encounter was with the young woman whose ancestral origins were here in Bristol, but who had been born and raised in Bangladesh. As we were talking to her, her mother came over and introduced herself, and we learned that she and her husband still lived and worked in Bangladesh, running a school for slum children and a music academy. When I told them that I had grown up in West Bengal, they began speaking to me in fluent Bangla—who would have thunk it, in the wilds of Maine? But that was not all; the daughter had just returned to Maine from a stint of teaching at the recently-established Asian University for Women in Chittagong, which I had intended to visit during my sabbatical last year, but had not managed to get to. She even knew my dear friend Sartaz’s sister, who is AUW’s Vice-Chancellor. We exchanged email addresses—we will surely reconnect—and I came away abuzz with energy and ideas.

When Vera first moved up to be with Charles—since Charles would never have dreamed of leaving Maine—she found it a cultural wilderness, without the diversity of the Boston area, whose universities draw so many international students. But after they married and she committed herself to the place, the region began to change, and she herself was probably one of the agents of that change. There was an active Japan Society in Portland, and she served on its board, helping to organize cultural events and hosting visitors from Japan. She promoted international education and awareness through her programming at the children’s library, and became deeply involved with a growing and multigenerational network of peace activists, many of whom lived spartan and sustainable lives in houses that they had built themselves. Charles and Vera themselves lived off the grid for several years on a tiny island, having to hike three-quarters of a mile to the cabin from their car in the winter, lighting the way with headlamps and carrying their groceries in backpacks.

The young editor told us that in the past couple of years the area had been experiencing something of a baby boom. As I cradled Cylla’s little felt nest in the palm of my hand I thought of Charles, with his deep respect for the land and tidal waterways preserving the best of the local traditions and of Vera, with her delight in international cultures teaching children and adults alike that nobody is an outsider. Their work and examples surely helped to make this cultural renaissance possible, and nurtured the loving community of friends who had stood vigil for peace at President Bush’s summer home in Kennebunkport and kept vigil at Charles bedside throughout the last weeks of his illness.


In New Harbor that evening we lodged in an old house that had belonged to the proprietor’s great-grandparents and had fish stew for supper. As I lay in bed, I couldn’t fall asleep for some time; I was too wired. What connections we had made—and in a spot that didn’t even have cell phone or internet service.


Rest In Peace, Charles King.
May Love comfort and sustain you, dear Vera.


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