Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘postcolonial’ Category

399. East of What?

In Books, Music, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories on May 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Illuminated Meridian Line (Royal Museums Greenwich)

People’s faces sometimes register impatience when I insist on putting the terms “East” and “West” in quotation marks. Okay, I see them thinking, we get it: you’re flagging them as fictions, or as intellectual shorthand, but there’s no need to be pedantic; everyone knows what they stand for.

Do they really? What is it then, that the West stands for? Liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry? As Anthony Appiah points out, these ideals are certainly not exclusive to Western civilization, and in any case the “West,” however it is defined, has spectacularly failed as a beacon of such enlightened principles.

What about the East? The late Edward Said argued that the East, or “Orient,” through the impressive body of 18th-19th-century Orientalist scholarship,  has been created as Europe’s Other, serving to justify and facilitate the ends of Empire. In European colonial thought, the East stands for everything that the West is not. Where the West has enlightened leaders, the East has “Oriental despots”; where the Westerner is active (manly), rational and capable of exercising self-control, the Easterner is passive and effeminate, superstitious, and sensual; where Western systems of governance are a model for the world, Eastern governments, without Western oversight and tutelage, cannot help becoming mired in corruption and intrigue. In a 1998 documentary by the Media Education Foundation, On Orientalism, Said and MEF founder Sut Jhally discuss these stereotypes and the purposes they serve.

How are East and West defined? During the era of European colonialism, the West was Europe and the East stretched from the Persian Gulf all the way to East Asia including everything in-between. During the Cold War, the West referred to the capitalist world: the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, while the East referred to the communist Soviet Union and its satellite states east of the Berlin Wall. Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the West refers, as far as I can tell, to capitalist democracies that are allies of the United States (and populated primarily by white people). Despite being in the Far East and the Southern Hemisphere to boot, Australia is considered part of the West; so is Israel, though it is located squarely in the Middle East; while democracies in Africa, South America, Asia, or the Caribbean will never be admitted to the club.

Where is the East? East of What? Well, the dividing line between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres is Longitude 0º, or the Prime Meridian. Here it is on a map:

The National Geographic Society helpfully reminds us that the prime meridian is arbitrary, meaning it could be chosen to be anywhere. However, it is no accident that the Prime Meridian runs right through Greenwich, England, which is also the center of world time. It won Longitude 0º in 1884 at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., by a vote of 22 to 1, with one No vote—Santa Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) and two abstentions—France and Brazil. Why was it chosen? Because Britain, with its far-flung empire, was then the reigning global superpower, and so it was able to claim centrality.

Ask yourself what the function of the East-West divide is in the 21st Century. Why divide the world up based on an arbitrary line that makes neither geographical nor philosophical sense? Why lump together all the diverse societies and cultures that fall into one or the other categories under a simplistic and patently false set of stereotypes?

The answer is pure, naked Power. The East-West divide serves the interests of power. That’s my view—biased, no doubt, but informed. Verify my claim if you like: start paying careful attention to where, how, and by whom you see the two terms employed and decide for yourself. But until I am persuaded otherwise, I will continue to put “East” and “West” in quotation marks.

Let me close with “The Funky Western Civilization” (a 1978 song by Tonio K from his album, Life in the Foodchain), that I danced and sang along to gleefully in my twenties, loving the irony. You can listen to it here and read the lyrics here. The Funky Western Civilization is a dance, and this is how you do it:

Grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there. . .

Oh get down
Get funky
Get Western
(Own up to it boys and girls)
And if you try real hard
Maybe you can even get
Civilized . . .

As Mahatma Gandhi famously quipped when asked what he thought of Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.”

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382. What’s Wrong with “Oriental”?

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


“Perpetuating Oriental Stereotypes” (

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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364. Jai Jagat!

In blogs and blogging, Family, history, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, Words & phrases on April 13, 2016 at 5:29 am

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

JMai-Atya, my Aunt Kumud, now 93, was a Gandhian social worker and educator all her working life. She took a vow of simplicity as a student in 1942, during the Quit India Movement, and has worn only khadi, homespun cotton, ever since. She has worked tirelessly for Dalits,  women, children, anyone in trouble—with their families, society, the law—her vision one of freedom, justice, and a sustainable life for all the people of India.

Mai-Atya was our family chronicler. She wrote to my father regularly, wasting not a centimeter of space on the blue aerogramme, telling him who had got married and when, who had had a baby and its date of birth, who had passed their exams, who had shifted their job or their place of residence. She ended her letters with the stirring slogan, Jai Hind!  —Victory to India!imgaerogram

I would try to read her cursive Marathi and ask my father to translate what I could not. One letter, she signed off with a new slogan: Jai Jagat!—Victory to the World!

Victory to the World—what a concept! Trust my dear Aunt Kumud to be several steps ahead of the rest of us. While most of the rest of us were wallowing in feel-good nationalism—all-too dangerous, though we didn’t realize it then—she had decided to broaden her vision to include the well-being of everyone on the planet.

I looked up Jai Jagat on the Internet, and found the website of Ekta Parishad (unity council), a “peoples movement dedicated to the principles of non-violent action, aiming at social and land reform.” Their vision is of an India in which:

Each one could benefit from equal and guaranteed access to land, forest, and water, and the whole population—regardless of origin or caste—could live with dignity.

Jai Jagat 2020 is a campaign launched by Ekta Parishad, in which they too make their vision global.

Ekta_Parishad_logoIn the 2020 campaign we are broadening to Jagat, meaning all people in the world. This does not mean that the work of Ekta Parishad alters its direction from changing its focus away from the lives of poor people. We continue to organize marginalized communities for their control over land and natural resources, as a way to fight poverty. At the same time we realize that this problem is not limited to India alone and that people from almost every country across the world are experiencing similar challenges. Market driven globalization is depriving millions of people from their land and accessing resources. People are being dispossessed and forced into cities and slums.  This means that we need to work at a global as well as at the grassroots level to bring about real change.

 Jai Jagat actually means VICTORY OF THE WORLD. That is very close to the concept of  Sarvodaya (‘well being of all’) that was given by Mahatma Gandhi. The underlying principle is that, if there is a victory then it should be the victory of our common humanity not the victory of one nation over another. The victory should also be based on the victory of living commodiously together, and of people coexisting with nature. If the victory is for everyone and for everything, then this is the best. A modern world needs to imbibe these new values, the values of Jai Jagat and Gandhi’s notion of Sarvodaya.

Dear Mai-Atya, who signed off, Jai Jagat, some 35 years ago; ahead of her time, as always. Let’s hope that the rest of us can catch up in time to save this struggling world. That is a vision that brings me joy.

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333. Like Some Forgotten Dream

In Britain, Education, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, postcolonial, reading, Stories on May 31, 2015 at 11:42 am


And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream
That we’ve both seen
             Hello In There, John Prine

When I was younger I was a news hound. In the late 1970s a group of us founded No Nuclear News, a cooperative anti-nuclear clipping service which covered newspapers and relevant journals across the United States and around the world. As an expatriate I kept up with the news from India and Britain religiously so as not to fall out of touch, subscribing to India Abroad and The Manchester Guardian Weekly, which was then a compilation of the best stories from The Guardian (UK), Le Monde, and the Washington Post. During that same period I was also an avid reader of Race Today, a British monthly produced by a collective based in Brixton under the mentorship of C. L. R. James and edited by Darcus Howe. To me it was a model of engaged journalism, covering stories over the long term, and assigning a member of the collective not only to follow but to participate in the initiative being covered. Throughout my 20s and 30s I made sure to keep abreast of current events both locally and globally, at least on the issues and in the places about which I cared the most.

7. Race Today JOU_1_1_87_17cm

In my 30s I embarked, belatedly, on post-graduate study, embracing joyfully the then-emergent field of postcolonial studies, which seemed designed for me personally. Inevitably my reading habits changed, but because more than half the reason I chose this particular field was to maintain my connection with South Asia and Britain, keeping up with the news was still important to me. From India I read everything from Femina and India Today to Manushi, The Hindu, DawnFrontline, Seminar, and Economic & Political Weekly. From Britain I started reading the New Statesman and the London Review of Books.


Post-PhD in the mid-1990s, I started full-time teaching around the same time email and the internet were becoming a source of news. The demands of teaching and scholarship were both an incentive and an impediment to keeping up. I had to scan scholarly periodicals in my field as well as newspapers and more popular magazines. To save time, I began to subscribe to email news digests and to receive notices of the new issues of journals I followed. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, over the next decade or so I found myself slipping. My father-in-law Ted renewed my LRB subscription annually and faithfully clipped articles for me on India, Britain, and my favorite writers from his beloved New York Times, and I counted on Andrew to update me on the many international issues which he followed. My father took over the India Abroad subscription and alerted me to new novels by South Asian and South Asian diaspora writers. But somewhere along the way, especially in the mass-media environment after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City (which I still resist referring to as “9/11”), it all caught up with me; I felt myself caring less.

In my late 40s and through my 50s I became overloaded with information. I still tried to keep up, but in vain. The increasing demands of everyday life, both personally and professionally, and the media-saturated internet environment were responsible in part, but so was my world-weariness. In the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, the idea of imperialism underwent media rehabilitation and in many quarters was no longer a dirty word. When the U.S. occupied Iraq and began bombing several other countries without even declaring war on them, it was more urgent than ever to combat colonial ideology; but now there was a new buzz-word: globalization. Despite the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the nuclear power industry began going on the offensive again after a couple of decades in hibernation. Even as the neo-liberal ideologies espoused by politicians on both the left and the right (these categories not making much sense any more) touted post-nationalism and free trade across national borders, rabid nationalisms seemed to be on the rise the world over while, for ordinary people, borders and boundaries became more impermeable than ever. Never had these issues been more urgent, but never had I been so tired: I had heard it all before.

While my father-in-law still clips India-related articles for me from the New York Times, I no longer read a print newspaper or magazine on a regular basis, let alone from cover to cover, as he does. I still receive my LRB every fortnight, but it is my father who reads it from cover to cover, while I scan the Table of Contents and read selected reviews, then too several weeks late. With the hyperlinked news stories one’s friends post on Facebook and other social media, it is easy to be under the illusion that one is keeping abreast of the news; but in fact one is consuming superficial and highly selective fare. Of course there are now excellent online news sites, journals, and news blogs that one can follow for free or subscribe to digitally; but again, just because one subscribes to them one does not necessarily read them consistently or in depth. (For instance, I have a digital subscription to The Nation, but only read it from time to time. I have downloaded special issues of Himal Southasian that still await my perusal.) More frequently one (okay, I) merely scans the headlines, skims a hyperlinked story that catches the eye on Facebook over a cup of tea, and clicks “Like.”


Lately, though, my old craving for currency has revived. Although I still feel, like the old couple in John Prine’s song, that “all the news just repeats itself/like some forgotten dream,” I can’t stop believing that it matters. It is precisely because the powerful will keep on acting in their own interests and manipulating the news media to reflect them, that one has to keep abreast of the news behind the headlines, following stories in depth, not as soundbytes, and offering informed interpretations to counter the constant commercial media barrage.

This morning I visited The Hindu online. In the past couple of hectic weeks the only Indian/Indian diaspora news stories that have filtered through to me in headlines and on social media have been the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to China, the heat-related deaths in India, and the Indian American winners of the National Geographic spelling bee. How much more there is behind those stories, and how much more pressing! Similarly in Britain where, since the recent elections all I seem to have heard about is the FIFA scandal, half an hour browsing the world news and opinion pages of The Guardian (UK) website suffices to remind me of recent developments on a dozen fronts from immigration to youth culture.

So much news, so little time. For me the solution is a combination of selective skimming and in-depth reading. Yes, the news repeats itself; all the more reason why we oldsters who have seen it before must continue to weigh in. It is not a dream, and those who would wish us to go on sleeping are not our friends.

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296. The Hundred-Foot Journey after Charlie Hebdo

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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278. Going Back, Coming Home

In 2010s, Family, Food, India, Inter/Transnational, people, places, postcolonial, Stories, travel, United States, Words & phrases, Work on July 8, 2014 at 1:44 pm


Even though I have lived in the United States for more than forty-four years, when it has been more than a few years since I last managed to get back to India and England I always start to go a little crazy. Crazy as in scattered, ungrounded, unsure of the rightness of my feelings and responses. Of necessity, my return visits to the countries of my birth and childhood have been irregular and infrequent (by my best count, thirteen to England and only six to India), so I can’t pretend that I am meaningfully part of the everyday lives of my friends and relatives there. And yet I still feel a strong need to reconnect as often as I can, to recalibrate my life, cool my fevered brow, take the pulse of people and places dear to me, and return home on a firmer footing, with renewed clarity and sense of purpose.

Coming home has the effect, albeit short-lived, of turning me into a model housewife. On Sunday morning, as my father settled down to watch Wimbledon’s nail-biting Men’s Final, I set about preparing that favorite Maharashtrian breakfast specialty, poha. It was in the States, not in India, that I first learned how to make poha, but a month of loving aunts and cousins in India cooking for me and waiting on me hand and foot inspired me to make it myself for the first time in many moons—duly garnished with wedges of lime, shredded coconut, and fresh coriander leaves. Before I get swept up again in the frantic pace of life, I will take pleasure in preparing slow food, in grating ginger, chopping fresh cilantro, sitting under the fan on the front porch, enjoying a second, then a third, cup of tea.

Of course, coming home also returns me to my habitual sloth. For the last five consecutive nights since I have returned from India I have settled down to watch a British TV serial and nodded off mid-stream, waking past midnight only to totter upstairs to bed. After nearly a week I have only just begun to unpack the suitcases and to make a dent in the stack of unpaid bills. I haven’t even dared to open my work email account for fear of what I’ll find, but must face it soon, before inertia takes hold (see TMA 19, Lively Up Yourself).

If you asked me to discourse on the concept of Home you’d be in for a long bout of fairly predictable philosophizing—how postcoloniality and diaspora, conditions of multiple displacements wherein there is no fixed Center, make Home unheimliche (uncanny; lit. un-homely); and so on—you get the idea. But after a month away—despite the stack of unpaid bills, the terrifyingly overgrown garden, the un-done To Do list that stretches right through to Labor Day and beyond—actually coming home is a blessed relief. A mess, no doubt, but it’s my mess, mine to address, mine to redress. Simple household tasks, like sweeping the floor, emptying the compost bucket, washing my new Indian salwar-kameezes by hand and hanging them out to dry, take on a sacred quality that makes me warble Home Sweet Home, cliché-ridden as it is, entirely without irony. (Or almost entirely: it is impossible to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved without developing a whole new perspective on Sweet Home, which, in that novel, “wasn’t sweet, and . . . sure wasn’t home.”)

As much as I was inspired by my cousins’ and aunts’ cooking (and I’m still re-living that tall, cold glass of panha (thank you, Yashodhara), that succession of wholesome, wholly satisfying lunches, that perfect Sunday roast (thank you, Neil)), it was our conversations that are helping to guide me upon my return, and my observations of their life choices and how they have been following them through. My generation, many now entering their sixties, and even members of my father’s generation in their seventies and eighties, were looking after elderly relatives and energetic grandchildren with both love and frustration; nurturing relationships with their adult children in which they continued to give them their loving support while respecting their independence; pursuing new interests and aspirations as retirement approached; facing their own health challenges with fortitude; and finding the inner resources to grapple with change and loss. Both generations were finding ways to hold on to what mattered to them and letting go of what they didn’t need and to make their way in a rapidly-changing society without losing touch with their most deeply-held values. They showed me the spirit of service without martyrdom, of balancing battle in the world with a quiet center, of developing household routines that made their homes abodes of peace. And I have carried these shared experiences home with me to help me face my own choices and challenges.

All too soon the rosy soft-focus surrounding this old house will dissipate, exposing the cobwebs and dust bunnies to the cold light of day. But for now, I see the ordinary in a new light. While hand-washing my clothes still feels like a hallowed ritual, while emptying the compost bucket elevates me to ecological glory, while my once-tedious workaday routine feels so right, let me celebrate the love, the labor, and all the tangled threads of my life, past and present, that have led me to claim this particular place, be it ever so humble, as Home. If you want an inventory of my life, it can all be found here. Put down the clutter to having too many roots,” as Salman Rushdie has termed it. But if this is the postcolonial condition, I don’t want a cure.

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269. Walls

In Inter/Transnational, Music, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, Words & phrases on April 27, 2014 at 4:41 am


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crumbling wall, North Yorkshire © Copyright Chris Heaton (from

crumbling wall, North Yorkshire © Copyright Chris Heaton (from

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
                                                                              Robert Frost, Mending Wall

I love old stone walls, their artistry and the sheer hard work they represent. I like seeing crumbling stone walls, too, with the human acquisitiveness they also represent being reclaimed by nature.

But I don’t love the walls that nation-states build between themselves and their neighboring countries, more often than not their peoples’ kin. And like the speaker in Frost’s poem, I don’t believe that good fences make good neighbors, although I know the point is endlessly arguable.

 Steel barrier wall near Mariposa port of entry, Nogales Sonora, Mexico.

Steel barrier wall near Mariposa port of entry, Nogales Sonora, Mexico.

Graffiti on the road to Bethlehem, West Bank Wall

Graffiti on the road to Bethlehem, West Bank Wall

Here’s to the tumbling-down of those divisive walls that shore up enmity among kindred, and maintain a siege mentality that benefits only the war hawks and the weapons-makers.

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260. Monuments

In 2010s, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, postcolonial, travel, United States, writing on April 15, 2014 at 1:34 pm

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As a tourist, it’s hard to avoid statues and monuments. They are the first things a foreign visitor tends to be taken to see, because they showcase the region’s or the nation’s history, identity, and cultural heritage. For my part, I am more interested in going to parks, street markets, bookshops, and even supermarkets—the sights, sounds, and smells of everyday life—for an insight into the history and culture of a place; but as I said, sometimes one simply can’t avoid a monument or two. After all, who would think of visiting northern India without visiting the Taj Mahal, Mumtaz Mahal’s mausoleum and the Emperor Shah Jehan’s unforgettable monument to love (and power)? Who would visit London without taking in Trafalgar Square, with Nelson’s (pigeon-populated) Column, that monument to British naval supremacy? Or Big Ben, that monument to British dominance over Time itself? Since I’ve been staying in Bremen, Germany for the past two weeks, I couldn’t leave without visiting the city’s Marktplatz, or Market Square, where the famous Statue of Roland (erected in 1404) occupies pride of place, and it didn’t disappoint.

Roland is a legendary figure in Europe. It is thought that the historical Roland was a Frankish military leader under Charlemagne charged with defending Francia’s border against the Bretons, who fought the Moors in Spain in Charlemagne’s army and died in 778 in a battle with Christian Basque rebels. Ever since, however, the figure of Roland has been appropriated as a chivalric hero (as in La Chanson de Roland) to represent different struggles, against the Saracens (a group of people who lived near Roman-controlled Arabia, later used to refer to Arabs, and later still—inaccurately—to all Muslims), or more generally, against threats to a state’s sovereignty. In Germany, it seems, Roland came to symbolize the freedom of cities from the control of feudal rulers, and a statue of Roland in the city’s marketplace was a gesture of defiance. So it was with the Roland of the Free Hansteatic City of Bremen, which has long prided itself on its independence. Fine, so far, so good, it would seem. But monuments can also present problems, especially in modern democracies.

A monument is erected to commemorate an important person or event. The word itself comes from the Latin monere: ‘to remind’, ‘to advise,’ or ‘to warn. So a people might want to commemorate a leader who had laid down his or her life for the country’s independence or a military engagement, whether winning or losing, that reminds the people of the history that made them what they are. The problem with monuments is that unless the nation is 100% homogeneous in every respect, there will always be competing versions of history, proud victors and humiliated vanquished in every battle, groups historically represented as “Them” or “Other” who might better be welcomed into the “We,” the collective self of the contemporary nation.

I will always remember the French philosopher-historian Ernst Renan’s famous speech, What Is a Nation? (1882). In it, he identified the glue that most successfully unifies a nation not as collective memory, but as forgetting. As he put it:

Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality. Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations, even of those whose consequences have been altogether beneficial. Unity is always effected by means of brutality; the union of northern France with the Midi was the result of massacres and terror lasting for the best part of a century.

A nation or collectivity naturally wants to remember historical atrocities lest they be repeated by future generations. Germany, for example, must remember the Holocaust, or Shoah; as must the Jewish people themselves. The United States and the other participants in the Transatlantic Slave Trade must remember the days of slavery; as must the members of the global African diaspora. There are always those who seek to deny or forget such atrocities to shore up their own power in the present, and their effort to sweep them under the rug must be resisted. But then there are countries such as South Africa emerging from the long, hard struggle against Apartheid, who must find a way to move forward as a non-racial nation without being paralyzed by the poison of hate. In such cases, initiatives like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission try to work through a process of remembering, of bearing witness, to find a measure of forgiveness that will make national reconciliation possible—without driving all the white people who upheld apartheid into the sea.

Here, then, in a nutshell, is the problem with monuments. There is almost always an agenda, an ideology, behind them, and an attempt to assert sovereignty or supremacy. As they seek to unite their nation or group behind a dominant ideology, they tend to simultaneously exclude and alienate others by designating them as the enemy. It is no accident that most monuments are monoliths, tributes to masculinist power. For those who feel victimized or disenfranchised, such symbols inevitably serve as invitations to defy that power. Hence the attractiveness of Bob Marley’s lines:

If you are the big tree,
We are the small axe
Sharpened to cut you down

P1050739Nowadays after a traumatic national event, there is generally a debate as to how best to memorialize the event in a thoughtful manner that recognizes the enormity of the event but does not perpetuate the polarization, creating more conflict and inviting further retaliation. A case in point was the national debate in the United States on how best to memorialize the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center.

As I prepare to bid farewell to Bremen, I must say that, for me, the Statue of Roland, standing in the middle of the public thoroughfare, benevolently conveyed Bremen’s pride in its historical and continuing spirit of independence, and I’m glad that I paid a visit to it. But I still preferred my walks in Bremen’s Bürgerpark as a glorious living example of this city-state’s public spiritedness.

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251. Deutschland (or Germany?)

In 1960s, 2010s, Childhood, Greece, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, postcolonial, Stories, travel, Words & phrases on April 4, 2014 at 8:27 pm

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Rotkäppchen or Little Red Riding Hood, fairytale of the Brothers Grimm (Wikimedia Commons)

Rotkäppchen or Little Red Riding Hood, fairytale of the Brothers Grimm (Wikimedia Commons)

It is interesting that so many countries have a name for themselves that is different from the name by which they are known to the rest of the world. Because I collected stamps as a girl in the early 1960s I learned to match the name on the stamps with the country’s name as I knew it in English, but never gave much thought to why the two were so often different.

Take Germany, for instance, the country that I am currently visiting for the first time. My (West) German stamps had Deutsche Bundespost printed on them, and I soon came to know that Germans called their country Deutschland. The name dates back to the movement of Pan-Germanism in the 19th century, which sought to unite all German (Deutsch)-speaking kingdoms, dukedoms, and principalities into one nation (disregarding the non-German-speaking peoples within those territories). Deutch was the Germanic name that came to refer to the language and derived from the Teutons, the tribal/ethnic people who spoke it. Tracing its etymology, it comes from the Old High German diutisc, and back through Old High German diot to the proto-Indo-European word teuta—or simply, “people.” Thus do most groups simply call themselves “the people,” in their own language; while outsiders usually refer to them in their (foreign) language, by religion, language, or ethnicity. (Even the word ethnos, was used by the Greeks to refer to themselves—people who spoke Greek.)

The English name, Germany, comes from the Latin name for the Germanic tribes who originally occupied a region, documented by the Romans before 100 AD, that is now in Northern Germany and Southern Scandivania. So the English call Deutschland by the name used by the Roman Empire, the same one that conquered and ruled them.


My childhood stamp album proudly displayed a page of stamps, printed with the words Magyar Posta, from another country known to outsiders by an altogether different name. The Magyars are an ethnic group that make up the majority of the Hungarian nation, while the word Hungarian is thought to have come from the Bulgar-Turkic word On-Ogur, the name of a tribal confederacy that ruled parts of modern-day Hungary back in the 9th century. My Greek stamps (we lived in Athens at the time) had the name ΕΛΛΑΣ (Ellas or Hellas, the original name for Greece) on them.


Many groups, whether ethnic groups or nations, similarly call themselves a name (called an endonym) that is different from what the rest of the world call them (exonym). Why? Ultimately, it’s just because what you call yourselves, from the inside, is likely to be different to what outsiders call you. Why are exonyms often different from endonyms? Quoting Naftali Kadmon, Richard Nordquist gives three main reasons. The first is historical conquest: that explorers, colonizers, or conquerors gave their names to a place either because they wanted to mark it as their own; a second is mispronunciation by those same outsiders; and a third is geographical—sometimes a geographical feature stretches over more than one country and therefore has a different name in each.


Growing up in an India newly independent from British colonial rule, I was familiar with reasons number one and two above. Outsiders from the time of the Greeks in the 4th century BC had called the Subcontinent after the river Indus that ran through it, while the Indian name was the Sanskrit Bhārat, thought to be the name of a king mentioned in the Rigveda, whose realm is known as Bharātavarṣa in the epic Mahabhārata. Today the nation displays both “India” and भारत (Bhārat in Devanagiri script) on its stamps. But on the local level, it has been changing the names of cities (and streets) renamed and/or mispronounced by the British for their own convenience back to their “original” Indian names—Bombay to Mumbai, Calcutta to Kolkata, Madras to Chennai—though the old names never entirely go away.

Anti-nationalist sticker on lamp post, Bremen

Anti-nationalist sticker on lamp post, Bremen

One might think that it would always be better to call a place by the same name that it is called by the people who live there, especially if the outsiders imposed their name by force of conquest. From a postcolonial perspective, I would be inclined to agree—most of the time. But there may also be problems with the insider’s name. If it is too clannish, limited to a single tribal, ethnic, linguistic, or religious group, it can exclude and alienate minority groups within that nation, leading to ethnic conflict and even to national disintegration. In some cases, then, the outsider’s name can actually be more inclusive.

And with that paradoxical thought I will leave you, Dear Readers, until tomorrow.

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250. Culture

In 2010s, Books, Inter/Transnational, Nature, people, places, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, travel, Words & phrases on April 3, 2014 at 6:51 pm

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I have been in Germany—in Bremen, to be precise—for less than 24 hours, and of course, first impressions can be misleading or merely superficial. Nevertheless, I have been struck by numerous aspects of aesthetic sensibility and social organization that seem to be part of the culture here.



P1050266A  deep-seated environmentalism is one: the belief that green space must be preserved and kept in the public domain; a serious recycling programme, subscribed to by all; bicycles everywhere, used by people of all ages and all walks of life, and supported by the traffic planners, so that bike lanes and cyclists’ safety take precedence over cars (in fact, I was almost knocked down by a bike today); and public transportation so ubiquitous and convenient that there is no need to own a car. No surprise, then, when my friend and host tells me that Bremen has one of the highest percentage of Green Party members elected into government office of anywhere in Germany. And Andrew reminds me that back in the 1970s when we were active in the anti-nuclear movement, two young German filmmakers whom we hosted, touring a documentary called (in English) Better Active Today Than Radioactive Tomorrow, were from Bremen.















Then there is the aesthetic sensibility: flowers everywhere, inside the home and out, in private and public spaces; parks, canals, walking paths, open spaces of all kinds, set up and laid out for the greatest enjoyment of pedestrians; little conservatories and balconies, front steps and shared back gardens bursting with color, maintained with pleasure and pride; gracious, tree-lined boulevards to die for. Even the shops, with both their indoor and their outdoor displays lovingly created with the attention to detail of a curated museum exhibit. Just a little outing this morning to a local flower shop and a delicatessen made me realize that the beauty of everyday life is given tremendous importance in this culture.

Culture is my word and theme for today, but also one of my larger themes for this month in general, as I “travel light,” observing with an outsider’s eye, but trying to do so from a transcultural perspective rather than a national one. Culture is a fascinating and complex word and concept with many overlapping and contradictory meanings. I shall no doubt return to these different senses of the word over the course of the month, but for now let me make a couple of points about it, taken from Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976), a wonderful book by the father of British cultural studies Raymond Williams.


In Keywords’ entry on Culture (linked to here and well worth reading), Williams explains that originally, culture referred to the cultivation of the soil (as in agriculture and horticulture); a little later, it began to be used to refer to the cultivation of the intellect, the spirit, and the aesthetic sensibility; and later still—and this was in Germany, in the late 18th century (especially by Johann Gottfried Herder)—it began to be used to refer to particular cultures and ethnicities rather than a universal norm of culture in general. This was the beginning of modern cultural nationalism and often went hand-in-hand with an essentialist notion of culture, wherein it is thought that the qualities and characteristics that distinguish a culture are almost biologically innate, and have been there since the beginning of time.

In my opinion, culture is not innate; it is learned and can be changed. Germans are not inherently more in tune with nature than Americans are, but it is quite plain to see that, in general, German society today is more environmentally conscious and has implemented more environmentally sound policies than the United States has. I do not believe that this has always been the case, but that it has been learned, and that through collective human effort over the course of a single generation, this environmental consciousness has become part of the culture. We see it in pockets in the U.S., but it has not taken hold in the way it has so clearly done here—at least from where I stand right now, in Bremen.

Boy, did that ever turn into a lecture! I promise to increase the ratio of photos to words as the month progresses. Come travel with me!

bird house, Bremen

bird house, Bremen

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