Josna Rege

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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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398. This day . . .

In reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, Work, writing on May 24, 2017 at 3:48 pm

This day is the first day of the rest of your life, proclaims that 1960s poster once plastered ubiquitously on college dorm walls across the country and intoned, infuriatingly, by any number of 1970s self-help gurus and popular culture figures from John Denver to The Walking Dead. But being banal doesn’t make it untrue; quite the contrary.

Every spring, as I teach my last class of the year, and again a couple of weeks later, when I turn in my students’ final grades, I tell myself: This day is the first day of the rest of your summer. Make the most of it, start as you mean to go on. Walk and write daily, wrap up long-postponed and unfinished business, work steadily to make inroads into those large, looming tasks that take time to complete, and have plenty of fun: take trips to visit friends and family, thrift-store shop to your heart’s content, and do a whole lot of entirely extraneous reading (what Andrew used to call, in that interminable last six months of my doctoral studies, reading unrelated to my dissertation). On that first day, as the whole summer stretches before me, I am utterly exhausted, but simultaneously filled with pleasurable anticipation and resolve.

Here it is, though, a week since I turned in the grades, more than three weeks since I taught my last class, and I have precious little to show. Already I have that sinking feeling, as if the whole summer, and then some, is already spoken for. Former students with Incompletes are still turning in late work, students from this just-finished semester demanding to know why their grades haven’t shown up online; prospective students asking for the syllabus of one of my fall courses (answer: I don’t have it; the course is yet to be designed), editors asking after that book chapter that I have yet to complete, creditors asking why I haven’t paid (and never will pay) that last ambulance bill for Dad. And now, here I sit at the dining-room table with my second cup of tea, doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of nothing.

For the first few days of the summer, I always tell myself—despite my resolution to work slowly and steadily, to start as I mean to carry on—that it is okay not to do much of anything, that I need to catch up on lost sleep, unwind, and generally be kind to myself. But in my heart of hearts I know that I am simply postponing the inevitable: there is no substitute for getting started.

The trouble is that inevitably, the instant I finish teaching my last class, either I fall sick or crisis strikes at home. There is no time in-between to take a deep breath. It’s like when Nikhil was a baby and went down for his 45-minute nap (unlike my friends’ babies who regularly took two-hour naps during the day, sometimes two of them), I would immediately start rinsing out his dirty nappies (because of course I used cloth diapers rather than disposable) and inevitably, the instant that I had finished the last one, he would wake up as if on a timer. So it was this year; so much has happened since that last day of classes in early May that I can’t account for it all. Through the blur of these past three weeks I seem to recall that, among other things, my eyeglasses broke in two during the last, desperate hours of my final grading, the air conditioning failed during an unprecedentedly hot mid-May heatwave, more students than ever before failed to complete their final term papers on time, and, of course, the nation has been teetering on the brink of a Constitutional crisis. All I know is that I feel as if I’ve been continuously and furiously busy, but seem to have nothing to show for it but a lot of late nights where I fall asleep on the couch and so many rounds of Canfield’s Solitaire (called Demon in England because it is so notoriously hard to win) that my hands ache with the repetitive stress. My hands actually ache from doing a whole lot of nothing.

The cure for doing nothing seems obvious: just do something; make even a little headway with it, and you will begin to feel better. But what to start on first? Perform triage, and then start with the most urgent task. But there are so many urgent tasks; it’s overwhelming. This is where the deck of cards comes out for yet another round of Canfield. If I lose, I play again: just until I beat Canfield. If I win, I play again: why quit when you’re ahead? (Wait, isn’t the maxim Quit while you’re ahead? No matter.) You get the picture, and unless you’re superhuman, or one of those Highly Effective People, you’ve probably struggled with your own version of it.

But the summer is young yet, and despite my sinking feeling that it’s already over, it really isn’t. It is. Not. Over. So let me take stock, and come up with a game plan; just for today.

First, open that unfinished book chapter and get back in the groove: Where was I when I last worked on it, and what do I need to do next? Actually get to work on it for a short period of time, setting a timer and stopping when it goes off; but not before writing myself a brief To Do note for the next time I sit down to it.

Second, take a brisk walk; it doesn’t have to be a long one. The 40-minute loop down through the old cemetery is perfect, but the shorter leg-stretch up to the Town Line and back will suffice.

Third, Destination Henion Bakery: sit with a cup of tea and a little something (okay, a jelly doughnut; although they now make these light, not-too-sweet little French things called choquettes; if feeling righteous, substitute a couple of them for my JD). Keep wireless internet connection resolutely turned off so as to continue to work on essay without distraction for period of time not to exceed 45 minutes. Slow and steady is the way to ease into this.

Now the hard work of the day is done. If energy permits, knock off one of those Incompletes: reread, regrade, recalculate, and resubmit the grade to the Registrar.

What next? Front porch, feet up, and—oh joy!—Extraneous Reading.

After dinner, repair to living-room couch. Get required daily dose of Professor Robert Reich’s Resistance Report, and laugh at opening monologues from last night’s late-night comedians.

This day is the first day of the rest of my life. From the standpoint of now, it is the only day. It is.

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388. It Wants To Be Found

In Books, Media, Music, Politics, reading, Words & phrases on August 17, 2016 at 2:17 am


Happiness is a warm gun (bang, bang, shoot, shoot)/Happiness is a warm gun, mama
When I hold you in my arms/And I feel my finger on your trigger
I know nobody can do me no harm
—The Beatles

When I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as a child, the scene that most disturbed me was the diminutive hero Bilbo’s underground encounter with the etiolated Gollum, in which he found the Ring and got away by outwitting (cheating, actually) his opponent in a game of riddles. From then on, Bilbo kept the Ring and he kept it a secret, using it to make himself invisible whenever expedient, and thereby sealing his reputation as a brilliant little burglar. It was clear to me that Bilbo’s behavior, though justifiable, was not altogether ethical, and I even felt sorry for the light-deprived, near-translucent Gollum, left all alone in the underground tunnels without his “Precious.”

Gollum’s hissing to himself, “What has it got in its pocketses, my Preciousssss?” filled me with a terrible fascination, followed by the chilling realization that it wasn’t his own precious Self he was referring to, but the possession he had come to prize more than his own soul. In fact, his “Precious” was precisely what was in Bilbo’s pockets.

But the most terrifying realization came in the later Ring Trilogy, when it became clear that the possession of the One Ring had not only turned the benign Sméagol—once a harmless hobbit himself—into the slinking, sniveling, cringing, cadaverous Gollum, but threatened to do the same to anyone who held onto it for any length of time. How did it do this? It made its possessor feel powerful and it made him feel safe, especially when slipped on his finger, cloaking him in invisibility. But in fact, the feeling of safety conjured up by the Ring in his pocket was entirely false.

Here, in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf warns Frodo of the Ring’s active desire to be reunited with its true master.

You must remember, Frodo, the ring is trying to get back to its master…. it wants to be found.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo had found himself continually fiddling with the Ring while it was in his pocket, and on occasion it even seemed to slip itself onto his finger. The same thing happened to his nephew Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. The Ring actually compelled its wearer to slip it on, thereby making him, far from invisible, hyper-visible to the Dark Lord; far from a powerful agent, it made him an instrument of another’s evil designs.


Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also pull the finger.
                                                                      —Leonard Berkowitz

It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” goes the ubiquitous anti-gun-control slogan. But what Leonard Berkowitz, the late, eminent professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin, Madison, found was precisely the opposite: the mere presence of guns in a given space excited and incited greater aggression. It came to be known as the weapons effect. The proximity of a trigger made a person want to pull it. Like the possessor of the Ring of Power, far from making him safer, it exposed both him and others to much greater danger. He became hyper-visible, because having a gun—in some studies, just seeing one—made him want to shoot it.

Guns do kill people, because, as with the Ring of Power, being in the presence of their terrible power evokes the desire to wield it. Sadly, one may not realize until too late that one is not the possessor, but the possessed. Efforts to conceal the weapon will be futile, because it wants to be found.


Let’s not just leave things here, ascribing intent to the instrument but leaving its lord and master unnamed.

In the aftermath of the December, 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, there was plenty of talk of the deranged shooter and the need to prevent the sale of guns to the mentally ill. What was almost never mentioned was the curious fact that Newtown, Connecticut is also the headquarters of the NSSF, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, just three miles away from the elementary school. The NSSF is a non-profit organization, the trade association for the firearms industry and its foremost lobbying group, in recent years outspending even the NRA, the National Rifle Association.


The NSSF’s mission is “to promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports.” But its logo, with green deer, pine trees, and hunters with protective earmuffs, and its accompanying slogan: Promote · Protect · Preserve, suggest something very different from a trade association, more like an environmental conservation association. What purports to promote gun safety simply promotes more guns; as another of its slogans puts it more starkly: Always shooting for more. (See the Gun Violence Archive for more information on gun-related incidents in the U.S., including mass shootings.)

The NSSF runs and publicizes shooting ranges all over the country. Its website has a handy-dandy feature that allows you to find the range closest to you. Adam Lanza’s mother, a gun enthusiast herself, had taken him and his brother to one of these shooting ranges, where he learned how to wield the weapons he later took from her hoard to shoot and kill her and 26 others, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The New Republic ran an article soon after the shooting that made the link between the NSSF and the Sandy Hook mass shooting. However, it disavowed any suggestion of causation, that the presence of the NSSF headquarters in Newtown had anything to do with the young man’s shooting spree. Instead, it merely noted that there was “a certain tragic irony to it.”

It seems to me that this link underscores the illusory nature of the sense of safety conferred by the possession of a weapon. The NSSF claims to be all about safety: teaching people to use weapons safely at shooting ranges, even running youth programs that promote the responsible use of firearms. But what happened in the very belly of the beast? A mother took her son to one of these shooting ranges, and he made full use of his training, right in the backyard of the outfit that promotes them. What was touted in the name of safety and protection was in fact the very instrument of death and destruction, both for the de-ranged young shooter and for his innocent victims. As Gandalf noted: “The Ring is always trying to get back to its master”. To know its true nature, we would do well to track the smoking gun back to its source (bang, bang, shoot, shoot).

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356. Bookshops

In Books, reading, Stories on April 2, 2016 at 12:04 pm

BBlogging from A to Z
Bringing Me Joy

FullSizeRenderOne of the doors to the beloved Black Sheep Deli in Amherst has a puzzling sign on it: BOOKSHOP. Only those who have lived in town more than twenty years know why. In those days the Black Sheep Deli was half the size it is now, and the long, narrow back room which now houses the stage was the home of Albion Books. I remember entering its mystic portal when I had just started my graduate studies, poring over the ponderous Theory titles and then diving into the novels in sweet relief. When Albion closed it felt like the end of an era. Atticus Books from New Haven set up shop in a large storefront just opposite and bought up Albion’s stock; softening the blow for us by calling itself Atticus Albion—at first, anyway. Soon it was just Atticus Books; now it is the fine, independent Amherst Books.

UnknownAs recently as seven years ago, there were seven bookshops (and six libraries to boot) in our little town, catering to our many students, professors, and avid readers, book lovers all. Now Amherst Books is the only one remaining. The Jeffery Amherst Bookshop, with its well-stocked college annex and its magical children’s section, closed its doors in 2009 after 31 years. Food for Thought Books, a worker-owned collective, lasted long enough to celebrate its 37th anniversary, but in 2014, despite the best efforts of the community, it too gave up the ghost.

Valley Books Amherst, MAOne of my favorites was Valley Books, a second-hand bookshop. Paying them a visit on my days off was a treasure hunt every time, as I ducked in and navigated down the book-lined alleys with shelves stacked up to the ceiling on either hand, always some impossible delight waiting to be discovered around the next corner. Eventually, in 2009, Valley Books closed too, after 34 years, because like all the others it couldn’t compete with the online book market. At least for its proprietor there was a reasonably happy ending, since he simply continued his business online. I bought two of the bookcases and, in memory of Valley Books, keep the signs on the shelves for the categories that used to be assembled there.


In neighboring Hadley, in a big old barn down an ill-marked driveway, one can find Grey Matter and Troubadour Books, two outfits sharing the space and together offering about a million second-hand books—a million—with a rich, dynamic, inventory that is a treasure trove for collectors. These two are bucking the trend of physical bookshops giving way to online behemoths by having started out as online businesses, but deciding to touch down with a physical presence as well.


All these shops: Amherst, Grey Matter, Troubadour, and the legendary Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, our neighbor to the south, host readings and book launches, and do what they can to support local writers. Stepping in, one enters a hallowed space. The proprietors wisely leave one alone to disappear down one of the aisles, not to re-emerge, blinking and tousled, for a long, long time. There may be a nod of the head between proprietor and customer, the acknowledgement of a kindred spirit, perhaps a limited, book-related exchange of words; but mostly, there is the recognition that this book-hunting is a solitary pleasure and the seeker must be given space and time to indulge in it in his or her own, idiosyncratic way.


Amherst Books

I almost forgot: the Bookshed at the Amherst town dump—uh, transfer station. When students graduate and leave town, professors retire, and Amherst readers do their Spring cleaning, they bring boxes upon boxes to the Book Shed, where they are shelved and sorted by category. There is even a table outside where the townspeople eagerly snatch up the new arrivals. Saturdays are its busiest day, and, when I have time, I join my father-in-law on his weekly outing there. I try to keep to my vow to take home no more than I bring in with me, and sometimes succeed. It’s almost miraculous the number of times I seem to have found exactly what I needed there.


Bookshops, you will have gathered, bring me joy. It goes without saying that books do as well; that would be like saying that life itself brings me joy.

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349. A Chair for My Mother

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


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

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


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


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346. Keeping Up with The Times

In Family, people, reading, Stories, United States on October 16, 2015 at 10:29 am


My father-in-law Ted is and always has been an avid reader of The New York Times. He is a native New Yorker, and although long-resident in New England, he still has a fierce loyalty for his hometown newspaper. The Times structures his day. When a New England snowstorm buries his morning copy or otherwise disrupts its delivery, the order of his entire day is upset, and he spends much of it on the phone trying to determine what went wrong and when he can expect it to be set to rights. But when the day’s edition is tossed onto the ramp up to his front door on schedule, then all’s well with the world.

Ted’s routine begins immediately after breakfast. He works through the Times methodically, section by section, alert to the interests of his children and the friends with whom he corresponds on a regular basis. Along the way he marks articles of possible interest to one or another of them, clips them out, and puts them in an envelope labeled with their name. Over the years he has had me earmarked for clippings on medicinal herbs, the dangers thereof (his scientist’s corrective to my missionary zeal); writers: postcolonial, Indian, British; single authors: Doris Lessing, Ruth Rendell, Salman Rushdie; and anything to do with India. In 1993, when we spent six months in India, we received a fat envelope every few weeks from my father-in-law, containing all the Times’ stories on India in that period. He still clips them for me to pick up, but now emails me regularly to let me know that my envelope is getting full, or to give special mention to a noteworthy piece.

I am not the only lucky person who is the beneficiary of my father-in-law’s volunteer clipping service. For each of his children he fills large manila envelopes on mushrooms, mystery novels, and book design (Eve); Japan (Vera); computers (Dan), letterpress printing and the Red Sox’s progress (Andrew); and for his grandson, dispatches regular packets of clippings on films and filmmaking, poetry, and anything of interest happening in his beloved New York City.

UnknownAfter his work is done, he tackles the Times crossword, which starts out simply on Monday and gets progressively more challenging with each day of the week, culminating in a near-impossible one on Saturday. Sunday being a day of rest—relatively speaking, since of course there is the massive Sunday Times to get through—a more forgiving puzzle lets readers off the treadmill.

It was a proud day when Ted got a story published in the Times, a piece about the childhood games he played on the sidewalks of New York. Of course we all received a clipping of the piece, as did the members of Ted’s ex-New Yorkers group, who used to meet monthly to discuss a different topic related to the city of their birth.

Sadly, print journalism is in a steep decline these days, and major dailies have been doing away with their print editions at an alarming rate, cutting back to online only. The time-honored ritual of going through the morning papers may soon be a thing of the past. Instead, people will get their news piecemeal, from a number of different online sources. It feels like the end of an era, one in which a whole segment of the population shared “All the news that’s fit to print.”

Although I haven’t dared to break the sacrilegious news to Ted, my own father recently discontinued his longtime subscription to the Times. Why? It was getting too time-consuming. He felt compelled to go through it, since he had paid for it, but what with Rachel Maddow and the rest of the gang on MSNBC, India Abroad, the London Review of Books, and the occasional New Yorker, he was saturated with news already, and decided that he would rather spend the time on more serious literature, both in English and Marathi. But he is grateful for the weekly packet of New York Times clippings from Ted, which he and I now share, and the Sunday Times Book Review and Magazine (minus the crossword, of course), which Ted passes on to him every week when he has gone through it.

In the past, I too have been a near-obsessive collector of newspaper clippings. Half our attic and basement is filled with boxes of them, unread, yellowing, waiting for Godot.  Now I just wait for Ted’s weekly envelope. Thank you, dear Ted, for keeping us up with the Times!


A note on word choice:  In British English we say “cutting,” not “clipping.” Although I use the American term above, I’m fond of the British one as well. While the former puts me in mind of dead nail clippings, the latter conjures up plants and new growth.

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342. Inscriptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women:

endpapers, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women

endpapers, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

bearing the inscription:



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


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

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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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330. Ruth Rendell: Dead-On

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Britain, reading, Stories, writing on May 9, 2015 at 10:15 am
Ruth Rendell (photographer: Felix Clay for The Guardian)

Ruth Rendell (photographer: Felix Clay for The Guardian)

I’m not a murder-mystery hound like my father-in-law, who has read most of the works of most of the major British practitioners of this genre, some of them several times; because, as he says, he soon conveniently forgets who dunnit and can read them all over again. But on May the second, when I heard of the prolific and highly respected mystery writer Ruth Rendell’s death at age 85, I felt a great disturbance in the Force: Inspector Wexford was no more.

I felt sad, too. Although I never took to Barbara Vine, the alias Ruth Rendell created for her twisted psychological thrillers, I have a special fondness for the domestic common-or-garden mysteries that Inspector Reg Wexford of Kingsmarkham, Sussex and his deputy, Mike Burden, have been solving every other year for the past half-century. Ruth Rendell wrote 24 Inspector Wexford novels between 1964 and 2013 (you can see a list of them here), and I’ve read just about all of them, my father-in-law passing each one on to me as he finishes it.

What draws me to these quintessentially English novels in a quintessentially English genre? Although I enjoyed Miss Marple mysteries in my youth, St. Mary Mead was too twee after a while, and Agatha Christie’s snobbery and social conservatism annoyed me. (Here’s a piece by Lakshmi Kannan on the racism in Christie’s works.) But although the market town of Kingsmarkham is a place I wouldn’t want to live in a million years, I feel very differently about it than I do about St. Mary Mead. Although the middle-aged Chief Inspector Wexford loves his roast and his pint at the Olive and Dove (or did do, before his hated health regimen), is loth to walk when he could drive, and leaves the running of the home entirely to his wife Dora, everything about him is delightful, to women as well as to men, and I’m no exception. Why? It’s because of the quality of Rendell’s writing, her politics, and her broad, humane worldview.

UnknownSpanning 50 years of British life as they do, the Wexford novels document a changing Britain with interest and without nostalgia—or without too much nostalgia, at any rate). From Doon with Death (1964), the first of the series and her debut novel, shows a dreary postwar Britain, with its genteel poverty, the insufferable arrogance of old money, the absence of central heating (except for the daring and the spendthrift), and above all, an obsession with keeping up appearances. But beneath that veneer of respectability seethe suppressed passions that frequently bubble up and over, even—perhaps especially—in the suburbs. Over the years Inspector Wexford and Mike Burden, both happily married family men, deal with youth culture, immigrants and racism, gentrification and class conflict, unemployment, sexism and feminism, homosexuality, and above all, dysfunctional families—as they affect not only Kingsmarkham, but their own personal lives. While his prudish deputy has a horror of change and social aberration, the perennially middle-aged Wexford accepts and engages with it. He remains deeply humane, open-minded and liberal throughout, and at the same time, comfortingly conservative in his personal tastes, though never politically so.

Here’s a character in From Doon with Death speaking, in an interview with Wexford, on the dreams and disillusionments of women in the 1950s and early 1960s:


‘We used to talk about . . .well, about our dreams, what we wanted to do, what we were going to make of our lives’ . . .

She whispered savagely, as if she had forgotten he was there: ‘I wanted to act! They wouldn’t let me, my father and my mother. They made me stay at home and it all went. It sort of dissolved into nothing.‘

‘I met Pete,’ she said, ‘and we got married.’ Her nose wrinkled. ‘The story of my life.’

‘You can’t have everything,’ Wexford said.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I wasn’t the only one. . .’ (109, Black Dagger Crime ed., 1978)

From that very first novel Rendell was both of her time and considerably ahead of it in her choice of subject matter and her approach to it. To say more would be a spoiler, but read it yourself: she doesn’t disappoint. The earliest reviews noted that she was someone to watch but otherwise dismissed her as just another female mystery writer. They soon had to sit up and take notice.

Ruth Rendel 28 July 1986

The novels are literary without being pretentious and without departing from the straightforward conventions of the police procedural. Loved and admired by writers as diverse as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jeanette Winterson, Ruth Rendell never went to university, but she was tremendously well read, as was her creation, Reg Wexford. The epigraph of every chapter of From Doon with Death is an quote from a 19th-century poet, including, among others, the usual (male) suspects like Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and Alfred Tennyson, and the free-spirited Walt Whitman, the Orientalist Sir Edwin Arnold (author of The Light of Asia and The Song Celestial, a poetic rendering of the Bhagavad-gita), Mary Coleridge (the great grandniece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), the romantic and unconventional Christina Rossetti, the feminist Caroline Norton, and Coventry Patmore, most famously the author of The Angel in the House, the ideal Woman of the Victorian era.

But mere name-dropping doesn’t begin to capture the way Rendell uses her frequent literary quotations and allusions. She weaves them cleverly into the plot so that they lead right into the heart of the mystery. To take just one example in From Doon with Death, a suspect’s characterization of young love as “rather like ‘the expense of spirit in a waste of shame’” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 129). Though the source is not identified in the novel, Wexford recognizes it, and registers a dissonant note, because the sonnet is not speaking of love, but of lust. Why has the suspect, who, we learn, earned distinction in this subject in her Higher School Certificate exams (we still called them HSC in 1960’s India), willfully chosen to misinterpret it?

9780099588542To the last, Ruth Rendell was engaged with a changing Britain. She was a liberal campaigner in the House of Lords (while her fellow mystery-writer, P. D. James, was a political conservative). She was always a spokesperson for the outsider, whether that outsider was a woman, an immigrant, or a member of the increasingly displaced poor and middle classes in a free-market Britain where the benevolent Welfare State was being dismantled. Even in her very first novel, this perspective comes through loud and clear. When Chief Inspector Wexford goes to interview a couple in which the husband has married into Old Money, he is treated like a tradesman who ought to have come to the back door. In the course of the interview, the wife speaks dismissively of someone she went to school with as,

‘a typist or a clerk or something.’

Just another of the hoi-polloi, Wexford thought, the despised majority, the bottom seventy-five per cent.

The only updating this thought would require today is that the number seventy-five would have to be increased to ninety-nine.

Rest In Peace, Ruth Rendell. You were always dead-on.

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328. Yellow Journalism

In blogs and blogging, Media, Politics, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, Work, writing on April 30, 2015 at 9:42 pm

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Yellow_Kid_02829vThis term refers to a journalistic style that uses sensationalist stories and lurid images to whip up the fears and passions of the public. The phrase was coined in 1895 in connection with The Yellow Kid cartoon, which became a feature of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal in a newspaper war with Joseph Pulitzer, who owned the New York World. Both competitors slashed prices, enlarged their headlines, and used attention-grabbing color supplements to attract their mostly working-class readership. Hearst hired away Richard Outcault, the cartoonist and creator of The Yellow Kid, from the World to the Journal, and soon afterwards hired Pulitzer’s entire Sunday staff. It is said that their rabble-rousing news stories eventually drove the U.S. into the Spanish-American War when their coverage of the explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine charged that it was not an accident, citing a suppressed cable (which was later shown to have been falsified (Defining Yellow Journalism).

William Randolph Hearst's Yellow Journalism at its finest (from

William Randolph Hearst’s Yellow Journalism at its finest (from

Today, the Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics that all responsible journalists are expected to uphold. However, you have only to look at a cover of the New York Post or ten minutes of a program on Fox News (see the documentary Outfoxed), to see that yellow journalism is still very much alive and kicking in the 21st century.

Thanks to my friend Sarah for suggesting this topic for the letter Y when I was completely stumped.

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