Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘women & gender’ Category

406. Of Piercings, Pain, and Authenticity

In Books, culture, Family, Immigration, India, Stories, United States, women & gender on January 7, 2018 at 2:27 pm


For the past nine days and counting it has been a low-grade irritation at best; at worst, almost as excruciating as the opening scene in Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel, Ambiguous Adventure (L’Aventure Ambiguë, 1961), in which the young protagonist’s teacher, to drive his Qur’anic lessons home more deeply, grips Samba Diallo’s tender earlobe between the nails of his thumb and forefinger and pierces right through it. As the tenth day dawns, my dwindling hopes are at vanishing point, and there is no consolation. What else did I expect?

Let me start at the beginning. It’s about ear-piercing. In India, at least in Dad’s generation, ears were pierced at birth, during infancy or in early childhood, boys and girls alike. But mine were not done, and for some reason I can’t remember, I wasn’t inclined to get them done when I came of age. As I grew older, I came to consider it a barbaric practice, or so I retorted loudly whenever someone asked me why my ears weren’t pierced. For was ear-piercing different from any other form of ritual or cosmetic body-modification? Why would one want to violate the body’s integrity by piercing and scarring it?

Then I started getting earrings for presents. Dad returned from his first trip to India after our immigration to the States with beautiful silver necklace-and-earring sets, of which I could only wear the necklaces. And when Andrew and I went to India after our marriage, various relations wanted to present me with earrings fashioned from family gold, and were downright annoyed with me for not having pierced ears. What Indian woman didn’t have her ears pierced? Just more evidence of my cultural inauthenticity.

After dear Leela-kaki in Pune presented me with a pair of custom-made gold post earrings, my cousin Kalyani, with her characteristic no-nonsense efficiency, took me out into the alley behind the jeweller’s, where they did the job unceremoniously over an open flame. We continued on our travels with my newly-pierced ears, in the heat of May.

The outcome was predictable, I suppose. It was impossible to care for my ears properly while on the move, and they became infected. I can’t remember when I took out the earrings, but I kept them in until the situation was untenable. Upon returning to the U.S., I made the mistake of not leaving them in permanently, so every time I put on a pair of earrings, my ears would bleed afresh. Eventually I gave it up as a bad job and decided to let the hole seal up.

Ten, fifteen years went by. After Nikhil graduated from university he started going to India quite often and bringing back beautiful earrings for me, so I decided to try again. But when I got to the ear-piercing place at the local mall with my gold studs from India in hand, I found that they wanted you to purchase special earrings from them, and so I changed my mind and came away with nothing to show for it.

Fast forward another decade and my dear friend Marianne presented me with beautiful silver earrings, expecting me to put them on right away. Like everyone else, she had simply assumed that my ears were pierced: whose weren’t? I determined then and there that I would get the deed done this time, come what may, as a Christmas present to myself. Well, I did, and “what may” has now come to pass.

On my first free day after Christmas I set out for the mall, resolute. When I got to Claire’s, recommended because they regularly pierced children’s ears, I saw a pre-teen girl perched on the high stool waiting, her mother by her side, supporting her in this small coming-of-age ritual. Slim and leggy, like a young deer, she was shivering with equal parts eager and anxious anticipation, anticipation of the piercing itself, to be sure, but also of the solemnity of the occasion, of the adulthood into which it was initiating her, and all that it signaled, both pleasure and pain. I told her that I was nervous about my own coming ordeal, and was watching her carefully. If she cried, I would run a mile. She giggled, shivered again, and came through the ordeal sporting pretty pearl ear studs. Wreathed in smiles, she leaped off the stool to join her mother in shopping for new earrings. Her life was all ahead of her; what was I thinking, undergoing this ritual at my age? But now I was trapped: it was my turn.

It was a straightforward procedure, except for the numerous forms I had to sign releasing Claire’s from legal responsibility for anything and everything that might possibly go wrong. Besides whether to stay or to run a mile, there was just one choice to make: which one of their selection of post earrings I wanted put in my ear while the piercing healed. But I made the wrong choice.

I was all set to go ahead with a low-priced pair featuring gold clasps and a clear shiny stone of no particular value when the manager arrived and came on strong with a recommendation of the diamond earrings. They were “only” 40-odd dollars more, but they were smaller, sat closer to the ear, and came with a full replacement warranty should they break or get lost. Best of all, they were nice enough for me to wear them all the time as my default pair. Stupidly, I relented. After all, this had been a long time coming; why economize now?

But from the second that I heard the click of the hole punch, the problems began. One side felt relatively normal after the initial sharp pain of the piercing, but the other one felt wrong from the start. Both ears were soon red and swollen, accompanied by a persistent dull throb. I followed the cleaning and care instructions religiously for several days, but to no avail; things only got worse, to the extent that the sharp diamond studs were actually starting to get absorbed into my ear. I looked it up and found that it was called embedding; now that was truly frightening. A week out, I went to my doctor, who took one look at the studs and told me that they were on too tight. The problem, we soon discovered when we went to loosen them, was that the posts were too short and they were already on their loosest setting. She prescribed an antibiotic and recommended adding a saline wash and a thrice-daily heat pack  to the treatment regimen—if I didn’t want them taken out, that is. She said there was only a slim chance that things would improve, but that it was up to me how to proceed. So here I am four days later, and things aren’t appreciably better, although I keep telling myself that there is a slight improvement and I’ll give it just one more day.

Why didn’t I simply ask the doctor to remove the earrings and be done with it ? It was because I would have to give up on wearing earrings for the rest of my life (not to mention leaving scars from two failed attempts on my earlobes). But why was this such a daunting prospect? After all, I haven’t worn them all these years and here I am in my sixties. Was it because deciding to let go of the idea of piercing my ears once and for all would force me to accept that the time of self-adornment was over for me? Or because now, all those earrings lovingly given to me as presents would never be worn? Or was it because I would have to acknowledge one more sign of my ethnic inauthenticity? All of the above, I think, but there’s something more.

(from india24)

As postcolonial theorist R. Radhakrishnan concluded in an early essay, “Is the Ethnic ‘Authentic’ in the Diaspora?”, the answer is inevitably Yes: the culture and consciousness of those living outside of their country of origin are bound to depart from its norms. Migrants, minoritized and marginalized in their new environment, often cling all the more to their ethnic identities unquestioningly, frequently shoring up outdated identities in the process. We can all think of examples of ethnic  subcultures in the New World preserving beliefs, practices, and cultural forms (including language) that have long been obsolete in their home countries. But is that the point? After all, people who have never left their country of origin also flout its cultural—and its political—norms. One can be out of touch and uninformed no matter where one lives; conversely, one can remain current with and critically informed about one’s country and culture no matter where one lives. But what does any of this have to do with my inflamed ears?

Going back to the young Samba Diallo in Ambiguous Adventure, one can safely say that the painful corporal punishment meted out to the boy in his religious tradition was extreme, even barbaric. However, in that powerful and haunting novel, the pain that Samba Diallo was to encounter later, as a young man, was far more excruciating—the pain of cultural alienation. Realizing that in order to survive under French colonialism, they would have to adopt the tools of their new masters, his family made the decision to give their beloved son a French education, and with it came the wrenching loss of everything he held dear, alienating him from all that made him who and what he was. I suppose that, deep down, I fear that loss for myself, even though I know that true authenticity is not something worn on one’s sleeve—or my case, in one’s ear—but something deep and inward.

In my heart of hearts, I believe that my ears are inflamed simply because I am allergic to earrings. My body reacts violently to any foreign object piercing holes in it, even if it is made of pure gold. I can keep delaying the inevitable, loth to relinquish that last flicker of hope that my system will finally accept the intruders; but in the end, I will have to accept what I knew all along: that this will never happen, and being authentic, being true to myself, means acknowledging and accepting this fact.

In the meantime, I will continue with the treatment regimen three times a day, continuing to kid myself until I can do so no longer. And when that time comes, there will be no consolation; what else did I expect?

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395. “Oh, Rob!”

In people, United States, women & gender on January 26, 2017 at 4:26 am

54fa8e7403fadb657f1b508a3d658d1aI know I’m not alone in the pang I felt this morning when I learned of the death of Mary Tyler Moore, age eighty. For me she will always be Laura Petrie, the lovely, lithe, funny, frustrated young wife in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966). I was introduced to the show when I met Andrew in 1970, the same year we immigrated to the United States. It was already in re-runs by then, but it was brand-new to me, like everything else in America. Andrew’s family watched television while eating dinner, starting with the CBS Evening News. Walter Cronkite signed off sometime over dessert with his “and that’s the way it is,” followed without fail by half an hour of Dick Van Dyke. On our trips to New York City, Andrew could never drive past the New Rochelle sign on the highway without murmuring, “Home of Rob and Laura Petrie.”

Looking back now, I see how young she was, still in her 20s. But I was 16 and the Women’s Movement was making her “Oh, Rob!” look terribly old-fashioned. I didn’t learn until years later how ground-breaking the show was, how subversive and controversial her tight black Capri pants had been. For Rob had married Laura right out of the army after the War (WWII, that is), and the successful dancer had become a suburban housewife. So much of the show’s comedy—and tension, and pathos—stemmed from Laura’s pent-up creative energy that burst out in the sparkling moments when she was allowed to perform on stage for part of an episode.


Mary Tyler Moore was a New York actress and comedienne, progressive and public-spirited. She and the irrepressible Dick Van Dyke made a perfect TV couple. Just seeing them together made you smile. In the 1970s, she starred as Mary, the single “career-woman” in the man’s world of TV news in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), and again, as in the show’s theme song, she “turned the world on with her smile.”


Behind that dazzling smile, Mary Tyler Moore the woman didn’t have an easy personal life. She was a victim of abuse as a child, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1970, struggled with alcoholism, and, in 1980, following a divorce, lost her only son. Still, she overcame the alcoholism, was nominated for an Oscar for her devastating portrayal of the bereaved mother in the film Ordinary People, and raised awareness and funds for diabetes research.

5b5ba9a186af7f9c51763da3d74f6714I don’t want to get too maudlin, but coming at this particular moment when the entire American landscape is changing, Mary Tyler Moore’s death feels terribly sad, not just for me, but for everyone who grew up with her. See, for instance, this very personal tribute by Michael Buckley, and another that includes an interview with Dick Van Dyke. With her seems to go a whole era. For me it was the time when I was defining feminism for myself, meeting the person who was to become my husband, and struggling to find my feet in a new country. But there’s to be no moping; just thinking of her makes me want to get on my feet and move.


Rest in Peace, Mary Tyler Moore.

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389. Exposing Whose Perversity?

In 1960s, 2010s, Britain, clothing, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, women & gender on August 29, 2016 at 12:37 am

3d57c1d7d0a94e46a4d6a300c1dbaf4dYoung people are bound to set and follow fashions as they shape and explore an identity that distinguishes them from their elders. Back in the mid-Sixties when I was at boarding school in India, the Thai boys, who were always ahead of us in India when it came to fashion, arrived for the new school year sporting bell-bottomed trousers, or flares. But bell-bottoms weren’t regulation, and their flares were duly measured to determine whether they were in excess of some official width (that I suspect was invented on the spot). Our Thai guys’ wings were clipped as they were returned to the population. But though their style was cramped and trousers narrowed, they were always and forever our fearless fashion vanguard.

Ironic, isn’t it, that less than a decade earlier the cool guys had been sporting drainpipes. No doubt their trouser legs were also measured and found wanting—too narrow by half. The truth is, clothing is a marker of identity, and therefore must be controlled by those who are in the business of social control. And as long as the authorities seek that control, there will be acts of rebellion to wrest it away from them, whether out in the open or undercover.


As teenage girls in late-Sixties England, our mild act of suburban rebellion was to surreptitiously fold over the waistbands of our sensible school-uniform skirts as we left home in the morning, instantly shortening them by a couple of inches and giving us that critical edge that our mothers just couldn’t understand. Of course, the authorities had to intervene; but the way they chose to do so backfired hilariously.

We got to school one day to find the prefects awaiting us officiously, armed with tape measures and unable to control their smirks. Apparently acting under orders from the very top, they ordered us girls to kneel in turn, while they measured the length of our skirts from the ground up. For those of us under 5’ 2’, that distance could not exceed six inches, while I think the taller girls were held to seven.

They reckoned without the press: the spectacle was a bonanza for them. The next day, photos of school-uniformed girls on their knees and tape-measure-wielding male prefects (curiously, they were all male that day) bending over them gleefully made several national papers as well as the local ones. How I wish I still had one of those cuttings!

In our case, the prefects were senior boys.

  (In our case, the prefects caught in the act were Senior boys.)

But while purporting to safeguard female modesty, the school authorities only exposed their own perversity with those lascivious images. Their ridiculous efforts to nip our wayward tendencies in the bud only redoubled our rebelliousness, while revealing that the indecency lay, not in our innocent hearts, but in their male gaze.

photo: Vantage

photo: Vantage

A similar fiasco is unfolding in France today with the ill-conceived burkini ban. While purportedly upholding France’s hallowed tradition of secularism, armed police were snapped standing over a woman on a Nice beach in the act of making her strip off her clothing. Far from challenging the control of religious extremists and modeling French social permissiveness, they only exposed their own need for social control. And as we schoolgirls did back in the Sixties, women are resisting. It’s a sales bonanza for burkinis and a warning to any authorities who seek to regulate what people choose to wear: banning will backfire on you.

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385. On Two Girls Running

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

by kokamo77 (

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

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

by kokamo77,

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

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


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

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

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

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

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371. Quirks

In blogs and blogging, clothing, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Words & phrases on April 22, 2016 at 9:53 am


Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

Quirk: an unusual habit or type of behavior, or something that is strange and unexpected.

Quirky: a little odd. Unconventional. Unusual, in an attractive and interesting way.

Q-1I’ve written before (TMA# 158, The Pagli and the Tramp) about society’s low tolerance for deviation from behavioral norms. It seems that we are all expected to walk in lockstep. People seen to be dressing too dowdily or too flamboyantly, eating too much or too little or “strange” food, spending too much or being too thrifty, exercising too much or too little, speaking too loudly, expressing strong opinions, making personal remarks: no matter what people say or do, other people will talk about it and pass judgement on them. But surely most of these are harmless idiosyncracies that make each of us who we are, differences that we should welcome rather than condemn.

There are times in one’s life when one is under greater pressure to conform than others. During middle school, for example, especially for girls; or during one’s working life or young motherhood. In academia, junior faculty who have not yet received tenure are often afraid to speak out (funny, this, given the much-vaunted academic freedom). Those who do not speak a dominant language well, or who speak it with a foreign accent, face ridicule and worse. I think of Sridevi’s character in the film English Vinglish, whose own children humiliate her in her own home and her own country because she is not sufficiently fluent in English, the language of the educated elite.


At my age, though, I no longer care much about the judgements of others. I think of Yeats’ poem, Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad and think that it’s even more true for old women. They should be grateful for our eccentricities (literally: deviation of an orbit from circularity), welcome our mild battiness, and be thankful that we’re not raging. Arguably, society has even less tolerance for deviation from the norm in women than in men, but advancing age and its attendant invisibility gives us women greater license to be our crazy selves, to be scandalous, at least to be quirky.

So I make no apologies for my quirks, and delight in those of my friends and colleagues. In class last week a student startled me by calling me “Our Lady of the Tea and Scarves” (which I accepted, since it’s patently true, although I doubt if he would have dared to make such a personal remark to a male professor). One of my colleagues dresses exclusively in 1940s clothes (ensembles, as she calls them), complete with hats, and this too is accepted as her trademark style. My friend Anna loves candles, and whenever I drop in of an evening, she lights them in welcome. And of course, books. My friends Jude and Martin and I always show each other our latest finds at the book sheds at our respective town dumps, where they volunteer of a Saturday morning. The tendency nowadays seems to be to pathologize everything, add it to the DSM as a new syndrome. All of the above habits, benign as they are, could also be labeled mild or moderate disorders. But perhaps that’s the key: society must police the slightest sign of dis-order.

Welcome Variety, Welcome to the joyful proliferation of Difference! Thank goodness for quirks!

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360. Friends

In blogs and blogging, people, reflections, Stories, women & gender on April 8, 2016 at 1:00 am

MyLorgan (Youtube)

                                                                    MyLorgan (Youtube)

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

FYou have made a plan to get together. Arriving on time at the appointed place, you start looking around for a glimpse of him or her. Then you catch sight of each other from afar, each hurrying purposefully towards the other, and the surrounding crowds blur and fade into the background. Your face breaks out in a huge ear-to-ear grin; in fact, you’re smiling all over. You are in the presence of your dear friend.

I hope I don’t take my friends for granted. Having moved so many times in my childhood and early teens, I’ve largely missed those lifelong friends going all the way back to infancy, so the ones I do have are all the more precious to me. In the world we live in, your childhood best friend, even if you are still in touch, is liable to live thousands of miles away, so your tea dates must perforce be virtual ones. But when you do have a friend you can call on the spur of the moment to ask what she’s doing, and she says, Nothing, why don’t you come over? I’ve just put the kettle on, you are indeed fortunate. Or a friend whom you can call—again on the spur of the moment, and say, I need a little getaway, can I come and sleep over? And she replies, When can you get here? You arrive on her doorstep with your contributions toward dinner, which you cook and eat together, and she has borrowed a pile of videos from the library for your review, which you eventually settle down to watch. But first, during, and after, you talk and talk and talk. And your friend, even if she is tired, shows infinite patience.

There are friends on other coasts and continents; who drop you a line just to say they’re thinking about you, proposing a Skype date across six time zones; who drop everything to lend you an ear, no matter how much grading they’ve got to get through that night; who send you photographs of their luxuriant gardens when your own is frozen solid or wall-to-wall weeds; who post links to stirring songs that carry you back and launch you forward.

Friends from different times and places of your life have shared intimate experiences that continue to bind you closely together no matter how many years or miles separate you. You shared a secret language and wrote notes to each other in it; made pacts to wear matching outfits for a month; went to your first anti-war demonstration arm in arm. In graduate school, you called each other late at night, desperate to come up with an assignment for class the next day; studied for your qualifying exams together; read and re-read chapters of each other’s dissertations. You entered motherhood together, straining organic vegetables and scouring thrift stores for 100% cotton all-in-ones, sharing bedtime and sleep strategies, worrying about the pernicious influences of television and schooling. Later, when miles upon miles separated you, you wrote long letters, later emails, to each other, and saved them all.

I call my one of my two dearest friends in California at bedtime Eastern Standard Time, their evening, Pacific Time. We ask each other whether we have taken exercise, meditated, gotten enough sleep. They pray for me. We send each other successful recipes, Netflix recommendations, student essays so unspeakable that we haven’t a clue how to respond.

During my sabbatical in 2014 I visited an old friend in England—who does go back to my infancy, but whom I hadn’t been able to meet for several years. As she met me at the railway station she asked, How long do we have? Twenty-four hours, I replied. Right, she said; let’s make the most of it. And we sure did.

Although we do the best we can to span the distance between us, nothing beats the golden times we get to be together in person. Thanks to all my friends, who bring me joy and try to knock some sense into that hard head of mine.

Here are some songs to friends and friendship:
You’ve Got a Friend — James Taylor and Carole King (Winter, spring, summer or fall/All you have to do is call/And I’ll be there/You’ve got a friend)
Precious Friend — Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie (You bring me hope/Not just the old soft soap)
Make New Friends and Keep the Old (Girl Scout song)
Say Say My Playmate (girls’ clapping song)

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355. Accomplishment

In reflections, Stories, women & gender, Words & phrases, Work on April 1, 2016 at 9:38 am

Bringing Me Joy: Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016

AAccomplishment (pronounced accumplishment) brings me joy. Carrying a task to completion delivers, with the deep breath drawn in the moment of its fulfillment, a quiet confidence that has been fully earned. In the very next breath, new doubts will certainly arise again, and old business that demands attention; let them come in their time, but for now, I must savour this moment, look upon what has been done, and know that it is good.

There is a world of difference between accomplishment in the active sense of accomplishing something and in the passive sense of being accomplished. It is not for nothing that the expensive institutions where young women from wealthy families were sent to be prepared for their entry into fashionable society were called finishing schools: they were polished so as to be polished off, so to speak; with their suitable marriage, it was thought, there would be an end to it, no need for further accomplishments on their part besides hanging like an adornment on the right man’s arm.

More than 200 years ago, Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), displayed a healthy cynicism regarding society’s expectations of the accomplished woman in her time. Here’s the infuriatingly snooty Miss Bingley and the aristocratically aloof Mr. Darcy rehearsing the requirements for membership in that exclusive club, followed by Elizabeth’s cool, clever reply:

     A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”
      “All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
     [Elizabeth:]“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women.  I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”   [Pride and Prejudice, via Modern Mrs. Darcy]

Being accomplished entails being worked on, staged, as it were, for the marriage market. Setting out to accomplish a task, on the other hand, is an active process that produces positive change. Real accomplishment is a product of hard work, skill, and persistence over a period of time. For me, among all the registers in the range of joy, a sense of accomplishment is one of the most deeply satisfying.

A change is achieved in the day it is done.

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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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338. Self-doubt

In blogs and blogging, Books, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work, writing on July 9, 2015 at 2:09 pm


A talented artist-friend once said to me, during a conversation about our creative aspirations and our best selves, “Would you want, ‘She wrote a good blog’, inscribed on your tombstone?”

Boy, did that hurt! I knew that she hadn’t meant to hurt me, though, and was wrestling with unfulfilled aspirations herself, so I tried to take it as it was intended: that is, to invite me to explore what I really wanted for myself.

Another friend, a prolific writer and a mentor whom I honor and admire, put it this way: “I too turned to small personal pieces during a dry period. I found that they got my creative juices flowing again and helped me return to my scholarly writing with renewed energy.”

This too was hurtful because it dismissed the blog as a means to a higher end rather than something of value in itself. And, of course, because it reminded me of what I was not doing—as if I needed reminding!

A last anecdote, this one from literature. In Shashi Deshpande’s Sahitya Akademi Prize-winning novel, That Long Silence (1988), the protagonist Jaya retreats to an empty apartment while going through a family crisis. The time away from her workaday life precipitates a period of self-examination, in which she realizes, among other things, that she has been selling herself short in writing little pieces for a women’s magazine, “light, humorous pieces about the travails of a middle-class housewife (148-9, Virago edition). She has been afraid to take her writing seriously, so, instead, has created herself in the image of the “little woman.”

I often ask myself whether this is what I am doing in Tell Me Another. It is easier to write these short pieces, and I get instant gratification in the responses of readers all over the world. And then, in part because this is a public blog written under my own name and read by family and friends, and—who knows—employers and enemies alike, I must of necessity keep it relatively light, humorous. Is it self-deprecating? Ingratiatingly feminine? Or is it simply written from another part of myself?

Of course, it isn’t a question of either/or, but and/and. The blog is a kind of writing unto itself, and because it is a new medium, it gives me the opportunity to experiment, to develop a new voice and perhaps a new genre, in which I communicate critical concepts and issues of concern in a reflective, narrative form. Human beings are story-telling animals. We define, create, and understand ourselves through stories, and the art of storytelling is one that we neglect at our peril. At its best, this new form and personal voice is every bit as valuable, creative, and fulfilling for me as my scholarly writing, and reaches a much wider audience to boot.

At its worst, though, it is my equivalent of Jaya’s “little woman” column, something I resort to because it’s safe and easy, and because it sidesteps the arenas of publishing and scholarly judgement. If, year after year, I simply keep churning out the same kinds of stories without finding new ways to make them inform and enliven my scholarly writing (and vice-versa), then I am being driven, not by a joyful creativity, but by self-doubt.

Thankfully, at the moment, joy is winning.

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329. Zapf, Zubaan, Zinc-etching, Zzzzz . . .

In blogs and blogging, Inter/Transnational, Media, Stories, women & gender, Words & phrases, Work, writing on April 30, 2015 at 11:17 pm

atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910

AChancery1Herman Zapf
is a German typeface designer (b. 1918) who has brought us fifty typefaces, most famously, Optima (1948) and Palatino (1952). More recently, he designed Zapf Chancery (1979) and the calligraphic face Zapfino (1998). He taught for a time at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the U.S., and two of his students from RIT went on to design the Lucida font.



Zubaan is an independent feminist publishing house based in New Delhi that publishes academic books, fiction, memoirs and popular nonfiction, as well as books for children and young adults under their Young Zubaan imprint. In 1984, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon co-founded Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing company. After twenty distinguished years, they each decided to form their own publishing houses, with Ritu Menon creating Women Unlimited and Urvashi, Zubaan.

Its website gives us the lowdown on the choice of name:
Zubaan is a Hindustani word meaning tongue, voice or language. It is often used in a pejorative sense to refer to ‘women’s talk’, or ‘gossip’ – generally for women who talk too much! We are proud to reclaim the term on behalf of all those whose voices are silenced or marginalized by the mainstream, and will continue to be heard no matter others say.

10628563_10204048646551911_4099495178118236007_nKristin, writer of the sterling genealogy blog, Finding Eliza, suggested zinc-etching to me when I was stumped for Z. Now I’ve run out of steam and am too tired to research the process, so I simply attach the old graphic she sent me,

with grateful thanks.

And now,



Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz . . .

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atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910

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