Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘women & gender’ Category

517. To Test or Not to Test?

In Books, Britain, Family, history, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, women & gender on September 29, 2022 at 9:03 pm


I’m not referring to nuclear tests here, or to tests for COVID-19. Just having finished Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize-winning novel, Girl, Woman, Other, I’m speaking of DNA testing. (and don’t worry, no spoilers, so I’ll say no more on this score, except that I loved it and am looking forward to reading more of her works.) While the test in question might have been a bit of a plot contrivance, I was delighted by the results, which spurred me to reconsider doing one of my own, despite the real privacy concerns.

As I say every time someone asks where I’m from—and would be rich by now if I made them pay me for an answer—I’m half and half, my father having been Indian and my mother English. (I always add, “but I’ve lived here in the United States since I was a teenager”, not that that is of interest to most of my interlocutors.) “Half and half” sounds straightforward to me, but for some reason people seem to find it fascinating. They wonder how on earth it came about, and I explain that after having completed his B.A. my father traveled to England for further studies, where he met my mother through an office-mate who knew her elder brother. But that doesn’t explain much beyond the bare facts for, after all, back in the early 1950s people rarely married outside their nationality, ethnicity, or class/caste, and my parents married outside all three. How did that come about?

On Mum’s side, her elder sister Bette married a Scot and her best friend Lily married a Welshman, but she was the only one of her eight siblings, and indeed, of all the friends of her youth, to marry a non-Brit. Although come to think of it, in 1948, the year Dad sailed to England, the new British Nationality Act “created a single, non-national citizenship around the territories of the British Isles and the crown colonies”, whereby anyone born or naturalized in Britain or one of the British colonies could now declare “civis Britannicus sum”—I am a British citizen—with free entry to Britain (to work, primarily in order to create a pool of cheap labor to rebuild the country after the Second World War, but also to stay, as many chose to do). But although, for immigration purposes, Dad was technically British, despite India’s 1947 independence from British colonial rule, of course he was not English, or Christian, or white. None of that mattered to Mum, even though she came from a working-class family and had barely set foot outside Britain, or outside London, for that matter. She was a leftist, an aspiring intellectual, loved people, and wanted to broaden her horizons. Dad was well-educated, well read, open to new ideas, and strikingly handsome. He intended to return to India after his studies were completed, and she was ready to embark with him on the great adventure of life.

I believe that in his generation Dad was also the only member of his immediate family to marry out—out of his religion, nationality, class, and caste. He was certainly the first one who had traveled outside India and the only one who was to live outside it for any length of time. Mum was different from him in almost every way. But like him, she was energetic, gregarious, and interested in everything and everyone. He came to England as an Anglophile, already steeped in British literature and culture (he often began a sentence with “as (G.B.) Shaw would say…), and he was eager to get to know it directly, although ultimately he did not want to stay there himself or to have his children grow up there.

One might wonder why, as the happy product of this mixed marriage already, I would be interested in exploring my heritage further, by means of a DNA test. Doesn’t “half-Indian and half-English” say it all? Don’t I already have “too many roots”, as Salman Rushdie once described the migrant condition? What would I hope to find? Well, it’s like this.

As we often note in postcolonial studies, the binary of colonizer/colonized is an oversimplified one. There is as much tension and complexity within each category as there is between them. It is the same with “Indian” and “English”: the diversity within these categories is tremendous and goes back centuries. As is well known, through the centuries Britain has been raided and invaded by a succession of would-be conquerors, from Romans to Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, to Vikings, Normans, and Danes. For its part, India had seen a series of invasions and migrations, from the Aryan-speaking peoples, Iranians, Arabs, Africans, Greeks, Mughals, French, Portuguese, and most recently, the British. In addition to centuries of mixing and mingling with outsiders, both India and Britain have tremendous internal ethnic diversity. While many DNA tests lump the whole Indian subcontinent together, other databases can break down the results by region and ethnicity. Most tests already break down British results in this way. Furthermore, in addition to having been invaded, people in both countries have been active traders for millennia, establishing or being important nodes on trading routes that stretched in all directions.

Much has been written about Britain’s naval might, great sea voyages, and Crown-supported trading entities such as the East India Company. Less, perhaps, about the intercontinental trade routes across Asia and Africa and the Indian Ocean that long predated the European colonial era. According to James Hancock “when Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached the Indian Ocean in 1493, he found a vibrant international trade network already in place, whose expanse and wealth was well beyond European imagination.” Surely Indians, who were centrally active in this trading network, would have mixed with their trading partners over the centuries, despite their much-vaunted pride in caste purity and their horror of both inter-caste and inter-religious marriages?

Someone once suggested to me, perhaps it was my father, that people who have grown up in coastal areas tend to be more open-minded than those from the hinterlands, because they are more likely to have been exposed to outsiders with different customs, cultures, and worldviews. If that were the case, then it follows they would also be more likely to mix with and marry those outsiders. And might not the products of those unions be still more predisposed to that cultural and racial cross-fertilization? I had answers to none of these questions, since I was completely ignorant about my family genealogy on either side beyond the generation of my grandparents.

      The Government has access to your genes (Messier)

Three or four years ago, with all these thoughts floating around in my mind, I started watching YouTube videos made by people who had undergone DNA tests and who had made discoveries about their heritage. While many, perhaps most, confirmed what they already knew, some of them revealed fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) information that forced them to question fixed notions about their identities and about identity in general. That year the two biggest DNA testing companies in the US were offering their services at sale prices and I had all but decided to get two sets, one for me and one for a close girlfriend, and do them together over the winter holidays. But I happened to mention the idea to my son, who threw a fit. He reminded me that in most cases, neither the results nor the DNA samples were private, and that the companies could make them available to commercial entities and law enforcement, and already had. Did I want to give away my genetic data to some corporation that might use it to clone me? It was the stuff of sci-fi horror movies. What had I been thinking of? Chastened and a little shaken, I shelved the idea. But now, thanks to Girl, Woman, Other, it has resurfaced.

I remember that during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, then-President Donald Trump declared that the only reason that the virus seemed to be so widespread was that there was so much testing being done.“Think of this”, he said, “if we didn’t do testing, instead of testing over 40 million people, if we did half the testing we would have half the cases” (Higgins-Dunn). His argument was, of course, that with less testing, COVID would be less of a problem. While the logic was specious, there was something in it that is relevant here. If we did more DNA tests, we would find out that more people were more mixed than they had grown up believing. To some, that would be a dangerous idea, leading to the blurring of hard-line identities and perhaps of exclusive nationalisms as well.

Perhaps I should go ahead with that DNA test after all. I must say, though, that it does feel wrong to pay a private company to take a sample of your genetic material and do with it what they will. To return to Girl, Woman, Other, the DNA test only provides biological confirmation to the novel’s informing principles: that black women in Britain are a delightfully diverse but interconnected community that will never conform to any simplistic stereotype; that the same can be said of Britain’s national make-up as a whole; and that neither race nor gender can be understood as simple binaries. Do I need a DNA test to confirm what I already know about all that goes into making me who I am? You tell me.

 

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512. My Champion

In clothing, culture, Family, Immigration, Music, parenting, places, Stories, United States, women & gender on June 5, 2022 at 12:44 pm

I.

During our sojourn in England in the late 1960s, many of the girls in my school would hike up their mini-skirts still further by folding over the waistbands as soon as they left home in the mornings. Of course, once they got to school they would have to fold them back down again because there were rules governing how many inches above the knee your skirt could be (see Exposing Whose Perversity?). But when we immigrated to the United States in 1970, we found that what was acceptable in Boston was very different from the prevailing London fashions. Mum had to take down the hems of several of my skirts and dresses before I could wear them to Brookline High, despite the fact that in every other respect it was more permissive than any school I had ever attended. We were struck by American prudishness, not only in fashions but also in the media, where nudity and swearing were routinely censored, even as violence seemed to be entirely permissible, even early in the evening, when children were still awake. In Britain it was just the opposite: sex on television was perfectly acceptable, while violence was a no-no. But over time I have come to appreciate more and more my mother’s open-mindedness.

As a teenager, I thought of Mum as prudish. I suppose it was a necessary stage I had to go through, of defining myself in opposition to her. As I grew older, I realized more and more how forward-thinking she was. That’s probably why most of her female friends in the States were so much younger than she was; the women her age were stuffy by comparison. In the early 1970s, as I was discovering youth culture in the U.S., I must have felt the need to shock the older generation, and my parents were the closest old fogeys at hand. But although Mum played the role that she had been socially assigned, and set ethical standards for me, I think she disapproved of American morality, which she considered backward and hypocritical. She generally presented herself as stereotypically British, prim and proper, and a stickler for good manners and “correct” diction and pronunciation. But in fact she was a rebel who had broken with tradition time and again and who stood up courageously for what she considered to be right action even when she was standing alone. There was one time in particular that I remember Mum springing into action publicly in my defense, just a few months after we had arrived in the States.

It was our first summer in America and I had just turned sixteen. Perhaps for my birthday, Mum had made me an outfit of her own design: a tiny gathered skirt, so short that it was more like a tutu, with a matching short-sleeved crop-top like a sari-blouse. The cloth was a cotton print from a little fabric shop in Coolidge Corner that carried a line of beautiful African batik prints. The day I wore my new outfit in public for the first time, Mum and I were riding a trolley on the Green Line, that runs from downtown Boston out to the Western suburbs. Out of the corner of my eyes and ears I became aware of two old ladies commenting disapprovingly on my appearance, quite loudly enough for me and the entire trolley car to hear, casting aspersions on “girls these days” but also on my own morality. I don’t remember how I felt when I heard them, but Mum certainly knew how she felt, and she made it abundantly clear to them.

Raising her voice and speaking clearly and directly to the two old gossips in her Queen’s English, she told them that there was nothing wrong with a young woman wearing pretty clothes. It was not my morality that was in question, but theirs. Her exact words escape me, but she made it abundantly clear that it was their own minds that were smutty; her daughter was entirely innocent.

Wow. That silenced them. Without a word to each other about what had just transpired, Mum and I continued on our morning’s errands. But thinking back on this episode more than half a century later, I marvel at her courage to speak out as fiercely as she had done in public and how unquestioningly she had stood up for me. My champion!   

II.

Lest you think that mini-skirts were the only things in fashion in 1970, long, flowing skirts were equally in vogue. There is another story about Mum and me and the African cotton prints at that fabric store in Coolidge Corner, Brookline. It must have been our first Christmas in the U.S., when I was wracking my brains for a present for Mum that I hit upon the idea of making her a skirt out of the material she liked so much. The only problem was that I was useless at sewing; the only time I had ever been the recipient of corporal punishment in school was in needlework class. Still, I got down to work and eventually produced something approximating what I had had in mind, wrapped it up, and waited impatiently for Christmas Day.

Now Mum was Father Christmas in our household. She loved Christmas more than any other holiday and started preparing for it months in advance, tiptoeing into the house with mysterious-looking parcels that she would bundle into her and Dad’s bedroom and hide away in a secret stash. On Christmas Day there were always more presents for my sister Sally and me than for anyone else, and certainly many more for us than there ever were for her, so Sally and I had to start opening first, otherwise Mum and Dad would have nothing to open later in the day. I had already opened a couple of presents—can’t remember what, though I’m pretty sure that my presents that year included George Harrison’s single, My Sweet Lord, and The Who’s album, Tommy—when I spotted an interesting-looking package from “Santa”; certainly not a record, but almost certainly an article of clothing, what we called a “softie” in our family. Until quite recently softies had been boring presents for us, but now they were getting more and desirable, even for Sally, who had hated them when she was younger. Anyway, I opened mine with great anticipation, and did a double-take, thinking at first that I had somehow mislabeled one of my own presents.

It was a full-length, African-cotton skirt, of identical design to the one I had made for Mum.

My champion, my role model, my twin!

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506. The Loudest Voice

In Childhood, Family, Immigration, Music, people, reflections, singing, Stories, women & gender on December 14, 2021 at 3:19 am

After all these years, only now am I listening to this luminous story by the late Grace Paley. In 1998 she read it out aloud on Vermont Public Radio for the holidays, and there it still lives, her voice issuing forth at the press of a button and conjuring up a time, a place, and a child’s innate self-confidence. She was 76 when she read the story, one she had written 40 years before, and her voice was still clear and well-modulated. Oh the sly humor! Chosen for her clear, strong voice, the very voice that parents, teachers, and neighbors are always admonishing her for, the Jewish girl in a Jewish immigrant community attending a Christian school delights in narrating the school’s Christmas pageant. She has no feeling of being an outsider. She simply filters the entire story through her own consciousness, whence it issues utterly–and wonderfully–transformed. And her voice, the loudest voice, comes through with flying colors.

I met Grace Paley several times during the 1990s. She certainly didn’t need to raise her voice to command respect and perhaps she never had. At our first meeting I had no idea who she was. I had gone to a reception for the campus visit of the late Edward Said, and didn’t know anyone there. An elderly couple were in the room and so I struck up a conversation with the husband, who was standing a little apart from the others and wearing faded denim jeans like any old Vermonter straight out of the back woods. His wife wore a bandanna around her messy hair like a Russian grandmother. When I told him I was in the English department he said mildly, “my wife does creative writing, too.” I was curious about this wife. I introduced myself to her as well and listened to her for a while, as she talked about this and that. It must have been when I heard her casually refer to her conversations with women during a trip to Vietnam that I suddenly had a prickling feeling at the back of my neck and asked her whom I was addressing. “Grace Paley,” she replied matter-of-factly, and I wondered why I hadn’t realized this from the start. Her voice was not loud at all, but it was by no means self-effacing either.

The Lamb, Songs of Innocence and Experience

I had a loud voice as a girl, like my father before me. My parents, bless them, never asked me to tone it down or hush it up. My classmates teased me for it but didn’t ask me to change. My teachers did, though, as evidenced by my earliest report cards. By age 8 I already had a reputation to live up to; it never occurred to me that it was something I might have to live down someday. Passing through England on the way back to India at age 9, I was chosen to recite a poem by William Blake—The Lamb, I think it was—in school assembly. It never crossed my mind for one moment that I might have been chosen as a token “Other”; in fact, I was told the reason was that I was the only child in my class “without an accent.” Ironically, this girl who had grown up outside of England spoke unselfconscious Standard English, or R.P. (Received Pronunciation), as it is called nowadays: the regionally neutral middle-class accent of England. A year or two later, my father’s students organized a show in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to raise money for people affected by the drought in Bihar and asked me to be the emcee. What fun it was! I was the only child up on the stage, introducing all the university students’ performances. I was fearless at that age.

Two things happened to my voice as time went on. As a university undergraduate, where I felt like a fish out of water, I lost it for a time. One bad experience of being verbally attacked after having made what I thought was a perfectly innocent remark in class silenced me for years; not at home or among friends, but in the rarefied atmosphere of the classroom. Throughout my twenties I still felt perfectly at ease with public speaking in the outside world, though. And returning for graduate study in my thirties, my girlhood confidence returned and stood me in good stead. I knew who I was and what I wanted to say, and had no hesitation in saying it.

Then came the life of a junior professor, when one is made to learn one’s place. Those years didn’t do any favors to my voice. A decades-long habit of speaking unnecessarily loudly without breathing or hydrating properly made me develop a throat nodule. I had to learn to moderate and modulate my voice in ways that were utterly new to me. It was interesting that the voice class I attended was full of professors, many of them senior faculty, all seeking to recover their authentic voices after years of suppressing, silencing, second-guessing themselves. They–we–had to reach deep inside and learn to trust ourselves again. With these classes and vocal therapy at the UMass Center for Language, Speech, and Hearing, my throat nodule receded, enabling me to lecture and to sing again, but not to speak extemporaneously with the same innocent self-confidence as young Shirley Abramowitz, narrator of the Christmas pageant.

As noted earlier, I have my dear father to thank for my loud voice, my father whose normal speaking voice was a gentle bellow. Saying, “no need to shout” would infuriate him. He’d shout louder: “I’m not shouting; this is my normal voice!” There were only two options when faced with the full-throated power of Dad’s voice: either to lower one’s own, or to raise him one. For better or worse, I must have done the latter. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Now I am the one whom people ask to moderate my foghorn. Add to that my increasing deafness, which makes me unaware of the volume at which I’m speaking, and the need to teach wearing a mask, which requires me to project, enunciate, and bellow. After that successful voice therapy 20 years ago, my throat nodule appears to have returned with a vengeance.

Bill Barnacle bellowing in frustration at Henderson Hedgehog, Horticulturer (Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding)

What prompted this reflection was listening to Boston Public Radio last week on my way home from work. Margery Eagan and Jim Braude’s daily news program is an enjoyable mix of serious news and analysis, with comic banter and a call-in component that invites the public to join the fun. On this particular day the subject was men’s loud voices. Apparently men are greater COVID-19 spreaders than women because their loud voices spray more virus farther and wider. Then followed some light-hearted banter with a sharp edge to it, with Margery accusing Jim and men in general of using their loud voices to bully others into submission and Jim, quite uncharacteristically, acknowledging this tendency in himself with some shame. They were inviting public comment when, driving into the reception-free flood-zone of the North Quabbin region, I lost the signal. But I continued to think on the subject, and wondered about how much I had silenced the people around me with my loud voice. How much was the negative perception of loudness gendered? If I were a man, would my unnecessarily loud voice be considered appropriately assertive? But why did I feel the need to assert my opinions, already strong, so forcefully? (In graduate school, much to my eternal shame I had a verbal run-in with a famous writer whom I revered and who shall remain unnamed. He used great restraint in the end-of-semester comment he put on my grade: “Inclined to hold strong opinions.”) These were questions to which the answers only generated more questions.

I have always loved singing and taken pride in bursting into song on the slightest pretext. But I have damaged my voice by singing too loud. A singing voice ought not to be harsh and raspy like a portable loudspeaker; it can be soft and sweet. It is much harder to sing high notes softly than to belt them out. I had always prided myself on my ability to hit the high notes–even singing the descant when there was one. Now my voice was cracking less than an octave above middle C. I would have to learn to harmonize and sing the alto part rather than the tune which I had always sung. My whole identity was going down the tubes. What was I to do?

Instead of answering that question, I listened to the 76-year-old Grace Paley reading “The Loudest Voice.” With a broad tolerance and affectionate humor she affirmed that young girl’s confidence. And she didn’t have to shout to blow me away.

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498. Remembering Mum on Mother’s Day

In Aging, Family, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work on May 9, 2021 at 1:05 pm

                Mum’s bleeding hearts

On this glorious early-May Mother’s Day, I sit in bed with my second cup of tea, thinking of my mother, who passed away three years ago. Though she is still very much with me, I so miss the quality of her active presence in the world—my world. As I contemplate retirement and feel overwhelmed at the very thought of all that must be done to prepare for it, I think of Mum, who plunged into every task and saw it through with determination. She worked so hard to make life for our family easier than it had been for her and her brothers and sisters when they were growing up, and even when she could have sat back and rested on her laurels she couldn’t let go of the lifelong habit of hard work. The house my parents bought at retirement was the biggest one they had ever owned, but Mum never even considered hiring anyone to clean it. She did it all herself until Alzheimer’s Disease prevented her from doing it any longer.

Dad told me a story about Mum from the time when they were first courting. Visiting the flat that he shared with another bachelor, she was shocked at the state of it. She entreated Dad to let her clean it for him, and he eventually acquiesced, although he had some qualms about allowing his girlfriend to do such dirty work. But for Mum, work was never dirty, and cleanliness was next to godliness. Dad said that when she was done he could hardly recognize the flat, sparkling clean; and when his roommate returned he was absolutely astounded.

Mum didn’t limit her cleaning to her boyfriend’s digs, but also took on his washing and ironing. Again, Dad said he made an effort to deter her, but I suspect it was a rather feeble effort, because he loved dressing well, and must have found it hard to maintain his own high standards in that tiny apartment in cold, damp, sunless London. Mum took his shirts away with her and returned them to him spotlessly clean—washed, dried, aired, and ironed.

All this Dad told me in wistful tones, as if he hadn’t fully appreciated all Mum’s hard work through the years. Even as the Alzheimer’s took hold, she continued to try to clean the kitchen, tearing off strip after strip of paper towels and wiping down the countertops with an energy born of the frustration that she was unable to do more. At first Dad, thrifty as both our parents were, was annoyed by the number of paper towels Mum was wasting, until I pointed out to him that she was only trying to hold on to some remaining control in her own kitchen, most of which had been taken away from her. As was always his way, Dad was instantly penitent, and never complained about waste again.

Sadly, it wasn’t long before Mum couldn’t even wipe down the surfaces anymore, turning instead to untangling and smoothing down the fringes on the woven placemats as she sat at the dining-room table. For my part I remembered wistfully how, before Alzheimer’s, she would race to wash all the pots and pans before sitting down to dinner while we entreated her to join us so that we could begin our meal without guilt. She did this because she knew that after the evening meal was over and it was time to relax in the living room, she would instantly fall fast asleep, exhausted, even while her tea was still hot. For Mum was a lifelong early riser, up for hours before the rest of us even stirred in our beds. The only exception was Baby Nikhil, also an early riser in those days. Whenever we were staying over at our parents’ house, Grandma Gladys—or GG—would play with him energetically while I, never a morning person, took my own sweet time to get myself in gear.

Mum, detail from one of Dad’s paintings

So here I am on Mother’s Day, looking out at the garden and contemplating my To Do list. Thanks to dear Andrew I have now breakfasted and had both my morning cups of tea. The bird feeder and bird bath are full, freshly-potted marigolds glowing orange in the courtyard, and sunlight streaming in through all the new Spring greenery. Mum would have loved to sit out on the terrace with me underneath the umbrella, bird-watching or doing the Times crossword. To be honest, though, with the exception of her first cup of coffee at the crack of dawn when her mind was the sharpest and she would whizz through even the hardest crossword in record time, she never sat still until, perhaps, late afternoons in retirement. Then she would join Dad under the umbrella in the back garden, her flower garden in full bloom, enjoying a cold glass of her favorite Miller Lite and, finally, allowing herself to look upon her handiwork and see that it was good. Here’s to you, dear Mum!

NB: Lest you get the impression from the above that Mum was all work and no play, nothing could be further from the truth. She had a passion for life and, ever restless with the status quo, longed to live it more fully than ever. Endlessly interested in people, she tended to make friends with women much younger than herself because she was forward-thinking and young at heart. She adored children and never tired of making up games to play with them. She never stopped teaching or learning either. Mum loved music and dancing, as I have written in other posts. And she never could resist a Kit-Kat.

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495. Clothes and Clothing

In Aging, Britain, clothing, culture, Music, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases on April 3, 2021 at 11:15 pm

This is the third entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Clothing is used to cover and protect one’s body from threats of all kinds, and it is used performatively, to mask and dissemble. Clothing can make you feel more fully yourself but it can help you present yourself as someone else, someone more socially acceptable. Clothes make the man, as they say. They can bolster your confidence or expose your vulnerabilities. No wonder there is such a wealth of idiomatic language involving clothes and clothing, in sayings and expressions that refer to covering up, like the predatory wolf in sheep’s clothing and to stripping away, like the emperor in the fairytale whose new clothes turned out to be his birthday suit. (Here’s Danny Kaye telling the story in his inimitable fashion.)

Let’s start with clothing in general. Someone who dresses well and has good taste in clothes is said to have dress sense. If they are obsessed with clothes and buy rather too many of them, they may be referred to as a clothes horse, which is also that folding wooden rack on which you hang your clothes out to dry (something that is coming back into use now that people are trying to reduce their carbon footprints). When you get dressed up for a party, you put on your glad rags, and when you really go all out, you’re dressed to the nines or puttin’ on the Ritz, as in the Irving Berlin song of 1930, written during the Great Depression when someone who had lost everything—lost his shirt, you might say—made an extra-special effort to put his best foot forward. Fred Astaire certainly did! All these sayings are relatively positive, but there are plenty of others that indicate failure or disapproval in various ways.

Society imposes heavy pressure on the young, but also on the elderly. My mother used to worry, as she got older, of being seen as mutton dressed like lamb, as she would put it. In my youthful self-involvement I would scoff at the idea, telling her that she looked lovely–which she did. But it was not until I reached that age myself that I began to understand the social pressure to dress one’s age and, as an older woman, fade discreetly into the background. Times change, though, and I like to think that women of my generation, always a feisty lot, have refused to conform to social expectations that dictate their disappearance.

To pick up the pace here, I’ll wrap up with a quick rundown of some more clothing-related  anachronidioms many of which are as gendered as clothing itself. There’s the expression, wearing the trousers (or pants, in the U.S.), as in, “It’s clear who wears the trousers in that household.” It’s equally clear that it refers to the woman of the house, since she is the one who is not supposed to be wearing them; and that this idiom, though still in use, started to sound outdated as soon as it became common for women to wear trousers in public.

Clothing idioms can be used to make open threats as well as to express social disapproval. The colorful, I’ll have your guts for garters, used to be popular, but with the wearing of garters on the wane, it just doesn’t have the same currency anymore. As for shirts, generous people would give you the shirt off their backs and compulsive gamblers would lose theirs. Having a bee in one’s bonnet has gone out of use with bonnets and a bad hat might have been familiar to the children reading Madeline and the Bad Hat in the 1950s, but little boys don’t wear hats so much anymore, even if bad hats may still take pleasure in torturing small animals. In other images of repression and compulsion, young people speak freely of toxic parents, but not so much of being tied to Mother’s apron strings. In the days of corsets and stays, and hundreds of little buttons on women’s clothing, someone who was so uptight they could hardly breathe was said to be buttoned up. Not to put too fine a point on things, someone who was fired from their job was given the boot. They still are.  

Many clothing idioms seem to come in opposing pairs. One rolls up one’s sleeves to dig into some honest hard work but keeps something up one’s sleeve—often an ace—to hold in secret reserve and use to one’s advantage when the time is right. Listen for it in the second verse of John Prine’s Spanish Pipedream (1971).

From sleeves to gloves and a final pair of idioms, both suggesting the arrogation of authority by the powerful. To handle someone with kid gloves means to treat a difficult person delicately, with great fastidiousness and care, care that they probably don’t deserve. This person is difficult because he can afford to be, and the kid (leather) gloves—made from the skins of baby goats—are not something that just anyone can afford, only the filthy rich. Today, ordinary people wear gloves for work and to keep them warm, but rarely for mere decoration. And then there is the velvet glove, the one with the iron fist inside it. Sadly, that doesn’t look to be going out of fashion anytime soon.

(Done! And to think I sat down to write a short entry off the cuff.)

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480. A Burning

In Books, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases, writing on July 12, 2020 at 5:51 pm

I’ve just finished reading A Burning, Indian American writer Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, which I ordered back in June, as soon as I heard about it. Although it ought to have been a quick read, I had to put it down while I met a few deadlines, and only just took it up again this morning, when I read the rest of it all at once. Now here I am, devastated; and impressed, in spite of myself.

I must admit that when I first started reading I was skeptical and prepared to find fault, which is not how I generally approach a novel. Why? Well, partly because of the book design, which featured short line lengths, large type, and short chapters, with short paragraphs separated by lots of asterisks as if it was written to be consumed by an attention-deficit public. As I began reading, it became clear that that was indeed the effect; the book was a page-turner and despite my reservations I soon began to care about the characters.

Small things still niggled, though; I took note of them even while aware that I was being ungenerous. The first was the author’s device of making Lovely, the hijra, a transgender woman and one of the three central characters, continually speak in the present or past continuous tense, as many Indian English speakers tend to do. While this trademark tense, along with Lovely’s many malaproprisms, certainly identified her in the rapid-fire chapter changes (each featuring a different character), I couldn’t help finding it jarring, and being unsure whether it was necessary, since it was so overused and clearly meant to add humor. Were we supposed to be sorry for her or laughing at her? Here’s an example, with Lovely’s own first-person narration:

“Don’t say such things, please,” I am protesting, even though I am secretly thinking that maybe he is right. My performances are always outshining. In fact, I am having the same thought myself. But I am always being humble. “I have to learn a lot more than you,” I am saying to him. (143)

Seven present continuous constructions in five sentences, short sentences at that. But I withheld judgment, and I’m glad I did.

What else grated? Well, Indian novels in English are almost always double-coded. If they use a term unfamiliar to non-Indians they follow it immediately with a descriptive phrase or word of explanation. This makes the work more easily accessible to a wider readership, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how much it is done, and whether or not it is desirable to make the readers do a little work and make sense of the word in context or (gasp) look it up in a glossary at the back of the book. This novel either double-codes every possible unfamiliar word or dispenses with it altogether and replaces it with a familiar one. Even Indian street food (at a time when “authentic” global street food is all the rage) has to be translated into terms a global audience would understand, with kadai translated as wok and fresh coriander translated as cilantro. One incidence of double-coding particularly irked me: Jivan’s harried defense lawyer visits his guru. Okay. I think that in 2020, most English-speakers know what a guru is. But this novel is taking no chances: just in case, “my guru” is followed by “my spiritual leader” (106).

The fact that one of the main characters is a hijra: did that bother me? Was I being transphobic? I confess that I mentally raised half an eyebrow when remembering that Anjum, one of the main characters in Arundhati Roy’s last novel, was also a hijra. Were they trying to cash in on the moment, especially in the Global North, or were they helping to bring marginalized voices to the fore? I remember the late Marathi writer Gauri Deshpande’s reaction to Arundhati Roy’s celebrated first novel, The God of Small Things, in which she wondered whether Roy was trying to cater to the West’s appetite for titillation by featuring not only a star-crossed inter-caste love affair and incest between twins but adding child sexual abuse for good measure. Gauri certainly did not make this charge out of political or social conservatism, since her own avant-garde novels challenged class and power inequities and included transgressions likely to simultaneously scandalize and titillate her Indian readers. Ultimately, the test would be in whether these characters were drawn with complexity and whether these elements were essential to the plot.

During the weeks A Burning had to be set aside, I found myself thinking of it from time to time. Did I want to be won over, or did I want my first impressions confirmed? I wasn’t sure. Was I being mean-spirited out of envy of this first-time novelist’s privilege? But hadn’t I been given all the same privileges? And wasn’t I often troubled by the all-too-ready dismissal by writers and critics based in India of the global successes of their fellow writers in the diaspora simply because that success was rarely extended to them, no matter how good they were?

Now that I have finished my first reading of A Burning, I recommend it heartily, despite my initial and admittedly petty reservations. It is a fine novel, fast-paced and powerful. It kept me guessing throughout, filled with hope and dread in equal measure. The three main characters are all drawn with complexity and pathos and I found myself rooting for every one of them. The outcomes for each of them were completely understandable, given their respective situations and the situation in India today; and yet, not entirely inevitable. They could have been different, if only. . .

A Burning couldn’t be more timely, and, as Majumdar herself said in a radio interview shortly after its publication:

I think there are these really close links between what’s happening in India and what’s happening in the U.S. And I hope that through this book, which, yes, is about oppression and yes, is about systems of discrimination, I hope that people also do pay attention to how the characters in this book dream and make jokes and strive even in conditions of great oppression, and I hope that feels meaningful to anybody picking up the book in the U.S.

The title, which somehow felt grammatically off to me at first, also turned out to have been just right on so many levels. Congratulations, Megha Majumdar, for a terrific first novel!

Majumdar, Megha. A Burning. Knopf, 2020. Buy it from your local independent bookseller.

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464. Middle Age

In 1990s, Aging, Family, Immigration, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender on April 16, 2020 at 10:26 pm

This is the thirteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Middle Age.

In the late 1990s I officially entered middle age, if the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary and the United States Census are to be accepted. Since they both designate middle age as the years from about age 45 to 65, I am just moving out of that middle period now, and entering a whole new stage of life. But can I cast my mind back to those years in which I was still approaching it? To be honest, it is all a bit of a blur.

During the decade of the 1990s our son moved from starting kindergarten to finishing his first year of high school, with the dizzying array of activities that fill those years. How busy we keep our children! In parallel, I completed my doctoral work and started my first fulltime faculty position, a 215-mile roundtrip commute north of us. Rather than relocate our nuclear family, which was settled happily in a congenial community with our parents on both sides having recently retired nearby, I opted to drive up on Tuesday mornings, rent a room in a house for two nights a week, and return home on Thursday evenings. I suppose it worked, more or less, but it was exhausting, and the almost-continuous shuttling made it hard to simply rest in any one place for long. Sometimes I wonder what it was all for. Perhaps that’s the nature of the striving that defines so much of our working lives. At the time it seems essential; but in retrospect, not so much.

Despite how officialdom defines age groups, they also vary depending on place, education, and social class. In the mid-1970s, when I was looking into midwifery, one of the paths I considered for a time after college, the British midwifery manual labeled a thirty-year-old first-time mother an “elderly primipara.” (Now, by the way, that age has been scaled up to thirty-five.). In  the 1980s when we moved to a farm in a rural community I was an ancient first-time mother at thirty. There were plenty of grandmothers not much older than I was. But when in 1990 we moved to the university town where we still live, I was enviably young with a kindergartner at 35, since so many women had postponed having children until they were established in their professional careers.

The 1978 portrait of the Brown sisters (© 2014   Nicholas Nixon)

There’s another interesting thing about the relativity of age: one’s perception of one’s own age in relation to the rest of the population. In my twenties and early thirties, I felt that I was younger than most other people round me. Whether or not that was indeed the case, I was caught up in my youthful concerns and nobody else really mattered. In my later thirties and forties, I still felt on the young side, but noticed that there were about as many people younger than me as there were older than me. But increasingly, entering my fifties and on up into my sixties, I’ve become acutely aware that I am either the oldest person in the room or alternatively, one among many grey-haired or bald people in my age group, with nary a young face to be seen.

  The 1988 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

How did my perceptions square with actual population demographics? In 1980, when I was 25, the median age of the U.S. population was 30, so I was younger than many others, but comparatively speaking not as young as I had thought. Ten years later, in 1990, when I was 35, the median age was 32.9, so I was just about in the middle; and by 2000, when,at 45, I was entering middle age, the median age of the U.S. population was 35.3, making me fully ten years older than the average American. I still didn’t feel my age.

The 1999 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

All through the 1990s I had the metabolism of my youth. I was pretty much the same weight as I had been in high school, and I still could and did eat anything, and as much of it as I liked without the scales moving in the slightest. My hair was getting greyer, but I was dyeing it at home with an peroxide-free German product that looked very natural, so nobody noticed but me. I seemed to have boundless energy, too, although the long commutes were silently taking  their toll on my system.

It turns out that I was a kind of Dorian Gray through most of my middle age, in that while until age 55 I was regularly considered the person in our group of friends who had aged the least, I was living as if there was no tomorrow in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction. The hidden painting was the one that was aging, not me. But sometime in my early 60s it all caught up with me at once, the middle-age spread, wrinkles, thinning hair, “senior moments,” the inability to concentrate after a certain hour in the evening. Suddenly, it seemed, far from looking young for my age, I looked considerably older than my agemates who had been steadily taking care of themselves. But perhaps that too is all a matter of self-perception.

Something else happened to me as I approached middle age that was less about self-perception than about how one is perceived by others. Not just anyone, though; I’m talking about women in particular. At a certain age, women just disappear; once they are no longer perceived as sexual beings, they are no longer noticed at all. I had read of this phenomenon of middle-aged women’s invisibility and my mother had been telling me about it for years. She would storm in, furious at having been passed over while waiting for service in a store in favor of a much younger woman. “It was as if I wasn’t even there,” she would fume. “I complained, but then they looked as me as if I was crazy and answered in patronizing tones as if I were a child.” I would sympathize with her but had no idea of what it was really like until it started happening to me. With regularity.

Still, despite the messages from society, I persisted in feeling younger than I was. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center, Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality, found that the older people get, they younger they feel; until they’re about 30 they feel their actual age, but by age 45 they feel ten years younger.

What has advancing middle age meant to me as an immigrant? Having come to the United States when there were very few immigrants here from anywhere except Europe, I feel like a living historical archive, that I have a lot to share with those who have arrived more recently. I also feel less lonely. As a 1.5-generation immigrant (known as such because they bring with them or maintain characteristics from their home country, meanwhile engaging in assimilation and socialization with their new country), I feel that I can understand both first-generation immigrants and their American-born children. And as I move into and beyond middle age, I delight in the fact that the demographics of the American population are starting to skew in favor of immigrants and people of color. While I was in a tiny minority when I first arrived in this country in 1970, when immigrants made up only 5 percent of the population, in 2020 it has risen to nearly 15 percent; if you additionally count the American-born children of immigrant parents, we are looking at fully 28 percent of the population.

 Madhubala

Going back to that 2009 Pew Research Center survey about growing old in America, it found that people aged 75 and older had a count-my-blessings attitude when asked to look back over the full arc of their lives and measure it against their expectations. Younger people, by contrast, were much less forgiving of themselves. I am learning to replace judgement with acceptance. My invisibility—a magic cloak for older women. My steel-grey hair—I embrace it. As for my middle-aged spread, I’ve always been scarecrow-thin. Now I’m what Indians of an earlier generation would have called “healthy”, before Euro-American norms reshaped their standards of beauty.

Looking back, I feel protective toward the forty-year-old me, approaching middle age. I want to give her a gold star for effort, but also give her permission to slow down, breathe, and enjoy life a little more.

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455. Dual Identities

In blogs and blogging, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, women & gender on April 4, 2020 at 9:57 pm

This is the fourth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Dual Identities. Back in the seventies there were very few Indians in the United States–Asian Indians, that is. Most of them had immigrated since the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, that did away with the racially discriminatory national origins quota system, which had governed admissions to the country since the 1920s. It wasn’t until the 1980 Census that there was even a separate category for Asian Indians, and not until 2000 when Americans could check more than one ethno-racial category. However, it is estimated that in 1970 there were only 51,000 India-born immigrants in the country, only one half of one percent of all the foreign-born immigrants, and only 6.2 percent of the immigrants from Asia. By 1980 that number had risen to 360,000 and 10% of all Asian immigrants. But most Indian immigrants were living in New York-New Jersey, California, or Illinois.

In the Boston area, the Indian community in the seventies was a tiny one. There was only one Indian grocery store, India Tea and Spices in Cushing Square, Belmont, where we bought our essential ingredients, and where I picked up my first copy of India Abroad, a weekly paper founded in 1970, the year of my arrival in the U.S. (and which discontinued its print edition just last week). There were no other students of Indian origin in my high school nor, to my knowledge, in my college class, unless they managed to operate under the radar, or moved in very different circles from mine.
Every Sunday, IAGB, the Indian Association of Greater Boston, would screen a Hindi movie in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, in collaboration with Sangam, MIT’s Indian student organization, and the whole community, it seemed, would make the scene, with saris, babies, loud talking all at once in multiple languages, and of course, plenty of snacks. Meanwhile the week’s movie provided the necessary background music and a feeling of home. Sometimes we would go with our friend Subhash, who knew all the songs and all the names of the stars. He named his son Amitabh, after Amitabh Bachchan, of course.

At that time the Boston-area Indian community was so small that just meeting an Indian was remarkable enough for me to go home and tell my family about it. It wasn’t until later in the decade that we would start to use the broader term “South Asian” to describe ourselves, to assert solidarity and commonality with our fellow subcontinentals: Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalis, even the odd Burmese. And it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that I began to see myself as “Asian American.”

But in any case, “identity” wasn’t a thing back in the seventies, not for me anyway. For one thing, you had to have a community to have an identity, and I didn’t. In April 1977 the Combahee River Collective, a group of black feminists, issued a statement.  In it, they asserted their differences from the predominantly white, middle-class American  women’s movement and coined the term identity politics to describe the need for women of color to focus on their own oppression, rather than be subsumed under a larger umbrella that claimed to speak for them but in fact silenced them. Was I silenced? I don’t suspect that anyone who knew me would say so now, but I frequently felt obliged to be different things to different people.

Source: SAADA

Soon after I graduated from college in 1975, India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and, in a series of Draconian moves, arrested many opposition political leaders, and muzzled the press. The Indian community in the U.S. hadn’t yet come of age, but it galvanized into action, organizing for the restoration of democracy, demonstrating at Indian consulates, speaking out on the issue at public meetings, making documentaries on the subject, writing speeches, articles, and letters to the editor, signing petitions, hosting speakers from India, and generally bringing global pressure to bear on Mrs. Gandhi to live up to India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy. I became active in that effort as part of a group of mostly graduate students in and around MIT and Harvard, and these like-minded people from every country in South Asia became my fast friends. Together we forged a community of support and solidarity.

At the same time, I also found myself getting heavily involved in the flowering anti-nuclear movement, galvanized by the Clamshell Alliance’s opposition to the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plants in New Hampshire. For seven years, from 1977 to 1984 when our son was born, Andrew and I printed posters and bumper stickers, marched, organized civil disobedience (with me, not yet holding American citizenship, as a member of the support team), rallies, marches, and pickets, engaged in debates with nuclear industry spokesmen, published newspapers and magazines, wrote letters, speeches, press releases, and papers, and attended too many meetings to count.

The funny thing was, there was no overlap between these two groups, my South Asian activist friends and my anti-nuclear friends. So different were they that I found myself taking on a completely different identity in each, even to the extent that each  knew me by a different name. My group household consisted of young white Americans, all anti-nuclear activists, members of a food cooperative, living an “alternative” lifestyle (what would have been called countercultural back in the sixties). They wore faded denim jeans and plaid flannel shirts and listened to punk rock and the Grateful Dead. My South Asian cohort, most of whom lived in the same general neighborhood, were a little older and more highly educated, getting married and completing PhDs. Like my white American friends most of them came from respectable upper-middle-class families but had become more social and politically conscious after coming to the U.S. They were secular, intellectual and highly serious, opposed race, class, and caste discrimination, and lived for study and argument. My anti-nuke friends knew nothing of my life with my South Asian friends, and my South Asian friends thought the No Nukes crowd were naïve, earthy-crunchy, and not very serious.

In my group household I always knew when a phone call had come in from an Indian friend because one of my roommates would answer and when they heard the voice on the other end of the line their tone would change. “Jyotsna”, they’d call out to me teasingly, using the Indian form of my name and emphasizing the ‘y’ and the ‘t’, “phone for you.” There was only one fellow-South Asian, Hayat, who was active in the anti-nuclear movement at the time and I was overjoyed when I met her. Andrew and I printed the wedding invitations for her and Joseph and we became lifelong friends. There were a handful of friends in the South Asian group who accepted me as I was, rather than seeing me as a bit of an oddball. One of them was a couple whose apartment we all practically lived in and whose wedding celebration Andrew and I attended. We also became lifelong friends and, more than 40 years later, we had the pleasure of attending their daughter’s wedding. Only one of the group took the anti-nuclear movement as seriously as I did and I loved him for it. Then there were my mixed group of friends who didn’t belong to either group, with whom I shared a love of music, literature, and social concerns. Boy, were they a breath of fresh air!

I don’t know what the moral of this story is, except that if I have any identity at all it is plural; that, like everyone else, ‘I’ am made up of an infinity of constantly shifting and evolving elements. But there is another ‘I’ who looks on at this play of identities with amusement and waits for me to quiet down, drop my masks and performances, and just be. The people with whom I feel the most at ease know and love (or are annoyed by, as the case may be) the many parts of me. In my youthful insecurity, I tried too hard to fit in with the norms of one group or another, wanting to be liked, approved of, accepted. Nowadays I still hold back on sensitive subjects depending on the group I’m with, sometimes out of tact, sometimes out of respect. But older now, I am what I am, and what others think doesn’t matter so much to me anymore.

America of 2020 is a very different place from what it was half-a-century ago. As of April 2019 there were nearly 5.4 million people of South Asian origin in the United States, more than four million of them claiming either a singular or a mixed Indian identity. My heart doesn’t leap anymore when a South Asian passes me by on the street. Racism, xenophobia, and social segregation have not abated, however, and questions of identity are still fraught and hard to negotiate. But there has been cross-fertilization and change as a new generation of South Asian Americans have become engaged in all kinds of social activism both in the U.S. and in South Asia. In the 1970s there was no group like today’s South Asians for Climate Justice, which could have brought my disparate worlds together.

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442. Rest In Peace, Kumud Rege (June 29, 1922 to October 5, 2019)

In Family, India, travel, women & gender, Work, writing on October 5, 2019 at 10:45 pm


My dear Mai-atya, my father’s elder sister Kumud Rege, is no more. She passed away in Mumbai on October 5th, and the cremation rites are taking place as I write this.  She spent her life serving others in the Gandhian spirit of local self-reliance, and was especially beloved in her hometown of Ratnagiri on the Konkan Coast of Maharashtra. She lived in and looked after the family home until it was sold, after which she moved to Mumbai with her younger sister, who cared for her lovingly in the last years of her life. The last time I saw her was in June, 2014, when I had just turned sixty and she, ninety-two. Although she appeared to have dementia by then, when we arrived she immediately insisted on speaking exclusively in English. When Nikhil asked to take a short video of her sending a message to his grandfather—her brother—she spoke movingly and articulately, looking directly into the camera. In an elegant Marathi I cannot fully understand or reproduce, she said, “Bapu (as she called Dad), we are enjoying here with Josna and Nikhil. It is almost as if you were here with us.”

Rest In Peace, dear Mai-atya. You have been a good and faithful servant, devoted to the education of women, and a role model for us all. So grateful for your well-lived life. In my heart, it is almost as if you were here with us.

I am copying below a short oral history of Mai-atya that was published in the SPARROW (Sound and Picture ARchives for Research on Women) Newsletter in 2006.

O R A L   H I S T O R Y

Interviewing Kumud Rege

In May 2006 I had the opportunity to interview Kumud Rege, who is a social worker in Ratnagiri District, on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. At 84, Kumud has been a doer all her life. She speaks rapidly, as if she has no time to waste. In a June 2000 SPARROW interview with fellow-Ratnagiri native Urmila Pawar, she acknowledged,“I’m not really fond of writing. I like to work rather than write about it.” While writing her memoir, Vegalya Vatene Jatana, or Traveling by a Different Path, she dictated it to a scribe, in-between meetings with a steady stream of people whose lives she has touched, either seeking her advice or simply coming to pay their respects, even though she has officially been retired for many years. Kumud was born in the district headquarters town of Ratnagiri, and lives very simply in the family home where she grew up with her parents and seven siblings (she was the fourth of eight children, and the second of three girls). In adulthood, she was the only one among her siblings who stayed in Ratnagiri and carried out her life’s work there. Kumudtai is well-known and beloved in the whole district, where she has worked and remained active with almost every social institution, including mahila mandals and balwadis, schools and colleges, the juvenile court, the remand home, the mental home, and particularly the Smt. Janakibai (Akka) Tendulkar Mahilashram in Lanja.

Kumudtai began her vocation of Gandhian social work in 1942 when, as one of only 10 female students living in the hostel at Willingdon College, Sangli, she participated in the Quit India Movement. Her father had written to her giving her permission to take part in the movement if she so desired, and also wrote a letter to her college principal to that effect. Her father wore khadi and it was at that time that Kumud started wearing khadi herself, a practice she continues to this day. She told Urmila Pawar light-heartedly that over the years her family members have tried to persuade her to wear colored blouses or printed saris, but to no avail. Speaking with her nieces Shubha Desai and me in May 2006, she explained her attraction to khadi as something beautiful made entirely by hand and most often by women. Although khadi is associated with politicians, she distanced herself from khadi-wearing as a symbolic political statement.

In 1945, after completing her B.A. in sociology, Kumud participated in an intensive 6-month workshop in Saswad run by the newly-established Kasturba Gandhi trust fund for development of village women and children in Maharashtra under the leadership of one of her mentors and role models, Prematai Kantak. The daily programme consisted of lessons in environmental cleanliness (including cleaning around toilets), ayurvedic medicine, spinning, and agricultural skills, as well as prayers and other subjects such as psychology. In 1946 Kumud and Akka Tendulkar co-founded a Village Service Center in Lanja Taluka, Ratnagiri, and soon began to focus on the many interrelated needs of women and children. This center developed into the Lanje Mahilashram, which for the past 60 years has continuously served women of all ages with a wide variety of programs.

In 1950, after completing a second Bachelor’s Degree in Teaching in Pune, Kumudtai went to Bordi in Thane District to complete a diploma in Basic Education, following which she lived and worked for four years in a village development program in Gopuri (Kankavali taluka) with Appasaheb Tendulkar, popularly known as the Konkan Gandhi. For the next seven years, Kumudtai directed the Kasturba Gramsevika Vidyalaya in Saswad, where she ran a women’s social worker training college and inspected village development efforts carried out all over Maharashtra. During this time, while Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement was in full swing, she received a Central Government scholarship for doctoral study at Mouni University in Gargoti, where the subject of her research and dissertation was “Mutual Relationship between Primary Schools and Village Social Institutions.” In keeping with her hands-on approach, this was no library-based study, but one that required her to travel through many villages and schools to investigate how they worked.

In 1961, at the invitation of then-Chief Minister P.K. Sawant on behalf of the Jotiba Phule Education Society, Kumud returned to Ratnagiri as Principal of Desai Teacher’s Training College. She has continued to live and work in her hometown ever since, heading the college for two decades, serving as Honorary Magistrate of the Children’s Court, on the Board of the Remand Home, and, since 1982, as President of the Janakibai (Akka) Tendulkar Mahilashram. When asked to look back on all her different activities, Kumudtai considers the mahilashram to be her greatest achievement.

The mahilashram in Lanja serves many different aspects of women’s needs at different stages of their lives: it takes in teenage mothers, runaways, referrals from juvenile courts or abusive homes; offers a range of education and training for self-sufficiency; helps to arrange marriages for the women if returning to their families is not an option for them, and allows them to stay on and contribute to the work of the ashram if they so desire. It also finds shelters and raises orphaned children, runs a balmandir for older children, and arranges adoptions. The ashram received very limited government funding, and relies for its support on donations and fund drives.

Starting in 1993, the mahilashram added another wing, Shantisadan, for women over 60. There is space for ten women in Shantisadan, and it has never yet had more than a handful in residence. Reflecting on this, Kumudtai notes that any woman who leaves her home to come there, comes somewhat unwillingly, either because she has no family or because she cannot live with them. The women who adjust and settle in best are those who enter into the life of the ashram as a whole, serving as teachers, telling stories, being grandmothers to the children, participating in weddings at the ashram, singing or leading prayers at various functions. Kumud does not call Shantisadan an old-age home, with the stigma of social isolation attached to that term, but rather a place within the ashram where elderly women can live, or simply come to stay for a while. At the conclusion of her memoir Kumud has written movingly about what the mahilashram means to her in her own old age. “The idea that children are a stick to lean on in old age has been shaken. Just to speak for myself, the stick of the ashram has become the main support for my later life. This is my stick and these are my children.”

Kumudtai speaks about her various activities unassumingly, never volunteering information on the many awards she has been given over the years. Like many other women, she tends to downplay the significance of her own role in a project, emphasizing instead the collective nature of the work. When I asked her if she would donate her documents and photographs to SPARROW’s archives, she replied with some surprise that she didn’t have any such records. Because she is a doer, one gains the best insights into her work through observation. In my intermittent visits to Ratnagiri over the years I have observed her steady work with Dalits and the poor, especially women and children, her thriftiness (she uses less cooking oil in a month than I use in one meal), her emphasis on service and giving rather than consumption (she asks all her family members to contribute to her various projects and gives away her award shawls to her nieces), her egalitarianism (she refuses to have servants, but rather lives with young companions, whom she educates and trains toward self-sufficiency), her experimentation with energy-saving technologies (her simple solar cooker cooked her rice, dal, and vegetables while she was away at work). I invariably find her arranging a marriage for a man left widowed with small children, giving advice to a woman whose second husband is mistreating her child from her previous marriage, inaugurating a balwadi for Dalit children, or taking long, hot state transport bus trips to speak to village women on a job training course.

At the end of our interview my cousin Shubha and I asked our aunt about the title of her book, Traveling by a Different Path. We wanted to know how she had made the decision to do so, and what she thought about that choice now. However, she replied that at the time she did not think in these terms. Participating in the Quit India Movement of 1942 had influenced her, particularly the principles underlying Gandhi’s idea of individual satyagraha, but it was only later on that she realized that she had in fact taken a different path in life. When we asked about her choice not to marry, she similarly insisted that she had not made a decision as such, either to marry or not to marry, but rather that she did what felt right at the time. Asked about whether she has had the support of her family, she replied unhesitatingly, “Not the slightest resistance from anyone. They used to buy me cloth for colored blouses. They said, Why must you wear white all the time? Use some printed stuff….They do that out of their love for me. But nobody asked me, Why don’t you wear ornaments? or Why don’t you get married? They know that I have done what I wanted to do.”

Urmila Pawar’s June 2000 SPARROW interview with Kumud Rege is available in audiotape and Marathi transcription and has been translated into English by Kumud Rege’s sister and my aunt, Mrs. Suneeta Kulkarni. The May 2006 SPARROW interview with her is in the process of transcription. Some information for this piece was also drawn from Kumudtai’s autobiography, Vegalya Vatene Jatana (Traveling by a Different Path, Ratnagiri: Konkan Marathi Sahitya Parishad, 2000) which is available in the SPARROW library. Thanks also to my late father, Madhukar Rege, who was responsible for most of the translation from Marathi, and to my cousin, Dr. Shubha Desai, who helped me with the interview with our aunt.

 

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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

(from indiaparenting.com)

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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