Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘John Prine’s Mexican Home’

402. Land Where Our Fathers Died

In Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, parenting, people, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 31, 2017 at 4:27 am

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second short-story collection, opens with an epigraph by Nathaniel Hawthorne that also provides its title:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.  (from The Custom-House, introduction to The Scarlet Letter)

Like Hawthorne’s children, I had a different birthplace from that of my father, and my son, in turn, had a different birthplace from mine. Do I feel that, as a result, I was raised in richer, more generative soil? I was born in my mother’s city and country, but we didn’t stay there long. For much but not all of my childhood I was raised in my father’s country, though far from the red earth of his coastal home. By the time I was coming of age we had landed on a third continent, far across the the sea and home to neither of my parents, where I was forced to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth. As a result, I will constitutionally and forever question settled concepts of home, country, and belonging.

While I reject the notion that blood and soil (Blut und Boden, that hateful Nazi slogan), race and place, have some sort of mystical unity, I know from personal experience that for some people, place is much more important than for others—that while they may be able to live anywhere (for humans are almost infinitely adaptable) they can only come fully alive in the place where they were born and raised. For them that place will always and forever be home. Some lose their minds, lose their way, even end their own lives. Do we then look at them as failed transplants, as Salman Rushdie describes some of the characters in The Satanic Verses? Should they never have been wrenched from their native soil?

But then, look at Ellis, the protagonist of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. When she emigrates from Ireland to the United States, she is forced to leave everything that was familiar to her. There is a long, lonely period of adjustment; but then she works for independence and education, finds love, begins to make the unfamiliar familiar, to put down new roots. Returning “home”, she finds that everything is easy in some respects, seductively, romantically comfortable; yet the growth she has achieved in unaccustomed earth has developed parts of herself that ultimately mean more to her.

One must return to “blood and soil,” the sickening chant of the Nazis and White Supremacists as they marched with flaming torches through the street of Charlottesville, Virginia just three short weeks ago. Why was it so chilling? These men—they were overwhelmingly male—had come together to claim that they, the self-defined “White Race”, belonged to the soil of this country as Blacks did not, as Jews did not, as immigrants would never do; and that they were fully prepared to shed blood defending this soil against racially alien intruders. This country was theirs, they snarled, in a way that it could never be mine, that as far as their children’s fortunes lay within their control, they would strike their roots deeper into their own native soil.

I’m with Hawthorne: that soil is played out; and so is that hate-filled song. Yes, we must be prepared to fight to preserve our sacred Earth, but in this century all earth must be unaccustomed. While I hold an abiding affection for the two places on earth that nurtured my dear parents, I myself am a cosmopolitan, even though at times the word sticks a little on my tongue. I want to belong to a place, but I do not. When I see the people forced from their homes by the flooding in Texas and Louisiana, my heart goes out to them, but then I read of the death and displacement caused by the flooding, not just in Mumbai, home to many members of my family, but also throughout South Asia, including Bangladesh and Nepal, and my heart breaks its bounds again. I cannot feel for one people to the exclusion of all the others.

Commuters walking through waterlogged streets, Mumbai (Reuters)

Where does this leave me? A global citizen, facing potentially catastrophic climate change in uncertain times with my fellow earthlings. I’m grateful to my father for having showed me, at a young age and by his example, how to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth; this radical unbelonging is the condition of our age, and it is a condition that will better prepare us, not to soak the depleted soil with yet more blood, but to come together with others for our mutual survival, and that of our planet.

I once heard it said that one did not feel a sense of belonging to a place until one’s fathers had died there. Well, now my own beloved father has died here in the United States, and though I can scarcely say how I feel, it’s not exactly belonging, but rather, a renewed sense of responsibility to a place that we all must share. Here’s how another revered ancestor, Pete Seeger, put it:

To My Old Brown Earth

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry. 

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine

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334. Rockers

In 2010s, Music, places, reflections, Stories, travel, United States, Words & phrases on June 11, 2015 at 9:59 am


It’s funny that a rocker is either a live wire or an emblem of leisure. I’ve just returned from a heavenly few days at a school reunion in the hills of North Carolina, where we stayed in a big lodge surrounded by rhododendrons, songbirds, and the sound of running water, where we sang, hiked, cooked, ate, drank copious cups of tea, and talked incessantly. The lodge itself was rustic and a little run-down, which was a large part of its charm, because it reminded us of our old school buildings in the foothills of the Himalayas. For me its best feature was its long, high-ceilinged front porch with ceiling fans, a swing, and a row of white wooden rocking chairs. I often took a few minutes away from the lively, boisterous group to stand on the porch looking out at the rain and the green lushness, my heart full.

Rockers were ubiquitous in North Carolina, a fixture on every front porch no matter how humble, and even lining the walkways of the Charlotte Airport. They signaled a slower, more laid-back Southern way of life, in which people still had the time to sit on the porch in the evenings, shooting the breeze or just watching the world go by.

Now I come to think of it, though, I didn’t see many people actually sitting on those rockers. Driving through the achingly beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain region (here’s Doc Watson singing Blue Ridge Mountain Blues), most of the front porches were deserted, the rocking chairs a charming feature but empty nonetheless. At the airport there were people on them, but perched, as it were, ready to take off at the crackle of their boarding call. The young man, a Charlotte native, who brought the wheelchair for my dear friend Marianne, was bemused by the foreigners’ fascination with those humble, everyday objects. For my part I got the distinct impression that it was the idea of the rocking chairs, the leisurely life they stood for, that fascinated people. Even at our reunion, where we did alight on them from time to time, we were mostly busy with more active pursuits, such as hiking the wilderness trails to stunning scenic lookouts, or cooking and clearing the endless succession of snacks and meals we consumed with gusto.

In Mexican Home, one of my favorite John Prine songs,

I sat on the porch
Without my shoes
And watched the cars go by
And the headlights race to the corner of the kitchen wall.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed by the world I sit alone on my own front porch of an evening, doing a whole lot of nothing. Sometimes I wake with a start and realize that I’ve nodded off. But even retired people nowadays are made to feel that rocking on one’s front porch, once the very symbol of retirement, is tantamount to being put out to pasture. We’re told that sitting is hazardous to the health and that activity, constant activity, is the watchword. The retirees I know are busier than I am, and their active engagement with life keeps them young and vital. Mostly, I think that’s a very good thing. But still, I think of those empty North Carolina rockers with a pang.

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163. Servants, or Cleaning My Own D*** House

In 1960s, 1970s, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on October 28, 2012 at 2:07 am

Everyone who came to stay at Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram had to take a vow to clean the ashram’s toilets. No one was exempt from this chore, not even the Mahatma himself, in keeping with his deeply-held belief in the nobility of all work, no matter how menial. Making caste Hindus clean their own latrines was also part of Gandhi’s campaign against Untouchability, in which he sought to elevate the status of outcastes relegated to the job—although he never condemned the caste-based division of labor altogether. The late writer Mulk Raj Anand discusses this in his 1935 novel, Untouchable, which, though heavily influenced by Gandhi (Anand stayed in his ashram and sought his advice in revising the novel), shows the Mahatma helping to give the Dalit protagonist (as we would call him today) a new confidence in himself and pride in his work, but not promising to liberate him from the work itself.

Photo by Nita Jatar Kulkarni

Growing up in India a decade after Gandhi’s death, I found the revulsion toward toilet-cleaning very much in place. Our maidservant Lakshmi would wash the dishes and the floors cheerfully, but drew the line at toilets. My mother had to clean them herself, but I never heard her complain about it.

When my mother first went to India as a newlywed, she balked at the idea of having servants. Deeply egalitarian and coming from a working-class background herself, she was against it on principle, but also for the practical reason that she didn’t trust anyone else with the hygienic preparation of food. Eventually she had to give way, when it was made clear to her by the neighbors that she was expected to have servants, but she insisted on paying them what she considered a living wage. That got her into trouble with the neighbors again, who complained that she was driving the wages up by spoiling her servants, that their servants would all start demanding parity. In the end she found ways to supplement Lakshmi’s and our mali’s wages in kind, with food and clothing. When we left the country for the last time my parents paid a pension to Lakshmi for the rest of her life, sending it to a neighbor to cash for her.

When I was nineteen I took a vow never to clean someone else’s house again and, in the future, to take responsibility for cleaning my own house myself. While at university I worked a number of jobs to help pay for my junior year in England, including catering, waitressing, pumping gas, and house-cleaning. At one particular house, I couldn’t bring myself to enter into the Gandhian spirit and perform the work whole-heartedly. I was filled with resentment at the upwardly mobile couple, both young doctors. (Irrational, I know, since as residents they must have been working five times as hard as a lazy undergraduate like me.) I had just decided to become a vegetarian and, as if to spite me, the couple seemed to be particularly fond of eating meat. They would broil large steaks until they were black and leave the burnt-on, greasy mess for me, without even thinking to soak the pan so as to make it easier to clean. Why couldn’t they clean their own damn house? They expected me to clean their house at the same time as looking after their six-month-old baby, who, deprived of both his parents for long stretches of the day, would wail miserably for hours at a time. I could barely contain my irritation at the poor helpless little thing, since the only way I could get him to stop crying was to put him on one hip and play music on the record-player while simultaneously vacuuming the floor. (I do have a positive memory of the music, though. John Prine’s album Sweet Revenge had just come out, and I listened to his inspired Mexican Home again and again, wielding the vacuum cleaner with one hand and holding the baby balanced on my hip with the other.)

I have kept my vow all these years, but at the expense of subjecting my family and friends to a very messy house. What with work commitments and my dislike of housekeeping, something else always seems to take precedence over cleaning. By now many, even most of my friends—all of whom are extremely busy and some of whom have physical disabilities as well—hire someone to clean, and given that there are many people who need the work, I find myself wavering in my resolve not to do so, or at least having to recognize that I am in no way righteous, just plain stubborn. Nevertheless, I hold on to the idea of the nobility of all work, and can’t help but feel that once one has a regular servant, a master/mistress-servant dynamic necessarily develops. Before long, one is complaining to one’s women friends about the sloppiness, or dishonesty, or attitude of the cleaning lady and bemoaning her uppity demands for more money while doing less work. Remembering how I felt when I cleaned other people’s houses for them, I still maintain that I should clean my own damn house.

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