Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘Stories’

365. Kindred

In blogs and blogging, Books, Britain, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, Words & phrases on April 14, 2016 at 8:35 pm

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

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There are those conversations with cousins and aunts during which you realize that not just your features, but your quirks, as well as those of your parents, are theirs too. My Auntie Angy, married to my maternal Uncle Len, used to joke with my husband and my cousins’ spouses, that they were the A-Team—united by a crime they didn’t commit and forced to live with members of the Sharp family. Thank goodness for the long-suffering A-team in every family that tempers and balances the eccentricities of the other side!

UnknownSharp by name and sharp by nature: that’s my mother’s family. They have a way with words, both spoken and written, do everything quickly (quick-witted, quick-tempered, quick to take offense), but are fiercely loyal to those they love. They are also just plain fierce. It can be infuriating to encounter this fierceness on your own; but when, commiserating with siblings and cousins you realize that, a) you have the same traits yourself and b) you’re all in it together, you gain a new understanding and tolerance for the behavior, and it even becomes endearing—well, sometimes and to some extent. You are all kindred, and that is so comforting.

Now, Reges, my father’s family, are another kettle of fish (Pomfret/pamflet, if you want to get specific). They are contradictory characters, artistic and free-thinking, yet set in their ways; gregarious and hospitable, yet solitary, even shy; high-performing but wracked by self-doubt; stoic on the outside, but nursing anxieties and worries to which they will never admit (or is that myself I’m thinking of?). Getting together with Rege cousins to share stories about our respective parents allows us to see how many of the traits that baffle us about our beloved seniors are shared among all their siblings. On a recent, rare visit from India, my cousin Vidya instructed my father—lovingly, but in no uncertain terms—to listen to his elder daughter. She knows: she too is an elder daughter, and her father is just two years my father’s junior. I can’t tell you how supported she made me feel.

It is a truism that you can’t choose your family. This is another wonderful thing about kindred. This lack of choice means that your family contains all sorts, including people whom you might never have got to know, or even meet, unless you were related. This is good for your soul.

Then there are the kindred spirits. You’re not related at all—not by blood. But as soon as you meet you find yourself completely at ease. There is no need to explain; everything you do, everything you say, is understood and accepted immediately. And you can trust them to the ends of the earth.

Kindred-octavia-e-butler-124291_408_600 The late Octavia Butler wrote a novel called Kindred. If you haven’t read it yet you’re in for a treat. Her protagonist Dana (interestingly close to DNA) has kindred of both kinds: those whom she wouldn’t go anywhere near if she weren’t related to them, but for whom she must risk her life because she is. (Sorry, that’s a convoluted sentence, but as they say about fraught relationships on Facebook, it’s complicated.) These kindred force her to recognize that she has to know them to know herself, however difficult that is for her. To her dismay she finds that, even as she hates the things they do, she continues to care for them. Thankfully, Dana has the other kind of kindred in her life as well: the kindred spirit whose love and integrity she finds that she need never have doubted.

I am lucky to have both kinds of kindred in my life. All of them, but all of them, bring me joy.

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Summer Reading

In Notes on July 17, 2013 at 12:30 pm
(photo © Denis De Desmaeker via flickr)

(photo © Denis De Desmaeker via flickr)

Greetings from a heatwave in this part of the Northwest fringes of Planet Earth! Since I am in the throes of making a mega-batch of chickpea curry (see Cookbooks, Immigrants, and Improvisation) for my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary party, and since Tell Me Another  has a number of new subscribers, I’m posting links to 25 earlier pieces that you might not have seen. New readers, you can also scroll through the stories by category at the bottom of TMA‘s homepage; here are stories related in some way to Music, for example, or to Immigration, or India. Apologies to those of you who have followed TMA from the beginning; I’ll be back in a few days.

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Oh, and the first story is in honor of my parents’ anniversary.

Get Me to the Church on Time
Thanda Thanda Pani or, You Never Miss Your Water…
Pheasants and Apple Chutney
Flash
O, Oh, and the Wonderful O
Just Empty Your Mind
Con Men, Card Sharks, and Playing a Different Game
Balancing my Three Halves
Drive-ins
Sighting in New Mexico
The Pagli and the Tramp
Tree Elf
Common Sense
Multi-Timing
What’s in a Name?
Frittered!
Life on the Low Wire
Censorship at Bedtime
Tennessee Stud
Southbound
Jam Today
The Iliad at Bedtime
Watching the River Flow
Quest
At the Gates of Dawn

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128. The Kurta Joke

In Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, storytelling on November 18, 2011 at 1:16 pm

At family gatherings, after a big meal, we would all cluster round my dad and beg him to tell us the kurta joke. If he was feeling expansive he would comply, although as the years went by he would wonder aloud whether he still remembered it, heightening our suspense with periodic hesitations as he meandered toward the punchline. Dad isn’t generally given to telling jokes, but this one—more of a story than a joke, really—somehow became his party piece.

And so he would begin:

“Common Man,” R. K. Laxman

“The headman, or sarpanch, of a certain village was setting out to a meeting of the heads of  a group of neighboring villages. He had only just started on his way—on foot, of course—when the village simpleton called out from behind asking him to wait. When he caught up, the simpleton asked where he was going and whether he could accompany him on his journey. The sarpanch replied:

—I’m going to the neighboring village to represent our village at a meeting of several other headmen.

“The simpleton looked impressed and fell silent for a few minutes as they continued to walk on steadily, side by side.  Then he said, thoughtfully,

—That’s an awfully old kurta you’re wearing. It’s worn at the elbows and, look, there’s a stain right down the front. What kind of impression will it give of our village at the regional meeting?

“The sarpanch was a little annoyed, but he knew the simpleton meant well so he overlooked the remarks. He merely replied in mild tones that it couldn’t be helped because he didn’t have another kurta. But his helpful companion had an idea:

—I know, why don’t I lend you my kurta? It’s brand new, and you will be able to hold up your head and our village’s reputation at the meeting.

“The headman was going to decline but thought better of it, especially when he saw how eagerly the simpleton was making his generous offer. So they stopped and exchanged kurtas right there on the road, and continued on their way, for the village where the meeting was to be held was still several miles hence.

“By and by they saw a traveler coming toward them from the other direction. As they neared each other, the simpleton greeted him eagerly and with a proud, proprietory air launched in on energetic introductions.

—Good morning, huzoor! This is our village sarpanch. He is going to such-and-such a village for a regional meeting of headmen. And the kurta he’s wearing is mine!

“This embarrassed the sarpanch no end, and as soon as the traveler was out of earshot he turned on the simpleton and said to him angrily,

—Why did you have to mention that the kurta was yours? Don’t do that again, do you hear? It is injurious to my standing as the village sarpanch.

“Immediately contrite,  the honest simpleton readily agreed, and so they continued on their way once again. After a few more miles they saw in the distance another traveler coming slowly toward them, and the headman looked hard at the simpleton and said,

—Remember, don’t tell him that the kurta is yours.

“The simpleton assured him that he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, and the headman breathed a sigh of relief. As they met, the simpleton again took it upon himself to introduce his illustrious companion:

—Good afternoon, huzoor. This is our village sarpanch. He is going to such-and-such a village for a regional meeting of headmen. And the kurta he is wearing. . . is his own.

“As soon as they were at a safe distance from the second traveler, the headman stopped in his tracks, faced the simpleton, took him by the shoulders and glared angrily into his eyes.

—Listen here, what did you mean by that remark? You drew even more attention to the kurta by saying it was mine. There is no need to mention the kurta at all. If we come upon another traveler, please, please, don’t say anything about the kurta again! Do you understand me?

“The simpleton assured the headman that he did indeed understand and that he would never again make the mistake. He was clearly so very sorry that the headman was soon ashamed of having lost his temper. He made his peace with the poor fellow and they set on their way once again. They were nearing their destination when they saw in the distance another traveler making his way toward them. The headman gave the simpleton a meaningful look, and the simpleton nodded reassuringly, as if to say, Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control.  Soon they were close enough for the simpleton to begin his introductions, a task which he took very seriously and of which he never seemed to tire.

—Good evening, huzoor. This is our village sarpanch. He is going to such-and-such a village for a regional meeting of headmen. But don’t ask me about the kurta he is wearing: I don’t know anything about it!”

We never tire of the kurta joke, no matter how many times my father has told it.

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108. Climb Over the Wall!

In 1980s, India, Stories on April 30, 2011 at 4:54 pm

January, 1984: Andrew and I were on our honeymoon trip to India, visiting each and every one of my relatives, who welcomed Andrew into the family with open arms. We were now trying to meet up with Tai-atya, my father’s eldest sister, who we thought was in Delhi, staying with my cousin Jayant. But when we reached Delhi, Jayant was out of town and so, it seemed, were Tai-atya and Banawalikar-kaka. So instead, we got a hotel room in Delhi, visited the family of our dear friend Subhash, and made train reservations for Kanpur (not an easy task back in those days), where our elders would be staying with my cousin Vijay. Everything was set, and Vijay-dada was to meet us at the station; but that night everything seemed to go wrong.

The train was late. We arrived at Kanpur Central Railway Station quite late at night and couldn’t find Vijay-dada anywhere. (Later, it turned out that he had been there looking everywhere for us but in vain.) Wearily, we hailed an auto rickshaw, whose driver, upon hearing the address, had to be talked into accepting us: apparently, the Sales Tax Office was in a distant suburb several kilometers away.

Indian addresses, many-layered palimpsests of history and culture, can be difficult to decode. Even now, nearly sixty-five years after Independence, there is often the British street name, paired with the new(er), or newly restored Indian one, followed by a nearby landmark, such as “behind Odeon Cinema). In this case it was “opposite Sales Tax Office.” Some half-an-hour later the rickshaw-wala, tired and visibly irritated at the prospect of his long return journey, told us that we had arrived at the address we had given him. We were in a pitch-dark residential neighborhood with high walls enclosing the compounds. He made to offload our luggage, but we pleaded with him to wait until we could be sure that we were at the right place. He pointed impatiently to the Sales Tax Office and then to the walled compound opposite, but there was no sign of life anywhere and no identifying names on the gate—or indeed, any of the gates of the adjacent compounds. By now the rickshaw-wala was skeptical about us. I had told him that my cousin-brother lived here, but since neither I nor my husband looked Indian to him, he seriously doubted my word. He just wanted to get paid and out of there as soon as possible. Finally he threw down the gauntlet: “If you really are his sister, then climb over the wall!”

I looked helplessly at the forbidding wall with nothing but silence and darkness on either side and then back at the rickshaw-wala, but he was adamant. If we were not to be abandoned with all our luggage on an empty street in a remote neighborhood of a strange city, there was nothing for it but to take up his challenge. So I screwed up my courage, throwing fear, caution, and womanly modesty to the winds, and climbed.

I dropped to the ground on the other side, fully expecting to be lunged at by a pack of snarling dogs. Thankfully, dogs were nowhere to be seen, but neither was anything or anyone else. As I began to get my bearings and my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I saw a flickering light beside and to the back of the big house and made my way towards it. Finally I came upon a small group of men, servants probably, squatting comfortably round an open fire, chatting. I stepped out of the shadows and spoke to them in my halting, schoolgirl Hindi, explaining that I had come from Amreeka, naming my cousin, and asking if this was his house. They all started in terror as if they had seen an apparition. It  must have seemed to them that I had just materialized from nowhere—perhaps straight from America itself. At first they seemed unable to process the sounds emanating from my mouth as words, but finally one of them recognized Vijay-dada’s name, led me to the big house, and hammered on the front door. Eventually my cousin and his wife opened it, rubbing their eyes in sleepiness and surprise, but welcoming us lovingly nonetheless. After a light meal and a warm, milky drink, we dropped into the bed that had been made ready for us and fell asleep instantly. What a relief!

RBTB Hospital Compound, Delhi

It turned out that Tai-atya and Kaka were not in Kanpur after all but back in Delhi. So in the morning we made reservations for a return journey to Delhi the very next day, where at last we met up with them and had a lovely visit. Tai-atya plied us with her delicious home cooking and Banawalikar-kaka regaled us with stories over endless rounds of tea (I am a teetotaller, he chuckled jovially—totally tea!).

It turned out to have been fortunate that we returned to Delhi at that time, because soon after our return to the United States, dear Tai-atya passed away, carried off by a sudden brain fever. I remember the visit in every detail, from the terror of facing the climb over the compound wall to the tiny smudge of turmeric on my sari blouse from Tai-atya’s haldi-kumkum blessing, hastily pressed on my forehead as we took our leave from her. In this case I am grateful that turmeric leaves a permanent stain: I would not wish it otherwise.

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107. Kalo Paska

In 1960s, Childhood, Food, Greece, Inter/Transnational, Stories on April 23, 2011 at 2:35 pm

by Nicholas Econopouly, greecetravel.com/photos/sixties/

In Greece in the 1960s Easter was the biggest holiday of the year, bigger than Christmas and much more eagerly anticipated. The blessings of Easter, or Paska, lasted all year long. Although we weren’t a religious family, in the spirit of Indian secularism and my mother’s unitarian socialist agnosticism (“God is all the Goodness in the world,” she told us), we celebrated every holiday there was, and the Greeks knew how to celebrate. All through Lent people had been fasting, denying themselves meat, fish, dairy products, wine, and even the ubiquitous olive oil that seemed to form the basis of every dish. They had also been cleaning and whitewashing their houses, purifying themselves inside and out.

Holy Friday was the most sombre day of Holy Week, one of deep mourning. All the lights of Athens were turned out, plunging even the Acropolis into darkness. Late on Saturday night, people bundled up warm and made their way to churches and monasteries all over the city. Since we lived at the base of Lykavittos, the tallest hill in Athens, with a monastery at the very top, we joined the throngs who walked up the steep, narrow path in single file, pairs, or small family groups, maintaining near-silence in keeping with the occasion.

At the top, the faithful entered the church to pray while the overflow waited expectantly, looking out over the city uncharacteristically wreathed in darkness and silent as the grave. Finally, at the stroke of midnight, all the lights came back on, brilliantly illuminating the Acropolis and the major churches throughout the city. The formerly subdued, almost sleep-walking crowds around us broke into lively cries of Xristos Anesti! (Christ is Risen), to which the reply was Alithea Anesti (Indeed, He is Risen)! And in the same instant came the sounds of the cracking of eggs, as people retrieved hard-boiled eggs from the depths of their coat pockets, dyed dark red, and cracked them against their neighbors’ eggs, wishing Kalo Paska (Happy Easter) to one and all and sharing freely with anyone who had come without.

Then came the lighting of the candles. Everybody had brought a candle from home, stowed in their pockets with the hard-boiled eggs. The first candle was lit from the ever-burning flame within the monastery, and one by one everyone lit their candles from the just-lit candle of their neighbors. When the last candle was lit, the return procession began, people talking animatedly now, but taking care to keep their candles alight and maintaining a joyful solemnity. Looking down from Lykavittos, we could see candlelit processions like our own winding their way home all over the city. When people reached home, they would make a cross with the smoke from their candles on the newly whitewashed walls above their front doors, to keep them safe from evil spirits throughout the coming year.

Durfun at virtualtourist.com

I supposed that the Greek children went to bed when they got home, as we did. But I suspect that the women of the household got very little sleep that night, as they made the final preparations for the massive Easter feast that would break their fast on Easter Day. One Easter in Greece we were visiting the ancient city of Delphi, and the townspeople were roasting whole lambs on spits and dancing in the streets, spirits lifted high and wine flowing freely. Kalo Paska was on everyone’s lips and nobody was made to feel a stranger.

Greeks followed the Orthodox calendar, and when, years later, I married into a Ukrainian American family, I discovered that they did as well. Ukrainian Easter rarely falls on the same day as what they call “regular” or “American” Easter, and many of its customs and practices are very similar to the ones we first encountered in Greece. After midnight on Holy Saturday, the Ukrainians, like the Greeks, greet each other with Christ is Risen: Khrystos Voskres! and reply, Voistynu Voskres! They too crack and eat hard-boiled eggs, dyed dark red, although they spread them liberally with an eye-wateringly pungent horseradish sauce.

As I write, my sisters-in-law Eve and Vera are washing the dozens of coffee cans that Eve saves from year to year for baking babka, the Ukrainian sweet bread eaten only at Easter, spread with a heavenly soft cheese called paska. Eve has perfected her own recipes for both, which seem to get better every year. Vera is the guardian of the egg-painting supplies, so in keeping with the Ukrainian tradition of pysanky, we may decorate eggs tomorrow as well, although our  skills do not extend to the artistry and delicate precision of our cousin Juliana.

Kalo Paska and Happy Spring!

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97. Sick in Bed

In 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, Books, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, reading, Stories on February 19, 2011 at 5:25 pm

It was the third week of December and I was about eight years old. At school we were busily preparing for our big winter choir concert, but there was also an epidemic of chickenpox going around, and student after student was succumbing to the disease. Because I knew all the words of all the songs, each student who dropped out of the picture made my role all the more important. I was eagerly anticipating the big event, when I would have a chance to shine. But I was not to benefit from others’ misfortunes for long.

On the big day I awoke bright and early, but almost immediately felt that something was not quite right; there was a faint prickling feeling all around my middle. Lifting my shirt, I found a tiny raised bump on my stomach. Perhaps it was a bite or a scrape; after all, there was just one. I didn’t want to look further for fear of what I might find, but I couldn’t help noticing a second little spot, also on my torso. Immediately I was faced with an ethical dilemma: nothing was visible on my face, arms, or legs, so I could simply not mention what I had found and go to school today; even if it turned out to be chickenpox, at least I would be able to sing in the concert. But then I would risk infecting even more of my friends. If, on the other hand,  I  told my parents, they would certainly err on the safe side and keep me home, ensuring that I would miss my concert. What ought I to do?
While I agonized, I scrutinized the spots, hoping that somehow I could identify them definitively as not chickenpox. As I continued to waver, I discerned a third spot; and although it was a very faint one, almost imperceptible, I knew immediately, without a doubt, that I had the chickenpox and heaved a deep inward sigh of disappointment as I called out for my mother to tell her the bad news.

It wasn’t long after I had come down with the chickenpox that my sister Sally did, too. Not only did I miss the concert, but both Sally and I were quarantined for three whole weeks, over Christmas and throughout the school holidays. Not only could we not go out, but our friends couldn’t even come over to play. We just lazed around the house, playing with our toys. It wasn’t so hard, really; the hardest part had been making that decision to tell my parents.

I loved school at that age and had no desire to miss a single day, so I didn’t look forward to being home sick. In any case, I was rarely sick. I remember once having a terrible head cold in Kharagpur and having to blow my nose so much that I went through every handkerchief in the house in no time. Finally my mother tore an entire cotton bed sheet into squares for me and I went through the whole pile of them as well. It wasn’t much fun having a streaming cold, but I do remember feeling a certain sense of pride at my highly productive nose-blowing technique.

Dysentery was another matter: that was miserable through and through. I had to go three full days with absolutely nothing to eat and only barley water to drink, getting weaker by the day. But by the fourth day, I was allowed to have boiled potatoes. Plain boiled potatoes–no salt, no butter–never tasted so good. If they stayed down, I could have stewed apples the next day; and if all continued to go well, I could graduate to boiled chicken the day after that. Thanks to my parents’ near-fanatical vigilance about boiling all drinking water, washing hands thoroughly before meals, and throwing away any item of food if it fell on the floor or a fly settled on it, even for an instant (no five-second rule in our house), I don’t remember getting dysentery more than twice in all my years of living in India.

Even though I never exaggerated an illness so as to make my parents keep me home from school, when I was really ill I was grateful for their protection from all the forces of the outside world. It was not until I was at university, when I fell sick in the reading period before final exams, that I realized that I was now on my own; there were to be no more sick notes. I had more than one final paper due and a long one that I was  particularly dreading but, for the first time, as my body was wracked by the chills and fevers of the flu, it struck me with a never-before-felt force that my parents could not protect me anymore. From now on, however sick I was, deadlines would loom inexorably, and I would have to rouse myself and meet them. (Thinking back to the strength of my feelings then, I realize how much things have changed. It would never have occurred to me in a million years to contact my professor, plead illness, and ask for an extension.)

I didn’t fall ill much as a young adult, either. I hardly remember being in bed for more than a day or so or ever missing work due to sickness. The few memories I do have are delicious ones of long hours of undisturbed reading, once the initial fever and chills had broken.  One year, stricken with a summer flu, I started Moby-Dick, one of the many American classics which, not having grown up in the States, I had never read as a child. Propped up on pillows and bundled in quilts despite the summer’s heat, I delved into Melville’s masterpiece and between short bouts of tossing, restless sleep, trod the cobbled streets and rickety stairs of seamen’s inns in old New Bedford and Nantucket, delighting in the former schoolteacher Ishmael and his larger-than-life bedfellow Queequeg. Alas for my relationship with Melville, my flu had run its course before I had reached page 250, and the outside world drew me back into its busyness before my schoolteacher had even managed to get out to sea. Someday, I promise myself, I will return to him.

Once I began teaching fulltime I could never afford to fall sick during the term, but my health would often give way just as soon as classes were over. Lolling luxuriously in bed, I would indulge guilt-free in hours of uninterrupted reading for pure pleasure (what Andrew used to call “extraneous reading”—any book I picked up during the last, tortuous days of my doctoral studies that had nothing to do with my thesis project). It was during one of these end-of-term periods of enforced bed rest that I read through most of Jane Austen. Although my mother was a passionate Austen fan (presenting Pride and Prejudice to me when I was nine and Emma just a couple of years later), I had never taken to her as a girl, and it was only thirty years later, when my everyday duties were suspended and I seemed to exist, for a time, entirely out of time, that I made my way through Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion.

The same thing happened, at the end of another teaching term, with Harry Potter. I had followed the news of the series with interest but had never taken them very seriously, although I had asked my parents to bring British editions for Nikhil and Tyler back with them from their recent vacation in England (many of the uniquely English words and idioms having been excised from the American editions in the ridiculous assumption that they would decrease U.S. sales). As end-of-term grading loomed, one of my students asked me if I would direct her senior thesis on the Harry Potter books. I promised that I would consider it, but that I needed time to decide. Once again my body obligingly provided me with that time as soon as classes were over, and as soon as I was well enough to sit up in bed, I began devouring the books like candy, putting one down only to pick up the next. The only thing that slowed me down was their bulk, as they slipped repeatedly out of my hands, each one, it seemed, a couple of hundred pages longer than the last. (I did agree to direct Malini’s thesis, which was called, Harry, England and St. George: an analysis of J.K. Rowling’s Use of Merrie England and New Britain in the Harry Potter Series.)

In the past few years, after more than 20 years of teaching in which I was not out sick for a single day, I have realized that I need to take the occasional sick or personal day. What a gift! What a revelation! That one can take a day off from business as usual and use it simply to breathe, regain one’s inner balance, and write a new story for Tell Me Another.

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95. Sail On, Silver Girl

In 1970s, Immigration, Music, Stories, United States on February 5, 2011 at 11:34 am
Back Bay and the Charles River, Boston, Massachusetts (Wikimedia Commons)

Back Bay and the Charles River, Boston, Massachusetts (Wikimedia Commons)

There is an image I hold in my mind’s eye that dates from the very first weeks of our arrival in America nearly forty-one years ago. More than just an image, its aura evokes not only a moment in time, but the exact atmosphere of the time and the vibration of my own being at that moment.

My mother, sister and I joined my father in the U.S. in early February, 1970, and I started school at Brookline High right away.  I had no time to miss what I had left behind, partly because, at fifteen and a half, I had attended three different high schools in the past  year and a half, and didn’t know which one to miss anymore.  After having spent 16 months in a kind of limbo in England, waiting for problems in our immigration process to be resolved, I was more than ready to embark upon this new stage in my life. Before we left London my Auntie Angy had taken me and my cousin Lesley to the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End to see the musical Hair, in which  a colorful crowd of frenetic, free-spirited young people sang, danced, and ran up and down the aisles proclaiming the dawning of a new era. Having led a sheltered life up to that point, I understood very little of what I was seeing, but came away with the vague notion that the students of my new school would more-or-less resemble the cast of Hair.

In some respects, I wasn’t so very wrong. After having grown up with school uniforms and standing to attention when the teacher entered the classroom, I had a lot of adjustments to make. There was no longer a dress code at Brookline High, and with an open campus and young, liberal teachers it was one of the most experimental public schools in the country. Torn jeans and long flowing hair were the norm; we sat in circles rather than rows and called the teachers by their first names; and, within three months of my arrival, the students voted to join the nationwide student strikes in protest of the War in Vietnam and Cambodia and at home, the war on the Black Panthers, and the police shootings of students at Kent State and Jackson State Universities. Plunging into American student life at the deep end was exhilarating but also bewildering.

It can’t have been more than a month after our arrival when Roger, one of my new classmates, invited me to go to the movies with him. I accepted and, amazingly, my parents gave their permission, but I had no idea what to expect. Was this a date? I had never been on one.  Roger took me by trolley and subway across the Charles River to Cambridge, where an experimental movie by a French director was being screened at Harvard University. I don’t think I had heard of Harvard yet, even though I was to enroll there the following year.  I certainly hadn’t heard of Jean-Luc Godard and sat through his film, Sympathy for the Devil, in utter incomprehension.  At the end of it Roger asked me what I had thought of it, but must have taken in the expression on my face and taken pity on me. “I have absolutely no idea what that was about,” he volunteered, and I laughed with him in relief.

It was late afternoon on our return journey, as we took the Red Line from Harvard Square to Park Street Station, emerging from underground after Kendall Square and crossing the Charles on the Longfellow Bridge. The train was crowded, as I recall, and I was standing and holding on to an overhead strap as I looked out of the carriage window to the south and west, across to the neon triangle of the CITGO sign in Kenmore Square and the Boston skyline, over the still, wintry waterscape streaked with the colors of the setting sun.

How did the song reach my ears at that moment? It was a song that had been playing in the background ever since we had arrived in the States, but which had only partially filtered through the haze of my bemusement: Bridge Over Troubled Water, by Simon and Garfunkel.  Someone on the train must have been holding a  transistor radio to their ear, as they were later to wear a Walkman, and later still, an iPod. As there were no earphones, the song wafted through the carriage and merged with the sunset, instantly and forever becoming the soundtrack to the scene indelibly imprinted in my memory. It encapsulates my mood at that moment, my feelings about my rapidly changing life, and the entire tenor of the times.  I can never hear the song without that scene coming to my mind, and without feeling as I did at that moment: a dreamy, uncertain, not-yet-sixteen year-old girl on the brink of a new life in a new country at a turbulent time, drinking it all in, trying hard to understand.

Bridge Over Troubled Water (lyrics by Paul Simon)

When you’re weary
Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all

I’m on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you

I’ll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
If you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind

Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind

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94. My Uncrowned Queens

In 1950s, 1980s, 2010s, Britain, Stories, women & gender on January 31, 2011 at 4:43 pm

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in London’s East End, 1941

As wedding fever mounts in anticipation of Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton, and The King’s Speech looks set to follow The Queen in garnering Academy Awards, the popularity of the British monarchy is enjoying a bump in Britain as well as around the world (where it has always found fascination, especially in the United States). But this has not always been the case; British public opinion on the monarchy ebbs and flows. As recently as  2002, polls showed 12% of Britons in favor of its abolition and another 30% in favor of retention, but with a radical overhaul. That’s 42% who wanted it abolished or drastically reformed. Even the November 2010 announcement of the Royal Wedding, which the British tabloids covered lavishly, failed to boost their sagging sales. The bank holiday that has been called for April 29th, 2011 may help make the British people feel a little more well-disposed to the extravagant event, but at a time when they are facing huge public sector cuts and austerity measures, one of the top wedding-related stories in the British press has been its projected cost to taxpayers and the call for the House of Windsor itself to foot the bill.

Today’s Daily Mail announces that, as the culmination of  a month of protests., “anarchists” are plotting to disrupt the Royal Wedding, but even if most would wish the high-flying young couple the best, nearly two-thirds of the populace  remains unenthusiastic about the big day, despite its having been declared a national holiday. Nearly thirty years ago, on July 29th, 1981, public support and TV viewership of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding was ensured not only by a bank holiday but also by lowering the price of beer in the  pubs. This time, although the pubs will be allowed to stay open until 1 am two days running, there’s been no mention of a soma holiday.

royal wedding street party 1981 (photo by Graeme Honeyball)

My mother has frequently recalled June 2nd, 1953, a day nearly thirty years before Charles and Di’s wedding (and a month before her own): the coronation of Elizabeth II, the current Queen of England, when London was absolutely jam-packed, with whole streets blocked off and traffic at a standstill. Mum was in the thick of it, struggling through the crowds, not for a glimpse of the young queen in all her regalia, but for a glimpse of her dear friend Dot and of Peta, her newborn baby daughter. In her telling, Mum had no interest in the pomp and ceremony, only exasperation at the disruption it caused, which made it nearly impossible for her to cross town to visit mother and baby.

This was in the aftermath of the Second World War, an ordeal that had demanded terrible sacrifices from the British people. My mother’s generation had had their schooling interrupted and lost irrecoverably a large chunk of their childhood. Nearly eight years after the end of the War, London was still bombed-out and food rationing ongoing. Mum and her friends, now twenty-something, were young bohemians, interested in everything—education, culture, politics, each other—and determined to take their lives back and live them to the fullest.  A cut-rate pint of beer certainly wouldn’t have tempted them to waste their hard-earned money in the pub or waste their precious time watching television—even then, when it was still a novelty. They didn’t have much time for royalty and found their role models elsewhere.

Elizabeth is my middle name, but my mother always made sure to let me know that I was not the namesake of the Queen or the Queen Mother but of my maternal grandmother, who passed away not long after the Coronation, just months before I was born. Dear Dot passed away a month ago, and is remembered and missed by her family and friends. My mother, my grandmothers, and all the women who have  helped raise me: these are my uncrowned queens, to whom I owe my life, my values, and my fealty. No amount of royal hoopla will make me feel differently.

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93. Snowed In

In 1950s, 1970s, 2010s, Books, Childhood, Food, Inter/Transnational, Stories on January 27, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Snow at Blackberry Farm

As a child in India, my only experience of snow came from Snow at Blackberry Farm, my favorite of our four Blackberry Farm picturebooks. In it, Mr and Mrs. Nibble and their three little bunnies get completely snowed in and the other animals work together to dig them out.

Snowed In

I loved that book, and must have pored over it hundreds of times, drinking in every detail of the richly-colored illustrations.

Mrs. Nibbles’ smiling face

The story ends with all the animals sitting round the Nibbles’ kitchen table over a feast of freshly baked bread, home-made jam, and piping hot tea.

Hungry after all that digging

I didn’t actually experience snow firsthand until I was fourteen, when we lived in England for a year and a half, while waiting for our Green Cards to America. There—in the London area at least—three inches of snow was  enough to bring everything to a standstill.  In the States, the hardy New Englanders prided themselves on taking snow in their stride, and it took a really big snow to interfere with business as usual.  But the Blizzard of ’78 was a really big snow, and my first experience of a New England winter as it might have been in days of yore.

When it began to snow in earnest that sixth of February nearly 33 years ago, Andrew set out from our cabin in Concord to rescue Eve, who was certainly going to have difficulty driving back from work. Several hours (and several inches) later they finally got home, snow-covered but safe, and we all hunkered down for the duration, building up the fire in the woodstove and stoking it  throughout the night. In the morning I was thrilled to find the snow all the way up to the windows of the cabin and drifted up high against the front door, looking just as it had in my Blackberry Farm picturebook.  We were well and truly snowed in and would remain so for almost a week.

We met more of our neighbors in that week than ever before or since. That day we received a telephone call from Ara and Susie, who lived at the top of our road no more than a quarter of a mile away, inviting us to dinner the next evening. After bundling up in every item of clothing we owned and all looking like the Michelin man, we set out, each equipped with a snow shovel. It took us more than an hour to shovel a narrow passageway between our house and theirs, but how delightful to arrive at last and be welcomed into a warm home with a hot, comforting meal. Although we were fond of Ara and Susie, such was the nature of our busy lives that it took a 100-year blizzard to get us together.

The Blizzard of ’78 was also the only time when the neighbors joined together to help one another.  The day after our dinner outing, we trudged back over the hill to find old Mr. Fox’s bungalow completely snowed in, the only sign of life a wisp of smoke from the chimney. Spry old Foxy, as our neighbor Ginny called him, was a typical Yankee, self-sufficient to a fault, never one to ask for help. After every snowstorm he was to be found digging himself out, refusing all offers of assistance, and insisting that his diminutive  “half-pint shovel”—a square-point shovel with the end cut off—prevented him from over-exerting himself. But that day he was nowhere to be seen, so we joined a group of the surrounding neighbors and shoveled a path up to his front door.

Mr. Fox answered the door with alacrity and thanked us for our efforts and concern, but said that he was well-provisioned and needed no further help. His words were confirmed by the half-eaten bowl of soup on the tray table next to the well-worn armchair pulled up to the pot-belly stove in his dark but cozy living room. Mr. Fox was just fine, thank you, so we withdrew to allow him to finish his meal in peace.

Happily snowed in, January 2011

A third of a century later, this has been Massachusetts’ snowiest January on record. Happily snowed in on the fourth snow day since the university opened up for the new term just a week ago, I have just made a pot of tea and a big batch of scones. If anyone wants to shovel a path to our door I’ll gladly put the kettle on again.

Tea, scones, and blackberry jam

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91. Tunneling

In 1960s, 1990s, Books, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, reading, Stories on January 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm

The Home Under the Ground—illustration by Nora S. Unwin

I must have been a mole in a former life, I love tunneling so much; both tunneling itself and the idea of tunneling. As a child I spent countless happy hours burrowing into books, emerging only reluctantly, dazed and blinking, into the light of day. Drawn to tunnels in books, I was charmed by Mole’s and Badger’s cozy dens in The Wind in the Willows, safe from winter and the weasels; Peter and the Lost Boys’ underground hideout in Peter Pan, accessible only through the trunk of a hollow tree; Bag End, Underhill, Bilbo Baggins’ delightfully well-appointed earth-sheltered hobbithole in The Hobbit; caveman Stig’s quarry home literally dropped into by Barney in Stig of the Dump; and, aided by his younger sisters, Friday’s extensive earthworks in Friday’s Tunnel, the prize of my Puffin book collection and perhaps my all-time favorite.

illustration by Edward Ardizzone

In “real life”—not that I made a distinction between the worlds of my books and the world at large—I constructed tunnels and makeshift caves at home, using beds, blankets, and chairs. I tunneled into sandpiles at a construction site on the Hijli campus, stopping only by an innate sense of self-preservation when I realized that there was no way that I could have shored up the ceiling as Friday had. There was a culvert that was dry, or nearly dry except during the monsoons, and by crawling into it one could hide under the road, unnoticed by passers-by. I shudder now to think of the snakes and scorpions I could have disturbed there, but they were of no concern to me at the time.

In “Through the Tunnel,” a much-anthologized story by Doris Lessing, a boy tests his manhood by swimming through an underwater tunnel, holding his breath throughout the unknown length of it until he emerges triumphant at the other end. As a child I tested myself in other ways, but thankfully, having no manhood to prove, I felt no compulsion to risk my life. Riding into  subway, railway, and highway tunnels was always a thrill, though, when it went suddenly dark and one could peer out at the damp walls and sometimes catch a glimpse of mysterious underground passageways, the stuff of science fiction, known only to those who worked in their shadowy depths.

Late one summer when Nikhil was perhaps ten, he and a friend were helping Andrew dig out new potatoes from the rich, loose soil in the back garden when they accidentally unearthed a nest of newborn baby moles, pink and shiny and infinitely vulnerable. Their first impulse was sheer delight at the wonder of this tumble of new life; their second, protectiveness: they were yet too tiny, too young to be exposed to the world. Reverently, we covered them back over with our hands, setting aside the certainty that if these little mites survived they would wreak havoc in Andrew’s beautiful raised beds. And the sense of awe remained with us all that day.

Tunneling is Work—illustration by John Verney

Like Stig, who stepped out of his quarry into the modern world at great risk, like Bilbo Baggins, who longed for his hobbithole even as he did battle with goblins and engaged in high-stakes wordplay deep underground, and unlike the boy in Doris Lessing’s story, the light at the end of the tunnel had little appeal for me. When I was out in the world I certainly did fierce and joyful battle with it, but a stronger, more compelling desire drew me inward. Protective of myself as Nikhil was protective of that clutch of baby moles, I sought refuge in my books, and still do.

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