Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘The Magic Pudding’

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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265. Swagmen

In Books, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, travel, Work on April 22, 2014 at 10:38 pm

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Sheoak Sam, by George Washington Lambert, 1989

Sheoak Sam, by George Washington Lambert, 1989

As I travel in comfort, holding a train ticket, carrying a London Transport Oystercard (the world is your oyster?), pulling a neatly zippered suitcase on wheels, met and picked up by family in cars, I think of the many people who have no homes and no safety net and must continually move on from place to place exposed to the elements, dodging the law, carrying all their worldly belonging on their backs. They have been called by various names: bums, tramps, hobos, travelers, and swagmen.

Swagman-1Swagmen, as they are known in Australia and New Zealand, are an underclass of transient temporary workers who travel on foot from farm to farm, carrying their swags, or portable bedding, on their backs. There are numerous ballads featuring the swagman, most famously Waltzing Matilda, which is sometimes known as Australia’s unofficial national anthem. Here’s the tune I learned, but here is another, which may be the original. The swagman has been romanticized and become an iconic folk figure, as has the hobo in the United States, riding the boxcars in the era of the railroad. But in reality, the homeless life was not so romantic for the lonely men who had to live it. Read a moving post on the hard-traveling, (not-so-) Jolly Swagman on the Western Australian website, Words From the Dust.

If you’re of a mind to listen to some songs celebrating the life of the swagman, traveler, or hobo, try Harry McClintock’s Big Rock Candy Mountain, Shankar Jaikishan and Shailendra’s Mera Joota hai Japani from Raj Kapoor’s 1955 film Shri 420, Roger Miller’s King of the Road, Tom Paxton’s Rambling Boy, and John Prine’s The Hobo Song. [Note that all these songs are sung by men about men: today, women and children are swelling the ranks of the homeless in greater numbers.]

Aside from “Waltzing Matilda,” the other place I first encountered the figure of the swagman was in Norman Lindsay’s comic classic, The Magic Pudding, one of the favorite books of my childhood, given to us by Australian friends whom we had met in Greece. It too romanticized the traveling life, rejecting even the swag as too burdensome. In it, Bunyip Bluegum, the fastidious and well-bred hero, takes to the open road soon encountering and casting in his lot with two unlikely friends, Sam Sawnoff, the Penguin Bold and Bill Barnacle the sailor. But when our hero first leaves home he cannot decide “whether to be a Traveller or a Swagman,” and must consult the poet Egbert Rumpus Bumpus. Here is the poet’s response (duh), and his subsequent pearls of wisdom for the young bunyip:

gs009‘As you’ve no bags it’s plain to see
A traveller you cannot be;
And as a swag you haven’t either
You cannot be a swagman neither.
For travellers must carry bags,
And swagmen have to hump their swags
Like bottle-ohs or ragmen.
As you have neither swag nor bag
You must remain a simple wag,
And not a swag- or bagman.’

‘Dear me,’ said Bunyip Bluegum, ‘I never thought of that. What must I do in order to see the world without carrying swags or bags?’

The Poet thought deeply, put on his eyeglass, and said impressively—


gs012‘Take my advice, don’t carry bags,
For bags are just as bad as swags;
They’re never made to measure.
To see the world, your simple trick
Is but to take a walking-stick
Assume an air of pleasure,
And tell the people near and far
You stroll about because you are
A Gentleman of Leisure.’

‘You have solved the problem,’ said Bunyip Bluegum, and, wringing his friend’s hand, he ran straight home, took his Uncle’s walking-stick, and assuming an air of pleasure, set off to see the world.

                                  from The Magic Pudding (full-text with illustrations, Project Gutenberg)

Tomorrow is another day, when I shall arise and, assuming an air of pleasure, take to the open road. For tonight, signing off with the haunting Hobo’s Lullaby, by Woody Guthrie.

Down on his luck (Frederick McCubbin, 1889)

Down on his luck (Frederick McCubbin, 1889)

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162. “Heuch, Heuch!” (and other family lingo)

In 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, Books, Britain, Childhood, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on October 19, 2012 at 6:55 pm

The Nung-Guama

I suppose every family has a private vocabulary, sometimes even a whole private language, in which to signal its secrets and share its own sensibilities—or structures of feeling, as the British cultural historian Raymond Williams called them. In India, when she wanted to silence me in front of guests, my mother would speak to me in Greek: oxi tora (“not now”) was one of her favorites, delivered in low, warning tones. At the other end of the spectrum was den peirazei (“it doesn’t matter”), which never failed to reassure.

I still use the greeting, “Heuch!” to convey an untranslateable sense of reassurance and acceptance of things as they are. It came from a story called The Nung-Guama, a Chinese folk tale in Once Long Ago, a collection of stories from around the world that belonged to my sister. The Nung-Guama was a horribly ugly demon that lay in wait for an old woman on her lonely way home. Although she evaded it on the road, the Nung-Guama came for her in the night. But the old woman was ready for it and foiled its home invasion with ingenious, albeit rather gruesome, booby traps (reminiscent of the movie Home Alone). Heuch, Heuch! was the terrible slathering sound the Nung-Guama made, and my father, reading to us at night, rendered it with gusto. Funnily enough, when uttered in our private language it wasn’t threatening, but on the contrary, had a rather soothing effect.

We had the habit of picking up phrases from the books our parents read to us. One of Dad’s favorites was Uncle Blunder’s Studio, in which a black beetle, deciding that he wanted to become an artist, donned a beret and beatnik attire and set up a studio. The birds and animals in the neighborhood reacted according to type, including Freddie Frog, who asserted repeatedly, and with perennial good cheer, “Green’s a good colour.” (This long predated the Black Pride movement’s “Black is Beautiful,” not to mention Kermit de Frog’s It’s Not Easy Being Green.) We would repeat the phrase apropros of nothing whenever the urge took us.

We quoted another favorite book to rally a family member when he or she was feeling low. In The Magic Pudding, the Australian classic by Norman Lindsay, whenever things went wrong for Sam Sawnoff, the Penguin Bold, or Bill Barnacle the sailor (usually meaning that their magic pudding had been stolen by the professional pudding thieves), they would fling themselves on the ground in the depths of despondency, until the genteel but stout-hearted Bunyip Bluegum exhorted them to gird their loins and galvanize themselves into action: “Come, come, this is no time for giving way to despair!” He continued, in hilariously elevated language: “Let us, rather, by the fortitude of our bearing prove ourselves superior to this misfortune and, with the energy of justly enraged men, pursue these malefactors, who have so richly deserved our vengeance. Arise!” His oratory never failed to revive his rough-and-ready comrades (“those gallant words have fired our blood,” said Sam) and send them purposefully on their way, in pursuit of the thieves and their precious pudding.

The Tintin comic books provided us with hours of enjoyment, and we laughed out loud at Captain Haddock’s terror of Bianca Castafiore, the opera singer who was sweet on him. Madame Castafiore, “the Milanese Nightingale,” had a formidable bust and a voice that shattered glass. “Ah my beauty, past compare!” we would warble in delight. Later, in the States, when we were introduced to The Addams Family on TV, we revelled in Morticia’s slinkiness and breathed, “¡Querida!”, her adoring husband Gomez’s favorite term of endearment, as he ran delirious kisses all the way up her arm.

“¡Querida!”

Of course we revelled in insults too, as teenagers do, and for those we had Lost in Space, in which Dr. Zachary Smith had an an inexhaustible treasure trove of terms of abuse with which to address the robot. My personal favorite was “You bubble-headed booby!” but there were dozens more.

More satisfying than abuse is always sheer silliness, for which Monty Python’s Flying Circus had no peer. To this day we quote from the parrot sketch (“He’s not dead, just pining for the fjords”) and the Spam sketch (“Hush dear, don’t make a fuss. I’ll have your spam.  I love it! I’m having spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans and spam”), and regularly echo John Cleese’s desire for “cheesy comestibles” in the cheese-free Cheese Shop.

Laughs aside, in the main family sayings served to soothe. When I was about eleven my mother organized a home production of Amahl and the Night Visitors over the winter school break; typing up the script herself, she made a small typo. Amahl consoles his poverty-stricken mother who has no food in the house at Christmastime: “Don’t cry, mother, don’t worry for me; if we must go begging, a beggar I’ll be.” Only, Mum’s typescript read, “Don’t cry mothre…” That little error had a long afterlife. For years I would repeat to her (though probably, given her nature, to no avail), “Don’t cry, mothré, don’t worry for me.”

And so into the next generation, from worry to wonder. When in turn I became a mother, I read my favorite childhood books to my son, who, quite naturally, didn’t care for some of them, but loved others with a far greater passion than I had ever done. Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series for instance: I had read the first one and perhaps the second, but found myself tracking down all twelve for Nikhil and reading them for hours at bedtime as he pleaded piteously, “Just one more chapter!” (Not that it took much arm-twisting on his part; I enjoyed the nightly reading ritual every bit as much as he did.) Looking back, I see the beginnings of his love of poetry, as he pricked up his ears at the evocatively named promontory from which the children gazed at Wildcat Island. When I read him Keats’s poem, like “stout Cortez” and the Walker children (with their inevitably colonial imaginations), he found himself awestruck: “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

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44. Greece in the 60s: Expats & Other Animals

In 1960s, Books, Childhood, Family, Greece, history, places, Stories on May 15, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Greece in the early 1960s was a haven for bohemian expatriates, who could make a little money go a long way in a perfect Mediterranean climate among friendly, easygoing people. We lived in Athens from 1960 to 1963 while my father was working as an urban planner with the visionary Doxiadis (who coined the term Ekistics for the study of human settlements), during a peaceful interlude for the Greek people when the hardships of the Second World War and its aftermath were over  and the military junta of 1967 to 1973 was not yet on the horizon. My parents’ friends were an international crowd, and many were wonderfully eccentric. They all came bearing food and gifts and stories for my sister and me, and left a little of themselves with us as well. They were lovers of animals, of music, of life,  mellowed by the sun, the climate of acceptance (the favorite Greek phrase was den pirazi, or ‘it doesn’t matter’), and the plentiful Greek wine.

An artist with few material needs could live gloriously in Greece in 1962. Retsina, Greek red wine, flowed like water and was sold by the barrel. Food—apricots, figs, fresh bread, yoghurt, feta cheese, and juicy red tomatoes—was cheap and abundant. Rents were affordable, presumably, for I was never aware of scarcity and my father must have been drawing a modest salary. And the Greeks loved children: when my parents were apartment-hunting and the landlords inquired how many children they had, we were a positive asset, especially my baby sister. (The Greek love for babies saved us when we were hauled into court for having accidentally overstayed our visa’s time limit. The judge was about to order our deportation when Sally started crying and he did an immediate turnaround, telling us gruffly to get out of there, quickly: Case dismissed.)

Friends were always flowing into our home and we into theirs. We used to visit a  Turkish friend and sit with him in his walled garden with mulberry bushes and a fig tree. Our German friend Ursula had a little Volkswagen, and drove us all around the countryside in it. (Unfortunately, I had bad carsickness as a child, and all I can remember of our outings with Ursula were the Volkswagen pulled off the road and me vomiting into a ditch.) There were Valerie and Barry Unsworth: Barry must have kept himself busy writing most of the time, because I remember Valerie better. Years after we left Greece we began seeing Barry’s name in print as a Booker-Prize winning novelist, and Greece has figured in more than one of his works. Another friend, Peter—I don’t remember his surname—first introduced me to Tolkien with a copy of The Hobbit, which he presented to me with great seriousness as a work of major importance; Pranab Chakravarty, a cosmopolitan Bengali friend of my parents whom we were to reconnect with later back in India and again, still later, in the United States, gave me Little Women, and I identified completely with Jo, the bookworm; and when we returned to India the Plattens, whose father had worked at Doxiadis with mine, sent us a copy of the Australian classic, Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding, which became a family favorite. To this day I can reel off large chunks of it by heart.

Every summer we used to travel just 20 kilometers out of Athens to Vouliagmeni, by far the pleasantest and most well-appointed public beach I have ever seen, before or since. One summer we rented a cabin in the area for a week or two, and got to know a fascinating cast of characters, all European expatriates driven to Greece by the War. The leading lady was a large, imposing figure of a woman, an artist with an air of tragedy about her, who had been some kind of aristocrat, perhaps a countess, back in Austria. She took us to the little coves around Vouliagmeni, where she collected shells and stones to make her striking jewelry, and gave me a beautiful grey-and-green striped lucky stone, worn smooth by the Aegean Sea, that I kept for many years, taking with me to exams in three countries until it was finally lost. There was a gaunt, graying, older man on the scene with whom she had an undefined relationship, but of whom I can remember nothing else, perhaps because his place in the household seemed distinctly secondary to that of her cats, all 32 of them.

Cats occupied every surface of the house and spilled out of every space, including the kitchen cabinets, as I recall. It smelled overwhelmingly of cats, of course, and if one was a friend of the Countess, one simply accepted it. Many expats left their cats with her when they finally left Greece, knowing that they would be safe, for she did not have it in her to reject a single one. Did we leave her ours? I can’t quite remember.

The cabin we rented during that week by the sea was owned by Anna, a thin, straight-backed German woman—a painter, I think—who lived in the adjacent cottage with a dog, three cats, and a donkey. The most remarkable feature of the cottage was the sun room open to the sky where one could sunbathe in complete privacy. The cats and dog ate freely off Anna’s plate at mealtimes, and the donkey freely ate everything in sight out of doors. He munched regularly on the thatch of the cottage itself, chewed up one of my rubber flip-flops, and, one afternoon during siesta time, devoured half of my mother’s bikini as it hung on the line to dry.

Although the Greeks religiously took a long siesta after lunch every afternoon, with children coming home from school and fathers from work, I was chronically unable to sleep in the daytime. (This meant, among other things, that I had to go to bed earlier at night, while my Greek peers were allowed to play in the streets long into the warm summer evenings, while their parents sat outdoors talking, laughing, and drinking retsina.) On one particular long, hot afternoon at the cabin my parents and Sally were sleeping soundly while I sat outside restlessly, watching the donkey at work on the cottage roof, and looking for a playmate. But there was no one in sight except for the dog, who roused and shook himself and looked at me pointedly, as if to say, Okay, let’s go. So I followed.

It was a fascinating experience to be walked by that dog. He took me on a long circuit which obviously hit some of his favorite haunts, but also seemed to be courteously moderating his route and pace for my sake. When we reached the big tarred road that I had never crossed without holding one of my parents’ hands, he actually looked left, then right, then left again before he stepped off the kerb, with me following obediently behind him.  Eventually we doubled back down a desolate country lane and into a dry streambed, or perhaps an abandoned quarry, which some people seem to have used as a dump. My companion nosed around for a while, sniffing at an old boot, but politely aware that I might not share his interests.  So after some time we strolled out of the dump and he delivered me safely back home by another path, one I had never taken before, and perhaps one that was unknown to humans. We never went on a walk together again, and I never told my parents about it, but it was an afternoon I will never forget.

Come to think of it, our time in Greece was like one long summer afternoon. Hearing of the economic crisis there now, and the spirited response of the Greek people, who, celebrated Oxi (or No) Day every year to commemorate their rejection of Mussolini and Fascism, I wish them well, and a return someday to those golden times a half-century ago that they shared so freely with foreigners like us.

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