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Friday, January 22, 2016

A Fine Bondage

"Did you hear about the children's book that was pulled from the shelves because it depicted happy smiling slaves?", my husband asked me the other day. I admitted that I had seen some headlines in passing, but not read any of the reports in depth.
Well, I read them today, particularly this report . The article raises a pertinent question: "Should we whitewash (pardon the expression) history in order to make it less scary for young children to read about it?"
By some accounts, Hercules, the 'chef' of the Washingtons' residence at Mt.Vernon, was accorded many privileges (we shall see more about this strange word further) that were unthinkable at the time. A couple of pages from G.W.P.Custis's memoirs (Martha Washington's son from her earlier marriage) refer to him as a sort of King of the Kitchen, as tyrannical with the kitchen help as he was a celebrated cook, a true 'artiste', as culinary masters were called in those days. Custis refers to Hercules as a sort of well-heeled dandy, meticulous about his clothes, and being allowed to walk around fashionably in the street, able to buy all that his permitted selling of 'slops from the kitchen'  to the tune of $100-200 annually, a considerable amount of money for anyone in those times.

The Wikipedia link of Hercules' story tells a starker tale, rather than the cheerful episode portrayed in the book of Hercules baking a cake with the assistance of his daughter Delia. The story by Ramin Ganeshram is a fictional episode, filled with the cutesy voice of a young child to appeal to the young reader, and colorful illustrations to boot.  Ganeshram has done her best to inject the little troubling details about the realities of Hercules' slavery in author's notes and such, but the small print  is not likely to get the reader's attention. The review of the book in Amazon.com couldn't have put it better:
"Gr 1–3—A troubling depiction of American slavery. In a famous Philadelphia kitchen, chef Hercules prepares to make the perfect birthday cake for his master, President George Washington. When he discovers that there is no more sugar in the pantry, Hercules scrambles to find a suitable substitute, enlisting the help of the other slaves and servants. Based on the real figure of Hercules, who was owned by the first president and served as his chef, the story is told through the eyes of Hercules's young daughter, Delia, who describes her papa as a "general in the kitchen." The text explains that Hercules was one of Washington's most trusted slaves and was given more freedom than most; he could be seen in fine clothes walking the streets of Philadelphia or enjoying tickets to the theater. The story revolves around Hercules, Delia, and the other slaves finding a replacement for the sugar and carefully baking the cake. Brantley-Newton's colorful, cartoon-style double-page illustrations, combined with the light tone of the text, convey a feeling of joyfulness that contrasts starkly with the reality of slave life. One spread depicts dancing feet and the hems of fancy dresses and shoes of the white revelers at the very top of the page. Hercules, Delia, and the other slaves are seen in the kitchen below, smiling with glee as they work on the cake, evoking a strangely cheerful and exuberant scene reminiscent of a Disney film. Later, when Washington congratulates Hercules on a job well done, Hercules responds, "An honor and a privilege, sir." Young readers without sufficient background knowledge about the larger context of American slavery may come away with a dangerously rosy impression of the relationship between slaves and slave owners, and those with a deeper understanding are likely to find this depiction offensive. An appended note explains that Hercules was a real person, now thought of by some culinary historians as "the first celebrity chef in America." Ganeshram states that Hercules eventually escaped but that his children, including narrator Delia, were owned by Martha Washington and remained enslaved their entire lives. The somber facts recounted in small print at the end of the author's note are unfortunately not reflected in either the text or the illustrations of the story that precedes them. Adding insult to injury, the back matter concludes with a recipe for "Martha Washington's Great Cake," courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. VERDICT A highly problematic work; not recommended.—Kiera Parrott, School Library Journal"
I was first inclined to think that the whole episode of 'banning the book' was much ado about nothing, but after looking through the images of the book and comparing it in my mind with the story drawn by the historical record on the Wikipedia page, I'm inclined to agree with the reviewer above.It is dangerously saccharine and simplistic in the way the characters are portrayed.
Real life for the slaves (or 'enslaved workers' as the tour guides prefer to use as description in the current house tours of Mt.Vernon, for some reason) was hard and/or worse. The constant reminders of the fact that they were owned body and soul by another human would not have made for genuine smiles of happiness. Occasional small joys and satisfactions of the daily grind could not have alleviated the very real lifelong unhappiness of 'being owned'. So the point being made by the story is pure fiction, even if it has a few historical characters and fine print detailing the historical realities.

Hercules lived a life of bondage, from start till the point when he ran away from the Washington estate in early 1797. A 'house slave' of some high status, when he was in his chef's heyday, but descending to the field labor in the winter of 1796, after his son Richmond was accused of stealing money from a white man and suspected by Washington of attempting to plot an escape. They were demoted, in a manner of speaking, to pounding stones, clearing weeds etc. (From Wiki link : "Historian Anna Coxe Toogood found Hercules and Richmond listed in the Mount Vernon farm records during the winter of 1796-97. They and other domestic servants were assigned as laborers, to pulverize stone, dig brick clay, and grub out honeysuckle.") 
 

From an article in the New York Times, the real story of George Washington's slaves was not romantic, and was immeasurably harder than all soft-brushed pseudo-historical attempts to reconstruct the period. Delia continued through her life as a slave owned by Martha Washington and her descendants. Hercules himself succeeded in running away on Washington's 65th birthday, and that was truly a day that Hercules would have celebrated becoming a free man in his mind and body, no longer bound to utter silly platitudes similar to the one in the story book about being 'honored and privileged' to bake a birthday cake for the president.

Update:
The author Ramin Ganeshram complaining about her book being 'banned'

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Global Warping

Not my term, but something I saw while wandering around on the internet. It seems very appropriate for the strange weather patterns we have been seeing.
Today, I stepped out for my morning walk in late December, wearing a light windbreaker jacket, in case of rain. A few minutes later, I gave up on the jacket, and took it off, tying it around the waist and rolling up the sleeves of my sweater. It was practically hot! 64 degrees F at this time of the year! Not unheard of.
I faintly remember going out in a T-shirt and jeans on a Christmas eve about 20 odd years ago, chasing after a toddler son who was wearing just a light newly-knit sweater and cap in addition to his usual sleeper. So the temperature may not have been unprecedented. What is strange however is that this stream of warmish spring-in-winter days have been going on for more than a few weeks.
The trees are confused- Fir trees sagging instead of standing tall and crisp in the snow that is more usual. Oak trees still wondering whether to finish dropping their leaves or not. Moss and lichens growing on the barks, making merry with the unexpected warmth and humidity. Hyacinth and daffodil bulbs deciding that their winter's sleep must be over and putting out cautious little shoots.
The roads are dead silent, no cars rushing about, it is still early Sunday morning. Only the crows hold argumentative congress on the trees "Is this global warming or not?", they cackle and heckle across the roads. A couple of robins and starlings settle on the tree branches, adding to a minor chorus counterpoint to the crows.
A fat-bottomed raccoon waddles unconcernedly across the road, and it must be really disoriented. It does not turn to look at me as I walk briskly towards it. It's following another raccoon that sped across to the large lawn nearby.
So much for local phenomena. In Trivandrum, I hear my mother talk of wearying daily rain, pouring off the newly installed "super-roof" with a steeper pitch to promote the roll off of water instead of stagnating on a flat-roofed terrace and seeping into the concrete. The repainting of the house is done, but it's taking forever to dry, an activity planned for when December was known for hot days and cool nights but instead has turned into rainy days and chillier nights.
Chennai reels under 100-year floods, the likes of which last occurred in 2005, but had less to lose at that time. Ten years of complacency led to rampant building in low-lying areas as builders saw their opportunity to cash in on the insatiable need for land and housing. Now several of those sparkling new homes sit in the middle of flood zones, while old paths for the water of the rivers are clogged with refuse. The heavy non-stop rains are unusual, but again not unprecedented.
Will these remain unusual or will they become the new norm? That remains to be seen, but call  it what you will, times are a-changing, and it's only the foolish who do not learn to adapt.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Tour de France - Part XV

Suji waited desolately at the bus stop outside the school. She didn't have a watch to tell her how long she had waited, but the school bag was beginning to weigh heavier on her back and the sun inched lower in the sky. Why didn't the bus come? Or for that matter, why didn't she see any other buses? Could it be one of the sudden strikes that the French workers were famous for?

"I don't want to stand here. Let me try to walk home, I'm sure I could reach home before it starts to get too dark." Suji turned determinedly down the road and started trotting briskly, following the footpath, past the route that she usually watched from the bus window. Luckily, it was all mostly downhill.

She reached a small maze of roads and made a wrong turn. Looking at the high facades a bit uncertainly, she darted into the tiny storefront with the  'Coiffeur' sign and asked the man there, "Does this road  go down to the bridge?" "Yes," he replied, reassuringly enough. She pressed on, the heavy bag no longer weighing her down, now that she was back on the right path homeward.

The underpass to the Pont de St.Cloud came by soon enough. Suji watched cautiously for a break in the traffic and scooted through the dark little tunnel as fast as her legs could carry her. She emerged triumphantly on the other side, making it just in time to the sidewalk before a few cars started coming through, and turned around to see a Pedestrians Prohibited sign behind her. Oops.

But the main hill was past. Suji waited patiently for the traffic lights at the intersection beyond the bridge, then crossing into the sidewalk of the large boulevard that led to one of the side roads where she would turn for home.  Just as she had almost reached the end of the boulevard, she saw Amma rushing up to meet her. "You walked! All that distance! I just found out about the sudden bus strike and was coming to try and get you from school."

And Suji continued happily home, holding tight to Amma's hands.

P.S. The distance was about 3.5 km and took about an hour to walk.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Walking thoughts

The other morning I stepped out before sunrise. The skies were covered with a blanket of clouds, so I was disappointed not to see the familiar constellations, the triangle of Venus-Mars-Jupiter blazing in the east. I looked up at the leaf-lorn tree tops, and then just for a fraction of a second, Venus opened her eye in the clouds and winked at me. A little later, Sirius followed with the same benediction.
As I approached home, a strange white light streaked the eastern sky. How odd! It ought to have been a yellow light, portending the sunrise. The moon was still too early in its waxing phase to produce that kind of a light. What might this light be? And even as I watched it, it faded away back to grey nothingness.

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This morning, I went out on the usual rounds. Not too many leaves remain on the trees, but the pear trees still show up with their greens barely starting to turn to red. The maples and oaks are done jettisoning their leaves, so colors have mostly turned from brown reds to brown and black. Except for the one tree that I saw, glittering with gems of red, orange and green, as the sunlight caught it exactly right. I was tempted to whip out my phone to capture the beauty of the moment. But the urge passed and I continued on my walk. The brightness of the sun hid behind a cloud, and the jewel-like beauty vanished.

I got home and opened up a page of Rumi who opines:
"Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don't claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent."

Wise words, and yet I infringe upon the advice, as I try to write of what I didn't feel like capturing in a photograph.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Parrot Saga - The End by Subha


Our pet parrot Sankaran despite living with me for 28 years,neither spoke intelligent words nor allowed anyone to touch him. But he was quite friendly and used to take food from our hands. I was so used to his voice I could easily make out what he wanted. It was like an infant whose mother could recognise its needs. I could understand what he was saying or feeling any time of the day. His happiness at talking with other birds and parrots who came and perched on the wire mesh in the work area was phenomenal, and he would flatly refuse even his favourite food if it was handed out to him when he conversed with them. He created such a racket. Our entire house would reverberate with his voice!

He was never sick, not even a single time during his lifetime and only four months ago did he show signs of ageing with a blister near his eye. Even then he was happy, angry and friendly as usual and did not show any signs of pain. He used to jump around seeing me. "Ki ki ki.." was his greeting the moment I entered my kitchen. I must give him a piece of coconut soon after I broke one. He loved Mysore pak, cake, mango and apples, hated rice, just like my younger daughter. He survived mostly on paddy, payaru (beans) and oranges which my husband used to give him every day

October 3, 2015 was like any other day. But not for him. He was fine till noon, eating his regular food, and walking back and forth on his wooden perch.
Around 2:30 pm, my maid saw him sitting on the lower perch, something that he never did for long intervals, coming down only to drink water. I could see him breathe with difficulty. I gave a piece of banana and pleaded with him to eat. He ate a tiny piece and looked at me sadly and intensely. Then  he climbed slowly to his usual perch on the high bar. By then it was 3:30 pm . I mixed some honey and water and gave it to him in a 'karandi ' (long spoon) . He hesitated a bit, and then drank most of it.

I checked him again around 5:30 p m when he was sitting and watching outside. I went for my evening walk and returned within 15 minutes as my mind was troubled. I spent sometime folding my clothes and then went to see him. To my shock, he was lying on the floor of the cage with his head in the upright position. He must have come down to the lower perch to lie on the floor of the cage. He must have left this world around 6 p m.

I was totally perturbed.

His earlier last look haunted me, as though he was trying to tell me " Thank you for everything, I am going to leave you today... "  I cried..... I later informed my daughters and the maid servants who took care of him during my absence.

It was a long night, raining cats and dogs throughout. I was waking up every hour. Next morning, on 4th October 2015, with a heavy heart I buried him in our yard and bade him farewell.

REST IN PEACE, MY DARLING!

Your bird friends, other parrots, my children and grandchildren will miss you too.

Note (Sujatha): 28 human years translate to about 112 parakeet years. So he was a truly old soul!