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135 Journals Theater Review: India Ink by Tom Stoppard

14 Sep

Krishna and Radha, together at last. Painting from the Brooklyn Museum (via Wikimedia Commons).

35 Journals Theater Review: India Ink by Tom Stoppard


Last night the Mr. and I continued what is becoming the preview of “See-a-play-for-his-birthday” month. And by preview I mean, this is not even his birthday month, and his birthday is at the end of THAT. A few weeks ago we saw a blah play whose name I cannot even remember, but last night’s production of India Ink at the Roundabout Theater in New York, New York, was indeed a gem, as are, in my opinion, all of Tom Stoppard’s plays. The first play I ever saw of his was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. My English teacher took a few of the biggest nerds (i.e; me and my best friends) to see a production of this amazing play, which combines Dadaism and Shakespeare to amazing effect. Thank you, Mr. Denver! That is just one of the ways that Mr. Paul Denver changed my life. But I will write more about that at a later time. The other plays I have seen by Tom Stoppard have been equally thought-provoking, not to mention incredibly well-researched. I have come away from them with much to think about, even when I found them at times, shall we say, discursive and undramatic in parts. Stoppard has enough confidence in his audience to 1. Assume that they are reasonably well-educated; 2. Give them enough information so that if they missed something, there has been enough discussion of the major issues so that by the time the person has left the play, he and she will know where to start digging for more; and 3. He actually does tell interesting stories in his plays.

India Ink is a story set in two different times: in 1930 when a glamorous poet named Flora Crewe comes to India “for her health”—despite the fact that India at that time and no doubt today were infamous to putting an end to one quickly. She rents a small villa and meets an artist named Nirad Das who wants to paint a portrait of the poet (as indeed, Modigliani had—NUDE!!!). Simultaneously, and overlappingly (if such is a word) it is also set in the 1980s, when a biographer named Eldon Pike is overcome with excitement as he reads the correspondence of and interviews Flora’s sister, Eleanor Swan. Soon, Eldon is ready for the fainting couch because it is rumored that there is a painting of Eleanor Swan by an Indian painter, once again, NUDE. Not nude as in “Damn, I don’t know what to wear.” Nude as in an allusion to the Hindi god Krishna’s married lover Radha, the most beautiful of the cowmaidens (Gopis, I think?) who would cluster around him. Radha waited naked in a house waiting for love. Basically, if Flora had been painted naked by an Indian artist at that time, it would be an even more scandalous breach of the times’ mores. Not that Flora would have cared. As her sister archly noted, “Flora used men like batteries. If one wore out, she’d plug in another one for energy.”

Much of the play is devoted to the mystery of seeing if the modern day Eldon and his Indian colleagues—and Nirad Das’s son—will find out the true story of this rumor and who the artist is if it exists. But along the way, one is exposed to a slice of history as rich as the Battenberg cakes and “sponge” that Mrs. Swan stuffs her guests with. It grapples with the coexisting cooperation unrest between Hindus and Muslims that existed at that time, Gandhi’s salt march, the fact that more and more Indians were being invited to join the government, but not the clubs, the ways that the English considered that their great contribution was making India “governable” (although it points to ways that it did not—for example, there were parts of India, notably Rajasthan, that were controlled by princely states rather than the British themselves–) and the idea that what ruined the British/Indian system was when the Suez Canal opened and “Memsahibs”—British ladies—could join their husbands, so the husbands were no longer forced to deal with the local population for their, um, family needs. One fairly sympathetic British character is amazed that the Indians don’t rise up and slaughter the English. The intensely Anglophilic nature of certain aspects of Indian culture is mentioned repeatedly, with affection, bemusement, and dismay. If one knew nothing about India, one would absorb a lot quite painlessly, following the story of the free-spirited Flora. But it is absolute catnip for those who find India, its art, history, theology, and intensely atmospheric way of being itself (which means being a million different things as well as being one things—somewhat like the Hindu gods) endlessly intriguing. As my husband teaches Asian literature and I have not only edited several thick books on India but have had the good fortune to have a number of Indian friends, this was like a parade of hits. We even have a beautiful painting of Radha being courted by Krishna in a clearing in our living room.

One thing that I found interesting, frustrating, fair, brave, and/or annoying (can’t decide) was Stoppard’s choice to write this story—his take on India, basically—from the perspective of /or a story about a white woman. Naturally, it harkens back to (and even refers to) Forster’s A Passage to India (at least in part). It was an interesting choice to write from an English woman’s perspective rather than an Indian one. But then again, in this modern era, when there are so many famous and talented Indian writers who can tell their own stories, it seems less bothersome to let Stoppard choose the story that calls to him. Especially because, as the husband says, I wish I could have read the script over—it was so rich, and it didn’t have that “forced” quality many plays have—four people are waiting in the room waiting to find out who the murderer is or whatever.”

So, will the flutey, flirty, frail Flora be, um, united in a very special relationship with India? As I think I said at the end of every book report I wrote, “You’ll just have to wait and see for yourself.”
In the meantime, four thumbs up from the two of us!

Writing Prompt: When you think of India, what images, tastes, bits of history, and more come to mind?

135 Journals Art Corner: My First MultiMedia Art Journal. Part 1

19 Aug


Caption: Random page from Alexandra’s Art Journal, using collage, paint, yarn, glitter, and way too much Mod Podge. There is actually a picture of a girl with a caption that says, “It Stays With You,” and I hoped it would get across the idea of wonder. But it actually got across the idea of Shiny.

“Will your hands EVER be a normal color again?” Mr. Me asks as I use my fingers smush watercolor paint around the borders of a great classic formerly known as College Physics, circa 1957, that I found in a free book pile at a church in Montclair, NJ. (Now it is known as College Physics As Improved By Being Alexandra’s First Art Journal). No, I am not going to tell you EXACTLY what church because first, I forget its name, and second, I don’t want anyone else getting any big ideas in case another classic of this sort gets tossed out again. This book is amazing because it is written so beautifully and in such a measured way. As it so happens, I am very interested in physics. Not in the math equations—oh snore—but the big ideas. This book was published in 1957, the same year I was gestating in my mother’s womb. It was an amazing moment in science. On October 4 of that year, I, or rather, my mother’s Baby Bump, got a new nickname. That nickname was Sputnik. The small metal globe with its spikey antennae, a device that actually orbited the earth, sending signals back. What would that mean? It meant many things over the years, but the first thing it meant was that the Soviet Union had a message for the United States: Wake. Up. Something new was about to happen. And there I was, floating in utero just as Sputnik was floating in space. So I feel a deep kinship with Sputnik and all the scientific wonders that have flowered from that moment.


Now, you may wonder, why are YOU so interested in physics, Miss Alexandra? I do believe that you got a “Mercy D” in physics, and that you were taking physics at that snotty age when you thought you were above it all, and that science and math were like, all meaningless and shallow and dorky, while you were all art and poetry and bohemian magic (and scraping through high school with more than one Mercy D and Well Deserved F to show for it—I DID perk up in college, but that’s another story). Well, as I may or may not have mentioned, I have spent most of my long career writing for children. Some people think that is an easy job—just as somehow they think preschool teachers are actually preschoolers, and that they are more concerned with naps and playing at the sand table than in the development of young children and their awareness. Well, let people think what they want. I am in no position to judge. But I have and always have had a profound respect for those who write for children and teens. Because books for kids change their lives. I promise I will write more on that subject. But I want to thank the writers of fiction and nonfiction who gave my hungry, sad young mind the good food it needed to grow, and I am trying to return the favor as an adult.


ANYWAY, as I said, I have worked in publishing for about 175 years, most of them in publishing for young people. The last full-time regular job I had was one that definitely fed my hungry adult mind—working as an editor putting together books using material from a famous encyclopaedia. It was a great job because I literally got a “encyclopaedic” knowledge of many different subjects that would not be natural for me to read. And one of them was physics.


Okay, I can see that this post is getting to be like a town with many interesting streets down which one could wander. Let me just take one path for now. Suffice it to say, I am in awe of this book and yet I am trying to treat it as roughly and experimentally as I can. I am ripping out random pages, gluing others together, making collages that may or may not come together and have meaning. I’m writing with markers, drawing with tempera, acrylic, watercolor, I’m gessoing pages white, I’m using homemade stamps, and I’m looking forward to seeing what becomes of this collaboration between the authors, Robert T. Beyer and A. O. Williams, Jr., both of Brown University, and my still airy bohemian but humbled, science-loving self.


Writing Prompt: Is there some subject you have respect for that you despised as a child or teen?

Japanese Atrocities During WW II, Part 3: The Horror of Unit 731

7 Aug



Shiro Ishii, head of Japan's notorious Unit 731

Shiro Ishii, Japan’s “Dr. Death,” who committed many atrocities during World War II


Of all the posts that I have written for this blog, the two most popular have been about Japanese atrocities during World War II. I wrote these posts to explain to a member of my book group why the Chinese had negative feelings toward the Japanese during the war. She was curious because we had just read the book At the Corner of Sweet and Sour, which is about a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl during that time in San Francisco.

If you live in the United States, as I do, it is easy to feel shame at the role Americans took in imprisoning thousands of innocent Japanese-American civilians and residents during the war in dusty, inhumane “camps” such as Manzanar. Many Americans feel shame at the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, claiming that unleashing nuclear power was unnecessary and that the war would have ended anyway. I do not share that opinion, but will debate it at a later time. However, the fact is that many innocent people were murdered by these bombs, either right at that moment or through radiation sickness. John Hershey’s Hiroshima and the story of Sadako and the thousand paper cranes helped to popularize the cruelty of the bombs. The behavior of the Japanese after the war—their willingness to put it behind them and become peaceable members of the world community—also helped to give them a good reputation. However, the resurgence of Japanese nationalism in recent months and Japan’s attitude toward the war, from the way it is presented in textbooks to its unwillingness to take responsibility for its actions, has, in my opinion, led Japan to become a nation lacking in the moral gravity that it should have. If it had followed the model of Germany, which has truly, deeply, and painfully struggled with its shame and its moral failings, it would be, frankly, a better country than it is now.

Today I will share just one of Japan’s more brutal war actions, the medical experiments carried on by the notorious Unit 731. This medical unit (along with others) experimented on prisoners of war, civilians, and others by infecting them with deadly diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and bubonic plague. They tested out weapons of biological warfare such as anthrax. And they committed vivisection—operating on live victims without anesthesia, removing organs or amputating limbs. Unit 731 was based in northeastern China, and was led by “mad scientist” Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii, who specialized in testing germs on prisoners and in dropping infected rats and fleas on Chinese villages. According to, “slightly less than 1,000 human autopsies apparently were carried out at Unit 731, most on victims exposed to aerosolized anthrax.”

But experiments took place in other occupied territories as well, and even at one Japanese university. The 2002 International Symposium on the Crimes of Bacteriological Warfare claims that the Japanese Army killed as many as 580,000 people through its use of human experimentation and germ warfare.

One of the few who was willing to speak out about Japan’s atrocities was a former soldier named Akira Makino. He was so ashamed that it took him ten years to marry the woman he loved, and even then, he never told her what happened. “According to an article in the Brunei Times, Makino, was so haunted by his experiences in the Philippines during the war that he could not speak about them until after his wife’s death. “It was cruel, too cruel to talk about it to a woman. My wife might have thought I was such a cruel person. That’s what was in my mind,” he said.

At the time, Makino was a beginning medic. He said his superior commanding doctor used prisoners to teach the medics about human anatomy. He said that “These were nothing but living-body experiments.” Makino said, “My captain combat-surgeon often showed us human intestines, and said this was the liver and that was that and so on” he added. Afterwards, the prisoners were thrown into pits they had been forced to dig themselves. Until his death in 2007, Makino spoke up and also went on at least ten trips to the Philippines to bring needed supplies to poor people in an attempt to apologize for what he had seen.

It could be argued that cruel and inhumane behavior such as Dr. Ishii’s should be punished in some way. Instead, Ishii and his medical team managed to bargain for their freedom f by sharing the information they learned about germ warfare for their experiments with the Allies. US microbiologist Dr. Edwin Hill wrote a report saying that the information was “absolutely invaluable”, that it “could never have been obtained in the United States because of scruples attached to experiments on humans”, and “the information was obtained fairly cheaply”.(BBC Horizon “Biology at War: A Plague in the Wind” (29 Oct. 1984).


Cheaply indeed.

Sources and resources:

Unit 731 – Nightmare in Manchuria (History Channel)

Biography: Shiro Ishii

Writing Prompt: If you can get valuable information in an unethical way, and the information is already available, is it worth the price of overlooking the atrocity of a few perpetrators?



July is Journaling Month Part 9. Jarts and Clackers: Department of Bad Ideas

14 Jul


As a mother of the 90s, I was full of terrors of having my children choking to death on—“Yeah, yeah, I know, Mom: the big three, hot dogs, balloons, and hard candy.” Or strangling themselves on the strings in their sweatshirts. Or—the world seemed FULL of life threatening objects just ready to attack my precious young ones.

But Moms were cooler when I was growing up in the time of legend, far back in the mists of time. One of the big fads was clackers. They were two hard plastic balls at the ends of a string and you were supposed to try to bang them together quickly. So they had the advantage of many toys of my childhood, which were that they were both loud enough to blow your eardrums out and dangerous enough to carve a hole in your skull. They could shatter, too, so you could be full of brightly colored shrapnel. I remember the near hysteria of our school as they banned these frightening monstrosities.

They couldn’t burn the house down, however. That was reserved for unattended Easy Bake ovens and Incredible Edibles. Yum, hot gooey candy worms! See, kids of today, we had to MAKE our own gummy worms, you have it so easy.

Like most parents of the day, Mom and Dad had their own special way of inviting danger into the home by cigarettes by falling asleep while smoking, so their blankets were full of burn marks and holes, and there were usually two or three cigarettes burning, unattended, in the house, like very unpleasant incense, in case a parent wandered by to smoke it. To (the children’s) everlasting credit, we did used to try to get our parents to quit by giving prissy lectures and sticking matches INTO the cigarettes so they would flare up when you lit them, and we’d make a lot of wheezing noises and complaints when it was winter and the wood-paneled station wagon’s  were fogged up with smoke, but Mom would say  “stop exaggerating” and lift her cigarette to her beautiful lipsticked lips in a glamorous manner. She’s the healthiest person I know—perhaps it’s sheer perversity that cigarettes have preserved her lungs.

Oh, and my brothers discovered that you don’t even need toys to have wholesome fun. A pack of matches and a can of aerosol hairspray can provide hours of amusement. But my parents did not stint on actual toys. Another favorite was Jarts. Which is short for “lawn darts.” (why the J? For Danger?) In the hands of my three wild brothers in their Sears Toughskin jeans, these heavy, sharp projectiles were hours of fun and terror. Nobody bothered to read the package about how you were supposed to throw the stupid things as far AWAY from each other as possible. Like at a target or something. Not at whoever was stupid enough to not know when to run.

Don’t ask me why, these bad, bad things are making me feel very happy to remember. Perhaps because I, like my beautiful and dangerous mother, am full of perversity.

Anyway, I found a list of the top ten banned toys. I just wish I could have grown up in the fifties so I could get the Atomic Energy Laboratory!

Writing Prompt 9: What did you do or play with when you were young that would be considered way too dangerous today?

July is Journaling Month #8: Make a Timeline

13 Jul

titanic disaster_Baltimore American_1912(1)

Journal 116, November 28, 2006 I am sitting in the kitchen listening tp the pops of mushrooms cooking in the black cast iron skillet). I have a warm, relaxed feeling, which means that this is another day of abnormally warm weather, because when it’s cold outside, I’m normally clenched up here inside, too. Yesterday I saw people putting out wooden candy cane decorations in their shorts! At 10:00 PM. This warmth, is welcoming, strange, comfortable, and unsettling all at the same time.

In the news this morning: The Iraq study group prepares to give its report. A pilot of a missing plane in Iraq is also missing. A home for the mentally handicapped burned down in Missouri. Wall Street had its biggest loss in four months. “They may have been buying in stores, but they’re selling ion Wall Street.” The writer Bebe Moore Campbell died at age 56 of brain cancer. Gas prices are starting to rise again. A big storm in Washington State dumped two feet of snow on the ground. Pope Benedict calls his visit to Turkey a chance for reconciliation. He was greeted by protesters . . .


I am sharing this journal excerpt from Volume 116 because it makes me remember events that happened not just in my head, but in the real world. Even though I spend an extraordinary time ruminating over this or that, sometimes a little bit of the real world sneaks in—a headline, an opinion, something. And I’m using my journal to fill in a new timeline that I’m making for myself.

Today’s challenge is to start a timeline, in your journal, or—maybe even better—on the computer, make a timeline. Just type down every year since you were born in boldface. Then, you can write things that happen to you in Roman type, things that happened in history in Italics. I’m sure there are much more creative ways of doing this, too, for the computer literate among us.This is not just a project for one day, but over time. Some of the kinds of details you can add is birthdates of siblings, the year you moved from one place to another, the dates you went out with someone else, where you got that dashing scar, jobs . . . it can be as detailed or as un-detailed as you want. I recently tried doing this exercise, and I find that I forget when many important things happen and what comes first. So that’s why I think it’s good to do on a computer, because you can always expand the amount of detail you add. It might encourage you to talk to family members and friends and ask THEM when a certain thing happened. Or to contact people you once knew through Facebook and ask, “Remember when .. .? “ Or to look through old photographs and letters. You can even use your resume as a reminder.

I am glad that SOMETIMES I remember to add in little details about what’s going on in the news. The headlines from a newspaper, the way you feel about the war in Afghanistan or a presidential election, even the weather, can bring back a sense of time and place when you read it in the future. In fact, I have been typing down parts of my old journals. I typed 50,000 words, but it barely scratched the surface. Still, what I did write sometimes mentioned historical events. Here are a few examples:

May 20, 1980, I had lunch with the woman who works behind union reception and it was really fun,. . . She told me about . . . this earthquake in Washington state that’s going on-she said it’s supposed to affect the world’s atmosphere for two years!). It said in the papers that there’s smoke rising for about twelve miles bove the earth-how AWFUL. And more and more people are being killed in boiling mud. Last night talking I said it made me uneasy that Mom told me that there hadn’t been any snow in Massachusetts this winter. Never in my life has there been no snow. Isn’t that odd? And Richard said it was strange, that it seems like more records could have been broken these past few years. One theory is sunspots, but they’re supposed to work in ten year cycles, once every ten years. They don’t know how they affect the earth’s atmosphere but they know it does. Another theory in something about nuclear testing, that scientists are doing something to the atmosphere, we can’t even imagine or begin to suspect. There seems to be something scary going on, something out of our hands, something we can’t even begin to imagine. And so we are too nervous to think about it and even prefer to think of other things, more immediate things. The trouble is, even though we know about all the people who were afraid of the world, and find them ludicrous, it is going to end sometimes. Just like people don’t get worried about the San Andreas fault and just like they didn’t worry about this Mount Saint Helens in Washington State, but it blew up on them all the same—and we look at that and think, aren’t those people foolish they didn’t know. But really, what could they possibly DO? Bitch about the milk bill, do all the things of daily living, that’s all. One neever knows where the danger is. Of all the levels of my thinking, why do I write about this, things of the wide world so little?”

Monday, September 15, 1980  Afraid I’ll be thirsty in class. Still very conscious of using water whenever I do. There’s still a terrible water shortage and the water though safe (I guess) doesn’t taste very good.


February 9, 1987 Monday  I’m on a van this morning as big puffy snowflakes come at the windshield. Today should be pretty awful. It only has snowed a few times this winter, but each time was so aggravating we are already sick of it. The van driver is listening to Lite FM. “And now from Mr. Romance, Julio Iglesias.”..” A man next to me reads the Times. “Crack Addiction: The Terrible Toll on Women and their Children,” is the article he’s reading. Are we STILL getting articles on crack, the most overrated social horror of 1986?


September 15, 1999  Tonight it is expected to get windier and windier.  a Hurricane aApproaches. It’s 10:45 and M. is still reading. I have to make him turn off his light—but I really feel for him. Oh, toughen up, mother!

I am between projects at work—Lee hasn’t decided on any stories I can work on. I did write a history of the Middle East Peace Process in 117 words.

August 19, 2003 There are still a lot of stories about the blackout. It was severe and intense, but it sounds as if people were quite civil, sleeping on the steps of the post office without being harassed, or having a party in Union Square all night long, with very little crime taking place. I heard a news report that there was more looting in Ottawa than there was in NYC! I was so proud to be of New York and New Yorkers. There is self-discipline here.

Writing Prompt #8: On the computer or in your journal. Start your outline now. And, as you keep writing, fill in more details in bullet points, both about yourself  and about what was happening this year. (You can use Roman type for yourself, Itals for history, or vice versa).

Is Evil Banal? Part 4

22 Jun

Polen, Ghetto Warschau, Ghettopolizei

Jewish police in the Warsaw Ghetto (From the German Federal Achives)

In the movie Hannah Arendt, one of the points she made that was most bitterly criticized was that there were Jews who were complicit in aiding the Holocaust. She said that maybe if there was less organization and more chaos, more Jewish lives could have been saved. Arendt wrote that: “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” Many Jews were furious with her, and accused her of betraying her people. Did she?

When Jews were forced into ghettos, the Nazis gave internal control of the ghettos to a Jewish councils, or Judenrat. Then they would slowly force the Judenrat to organize lists of names and assets, turn over certain numbers of people for transport, and otherwise aid in helping to keep the residents of the ghetto in line. Often they were led by rabbis and other prominent members of the community. In some cases, members of the Judenrat would be sincerely trying to help minimize the damage to their people, but in other cases, they engaged in extortion, favoritism, and actively helping the Nazis. Jewish “police” in the ghettos could be crueler than the Nazis, according to some accounts. But in the end, most ghettos were liquidated and the Judenrats right along them.

Questions: Is it right to blame the Judenrats for complying with the Nazis? Yes and no.

Why no? First, it is not fair to blame people for decisions they make when they have a gun held to their heads. It would be normal for the members of the Judenrat to try to use their position to try to outplay or at least slow down the destruction of their communities. Perhaps they could at least buy time. They didn’t know that behind every door was Death.

Second, The Nazis lied to them, and people tend to believe what others tell them. In the normal business of life, people say what they mean. It is sociopaths and psychopaths who say only what benefits themselves.

Third, Some may have felt they were doing the right thing. Indeed, in the Polish Ghetto uprising, a number of the uprising’s leaders came from the Judenrat.

Fourth, they had limited information. Part of it was because they were somewhat cut off from the world. Furthermore, they were, like all of us, cut off from the future. They couldn’t know what would happen for sure.

Fifth, they were hungry, sick, weak, fighting for scarce resources, and worse yet, so were their families. They had to deal with conflicting loyalties.

Sixth, Jews had been treated as subhuman since the early 1930s. This vicious treatment could undermine their self-respect.

Why Yes? Every time they turned over names, they were condemning their fellow Jews to some kind of horrible future.

Any Jew who acted cruelly to, stole from, or used his or her position to gain an advantage for himself in any way is guilty of his individual act. But there will always be people like that in any group. Add stress, fear, hunger, danger, and the constant message that you are a subhuman, and the foundations of human dignity will be worn away for many.

The real question is: Is it anti-Semitic to say that some Jews cooperated with Nazis? No. Because it’s a fact. Is it anti-Semitic to say that some Jews actively betrayed other Jews? No. Because under the circumstances, in a sociopathic system, that kind of self-serving behavior is normal. What’s a miracle is when it DOESN’T happen, when most people are still decent.

What’s NOT normal is what the Nazis did. Germany had been a relatively open and tolerant society where Jews had lived with freedom and opportunity for many years. The Nazis turned the dial of history backwards and became primitive beasts with modern technology. They were not banal—they were monstrous. And that’s what’s so hard to understand. The villainy of one person does not obligate his victim to become an angel. So the actions of the Judenrats  do not indict the Jewish people. The shame ultimately belongs to Nazi Germany.

Writing Prompt: Do you disagree? Do you think it is ant-Semitic to accuse Jews of aiding the Nazis?