Chinese Wobblies

May 1 has evoked a mixed bag of emotions in our family for the longest time. Its a palimpsest; a layer cake. Yes, on the one hand there are all the celebrations embedded into the day. The pagan May Day celebrations (dating back to medieval European maypoles and the first day of summer) for one thing. And grafted onto that, the socialist International Workers of the World Day celebrations that began in Chicago (circa 1905) by the Wobblies, as they are affectionately known. And indeed, taking the two together, that is a lot to celebrate – Flower Power! The Power of Flowers! Flora, first day of summer, labor rights, the struggle for the 8-hour work day, industrial unions for the world, the Wobblies. What’s not to like about any of those? Who doesn’t love flowers? (and now that I study flora and botanical gardens, how can I stay away?). Who doesn’t love the Wobblies? Not to say anything about their strikingly beautiful (pun intended) Soviet-style poster iconography.

But the day also happens to be the anniversary of our mother’s death. She died many moons ago, in 1993, so there is now no pain, just old memories. But still, that instinctive twinge remains – in a residual, almost mineral way, deep in the bones – of the capacity of that one single day to bring both hope and so much tragedy at one stroke. I remember clearly where and how I heard the terrible news of her passing – sitting in the sun on the balcony writing my PhD comprehensive examinations after a celebratory May Day parade in DC. My then spouse (now ex) got ‘the call’ and was told to tell me. I then had to deliver the news to my sister over the phone, when I’d much rather have gone over and hugged her in broken grief. And silence. Ever since, the day itself has felt not just two-headed, but downright schizophrenic.  Noisy and loud. And while I’m the biggest fan of IWW and the Wobblies, the hard question became what on earth was there to celebrate on the day?

In recent years, my sister and I evolved a ritual to mark the day of loss and turn it – phoenix-like – into something new; to resurrect it somewhat. We would light a diya and string some flowers (mallis in India, roses in the US); eat a Chinese meal (typically at a greasy spoon our mother loved) – and only a Chinese meal would do as the ritual evolved! We’d go to flowering gardens (which she also loved). Then see a play (she adored theatre). And walk. And walk and walk and walk. She loved walking, but we were better at it. One memorable May Day in Chicago, after a full-on Cantonese dimsum lunch that made us waddle, we did so all the way to the Magnificent Mile area to see a lyrical production of A. K. Ramanujan’s A Flowering Tree: A Woman’s Tale.  I’ve always loved everything Ramanujan touched, his golden writing, his scholarship, his powerful 300 Ramayanas, his appeal for a critical oral history. But even among this august group, A Flowering Tree was a shining gem that spoke directly to us – two 40+ sister-daughters in Chicago missing our mother who had died suddenly, tragically, in a Bangalore ashram more than twenty years earlier.

Ramanujan’s delicate fable – translated from a Kannada folk tale – about an Urvashi-like woman turning into a tree in a forest (much like Daphne) was the basis for a woman-oriented story about love and longing. And this had been converted into a script by Wendy Doniger and other colleagues from the University of Chicago. The whole production felt like a posthumous love letter to Ramanujan. And to trees. And to redemption. We happily borrowed it for our own May Day-related loss. It was perfect, seemed tailor-made for us, for our mother – the flowers, Ramanujam’s gorgeous prose, the Indian mythological referents. And it gave us – in one sublime theater-going moment – the chance to transcend grief; the possibility that the day, that May Day as well as others to come, could look both ways. That our fortunes (as foretold by the cookies we’d devoured earlier at Chinese dimsum) could go backward and forward, spiraling downward and shooting upward, often simultaneously. That this seesawing, after all, was part of life. Was life.

All of this cut even deeper this May Day as I dealt with various family issues in Hyderabad – selling our mother’s old house, dealing with the sadness around leaving behind the flowers and trees that she (and we) loved. Ramanujan’s A Flowering Tree came to mind, as it often does when I’m feeling low about eco-loss. And then, an old Wobbly song. Solidarity Forever. As sung by Pete Seeger (who in fact my mother had introduced us to, having bought his LP when she was a student in the US in the late 1950s! But who, of course, I’d grown more familiar with during my time there, not least through my beloved Smithsonian Folkways.

I’d often heard (and sung) Solidarity Forever and the IWW Wobbly songs – and had even gotten myself the famous Little Red Songbook produced by the Wobblies. And I’d grown familiar and had a special fondness for those songs that dealt with throwing flowers at difficult circumstances – tanks, corporations, capitalism itself! But I’d never really paid close attention to why they were called the Wobblies. So imagine my delight when I learnt very recently how the name itself – Wobbly – had a possibly Chinese origin; how the Chinese element could be added on to our core May Day story.

From the Smithsonian Folkways site for I Will Win: Songs of the Wobblies, Joe Glazer writes:
“What’s a Wobbly? Legend has it that a Chinese cook in a railroad gang while proudly announcing that he was a member of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World—a union formed to organize all workers) was heard to say he was a member of the “I-Wobbly-Wobbly.” Despite their humorous nickname, the members of IWW experienced tremendous struggles which were often documented through song. Starting as a one-paged leaflet headed by the words: “”Sing and fight! Right was the tyrant king who said: ‘Beware of a movement that sings’” the IWW’s Little Red Song Book soon grew to include dozens of songs including Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever.”

A Chinese cook! A Chinese cook!  The Little Red Song Book! Of course. Of course. How had I not connected the dots. Chinese food had been amazingly on point for May Day. I was thrilled to learn about the Wobblies’ Chinese origins, even if there was no way to check if the story was accurate (and even though it was, after all, based on a possibly offensive accent joke!). But on the other hand, who knew about this little historical factoid or legend? Certainly I didn’t. Or hadn’t earlier. What a fabulous find for the day.

And so this May Day 2016, I mix it all up in our mother’s honor. A Chinese toast. A bouquet of flowers (peonies? mums?). A song about workers. And Indian-Chinese food. As I mark the occasion with a friend and cousin at a pan-Asian lunch in Hyderabad, I raise a glass of very Chinese jasmine tea. To life. To work. To a fair wage. To the Wobblies. Solidarity Forever. From an Indian fan of the Chinese workers on the American railroad … I Wobbly Wobbly too!

With Gayatri Reddy.

12 thoughts on “Chinese Wobblies

  1. I love this! How beautifully written. Also, the writer is able to take her sorrow and weave it into something luminescent. I really loved this one…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sita…oh! so! lovely!, not only the narrative, but the celebration your sister and you put together for your mother. She must be smiling somewhere in heaven when she sees her two little girls thinking of her in such a meaningful way. And of course the Wobblies…who knew?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sita
    You wrote so beautifully and I started living through old memories!
    It is so nice and you expressed it so well


  4. An eloquent tribute woven with memories, anecdotes, longings, grieving, is above all a touching salute to the dear departed.
    Premilla Rajan


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s