By Jacques Tocatlian.
Kama Sutra and Bollywood.
Around The World In Eighty Missions.
All the directors had been convened for a meeting with the Director-General in Conference Room N° 2. We were told about the financial situation, the necessary cuts in the on-going budget and the inevitable restrictions that had to be imposed on every program. You could sense nervousness pervading the room. When the Director-General spoke of the necessity to cut down on missions, the temperature of room N°2 rose by several degrees.
He began by saying that he fully understood the need to visit our projects in Member States in order to understand the reality of the field, to grasp the needs and requirements of those we try to serve, and to meet the people we co-operate with. “Our work is not an academic exercise,” he said “that we can perform sitting at our desks in Paris. We need to grasp the actual situation on the spot.”
That ‘pep-talk’ had a soothing effect on the audience. He had lulled us into a state of serenity so that we would swallow the pill that was to follow with resignation.
He said that from a budgetary viewpoint, we had to save 40% on missions. But in order not to jeopardize the implementation of the program we would combine missions. “If one of us is going to Antofagasta to deal with project ‘A’ it does not make sense for another one from some other division to go to Antofagasta to handle project ‘B’!”
He thought that, with a good briefing and some intelligent preparation, we could very well combine missions, even if our fields of interest, program responsibilities and professional profiles were different. He had set up an intersectoral committee, called the Mission Coordinating Committee, and empowered it to conduct such an over-all co-ordination.
No director in Room N° 2 believed in such interchangeability. Unesco, as a specialized Agency of the UN Family covered Education, Science, Culture and Communication. Within each of these four large Sectors, a great number of specialized programs was managed by several specialists in the respective disciplines. Even a contemporary Leonardo da Vinci could not possess the encyclopedic knowledge needed to fully grasp the intricacies of all and each of them. Even with a good briefing, one was still bound to remain at the level of generalities, when dealing with a field of competence different from one’s own. Remember Borobudur!
The decision had been taken and no argument would change it. The meeting was brought to an end, as the Director-General had to rush to the airport. He was going on mission to Zimbabwe…
On the way back to my office I stopped at the Library to consult a geography reference book to learn that Antofagasta was in Chile.
Two weeks later I found out that the Mission Coordinating Committee, in its great wisdom, had canceled my mission to the Ivory Coast and Ghana. My colleagues of the division would no longer go to Hungary, Qatar, Uruguay and Zambia. My mission to Sri Lanka was reduced to two days and combined with a much longer mission to India on behalf of two other divisions. As a result, we all wore a funeral-day expression.
We then spent endless frustrating hours preparing briefings, attending meeting after meeting, putting together special files and arguing on the phone. The Mission Coordinating Committee became, in no time, enemy number one !
My two-day mission in Sri Lanka was uneventful. I only remember seeing the airport, the hotel room and the conference room. I could have been in Antofagasta for that matter!
As the plane began its descent on New Delhi, I had a lump in my throat. India always raised apprehensions in me. As far as I knew, this country was relatively safe; I had nothing to fear, except for a notorious diarrhea. Mr. Boris Tikhonov, Director of the Unesco Office in New Delhi, was to be at the airport to stay with me until the departure of my connecting flight to Bombay, a couple of hours later. But for some reason, there was something in India that always stirred up anxiety deep in my soul.
I remembered my last visit to New Delhi a few years earlier. After the meeting, Mr. Boris Tikhonov had suggested that the office chauffeur drive me around for a quick city tour while the report on the meeting was being typed. After about an hour, I had asked the chauffeur to stop so that I could walk a little on my own. I had found the odor in the luxurious Mercedes nauseating. The driver smelled as if he had been marinated in curry and sprayed with a mixture of coriander, garlic, cardamom, saffron and cloves.
I had been walking for a while down Chandni Chowk Street, where all types of Indian handicrafts are sold, when I decided to take a turn into one of the narrow side streets. After two or three more turns I had found myself in a pandemonium. The cacophony was unbearable: loud-speakers at every corner howling music, street vendors shouting at the top of their voices, cars and trucks hooting and releasing clouds of carbon dioxide gas on motorcyclists behind them. Everywhere, blind beggars, children, cows, crippled old men, lottery vendors, rickshaws and hundreds of bicycles. The Busses slanting dangerously as they rode with clusters of human beings hanging from the windows. Just as in Cairo. In large Indian cities this harassing turmoil goes on from sunrise to sunset, and beyond…
But that was on my last visit, a few years earlier. Perhaps things had changed since then.
The landing was smooth and, as usual, New Delhi Airport was overcrowded and chaotic. Something like Chandni Chowk and neighboring streets, but without cows or buses. Everything else was there. In New Delhi Airport you usually have to find your way through an ocean of luggage, boxes, trunks and a promiscuous collection of people, including a number of young European tourists, sleeping on the ground.
When I saw Boris Tikhonov I sighed with relief as if I had taken a new lease on life ! “What a pleasure to see you again, Boris,” I said – and I meant it!
He helped me with the formalities for transferring my luggage to the connecting flight to Bombay, steered me through the crowds as an experienced navigator and led to the VIP lounge. Clean, quiet and cool. “ Oh! It feels like Paradise!” I said.
“You mean Nirvana, my friend,” he replied. “But to enter Nirvana, my dear Jacques, you have to cast out the three sources of evil: desire, hatred and error. Perhaps you have already driven out hatred and error. But for a young Frenchman like you desire must still be there ! Ha. Ha.”
“Well,” I said “ at fifty-two, I feel it is fading a little every day.”
Sipping a cold drink, we chatted and gossiped like two old Parisian concierges. Boris Tikhonov was a husky man in his fifties, with a wild beard and formidable eyebrows. He had a charming and warm personality and hypnotizing, dark eyes – reminiscent of Rasputin. With his basso-profundo voice he could probably sing Boris Godounov very well.
He pulled a list from his pocket and said he had three groups of questions regarding: a) my forthcoming meetings in Bombay and Bangalore, b) a number of Unesco projects in India, and c) the latest gossips from Headquarters.
We started with the latter , which he considered by far the most appetizing. He wanted confirmation of various rumors he had heard, wanted to know how the latest Executive Board session had gone off; asked about vacant posts, the Director General latest initiatives, budgetary cuts and other matters. When the ‘gossip list’ was exhausted, Rasputin looked satisfied.
Regarding my visits to Bombay and Bangalore, he had made the hotel reservations and had arranged to have someone meet me at the respective airports. We discussed both meetings and agreed that my role was easy, since I only had to deliver a speech at each of the two meetings, prepared by the respective divisions at Headquarters, and bring back to Paris the reports on the meetings and their recommendations. There was little more I could do since the subjects of these meetings were outside my direct responsibility and competence.
Boris said that he could not have attended those meetings in Bombay and Bangalore himself since he was involved at the time in a long series of discussions with Government representatives in New Delhi regarding future collaboration between India and Unesco.
The meetings In Bombay and Bangalore had been organized by Unesco in cooperation with the Indian authorities and were to be attended by a number of experts from different countries, mostly from the Asian region. The event in Bombay was an international seminar on the relationship between development and culture entitled, “Man : the Focal Point of All Development” and that in Bangalore was entitled “Expert Meeting on the Role of Women in the Education of Young People, Mutual Understanding and Respect of Human Rights.”
The third set of questions was difficult for me to cope with since it concerned all sorts of projects Unesco was carrying out in India. I took notes and promised Boris that I would convey messages to the respective divisions back at headquarters.
Fortunately, the boarding of the Bombay flight was announced, which put a welcome end to Boris’ questioning. I warmly thanked him and literally ran to the plane. He looked haggard, standing there in the middle of the hall with the unfinished questionnaire in his hand. His Rasputin look worn off.
At Bombay Airport I saw a sign on which was printed in large red characters, ‘J. Dupont.’ I introduced myself to the man holding it. He smiled and said he would drive me to the hotel. His decayed teeth made me think that he had never met a dentist in his life. He grabbed my bag and ran towards the car. He was in a great hurry because he had to go back and forth, all day, between the hotel and the airport to pick up participants.
His erratic driving was totally insane. I closed my eyes. If I ever survived the experience, I could brag that I had been driven by Michael Schumacher ! In an attempt to make him slow down, I tried to engage him in conversation. I inquired about the meeting, the participants and most particularly about Mr. Kulendran Gosh and Mr. Shyam Narayan, the Indian organizers. My driver did not seem to know anything. He kept saying that I was staying at one of the most beautiful palaces in the world : the Taj Mahal Hotel.
“But, Mr. Boris Tikhonov, Director of the Unesco Office in New Delhi, had mentioned a different hotel,” I kept repeating, to no avail. In zigzagging his way through the crowd he said, “No Sir, all participants are in the Taj Mahal. It is one of the three most beautiful hotels in the world, Sir, together with the famous Rambagh Palace of Jaipur, and the Lake Palace of Udaipur.”
I realized that I would never be able to afford the Taj Mahal out of my Unesco daily allowance. Unesco does not reimburse actual expenses but provides a fixed per diem for each country – which is certainly not meant for the Taj Mahals of this world.
Eventually we arrived. ‘Michael Schumacher’ dumped me in front of the Palace and drove back to the Airport. On entering the Hotel lobby I felt carried away in the magic of the tale of one thousand and one nights. I made my way through it in total amazement, like Alice in Wonderland. I had never seen anything so overwhelmingly ornate and luxurious. It was imposing and ostentatious. Why on earth did we need such grand setting to discuss problems related to development in the Third World!
At the reception I gave my name and received the key to my room. I was told that the hotel architect was French, but no one could tell me anything about Kulendran Gosh or Shym Narayan. “I presume, Sir, that they haven’t arrived,” I was told. I only found out that a reception was scheduled for the same evening and the meeting would only start the following day.
No working documents were available. I felt uneasy. I left my luggage in the room and joined a conducted tour of the city in order to keep my mind off the meeting.
Bombay is the economic and financial capital of India. A kind of Indian New York City. It encapsulates all the religions, ethnic groups and communities of India and concentrates all the wealth and activities of the various sections of its population, as well as their wildest hopes and impossible dreams.
Every single day, an average of 400 families arrive in Bombay looking for work! Out of the 15 million inhabitants, about 9 million live in slums – including some lawyers and doctors – and one million is quite literally on the streets. Bombay is prohibitively expensive. In a residential area an apartment costs 7000 US dollars per square meter. More expensive than the residential areas of Paris !
We visited the older city on Bombay Island, the harbor, the hills, a number of typical islands, the Victoria Railway terminus, the Museum, the Institute of Science, the famous Bombay film-making studios – known as ‘Bollywood’ – the Town Hall, and a large arch, known as the Gateway to India, built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. At the cricket club, tea was served by stylish waiters speaking the Queen’s English.
On the way back, the guide talked about the diversity of India. He quoted extensively from the book ‘The Discovery of India’ first published in 1946 by Jawaharlal Nehru. “The diversity of India is tremendous; it is obvious; it lies on the surface and anybody can see it. It concerns itself with physical appearances as well as with certain mental habits and traits. There is little in common, to outward seeming, between the Pathan of the North-West and the Tamil in the far South. Their racial stocks are not the same; they differ in face and figure, food and clothing, and, of course, language… Yet, with all these differences, there is no mistaking the impress of India on the Pathan, as this is obvious on the Tamil… All regions have their distinctive features, all of them have still more the distinguishing mark of India…”
The guide went on by saying that India, the largest democracy of the world, with its 950 million people was to become by the year 2030 the most populated country of the planet, with an estimated 1.5 billion. I conjured up for a moment New Delhi Airport and the large cities, like Bombay and Calcutta, as they would be then, and shivered at the prospect!
India is a mosaic of different cultures. More than 740 languages are spoken in the country. And to think that I have been struggling all my life with only French and English! Every year 300,000 scientists, engineers and technicians graduate from its universities and pour onto the job market. There are over 25 million divinities. At that point I wondered how a ‘Who is who’ of the 25 million divinities, compiled in the 740 languages of India would look like.
In spite of its computer specialists, nuclear energy researchers, space program and satellite engineers, India – the third scientific power of the world – has an estimated 300 million poverty-stricken people ! This was beyond me. I could not grasp the meaning nor the reasons behind the contrasts and contradictions. I was happy to be back at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Speaking of contrasts, next door to this magnificent Palace stood a man, behind a tree, answering a call of nature!
As I entered the lobby, I was invited to join the cocktail reception. I had not had time to change and, since I seemed to be late, I entered the reception lounge, dressed as I was. The hostess asked for my name and gave me a tag to pin on my jacket. Everyone could see now that I was ‘J. Dupont.’
A man was delivering a speech. He was saying that India with its 800 films per year was the largest world producer of films. A billion spectators go to movie houses every year. Bombay with its famous ‘Bollywood’, was proud to greet this international gathering. The speaker mentioned the great director Satyajit Ray and the ever popular movie star Naseerudin Shah. By now I knew I was in the wrong reception, the wrong meeting and the wrong hotel. I broke into a cold sweat.
I made my way back to the hotel reception desk and asked for the manager. He looked at my name tag and said, “Oh, Mr. Dupont, we have been looking for you all over the hotel. Another Mr. Dupont has tried to check in, but you had taken his room. We could not understand why. May we ask who you are ?”
I gathered whatever strength was left in me and said, “ I am Jacques Dupont from Unesco.” “Oh. well,” he said, “we were expecting Jerôme Dupont, not Jacques Dupont. You have his room.” I asked for a chair and sat down in total disbelief.
Fortunately Jerôme Dupont had a good sense of humor. This case of mistaken identities amused him. He belonged to the French movie-making industry and said he could use the incident to produce a good comedy. We had traveled on the same flight from New Delhi to Bombay but, having had some problem with his luggage, he had been delayed at the airport. In the meanwhile I had read the sign ‘J. Dupont’ and had taken his driver. He said that later on he had spotted at the airport door someone looking for a ‘Jacques Dupont’ but knew he was not concerned. “That is the problem” he concluded, “with such common names, as Dupont !”
He insisted in offering me a drink because he thought I looked very pale. We compared pedigrees and, having climbed our respective family trees to the top, we decided that we were not related. There are hundreds of thousands of ‘Dupont’ in France, just like the ‘Smiths’ in England or the ‘Ferraris’ in Italy.
Jerôme Dupont was happy to tell me about Bollywood – a word derived from Bombay and Hollywood. He had spent a couple of months in India and he seemed happy to be able to speak French with someone, for a change.
He said that there were two types of popular Indian film themes : crime or love. “The scenarios of the latter are unalterable and immutable,” he said. “ A beautiful young girl from a higher caste loves a handsome, but poor, young man. The parents of the girl have promised her to a rich, ugly old man. The young lovers run away. They are hounded all over the place. There are tears and songs. Many songs. An Indian movie is in general an excuse for showing lots of singing and dancing. After three and half hours of love dialogues, tears, songs and dances we approach the end. There are two classic options for ending the story. The tragic one: the girl is caught and commits suicide. The happy one: the parents forgive the girl and give their blessing to the wedding. After two or three more songs, believe it or not, the movie comes to an end.”
We had a good laugh and ordered another drink. He lowered his voice and whispered, “You know, the Indian film business is 50% controlled by organized crime. There are deep connections between the film industry and the underworld.” Pointing to the reception room he added, “There are many top mafia ‘dons’ in that reception, you know.” He explained that the film industry in India was estimated at several millions a year, but banks would not lend money and the government would not subsidize it. Consequently, the producers turn to black market money. Mafia-sponsored films are very often about gangsters and crimes. They like action and vulgarity.
“Let me tell you a funny incident,” he said. “It happened in Bangalore, which is also another important film-making center. The Hoodlums are no longer satisfied with sponsoring a film, now they want to shape it, change the script, and sometimes play in it. So, some real-life gangsters played their own part in a film. One day some off-duty policemen in Bangalore were astonished to see on the screen a dozen of the city’s most notorious criminals playing gangsters!”
I thanked Jerôme Dupont. After a few telephone calls, I handed in the key to my room and left my lavish Taj Mahal and its ‘Bollywood Festival’ for a more modest destination.
My own meeting had been going on since 9 o’clock in that morning. At noon, Mr. Kulendran Gosh had called Mr. Boris Tikhonov in New Delhi to tell him that I had not arrived. At that time I was probably peacefully visiting the Gateway of India. I felt so embarrassed that I could not tell the true story. If I had told the truth, no one would have believed it. Or had they believed it they would be convinced that I was utterly stupid. I kept saying, “I’ll tell you later,” hoping to be able to invent some credible and honorable story later on.
I turned down the invitation to the cocktail and went to my room. I had had enough drinks with the other Dupont. I took a couple of aspirins and modified my ‘opening’ speech that should have been read at the beginning of the session and tried to make it fit the theme of the discussion scheduled for the second day.
At eleven o’clock that night, Rasputin called from New Delhi. I told him that I had eaten something on the plane which did not agree with me and had taken refuge in the restrooms of the Taj Mahal Hotel, on the way from the airport to the meeting. “But the Taj Mahal is not on the way,” he said.
With every question he asked, my story became more and more entangled in contradictions and less and less plausible. I was slowly mired in the quick sands of falsehood. I eventually said, “I’ll explain everything when I see you next time,” and put an end to the conversation. At midnight I went to bed on an empty stomach, like millions of starving Indians.
Having gone to bed in one season I woke up in another. I watched from the window a frightening burst of driving rain. Fortunately the meeting room was in the same hotel, so we did not have to face the deluge.
The Chairman, Mr. Vikram Shah, opened the meeting on the subject “Man : The Focal Point of All Development ” by summarizing the salient points of the discussions of the previous day. He then greeted me, saying that he was sorry that I had met with some difficulties along the way. I thought I detected an ironic gleam in his eyes. Did he think I spent the day with a dancing girl ? He concluded by saying that he was very happy that I had been able to make it and invited me to address the meeting.
I first apologized for being late and immediately broached the subject. I first recalled that the concept of culture, which used to be restricted to works of art and literature, now included the spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a given society, including modes of life, value systems, traditions and beliefs. Culture is the very fabric of society and its basic strength.
I glanced to see if anyone was asleep and continued, “History shows that periods of cultural development have almost invariably accompanied or immediately preceded a spectacular development of the society.” I proceeded to show that the symbiosis between culture and development was illustrated in China under the Sung Dynasty, in the Near East between the 7th and 13th centuries A.D., in Mali in the 14th century A.D., in Europe at the Renaissance , as well as in the pre-Colombian America by the Maya and the Aztec civilizations.
I concluded by drawing attention to the fact that, when cultural aspects were ignored in development strategies, local creative capacities were stunted as well as the ability to block the unwanted intrusion of foreign cultural influences.
Mr. Vikram Shah invited comments and questions. The discussion that followed further expanded on some of the points made and the meeting proceeded quite well. The third day was spent discussing the meeting’s recommendations. By the time it ended, I was fully integrated into the group and completely at ease. I had almost forgotten the Taj Mahal and the Bollywood incident.
The farewell dinner took place in a local restaurant where we were invited to sample some of the regional Indian dishes. Typical dishes from northern India, the Penjab, are the most appreciated by foreigners. Dishes from the South are perhaps too spicy; those from Madras are made of dynamite.
That night we had ‘samosa’ – turnovers stuffed with meat and vegetables; ‘tikka’ – grilled brochettes of fish with basmati rice; ‘ghost biryani’ – basmati rice with marinated lamb chops, ‘raita’ – cucumber salad with yogurt; curries of meat with okra, peas and beans; ‘tandoori chicken’ with special ‘korma’ and ‘chutney’ sauces, ‘chapati ’ and ‘nans’ – Indian bread. Kulendran Gosh, Shyam Narayan and Vikram Shah entertained us with colorful stories about food in various regions of India. That was culture. We ate a great deal and our waistline expanded. That was development.
The rain had stopped. We walked to our hotel, our bulging stomachs protruding before us. Shortly after 10 p.m. I collapsed in bed and slept like the dead. An hour later I woke up with abdominal pain and an acid stomach. All the regions of India were feuding inside me. I took an Alka-Seltzer or two. The ‘samosa’ obviously made me bilious, the ‘tikka’ gave me the hiccups, the ‘raita’ acidified my stomach, the curries made me sea-sick and the ‘ghost biryani’ sent my bowels into an uproar. There was nothing to be done except to let nature take its course.
I was in the middle of my contortions, moaning like an elephant in labor, and swearing to become a vegetarian when the telephone rang. At first I thought that some neighbor was about to complain about the noise I was making, but it was good old Rasputin wanting to know how I was feeling. I told him. And when the storm was over I collapsed for the second time and slept like the dead.
In Bangalore, I arrived on time at the right hotel and at the right meeting. I liked Bangalore. At a slight altitude, it never suffers from torrid heat. Also known as the ‘Garden-City’ it displays large, shady boulevards and pleasant gardens and parks. Bangalore has cultivated a special way of life. In its numerous pubs, one can meet young, Indian engineers wearing Levis jeans, Nike T-shirts and Reebok sneakers. The music you hear is Bruce Springsteen’s.
This ‘Indian Silicone Valley’ is known for its Space research; large multinationals, such as IBM, Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard; ‘hi-tech’ industries, many research laboratories, and a first-rate army of software specialists. It has won a good portion of the customized software world market and creates software for Swissair, Nestlé, Morgan Bank, Samsung, and many others. Its world-renowned University – the Indian Institute of Technology, IIT, publishes every year over 1500 papers on fundamental research. The founder of this University, Jamsetji Tata, is the owner of some 😯 companies employing 300,000 people.
The hotel was on Brigade Road, the very ‘in’ street of Bangalore, with lively bars carrying names such as Black Cadillac and NASA. As I checked in I was told that I could not use the elevator for the time being since there was no electricity. “Power is cut three or four hours each day, Sir.” I asked how the industries could manage under such conditions and was told that they had their own power stations. When I tried to take a shower I realized that the use of water could also be problematic. These are some of the contradictions of an emerging great power in the Third World !
The leading Indian organizer of the Meeting was Mrs. Indira Bahtia. She was tall and lean as a stick and exhibited few features of the traditional Indian femininity. She was straightforward and abrupt like an army drill instructor and did not waste any time on useless civilities and compliments. She greeted me by remarking it was regrettable that Unesco was again represented by a man at a meeting concerning the role of women. I never forget this chilly welcome and the disturbing effect it had on me for the rest of the day!
As I entered the meeting room, I felt I was unwanted. For a moment I thought I had broken into the harem of a Maharajah. All the ladies present looked as if they would have a collective heart attack. While I searched for my seat, I was met by frosty, hostile looks, one or two timid smiles and many expressions of surprise. Was I the only man in the audience? Way in the back of the room, in the very left corner was a fat man who looked more like the Maharajah’s Eunuch. He soon disappeared.
I timidly sat down behind the ‘Unesco’ nameplate and looked at the main working document to see if anything indicated that this was a women-only meeting. I read the title over and over again. I guess that the role of women in ‘anything’ should be discussed by women only. At least this was how this group seemed to feel. I was an intruder !
Indira Bahtia chaired the meeting with vigor and determination. Each participant was first invited to dwell on the role of women in education, mutual understanding and human rights, in their respective countries or regions. From the national reports it became obvious that women did not play as important a role as they should. We all knew that before coming to Bangalore. Indira Bahtia asked why. The answer was unanimous: men everywhere prevented them from doing so.
Then came an avalanche of recommended solutions. From my point of view, some participants were reasonable, others were excessive. Only a couple were outright aggressive. One of them kept looking at me with open hostility, while referring to the injustice of men.
The chairwoman, with a stony glare, asked me, “What could Unesco do to assist women around the globe in playing their role in these areas ?”
In answer to the question, I spoke for some 15 uninterrupted minutes, staring at my paper and without ever raising my head to glance at any participant, least of all at the Chair. One of their resentful looks would have paralyzed me for good.
I started by an opening sentence that had not been written in the speech prepared for me. It was not the sort of elegant statement a Unesco representative usually makes. “Unesco is happy to have sponsored and paid for this meeting and for your respective participation. Our thanks to the Indian authorities for the organization of the meeting and to each of you for having accepted our invitation.” There was a dead silence. I did not raise my head but I could feel one or two hostile stares at me.
I then proceeded to explain Unesco’s work relating to the status of women which aimed at enhancing the participation of women in economic, social and cultural life. This enhanced participation touches every aspect of life. An indication of this concern could be found under almost every Unesco program. After a brief pause I improvised an additional remark, “And these numerous programs are, of course, handled by both men and women. We do not believe in discriminating between sexes…”
After a short pause, I proceeded to provide numerous examples of actions undertaken under each program. At the end of this endless – and certainly boring – litany, Indira Bahtia announced a tea break.
I was sipping my tea in a corner when one of the aggressive participants came to me with Indira Bahtia and with half a smile said, “Mr. Dupont, as a Frenchman you well know that it is Simone de Beauvoir who, in 1974, had underlined the need for women to assume full responsibility for an anti-sexist campaign. Even if some men, such as yourself, may be sympathetic to the feminist cause, there is a unique female sensitivity that has to remain at the very center of our struggle. Do you see what we mean ?”
“Well, I see your point,” I answered, “but it is my personal opinion that men are and, most probably, will remain in many decision-making positions for some time. They will continue to influence budgets, spending, hiring and policies. It would be smart to get them involved in your discussions and win them over to your cause, as partners and it would be counterproductive to keep them out. In any case, open antagonism, in my opinion, does not pay!”
I finished my cup of tea with a sense of satisfaction. Some of the inner tension had been released. But that was not the end of it. Indira Bahtia smiled and said, “Open antagonism may not pay, but at one point, Mr. Dupont, a gentle, civilized struggle for equality of rights may just not be enough. In some instances women will have to take up leadership . I see that you are smiling, Mr. Dupont. Listen to this…”
She went on to explain that among the apes, the gorilla males murder baby gorillas fathered by other males to free nursing mothers for breeding. Orangutans and chimpanzees wage bloody wars, kill and rape, making the higher male primates one of the worst criminal class of the animal kingdom. Latest research has found that, in the Bonobo species, peace is generally kept and transgressors are punished. “The reason for peace and order, Mr Dupont,” she said, “ is indeed very simple. Among the bonobos it is the females that rule and enforce the laws.”
I did not say any more. This was obviously a type of Bonobo meeting and I had better keep quiet. As the meeting proceeded, the tone softened, interventions seemed more moderate and proposals reasonable. Was it my own sensitivity that had changed? After a while, my mind wandered away from the meeting into the heart of the Bonobo jungle, with apes jumping all over the place. Indira must have wondered why I kept smiling. Eventually, the meeting ended. Much better than it had started – at least for me.
At the hotel I packed and settled the bill. I had a couple of hours to kill before the car was to come to take me to the airport. So I decided to go for a walk down Brigade Road and buy a gift for Brigitte. I always brought back a little gift from my various missions. Our apartment in Paris was filled with African masks, exotic knickknacks, paintings, curios and trivia from various parts of the world. Before leaving for a mission Brigitte used to say, “Have a nice trip, darling, and no more bric-a-brac, please.” But I could never resist buying a little something. Not of great value, but something to remind me of a special place, of a given culture, of a special moment. Walking around my apartment in Paris I can travel around the world, thanks to these chattels.
While I was strolling down Brigade Road, an elderly man approached me, started to talk in a friendly and dignified manner and walked along with me. Once we had established a rapport free of mistrust and suspicion, he asked if I had ever seen an old manuscript of the Kama Sutra and was I interested to see one.
“Well,” I said, “ I have very little time and I do not understand the language.” To that he replied, “The drawings you would understand. They are most explicit. You need not read the text. And if you have no time you can buy a copy to take with you and consult at your leisure. Would you like to browse at one, without any obligation to buy, of course?” After some hesitation I said “Why not !”
After spending three full days in a room with twenty-two aggressive women wanting to bring to ruin the overall domination of men, I was ready for some feminine, soft and erotic interlude. Within ten minutes we entered a sort of dilapidated, dark cabin. In a shabby back room, the old man displayed before me several dusty books in parchment paper. They were impressively beautiful.
As I turned page after page, he explained, “The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana is the oldest Indian erotic book available to us. Other erotic books existed before that, but never reached us. We cannot date the origin of the Kama Sutra, but we know for sure that it was written between the 4th and 8th centuries. It is prior to 74O A.D. when it is mentioned for the first time in another text and it is later than a 4th century erotic book, known as the ‘Arthasatra’ which inspired the Kama Sutra.”
I was listening with interest but my attention was mainly taken by some very intricate postures illustrated in the book. I could not imagine how on earth one could take up such elaborately convoluted positions. You would have to be an all-round athlete! I began laughing at the thought of some of the couples Brigitte and I knew attempting some of them.
With an incriminating look, the old man said, “ The Kama Sutra is not pornography but a book about the art of love. It is an open book for us. In the West you have transformed it into a book ‘for private circulation only.’ The erotic sculptures in our Hindu temples are visual translations of the descriptions and illustrations of the Kama Sutra.”
He proceeded to explain that it was written in seven books and that Europeans were mostly interested in book one and two, richly illustrated. The others have more texts and deal with selecting a spouse, marriage, the art of seduction, how to deal with several wives, advice for courtesans, etc. He explained that some of the text was subtle, some was naive, other parts were pedantic.
It was getting late. I looked at my watch and closed the volumes I was browsing. The old man told me the price of the parchment paper edition in front of me. I exclaimed: “Oh, là là… là là !” and told him that I did not have this kind of money and would not know where to put (or hide) the seven volumes in my house. He offered a simplified English version of the first two volumes. We bargained for a while and I eventually agreed. He said he would make a special gift wrap for my wife. He went into the other room and reappeared with a package, wrapped in a very fancy parchment paper. He said not to unwrap it before I got home, otherwise it would be bad luck. As a suspicious Frenchman I wondered if the old man had not substituted the Kama Sutra I had purchased for some worthless book. But I did not say anything, I thanked him and ran to the hotel. The car was already there to drive me to the airport.
On the Air India flight back to Europe I found myself amongst a jovial group of Italian tourists who had spent twenty-one days touring India. They were festive, witty and loud. Since sleeping was obviously out of the question, I decided to write my mission reports. The Italian lady next to me said that they had visited hundreds of temples and had eaten chicken for twenty-one consecutive days. She added that if she saw another temple or was served chicken for dinner she would scream. A temple was out of the question, but who could tell what was on the menu? A few minutes later dinner was served. She screamed.
I eventually arrived home. Happy to be back. I sat with my wife and daughter and talked for hours. I had some nice Bourgueil and a whole baguette with Pont-l’Evêque, Pithiviers au foin and Saint-Marcellin. I talked, with my mouth full, while Brigitte and Françoise brought me up to date on all major and minor events regarding school, the neighbors, the weather, political scandals, the President of the Republic, the concerts I had missed, the cleaning woman and the rising cost of living.
Françoise was very excited at the thought that Nancy would soon be coming to stay with us. “Who is Nancy ?” I asked. “Oh, Papa, you have forgotten !” said Françoise, in disappointment. Nancy was a girl from Boston who would be spending the summer with us on an exchange program. Françoise would go to Boston the following summer. Brigitte showed me how they had rearranged the furniture and prepared a special room for our American guest. Everyone was happy.
The following day I went to work, gave my mission reports for typing and tried to clear my desk and tend to the most urgent matters. Around four o’clock I was discussing with a colleague a project proposal we had received from the World Bank when the telephone rang. It was Brigitte in a great state of excitement. She had glanced at the Kama Sutra at home and had found it very intriguing, so she had taken it with her when she went out. “Brigitte, this is not exactly a sort of book to read on the bus!” I said. “Don’t be silly,” she answered “It was in my purse. The problem is that it is no longer there.” I asked my colleague to postpone the discussion on the World Bank project because I had an even more pressing matter to settle.
When my colleague had left I rang my wife back saying, “Where have you been ? For heaven’s sake, Brigitte, do you remember when and where you took the book out of your purse?”
She replied, “I went first to the dentist and I remember glancing at it in the waiting room. You know, dentists are always late. I then went to the butcher’s to pick up the veal cutlets for tonight. But I am sure that I did not read it there.” “Thank God!” I interrupted, “Finally,” she said, “I went to the hairdresser to have a hair cut and a blow-dry, but I cannot remember if I took it out there or not.”
I asked her if she had called the dentist or the hairdresser to find out. She choked at the question. “Are you out of your mind?” She did not want to be identified as the person reading such dissolute, libidinous books! She wanted to know why I had brought back such a licentious gift to start with ? Was there a hidden message for her in such a gift ? She now wondered what type of libertine I turned into when on missions.
I let the storm blow over and after a long silence I asked, “What do you intend to do ? Is there something I, myself, could do to help ?” She answered that she would simply have to find another dentist and another hairdresser. She was sorry because the hairdresser was very good and the dentist had not yet completed her bridge. “Don’t you have anything to say ?” she asked.
“ Well,” I replied, “ the good news is that we are going to keep the same butcher !”
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
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