Geneva Diaries #5

Indiana Jones, Inspector Clouseau, Nadir Shah, Tavernier- The Eternal Quest for the Kohinoor


Dear Roger,

It’s bubbling up and bursting out to rival the jet d’eau, tell me how u like it?

Jet d’Eau Geneva at Nighttime:

Jet d’Eau Geneva Photo by Purnima Viswanathan

I wish to persuade you that my life has not always been a dead end, and I am not a complete bore!

A sad, ironic, ridiculous tale of love and adventure: 

The last time I spoke to my beloved froggie (btw, kermit now resides in NYC), he said I reminded him of Inspector Clouseau running around Paris in my trench coat.This took a lot of swallowing, and I begged in my mind that he would say it really was sexxxy Olga that he was referring to, But NO. Imagine having a crush on a guy who (fondly?) compares you to a fumbling, bumbling, bushy eyebrowed detective who is always in hot pursuit of the Pink Panther. I found myself looking in the mirror numerous times and still not able to quite grasp his image (despite giving up waxing, there was no bushy mustache and eyebrows to match). See me as Peter Sellers being chased by assassins in The Pink Panther below:

But, as time passes I find in his description lies an uncanny prophecy, in some sense i find I have become inspector Clouseau. And The Pink Panther Strikes Again! I find myself continuously running being chased by a number of assassins from all over the world, who keep eyeballing me as they jog around the track in Park Betrand, waiting for their opportunity to strike. Of course, fortunately for me,I am Chief Inspector Clouseau, so they extinguish each other and I am left alone in my pursuit of the Pink Panther, the Kohinoor diamond. See Inspector Clouseau and The diamond below:

Well, since froggie so lovingly called me inspector Clouseau, and we both accepted this upside down world. I asked him in turn why the gods had sent Menaka in this form to distract me. See below the tale of Menaka the nymph of irresistible charm and exquisite beauty sent by the gods (of the Hindu Pantheon) to distract the great sage Vishwamitra from his meditations (I embody the great sage Vishwamitra as I descend from this great King turned sage from my grandmother’s side- Kowshiki). In our mythology, whenever an old brahmin/learned pundit  goes into deep meditation stirring up the cosmos acquiring immense power and energy and thus the weapons of the gods, the gods get alarmed by this disruption of the balance of the universe(the balance has to be inclined in their favor of course), and send forth such distractions in the form of demons and nymphs to get the sages to put an end to their meditations. And BOY was I distracted! See below the Tale of Menaka and Vishwamitra incorporated in the art, literature and spirit of the Indian Subcontinent:

And once Vishwamitra is awakened the story naturally proceeds to give birth to Shakuntala the melodious and magnificent love story written in Sanskrit by Indian epic poet Kalidasa in the 4th century AD. See below my canvas for the modern day Shakuntala as I borrow the paint brush from the hands of India’s celebrated artist Raja Ravi Verma who through his art vividly evokes and immortalizes the magical images of ancient India literature:

See below Raja Ravi Verma’s iconic works of art depicting Menaka and Vishwamitra and Shakuntala:

Famous Paintings by Raja Ravi Verma:

See below my modern day rendition of the iconic image of Shakuntala holding out her hand with the ring of recognition, an image like the above by Raja Ravi Verma surrounded by magical backwaters and swaying palms of Kerala:

Shakuntala’s Ring – Photo by Purnima Viswanathan

Raja Ravi Verma’s Shakuntala below:

Since then I have fully embraced this role and added a couple of others to the mix (Indiana Jones, Tintin in Tibet, why is it that the boys always get the fun adventurous roles!), and continued my hunt for the Kohinoor. This magnificent stone has a complex and bloody history as it has changed hands, seen coups and invasions, imprisonments and assassinations by those that have beheld it (not only by those that have possessed it). My tryst with the Kohinoor occurred many a moon ago as The Jeweler to The Maharajas (and the narrator of my tale) ominously whispered into my ear on my wedding day that I should realize I was being bestowed The Kohinoor. See below NYT article on the book The Koh-i-Noor by William Dalrymple which depicts the tragic consequences of ones who entranced by its aura are driven in a frenzy to possess it:

It’s first mention was supposedly in the Baburnama, the memoirs of the great Mughal ruler Babur. However, it had yet to acquire its name Kohinoor (mountain of light) and so was mentioned as a large magnificent diamond in the Mughal treasury. There was another diamond called the Great Mogul, the largest known diamond, which was supposed to be 900 carats in the rough, the size of a hens egg in half, which was also a part of the Mughal treasury. The last detailed account of which was given by Jean Baptiste Tavernier in his six voyages, where he was invited to view the precious gems of the Mughal treasury during his visit to Aurangzeb’s court in 1665. We have since never heard of the Great Mogul diamond

There have been various speculations regarding this magnificent stone: the primary one being that it was taken by Nadir Shah during his invasion of India in 1738 along with the Kohinoor (which he named) and the famous peacock throne. The second speculation is that the Great Mogul was probably cut down to make the Kohinoor diamond and others, as we don’t have any concrete information about the Kohinoor’s origins and no information about the Great Moguls endings. Finally, some have speculated that it journeyed all the way to Russia, and sits in the Kremlin as the Orloff diamond (I certainly have my next destination mapped out for me, mustache and eyebrows in tow!).   See Nadir Shah by fandom below:āder_Shāh

So here I am in Geneva, in hot pursuit of Tavernier who ended up purchasing the Barony of Aubonne (just outside Geneva in the canton of Vaud!). This incredible traveller (sixty thousand leagues overland), not only travelled far and wide in search of the treasures of the world. He was the greatest authority on gems in that time and wrote details of the glorious gems, gold, pearls, indigo, pepper that was to be found in the exotic shores of India. He was one of the people responsible for spinning the story of India in vivid hues that  propelled the journeys to India in pursuit of these very treasures. His description of diamonds the size of Hens eggs, enormous pearls that hang from peacock tails, richly colored silks heavy with gold thread and of course his famous description of the peacock throne as (see the wiki description below):

A 4ft by 6ft (takht)bed with gold feet, distinguished by a peacock, whose outspread tail was made of blue sapphires and other colored gems, and whose body was of enameled gold studded with precious stones, and with a large ruby in front, whence hung a pear-shaped pearl, about 50 carats in weight, or 200 grains. On either side of the peacock, and at about the same height, there stood two bouquets, the flowers of which were of enameled gold and precious stones. See below The Peacock Throne:

 Tavernier goes on to say that, “on the side of the throne facing the Court, there is an open-set jewel, whence hangs a diamond from 80 to 90 carats in weight, and surrounded by rubies and emeralds, and when the king is seated he has this jewel right in front of him.” 

With descriptions such as the above, do you not think that the Spanish (and the other European wealthy states with colonial aspirations) would fund Columbus’s proposed voyage to India as he promises to return with cargo laden with diamonds the size of hen’s eggs and immeasurable gold. Now Zinn’s A Peoples History of the United States seems a step closer to reality, as I can envision how the natives must have been beaten and bled to extract their  pound of gold. Where were the silks, the indigo, the pepper, how could they return empty handed home! All I can say is that we (in India) certainly “Started the fire…” and you landed America.

Back to Indiana Jones, Clouseau, The Pink Panther! It’s been told that the Kohinoor which found its way from Maharaja Ranjit Singh (A long journey from Nadir Shah, but all in the same neck of the woods), to queen Victoria and now it rests (no sits, how can the pink panther ever rest) in the tower of London embedded in a crown. So, I went to visit the Tower of London to see for myself…AND it was nooooot there! No buddy, it was not the pink panther. I know i will know it when I see it (after all I am the chief inspector!). So here I am in Geneva, in hot pursuit of Tavernier and his whereabouts. I thought I saw him, I thought I found him, our eyes met…but these bushy eyebrows got in the way and he was gone.

Roger, as you know, I have spent the summer in Geneva endlessly walking the dog (with the 22 assassins in hot pursuit), and entertaining the kids by taking them to the Geneva summer festival and museums. I was exhausted and we were all museum-ed out, when Tara, my 9 year old suggested that we visit the Museum of Natural History. “OK, well here I go again, another long day”, I though. So we trooped to the museum and wandered around, re-looking at the turtle with two heads for the nth time and trying to transcribe (fabricate/use creative license for) all the French headings. It was in this tired, bored and delirious state, wanting to break out of the “mommy” mould and make some mischief when we stumbled upon a long dark room filled with rocks and minerals. There it lay, proudly perched on its pedestal: the Pink Panther and the great Mogul, the gems of India! They were two, not one diamond as everyone had long speculated. There they lay bathed in soft unassuming light cradled in the  “regular” display cabinet. So this is where Tavernier had brought them and placed them, posing as replicas only to be discovered by the sharp scrutinizing eye of the chief inspector Clouseau himself.  What better surroundings, may they Rest In Peace!

See below the kids all time fav – Musee D’Histoire Naturelle de Suisse:

See you soon.


On Thu, Sep 24, 2009 , Roger Stevenson wrote:

Dear Purnima,

I’m feeling a bit less hassled tonight.  I’m glad the weekend is approaching.

I’m happy to hear that you are having a really positive experience at your Ecole Migros, and that’s a really fascinating question you ask about having some « preprogrammed » innate ability to learn French.  I’m sure most of it is your inherent and wonderful intelligence, but I can’t help but agree somewhat with Chomsky that human beings are genetically programmed to use and produce intelligible language.  There are many species in nature, however, who communicate with audible sounds – perhaps it’s just a different kind of language that we humans can’t understand.  On the other hand, I don’t believe that we have some innate ability to acquire a specific language.  While there is still much we don’t fully understand about first language acquisition, it is pretty widely accepted that an infant child learns his or her mother tongue by being exposed to it over a space of time and that he or she begins to produce utterances in that language spontaneously once the initial process of aural comprehension has progressed far enough.  The mother tongue that is acquired is, of necessity, the language the child is exposed to.  I don’t know of any case where a child born into a particular linguistic community comes away from the process speaking a language that is different from that of the community.

I had a student in Oregon who was born in Korea but adopted at the age of just a few months by an American family and raised in the US.  She told me that when her mother would take her downtown when she was just a baby, she had several people ask when the baby was going to begin speaking Korean !  They apparently believed that she was genetically wired to speak the language of her biological parents.  That, of course, wasn’t the case, and she is totally anglophone and speaks no Korean at all.

While I have no scientific evidence to back this up, I do feel that a second, acquired language resides in a slightly different part of the brain than the mother tongue.  Whenever I go back to Denmark for more than a few days, I find myself almost totally thinking in Danish again.  It is rather easy for me to translate orally from Danish to English and visa versa, or from French to English, but I have a really difficult time going back and forth between French and Danish.  In fact, I can remember one Christmas we spent in Denmark and I was really blown away by the fact that when I would attempt to explain things to Annick in French, I would often, in fact, do it in Danish and not be aware that I was speaking Danish rather than French.  It was really weird.  It is as though both my Danish and my French are stored in the same lobe and are somewhat conflictual.

Chomsky had a major impact on linguistics in the States and was somewhat at odds with Saussure, but we can discuss that later.  My more recent interest in Chomsky is as a political activist and analyst of underlying patterns and motifs in the political discourse of not just the United States, but throughout the world.  He is an amazing thinker.  I heard him speak at the University of Geneva four or five years ago to a standing room only crowd.  He was also interviewed for the book we did on the United Nations and I transcribed the interview for Annick so she could have access to the actual text of the interview.  He was brutally frank about the negative consequences of the United States’ position of influence in the UN.  By the way, the book, « Planet UN » was released in France yesterday and the English translation in the States.  It still isn’t out in Geneva yet, however.  I checked out a copy of it at FNAC in Lyon yesterday afternoon.

Annick is whisking me off to Bucharest and Brasov, Romania on Saturday as a birthday present.  I’m really looking forward to the trip.  I have always wanted to visit Romania, but have never had the chance.  We return on the 1st.

What time is your BD party on the third ?  Can we bring anything ?

More in a day or two from Transylvania.  What do you think, should I go visit Dracula’s castle ?  It’s right near Brasov.

Sweet dreams,


De : purnima

Envoyé : mercredi 23 septembre 2009 16:51

À : Roger Stevenson

Objet : Ecole Migros!

Dear Roger,

It seems like forever since I last connected with you, well as I was surfing last night with Darwin (until you find me some men with a pulse for a change to spend my evenings with) on this special 200th anniversary of his birth,  guess who flickered on my screen…Chomsky, and of course he promptly directed me right  to you. 

As you know, I have been attending french classes at Ecole Migros, and have found to my amazement that just with our three months together which was my introduction to the French language, I am able to follow perfectly almost to the point that I am unable to discern whether I am hearing the instructors voice in English or in French! Yes, if I drift off which I often do, I am not able to hear anything at all. So, my question is: was it you that worked the magic wand or was there some pre-programmed “innate” ability to acquire the French language in me. This of course brought my straight to my one and only long term relationship, my devotion to Darwin and I surfed Darwin and the evolution of language. Well, as I am sure you know if there have been any challenges thrown to Darwins theory of evolution, the acquisition of language (which is unique to our species) is one of them. This is tough terrain, and he had to respond and defend his theories, without the large reservoir of knowledge on genetics and linguistics that we have today. He acknowledged that language was not itself instinctive but like birds who have an instinct to call/sing, but the song itself has to be learnt; similarly humans have an instinct to acquire language, even though the language itself has to be learned.   

In my trying to understand Darwin, I repeatedly encountered your friend Chomsky (and you will have to shed more light/correct me), who I believe says that humans are hardwired for speech and what is learned cannot account for it all. Is language a biologically determined, do we somewhere have a map an imprint in our brains which we just “re-learn”? 

Well, the most exciting part of my journey down this road was the many familiar places I visited, California, Geneva and India. Apparently, Chomsky defers to Panini, the 4th century BC, great Indian Sanskrit grammarian from Gandhara who stands at the beginning of the history of linguistics itself(see how all roads lead to India)! Not much is known about him apart from references in the Panchatantra (wonderful Indian folk tales about animals, the precursor to Aesops Fables) and Hieun Tsang, the Chinese buddhist monk and traveller.

Then I stumbled upon Jean Piaget, the the Swiss psychologist and natural scientist (who created the school of sciences at the University of Geneva) and his great debate with Chomsky (how I wish we could see that on u-tube in satire!). Chomsky’s position being that the most important properties of mind are innate and Piaget position being that scientific knowledge is constructed by scientist and not discovered from the world, the only reality we can know is that represented by human thought. Well, that’s not all, Piaget has had so much impact on the field of computer science  we can connect him all the way home on the other side of the planet at R&D at Xerox in Palo Alto, California!

Finally, from Panini and Sanskrit, I went straight (back) to Saussure, Swiss linguist born in Geneva in 1857, known as the father of modern linguistics where he studied Sanskrit, latin and Greek and taught Sanskrit at the University of Geneva!  All these personas excite me today even though I had them peering at me from the bookshelves at home. As the elders of my family (symbolically)invited Max Muller into our living room and talked about the interconnectedness of Latin , Greek and Sanskrit…I was eternally absorbed with brushing my long brown hair!

See below Purnima with Saussure in Chamonix:

Purnima with Saussure in Chamonix- Photo by Purnima Viswanathan

Back to Ecole Migros and this uncanny comprehension of French…what do you think?

Well, Roger, I must tell you I am having fun and I seem to have a group of people from all across the world: Panama, Finland (I think I have met half the four million Finns in Geneva!), England, Russia!  And guess what they all have in common, they have all been taught a second language from primary school! 

I was sharing with them my absolute belief that the children must be introduced to a second language right from primary school, and how the public school system in California did not provide for that( despite the fact that half the population is probably Spanish speaking anyway). So, I put Tara who was 7, into an after school Spanish class as we had decided that California was home and that was going to be the most useful language which unfortunately turned out to be basic daycare. I would have chosen French as a second language for my kids, especially with all my grandmothers nagging in the background, but unfortunately I don’t think French has really permeated down into the popular culture of America, its preferred in certain circles, but do “the Teenagers” think its cool is the ultimate question. What do u think, would your kids have opted for French as a second language living in America?

Lots of love, see you soon…Darwin is calling!


Dear Purnima,

Wonderful to get your email.  I just now found it waiting for me after I returned home from a rather long day (eye doctor appointment in Lyon today, all–day trip to Beaune in Burgundy yesterday – really a neat little city that seems to cater exclusively to wine connoisseurs.  I feel like I am now immersed in a clutter of flotsam rather than simply floating on the surface.

Anyway, I’m dreadfully sorry for my prolonged silence. 

So, you’ve discovered linguistics, Chomsky and transformational grammar and Ferdinand Saussure – the two giants of modern linguistics.  Can’t wait to have a long discussion with you about it all, perhaps after we spend some time musing over the great liberating movements of the 1970’s as you flutter your dazzling eyes and gently stroke the flowers in your hair.

More tomorrow.  It’s late and I have another long day tomorrow.

Gros bisous,


P.S.  The get together on the 3rd sounds wonderful !  It will be a treat to meet your brother

Date: Mon, Sep 28, 2009 at 1:32 AM

Dear Purnima,

Busy day in a city that is both run down and modern.  Interesting to see the contrast between the luxury of some areas and the poverty in others.  But it is an interesting city and culture  Visited a wonderful museum of peasantry in Romania this morning and had our first experience with low level corruption with a ticket controleur on a bus. 

More details later.  Heading for Transylvania in morning.

Sorry you had a tough evening the other day.  It will be good when your brother arrives.



Disclaimer : P

All persons, places, events are fictitious; all imputed relationships purely aspirational. There were no men harmed during the penning of the Feminist Manifesto.

Purnima Viswanathan 

Published by Purrnima

Travel Writer - Art Blogger - CyberSmurf

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: