Geneva Diaries #12

Big Macs – Geneva – Met Maya’s Dream , Tocqueville US Penitentiary System and Minors Kids Apps – Dire Straits


Dear Roger,

I have been yearning to write to you, but what do I write about this very grey, dull, uneventful week that “Flu”. Yes, multiple bouts for the kids and listless, unproductive, house arrest for me!

Unfortunately, this week that meant no more French classes for me. I had started to enjoy jumping up in the morning getting myself ready and organized bright and early, and scampering down through old town past Bourg de Four, where of course I paid my respects to Servetus, past the Palais de Justice, across the charming cobbled streets of Vielle Ville, often late for class and to the ringing of bells of the Cathedrale St. Pierre, down the hill to Rive carrying my little bag from the Met all the way to Ecole Migros. 

Here is a little clip from youtube of a young girl walking around old town Geneva, it’s as close to home and me as it gets:


As I clutched onto my Met bag, I felt I was not only skipping down the charming streets of old Geneva, but was adding part of another fabulous city, another exciting place, another favorite piece  to this mix: The Metropolitan Museum of Art  and New York! During my years in New York, I lived very close to the Met and find a trip back to NYC incomplete without a visit. On my last visit, I stumbled upon a wonderful sculpture placed at the end of the South Asian sculpture section, a magical Gandhara frieze (1st – 3rd AD) of Queen Maya’s Dream. This frieze depicted one of my favorite stories, the conception of the Buddha to be. In this story Queen Maya, who had been married for 20 years without a child, is often portrayed lying down attended by her maids while she has a vision, a dream. She dreams that she is visited by a white elephant that strikes her right side with his trunk and enters her womb resulting in the divine conception of prince Siddhartha who is to later become the Buddha. it is a beautiful story and a truly magical dream…a dream which I too dreamt as baby D came bouncing upon my lap. The only difference was that my story involved an exotic Japanese fantasy (much to tell…)!

The Metropolitan Museum of Art-The Dream of Queen Maya:

My picture of the Gandhara sculpture- Queen Maya’s Dream- Asian Art Museum San Francisco:


Talking about D, this was his birthday week but since everyone was recovering from the flu, it was low key. We decided upon lunch and his much awaited skateboard.  Whenever he has quizzed me (which he does repeatedly) about my favorite foods and places we should eat at, I have always responded with the standard: no fast food, no junk food, yucky this and that (a long list of his favorite places). My favorite food list extended to (not his first choice) sushi, barbecued eel, grilled meats, tofu and even foie gras. But this time, he with his usual persistent spirit, dug deeper and finally managed to crank open my deep dark closet… and there it was hidden in the far recesses, an act of complete denial…yes rolling and laughing with all its double patties and triple buns, dripping with mayo and with pickles sticking out of its teeth: a Big Mac! He came out into the daylight and said, ADMIT IT, ADMIT IT, I exist and YOU know me WELL. Now come on and take a big juicy bite. I guess 17 years is a long time and I have collected much of America, even unknown to me, in my closet. So exposed and embarrassed i quietly accompanied my son to Macdonalds on Rive (which looks like no Macdonalds outlet I have seen before, rather like a posh restaurant) and inhaled my Big Mac and fries in complete silence. 

Hamburger – SFMOMA-Photo by Purnima Viswanathan

See Le Big Mac below:


In this dull, dull, dull, grey weather, I have mulled over some issues, embraced some personas and counted down to my trip back to India!

Talking about America and personas, since we have covered sex in our last mail, shall we “Talk a While ” about the law? Yes, the person featured in the arts section of the newspaper that captivated me was Tocqueville and his journey to America in 1831. At first I looked at his photo and thought that the high collar and ruffled white shirt would look good on me as well, then I gazed at the mirror and thought that that particular determined look was naturally me. Of course his journey to America, his interest in prison reforms, his description of the system of Houses of refuge which were very effective for dealing with the issue of juvenile delinquents, and his keen insight I just lapped up and could not surf enough of. He and Beaumont had specifically journeyed to study the US penitentiary system, the new system in NY and Philadelphia, and its application to France. In fact, his research of the US penitentiary system apparently served as a model for many of the other evolving European penitentiary systems. This is an area I have thought about a lot, maybe we can chat about it one day over coffee and cake. But what is ironic, and what disturbs me, is despite being so ahead of the curve on a broad spectrum of legal matters and the penitentiary system(not excluding the fact that Tocqueville mentions a vibrant egalitarian democratic society, a first in the world of those times), today the headlines bleat “Imprisoning children: Sentencing children to life without the possibility of Parole”. 

Yes, a reality of America today! The very fact that children, who are meant to be sheltered and protected by society and state, are subjected to such barbaric and unconscionable laws not only violates the eight amendment,  prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment but also violates some core/universal human right (which all members of a civilized society should aspire to adhere to) by subjecting these vulnerable persons that are not only under the guardianship of their families but society and state but dependent upon them. For me, its alarming to see this issue come up repeatedly (where juveniles are repeatedly tried in adult courts and sentenced to adult jails). Its appalling to find that the judicial system does not appear to draw the pivotal distinction between child and adult, a point that should have been drilled into the cranium of the law makers if not by their law school professors then by the cultural and social conditioning that there are a set of laws for adults and one set of reformative rules for children under the age of 18. This particular article cites the case of a 13 year old boy sentenced to life without parole for a questionable sexual battery case, shocking, just shocking! 

A child under 18 is generally under the guardianship of his family, society or the State. And, since often, these juveniles are either neglected, abandoned or abused, the onus of their welfare is even further upon the shoulders of society and state. How then, can this very society and state which should extend itself to protect these children, actually impose such unconscionable sentences upon them. Where is the onus/ liability of society/ state? 

In fact, in many states (including California)in the case of domestic animals where a house-pet/dog causes harm or injury to another person, the owner is liable for the injury inflicted, even where the owner or one who has custody or control over the animal is not negligent. It’s a case of strict liability. If we (society) are able to craft and impose such strict rules in the case of guardians or owners of domestic animals, do you not think that society or the State must take on some of the liability or responsibility of injury caused by its wards? These are often neglected and vulnerable children, the idea of using authority and power to subject these very dependent vulnerable souls to terms of life seems downright criminal. Bottom line, there are rules for children and there are rules for adults and since the children are under our guardianship till they attain adulthood, we have to ensure that the laws that govern them help to further ensure their safety and protection. I have felt very passionately about this subject for a while, What do u think?

Now finally my computer has spoken (in its sonic spaceship voice) that its 3 AM and I must not trouble u any further. So, good night and sweet dreams (of white elephants and Big Macs)!



Dear Purnima,

What a delight to discover yet another wonderfully poetic and stirring treatise from you so early in the morning.  I don’t have time to write much right now, as we are leaving in about 30 minutes for our 4 ½ hour jaunt to the Ardeche.

Dreams about white elephants sound enchanting, but I can’t say the same about Big Macs.  I loved your evocation of the recesses of your mind and the juicy, dripping with mayo monstrosity lurking there.  It’s amazing at times what we must suffer to make our kids happy.

And staying up until 3 am !  But you appear to be all the more eloquent during those twilight moments after the bewitching hour.

« In this dull, dull, dull, grey weather, I have mulled over some issues, embraced some personas and counted down to my trip back to India! »

Could this by chance be part of your TOP SECRET disclosure ?

Can’t wait to see you on Tuesday.  I can actually be there shortly after 12 :00, if that would also work for you.

Happy Sunday.  Hope you got a bit of sleep.


Dear Purnima,

Hope you are ok and that you had a good weekend and found a better place to sleep ! ! !

It’s appears that winter has reared its ugly head already.  I’m ready to head for Spain again and you’re probably feeling the same about leaving for India.  I hope we can at least have coffee before you leave.

Take care of yourself,


Do you know this newspaper in India?  A rather interesting article about it in Le Monde


Dear Roger,

It’s good to hear from you after a very difficult week. Perhaps its the lack of sun, perhaps its November…BUT in all probability its the same old story that refuses to end!  Just trying to keep myself together till I get home.

Thank you for forwarding the article, but gosh, how do you expect me to read this after just two months of Ecole Migros! I know you gave me a fabulous foundation in French to build upon, BUT STILL… this is too much. You are serving a crane a tempting meal on a flat dish, how could u!! 

See Panchatantra tale below (with a parallel in the Aesop’s Fables):


And there is more…

Dear Roger,

Interesting site, thank you for the intro. I have pasted below an article that might interest you. Once again, a journey to a place where the core rights that form the basis of our legal system and civilized society which are challenged in times of crisis: Right to Privacy. I would love your thoughts on the subject, hope the dessert is not served in too tall a glass!


Dear Purnima,

How cleverly wicked you are!  The glass was so deep that I could hardly see the bottom of it, let alone savour the contents.  Are you suggesting that we both owe each other a translation?

Although the text is in French, a language that you read very well, the pictures themselves are what is interesting in the attached photomontage.



Envoyé : mercredi 24 février 2010

Objet : The New Age Mantra: Hardware for Nothing and Apps for Free! Dire

Straits – Money For Nothing

The New Age Mantra: Hardware for Nothing and Apps for Free! Dire Straits – Money For Nothing

Dear Roger

We are enjoying Crans Montana it’s sunshine wonderful slopes and

magnificent vistas but miss your company this morning as I sip my

chai and await for “the lazies” to alight. T turned ten yesterday,

a Big one, double digits now u know.

In order to get a breather I have allowed all gadgets on board,

iPhones, PSP’s, DVDs and with this deluge of applications and software I

have discovered a whole new dynamics, a new age and fast evolving

system of economics that is going to leave attorneys and institutions

befuddled. The young ones preteens and teens are being wholly DBS

completely sucked into the virtual area, the free apps invite them to

play and with each level and intensity of participation they are able

to redeem their virtual efforts/ virtual money with benefits from the

real world like songs and games and god knows what! How does one

follow this revenue trail, where is this effort  generated to be

attributed accumulated and taxed! Hahaha( or hohoho and a bottle…)

have we finally found a way to outwit the establishment?!?

I would like to share this one clip, a part of my youth in a land far

far away, which was a part of the cookie that led the way our way to

u, to Kalifornia!

Check out this video on YouTube: Dire Straits – Money For Nothing 


See u soon




Dear Roger,

This visit to India has reminded me of Tocqueville’s epic Journey to America which he undertook with Beaumont in 1831 to study the prison systems in America. This particular excerpt from a letter upon his reaching Montreal on August 23rd, 1831, struck a particular cord within me which I wished to share:

“I am astonished that this country is so unknown is France. Not six months ago I believed, with every one else, that Canada had become completely English. In my mind had always stuck the returns of 1763, which gave the French population as only 60,000 persons of French descent. I tell you that you can’t dispute them their origin. They are as French as you and I. They even resemble us more closely than the Americans of the United States resemble the English. I can’t express to you what pleasure we felt on finding ourselves in the midst of this population. We felt as if we were home, and everywhere we were received like compatriots, children of old France, as they say here. To my mind the epithet is badly chosen. Old France is in Canada; the new is with us. …”

Roger, I get a similar sense, that there is something unique, something universal about expatriate communities, they somehow cling and hold onto the customs and traditions of their people at the time of embarking upon their journey and pass on this piece of cultural knowledge to their children, somehow frozen in time, just so that there be some cultural connection, some continuity. This is a particularly prevalent phenomenon of the vast Indian (south asian) diaspora that has found itself everywhere from the coasts of Africa, across the US and to the remotest islands in the last couple of hundred years. And, this group, this diaspora  has fervently held onto its food, dress, culture and customs regardless of the generations or thousands of miles separating the group from its ancestral lands, customs and habitat. Thus, similar to Tocqueville, if I were to visit any of these communities, and there are many even within the US, I would have a similar elated reaction to find my own people so far away from home, but realizing at the same time that they are a people whose ancestors came from India, and even though I am from the “Old country”, I would have to mirror Tocqueville and say, Old India is in America, the new is with us

And all this I realized from myself, and my this trip back home, to India. I find I myself am stuck in time, clinging and grasping onto everything Indian. Trying to inhale the culture (and tons of dust particles), the food, the sounds and smells and transfer all this excitement to the kids…(if you heard their reaction, in their Yankee accents, at my every gasp of reminiscence, this would be a comedy series). But back to Tocqueville, what a truly astute observation, which applies with equal relevance today!

So, in order to fully immerse myself back into my home, my culture, i decided to spend every moment i had to spare (and I have had many as I have been sick sick sick), watching old Indian movies and some new ones. Since we were on the subject of the pomegranate last, I decided that the most appropriate movie would be the one about the legendary Anarkali (Anar is Persian for pomegranate and Kali is flower, pomegranate-flower). The tragic love story of Anarkali, a court dancer, with prince Salim, son of the great Mughal ruler Akbar which is beautifully picturized in the old epic film Mughal-e-Azam. The Mughals as you know were were a formidable tribe from central Asia which brought Bengal to Baluchistan and Kashmir to Kaveri under one administration: Babar, who was descended from both Tamerlane and Ghenghiz Khan invaded India(by invitation from the Lodi court), and established the Mughal empire in India. Through the Mughals there was an intermingling of Persian, Central Asian and Indian culture resulting in a vibrant expression of art, literature, architecture, customs, traditions, dress, food and language that was uniquely Mughal, uniquely Indian. This film made almost 60 years ago. This time and this much beloved love story is of a court dancer who falls in love with the crown prince who desires to make her his queen, she is buried alive for such a transgression. Anarkali is played by Madhubala, the epitome of Indian beauty, the one image every woman from my world desires to emulate as i did when i was growing up and especially saw myself as her in this particular song (Jab Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya – youtube), do check it out. Anarkali was from Lahore, the ancestral home of my maternal family. Yes, they settled for many millennia in the rich river fed plains of the Punjab not far from the shadows of the Shimshal WhiteHorn many universes away from its alpine namesake Weisshorn in whose shadows we find ourselves today (a part of the Ice Mommy Tale).

Trailer of the movie Mughal-e-Azam


Anarkali’s Tomb Lahore:

Since we are on the story of the Mughals, I must introduce you to Birbal, one of emperor Akbars nine gems (or Navaratnas in Sanskrit). He was renowned for his wisdom and wit and this collection of stories reflecting his escapades where he has to balance the truth and justice with managing the ego of the emperor form a corpus of the much beloved Indian children’s stories. My favorite one is of the “Khichidi”, a gruel of rice and lentils. Here, through this tale, Birbal conveys his message to the emperor of the emperors error and injustice not in words but in a small theatrical production (as words might mean his loosing his head) and succeeds in not only conveying his point but also is able to secure a reward for the wronged party (the best advocate). This is something our 9 and 90year olds  would enjoy.

Akbar and Birbal -The Tale of the Kichdi


Back to the Anar, or pomegranate, a fascinating fruit, (a fascination heightened by my personal connection/consumption, as mentioned in my last mail which led me to this journey),  which I found is represented in various cultures of the world. However, this fruits origins lie in Persia and the Himalayas from where it journeyed to Egypt and held an important position in the homes and the lives of the Pharaohs depicted in wall murals of the burial chambers, sculpture and artifacts as it symbolized life after death, apparently king Tut took it into the after life with him. Greek culture from the ancient times to the modern is replete with its representations. The previously mentioned myth of Persephone and Hades found in red and black pottery, wall murals, mosaics sculpture and art in every form has some representation of the pomegranate. The Zoroastrians, Pre-arabicized Persians (the ones that reached the shores of India many hundreds of years before the Mughals), regard the pomegranate as a symbol of fertility and eternal life. The pomegranate is found widely represented in India and especially in Mughal art in all its forms, miniature paintings, sculpture, inlays and carvings and of course in jewelry, textiles and adornments which are worn and used in India today. And, Roger, since the story of this fruit is so intertwined with my culture, I took it with me to California and covered my Thanksgiving table with this fruit that signifies abundance and prosperity in my culture so that I might lend a piece of myself and my origins, my roots to our table.

Of course, as we know it was not to be…Anarkali, the beautiful red pomegranate blossom was converted to Anar-Kali, the fierce and formidable form of devi as mentioned earlier, wearing a garland of skulls, the devourer of demons! Thus in fantasy, I find I am unable to retain my petite feminine form, the masculine fits best whether it be Ekalavya’s sacrifice of his thumb for sage Drona so that his student Arjuna be forever the best marksmen archer, or Tocqueville with his keen eye intellect and curiosity Journeying to America. All I know is that the great sages of the Vedic pantheon stand above me (shaken from their meditations from the rumor of the pomegranate – High Treason – one that compels reality to merge into myth) chanting verses from our ancient and most sacred text the Rig Veda and I suspect disguised in a long white beard Oppenheimer stands among them…

Hope to hear from you soon.

Good night!


Dear Purnima,

Ah, dear old de Tocqueville.  He was amazingly perceptive in his analysis of American democracy and how America differed from Europe.  And his analyses remain really quite relevant today.  For one, he pointed out that Americans were singularly interested in amassing vast fortunes through hard work and individualism.  It would certainly appear that, at least for a certain element of the ruling elite in the United States, getting rich by any means whatever is the primary directive in the game of global Monopoly.  

But all of that is quite apart from your own particular observation about expat communities and their retention of cultural norms and traditions from the “homeland”.  That was certainly the case for the first and part of the second generation of my Scandinavian ancestors who migrated to the States.  They retained, as a means of holding on to that which they had left behind, a lot of the culinary and dress codes.  But in many expat groups, the younger generations often find such collective demonstrations of who they really are quaint and even embarrassing because they single themselves out as being different from those they have chosen to live among.  My grandparents didn’t ever teach my mother to speak Danish because they wanted her to blend in with the rest of the American children.  And that is true of many immigrant groups.  I wonder if those ethnic groups with very strong ties to their countries of origins and who have managed to impose stringent patterns of behaviour based on some kind of religious or mythological credos are not able to bond more closely the upcoming generations to the old cultural values.  Is that what is happening to you right now in India, or is it a reaction to having spent the past year in Switzerland trying to adapt to life among the Protestant fence builders who would much prefer that even the rabble from Annemasse – just across the border – remain away ?  We certainly don’t want anything as radical in our little paradise of a country as mosques and minarets.

I’m sorry you have been so sick.  I hope that you soon feel better.  The only positive thing about being sick is that you have time to read, watch old movies and think !  I loved your references, once again, to pomegranates and the fascinating, gyrating swirls of mythological patterns you are able to weave through your emails.  Are you sure you have never red Tom Robbins ? (I really must get you a copy of “Even Cowgirls get the Blues”).  I must admit to my near total ignorance of Indian cinema. I did check out Madhubala on youtube, and you are right.  She is a stunning beauty).  You’ll have to throw some more titles at me.

The cold snap and snow that hit Europe last week (minus 10 in Geneva on Saturday) have given way to much warmer temps and rain.  It is a bit more comfortable now, but I must admit that I really liked the snow and the crispness of the cold.  It really felt like winter and Christmas, but now it will be a green Christmas.

Tomorrow is decorate the house and Christmas tree day and begin to make some of the many dishes that will make up our annual Christmas feast.  It’s truly a multi-cultural event with a melange of French, Danish and American food and customs.  I guess you are right.  Even I, a fourth generation Dane, still love to have the traditional Danish rice pudding dessert on Christmas Eve and put real candles and other Danish ornaments on the Christmas tree. 

I hope you get well soon and have a wonderful Christmas.  How widespread is Christmas celebrated in India ?  There aren’t that many Christians. 

More very soon.  I’ve got some more Murakami sexual delights to share with you.



Jan 6, 2010, 1:31 PM

Dear Roger,

On this one day of respite in a month-long head spinning hectic swirl of activity, I find myself sitting down with a paper and pen trying to recap the adventures and experiences of the last three weeks. But before i can proceed any further and put pen to paper,  I must  fully respond to your last email and add to all that is so often left unsaid about expatriate communities and their experiences…as I am undergoing these experiences currently and in REAL LIFE.

I find, that the struggle of expatriate communities does somewhere boil down to the issue of identity and how the world perceives you, The one thing I have noticed across the globe is the unique impact of cinema in the moulding of this identity, and I wonder if we actually in someway mould ourselves to the images that cinema projects of us. This i have discovered is a special phenomenon in the Indian expatriate communities, where the first generation tries to introduce themselves, their background and culture to the young ones growing up in a world very different to the one they left behind, which is when they discover that  Indian cinema is the one platform of universal appeal drawing bridges between the (old world boring) first generation and the (assimilated Americanized) next.

I grew up in an environment where there was very little television (unless you wanted to know the morphology of bugs that were infesting the wheat crop) and that too in black and white. We watched Indian films on Sundays to generally find peculiar characters we could mime and mimic. However, the world of cinema (in fact the entire audio visual world ) has jumped aboard Starship Enterprise (the sole highlight of our televised youth) and entered into another dimension! Have you seen Avatar???

The impact of cinema is so all pervasive, I find, whenever i mention that I am Indian, I have taxi drivers in Las Vegas of Ethiopian descent breaking out in a jig shouting Mother India, Mother India (one of the oldie goldies of Indian cinema) and entertaining me through my trip by singing songs from Raj Kapoors movies. An immediate connection develops, a sense of knowing and belonging a camaraderie. New York taxi drivers (coming from south, south-east, central Asia ) of course, have historically excused taxi fares upon finding Madhubala (you have to have some of the look, some of the tragedy, some of the charm) in the back seat. Then of course there is the delightful Eritrean at my favorite store in Geneva who knows me well as I try out yet another coat that I am unable to afford and she graciously indulges me as she hums the tune from Haathi Mere Saathi. Yes, the direct translation of Haathi Meera Saathi is Elephant my Companion, an superhit of the seventies starring Rajesh Khanna, the superstar of the seventies and my mothers heart throb as Rock Hudson was my grand mothers heart throb (she is still in denial about his death). Elephant, My Companion is NOT a movie about your spouse as it might appear to your ears, but a charming film that captures the essence of a time when I was growing up in India.

Haathi mere Saathi – Chal chal mere saathi    


 As a person of Indian origin, wherever i travel, all the way from Las Vegas to Geneva across northern Africa and south east Asia to the Fiji islands, Indian cinema seems to be painting my people, my world (a world I left behind)and creating connectivity. My personal connection somehow did peter off at Haathi mera Saathi, as I left India many eons ago. But, today I feel, that I must stay in touch I must put my children in touch, reconnect, ironically with the very medium I grew up ridiculing. A medium that forms the most direct connection with persons in the most remote corners of the globe and for nomads like us, that moved from continent to continent, this form a core of our identity.

Roger, surprisingly, while I was in California, I found this identity recognized by extra terrestrials…yes, from those across the borders, and received a barrage of telepathy telling me that in the Americas, yes, in the Americas there existed a replica of me, a unique expatriate community that reflected both my northern and southern heritage, both Punjab and Pondicherry…Toronto was calling Tocqueville!

Perhaps one day I will visit…

But today, is a day to mull and so you might hear from me again before sundown.



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

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