Geneva Diaries #28*

Delhi Commonwealth Games, The Punjabis, Dalrymple, Unani, India and The Search for Spirituality and Composite Culture


Today, on August 15th, India’s Independence Day, I wish to share this snipped from my diary-letters to Roger showcasing the fabulous composite culture of India reflecting the Idea of India.


Dear Roger,

Thinking of you on this special day, a day, a year older, and unsure of where the hours disappeared. It’s also a special day for Delhi, manicured, bedecked, a bride glistening in green in preparation for the the Commonwealth games 2010 which open today.

Roger, I wish i could share with you in depth my love for this city, my home, a place which seems to exist eternally, continuously changing and yet unchanged, embracing all flavors and fragrances within its fold to add to the allure that had excited many minds and launched many voyages over millennia. A city of Djinns and snake charmers (and boy did the snake charmers come in handy last week when the Commonwealth games delegates found the king cobra coiled up cosily under their bedcovers…yyyes Believe it or Not…indulging every stereotypical notion of this land of mystery in full international view…Lights, Camera, Action!!!). 

The King Cobra – Conservation Status Vulnerable: These highly venomous snakes indigenous to India and south east Asia wrapped in myth, mystique and mythology of the region are invoked with fear and awe as they are known to bring an elephant down with one bite are now on the vulnerable list.

King Cobra

The photo pasted below is the Python Molurus indigenous to India and one I encountered in Goa during my evening after dinner stroll and I was certainly glad to see is belly full.

The Python I stumbled Across in Goa-Photo by Purnima Viswanathan

A city about which much has been written but i find so much left unsaid as it accelerates past those words to evolve and reinvent itself. My two decades away seem like eternities and i an antediluvian relic. I attempt to find myself in this maze, to reconnect to the khadi days of university, the socialist snobbery of the elite, and find myself all alone, so very alone… the universe has speed past, my friends have reinvented themselves, even the most radical ones have embraced this euphoria that is India. Everyone appears on a high, with their minds channelled to tap into the progress prosperity and growth found all around. The youth seem many light years away from our university bound khadi days, earning and relishing their luxury. The old ambassador car, symbolic of the old India appears almost completely replaced by “foreign” wheels. Familiar eyes seem to stare at me in bewilderment as I trudge through town dripping with sweat in an auto…their eyes reach out and tell me to “give it up” and sync in with the reality and euphoria of today. So the last living socialist quietly discards her khadi and joins the crowds revealing the Armani within, after all this is home is it not !?! 

Many adventures to share, but the Djinns of Delhi will have to wait!

I return to Geneva This Wednesday, hope to see you.

Hugs from India.


See below a photo of the quintessential Indian car that afforded space and comfort and safety (the competition was the bullock cart) of course built to be driven by a chauffeur – The Ambassador Car

The Ambassador Car-Photo by Purnima Viswanathan

Pasted below is one even older model that gained name, fame and infamy in certain respected circles- The Junko. This 1934 Chevrolet was the darling of The Doon School and was built and pulled apart by the boys of The Doon School as many times as the years it wore on its lapel. It was often pulled out of the garage to take dignitaries for a tour of the school. See my brother Arvind Viswanathan below taking my two friends, Rupali Bannerji and Rachna Sharma for a tour of The Doon School in The Junko:

The Junko with Arvind Viswanathan at The Wheel- The Doon School -Photo by Purnima Viswanathan

Junko serviced by Arvind Viswanathan and friends – The Doon School, Dehradun, India- Photo by Purnima Viswanathan

Dear Purnima,

How delightful to get two emails from you, even if the second one was a duplicate of the first.  I was beginning to wonder if you hadn’t been abducted by a dark and enchanting stranger or else swallowed up by the maelstrom of the Delhi underworld.

I’ve been thinking about you all day and hoping that you were having a wonderful BD.  Wish I could have joined in the celebration and at least drunk a champagne toast with you.

We are in Paris for the week and having a delightful time. We are staying in a really cosy apartment right in the heart of St. Germain des pres that belongs to one of the Japanese students.  We just returned from seeing a great play and have two more to see before we leave on Saturday, plus a Monet exhibit, and a number of films – you must go see Poetry !  It’s really marvelous,

I’ve read a lot about the Commonwealth games and the many problems the organizers have had, including the tale of the cobra.

Much more when I get home again. It’s a bit of a chore to type on this little travel computer we brought with, but I’ve got lots to share and am so looking forward to hearing all your tales.

A huge BD hug et à bientôt,



Dear Roger,

Thinking about you on this special day, I knew you were special when you told me that you were born on the 7th of October, you share it with a very special person, my aunt (who is beaming in the photos below). Hope you had a wonderful birthday and wish you all best that life has to offer: love, laughter and friends!

I also just celebrated my birthday, October 3rd, at home in Delhi, after 18 years, a cosy affair with close friends and family( would love to share the memories see me with my brother in pic pasted below).

October 3rd: Purnima and Arvind

Purnima and Arvind Viswanathan-Photo by Purnima Viswanathan

At my birthday bash, in order to add some theatrics to the cake cutting ceremony, I requested my brother (the eternal DJ) to play “Singh is Kiing” with Snoop Dogg, (a superhit Indian soundtrack from an Indian movie of the same name – do check it out on youtube). 

Singh is Kiing with Snoop Doggy Dog:

More Punjabis – Singh is Kiing!

Viva Le Punjabi – My Mom and Aunts in New Delhi, India – Singh is King!

The Birds of The North-Viva Le Punjabi-Photo by Purnima Viswanathan

In keeping with the birthday mood, I have also pasted a relevant clip from the movie Singh is Kiing. The movie opens dramatically with an Indian gangster based in the US whose birthday is being lavishly celebrated with a gargantuan three tier cake. Of course, the cake explodes and out burst the assassins(my Tale of course). The hero/villain finds himself being chased by cops and goons of 25 countries from around the world (does this sound familiar, Clouseau and another buddy perhaps), of course as always he makes a dramatic escape as we blow out our candles!!!   (check it out on youtube pasted below)

Happy Birthday to us: (25 देशों के 25 पुलिस उसके पीछे) Chased by 25 Persons from 25Nations – Singh is Kiing!

Once again, wishing you a wonderful day and many many adventures (hopefully with me in tow)!

Hugs and love,


Dear Purnima,

It was delightful to have coffee with you Weds.  You looked absolutely stunning, and more relaxed and vibrant than I can remember.  Either it was the afterglow of your trip to India or else the fact that you and hubby have finally come to an agreement to put an end to your mutual “no exit” (Have you seen Sartre’s play of the same name ?), or maybe it’s all those cute instructors at the gym ?  It was also one of the best chats we’ve ever had.

I watched the tv literary discussion Thursday with Tom Robbins, but it was disappointingly short and his remarks were ruined by the voice-over translations.  But the moderator of the program, whom I really like, repeatedly called him “the most dangerous writer alive”  And his novel that was recently translated into French, a near-impossible task, (first published in 1971 and was on the bed stand of Elvis when he died and reportedly the favorite novel of the Hell’s Angels), “Another Roadside Attraction” is truly marvelous, and it levels a daring blow at organized religion and its myths and the complicity of governmental agencies in trying to preserve said myths.

Hope you have a wonderful weekend,



Dear Roger,

It was absolutely fabulous to see you, you looked great! Unfortunately, I was just not equipped for the cold and I apologize that we had to sit in the midst of the din of that restaurant, will plan better next time. What are your plans for next week, the kids are on break and their father is taking them to Italy (23-28), would love to catch up. Does lunch work for you any day next week, would like to try out some new recipes And I might have a mystery guest whom i can’t wait to introduce to you!

I googled this much mentioned author Tom Robbins, but did not really find him. However, the fact that he is an admirer of Osho, certainly put him on my to read list. I enjoy reading western authors who have travelled to our end of the universe physically or spiritually and seeing the world from their lens. I just read Dalrymple’s Nine Lives, an author whom I have followed and enjoy thoroughly. It’s fabulous to see him almost merge into the Central/South Asian culture that he writes so eloquently about (I found even his photograph reflected that, easily passing off for an Indian). However, upon reading him closely, I find he slips, over and over again. I see the shadow behind the pen of a “westerner” raised in another universe trying to understand, interpret and embrace this one. I found that just when I was getting very cosy with him under my covers (Nine Lives), he  described “Kali“, the fierce form of the female form/deity, as being “wild and wayward”! I can understand the wild description, but under no circumstances could you interpret Kali as wayward. She is adorned with a garland of skulls, dark as night, dancing upon the corpses of the slain souls, but she is the ultimate personification of female power and energy which is harnessed in this fierce and fearful form. Her acts of terror and intimidation, with blood and brains and skulls scattered in the frame are purposeful and the manifestation of one who cleanses the earth of its demons absolutely(I have a few goblins to clear myself). Now, the fact that this female form is presented dancing the dance of death, with a formidable visage and a long blood tainted tongue essentially naked or wrapped sparsely in animal hide copulating and grinding the earthly beings below her Does Not Make Her Wayward! Yes, of course, any female painted in this form from a westerners perceptive, her acts and actions would be construed as “wayward”, but how can the deity Kali or her Buddhist equivalent the Blue Tara be described as wayward(and I look up to her hanging on my dining room wall and bow as I write this piece).  Of course, Dalrymple, goes onto describe and praise her attributes and I appreciate all he writes, his deep study, his research and his passion but realize that as I swoon into his arms, behind the facade, he is essentially a “westerner”.

Dalrymple’s Nine Lives:

See below a magnificent artwork from the early Bengal School showcased at the Delhi Art Fair by The Delhi Art Gallery, see below: Kali astride Shiva

However, Dalrymple is a westerner who fires my imagination and brings to the fore the deeply embedded memories of my youth, my home, my (maternal) grandmother who so absolutely embodied the culture of the North (India). In his book the City of Djinns, he mentions Unani medicine, which he states originated in Greece, (Unani being derived from Ionian) journeyed through Central Asia to India, is forgotten in the place of its origin but is widely practiced in India as a credible alternate medical form.

This involves the “Hakim“, doctor, taking your pulse and diagnosing everything from arthritis to a cold. My maternal grandmother, a relatively educated woman of her time, would rush to the Hakim to have her “Nabaz” or pulse read at the drop of a hat. She would then follow tedious recipes and diets for her arthritis, and if by any chance were we to scoff at her and her “pudiyas” sachets of dubious powder, she would defend the system like it was her religion. I now realize that it was close to her religion, it was a part of her culture, a people of the Punjab (northern lands). As I journeyed back into my very pragmatic grandmothers arms who had a very difficult life having fled from their ancestral lands in Lahore (now Pakistan) and arrived in Delhi with what they could carry. She primarily spoke Punjabi (the local dialect of the Punjab) and Hindustani, and now when I reflect back, I realize that the references to god (and she was a very pious Hindu/brahmin) were often “Rab de liye”, or “Rab de vaste” (for god’s sake), were drawn from her culture and here the word “Rab” for god would be a word used by a cross section of religions from the North. So, even though the religions might be at logger heads with each other, I realized language unites them above all, for they all call god by the same name! This is very similar to us using “for Christs sake” or “for gods sake” whether we are Hindu, Christian or Muslim, (or like me a wanna-be atheist for I grew up in a time where the educated elite turned their noses up at any overt exhibition of ritual or religion as a space reserved for the “hoi-polloi”) as the cultural references are so entwined with language. So if you do get a chance do read Nine Lives, I highly recommend it. Through this, he has journeyed into the core and I would love to chat with you about it.

See below a wise elder, my grandmother Bimla Shourie, one who had traversed many lives and had volumes to share, seen both the high towers and the raging fires of partition, lost all and built back her life stitch by stitch:

Bimla Shourie-My Grandmother Who Had Traversed Many Lives-Photo by Purnima Viswanathan

William Dalrymple – Nine Lives – In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

Back to Tom Robbins, this whole concept of organized religion really blows me as it then moves from an individuals journey into this soul/spirituality to mass mind control. Even though I might say i’m a wanna-be atheist, I find that the rational mind (upon which I depend much too much) necessitates the existence of a cause, a reason, a design, a program, otherwise our daily motions our pain, sorrow, ecstasy (not had much of that lately), our consumption, excretion, our evolution, movement would all be for nothing-ness(and for most of my life i believed in nothingness). I suspect it’s my 96 year old paternal grandmother’s doing, she has clearly moulded me like no one else could have, and nudged me in the this direction of spirituality, this intense personal journey of attempting to realize the map, the design, the Ultimate Reality as she calls it (all without hemp) and this I suspect needs to be experienced from another faculty which the rational mind may not be aware of or have access to (oh i soo need those mushrooms). So, just like the Bauls (Nine Lives), I might also just take off one day to explore the secrets of the chakras (I have 10 years of inactivity to catch up upon!).

Hope to see you very soon and still waiting for the sushi.



PS: Continuing on the subject of India, Punjab and spirituality, I cannot end this note without mentioning Kabir the much beloved poet/philosopher and saint who lived in North India in the 15th century. Kabir was a part of the Bhakti or reform movement in India and embraced the essence of all the faiths yet cautioned against orthodoxy and blind faith highlighting their flaws in his dohas. His couplets or dohas with their innate wisdom are a part of the Indian ethos and treasured by all. My favorite doha is the following:

Guru Govind Dono Khade, Kake Laagu Paaye, Balihari Guru Aapno, Govind Diyo Bataye.

Translated: A disciple confronted with both his guru/teacher and god questions as to whom he should bow to first, Kabir response is that he should bow to his guru first for it is his guru/teacher who will guide him and show him the path to god.

Kabir’s Famous Couplets:

A philosophy of the Guru who is your teacher and guide is integral to the Sikh faith which has Kabir’s dohas in it’s scripture The Guru Granth Sahib.


Kabir is much beloved and often evoked in the music and hymns sung by the Hindu’s, Sikhs, Muslims and Sufis. Despite his couplets highlighting the flaws in the blind beliefs of the popular faiths of the subcontinent he is heralded as a saint as his words to this day strike a cord with the average man who respects their innate wisdom. This universal appeal of Kabir is reflective of the composite culture of the Indian subcontinent, a culture that evolved from millennia of mixture of people and ideas that journeyed to these shores. Kabir wrote and spoke in the vernacular, threading together an underlying corpus of ideas and philosophy of the multiple faiths, beliefs, idols and ideas of the subcontinent.

This composite culture is best reflected below by the coinage of the Sikh Kingdoms, a faith which also arose as a part of the reform or Bhakti movement. Here the coinage appears very secular as it reflects an amalgam of faiths and ideas. See below the coins of the Sikh Kingdoms with the name of Ram written in Gurmukhi (Punjabi script), Devanagai (Sanskrit script), and Persian. Yes, Ram (the major Hindu deity symbolic of virtue from the Ramayana and embraced by the Sikhs), was struck in a coin by the Sikh Kingdoms in Persian script! See below the coinage from the Sikh Kingdoms reflecting the beauty of the Composite culture of India:

Live History India -Revisiting Sikh History Tales from the Mints:

See below Abida Parveen, a Sufi singer from Pakistan singing the same Kabir’s dohas or couplets:


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

Published by Purrnima

Travel Writer - Art Blogger - CyberSmurf

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