Geneva Diaries #17

6 Blind men and The Elephant – Grislidis Real Geneva – Strasbourg – Cult of Mithras


Dear Purnima,

On my way back from an incredible weekend in Zermatt, your classic and quaint alpine ski resort with the misty mysterious Matterhorn looming in the backdrop. The skiing was incredible, and I met a charming Parisian who insisted on carrying my skies. 

I absolutely love this place, i have to return to explore its many mysteries!


Ah Zermatt,

You know, I’m very jealous !  And a Parisian to carry your skis to boot.  Another invitation for Paris perhaps ?

Speaking of Paris, we are there right now, in fact, at the Salon des Livres:  besides the book fair, we’ve managed to see two plays and two films – it’s such a magical city !

Have a good week and a wonderful trip to Morocco.  I’ll be thinking of you,


Dear Roger,

I would LOVE to meet your friend who is “too sexy for Versailles”, when are you going to arrange this steamy match??

Yes, as you noticed, I am always championing the cause for liberty and justice. I seek to highlight the plight of those that have been persecuted, unjustly treated and forgotten, denied what I believe are base human rights (specifically those most vulnerable, women and children both in times of peace and war), and so through my travels I select persons scattered through history and weave them into my story giving them breath and a chance to express a position man and time has denied. With the hope that through these expressions we might get a step closer to understanding, identifying and coming to a consensus on these basic or integral human rights, the ones that make us “Who We Be”.

Through the tale of Grislidis Real, the most famous prostitute in Geneva who eventually devoted her time to fight for the rights of other women in her profession, I seek to highlight (taking at extreme example) about the victimization and vulnerability of women in society across the board. In this story I wished to show how women can be abused whether at home, work, or out on the streets often because they are vulnerable and are carrying babies on their backs. I also wished to demonstrate that prostitution, one of the oldest professions in the world, has always existed and will continue to do so (technology might mould this and provide us with a sex vending machine promising to morph into your every fantasy and provide a no touch orgasm side by side with the soda machine and possibly subsidized by it) and yet, society both demands this service and devastatingly degrades its service providers. These women work hard for their money, so hard for you honey, so you better treat them right…do check out Donna Summers below:

Donna Summers: She Works Hard for the Money

In my last email, I realized that I had left a gaping hole, a missing link, a cultural parallel, by not fully elaborating what I understand to be the core right of Freedom of Conscience which found reflection in the words of John Lilburne in his earlier mentioned 1647 pamphlet “No man should be punished for preaching or publishing his opinion on religion”. The crucial word as I understood it, was OPINION. This idea of Freedom of Conscience that I gleaned from the above quotation appeared much broader than the often repeated freedom to pursue any faith or religion that we understand today, and mirrored the ideas of the place where I was coming from which I would love to share with you and would greatly appreciate your feedback. Freedom of Conscience as I understand it, is whatever spiritual, religious, moral view either expressed in a collective group or community through rituals, customs of dress and diet, or kept private, quiet within the core of a persons soul; is a freedom so intrinsic to man that it has been the core cause of conflict and struggle through history of man as one group seeks to stifle and control this very core thereby controlling the man.

However, as I mentioned above, the crucial word to note is “opinion” and this encompasses not just those who follow a religious order and believe in the right to preach and publish the same (which has often resulted in magnificent expressions of art, architecture, creativity thereby encouraging the flourishing of a culture, resulting in the inspiration that drives perfection), but also those that hold a faith or belief in nothingness, a form of Nihilism. From my cultural (Vedic) context I know that there were always (in the days of yore, less so today) many groups of  Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Nihilists (possibly even a form of modern day Atheists) who shared a common platform where they expressed themselves, argued debated. These debates and discussions only propelled them to attain an alternate perspective a clearer viewpoint. The essence being, that if you held a certain belief or faith and wished to live in a society where you may express it, how can you deny another from doing the same and still affirm that you uphold the core principles of a Democracy.

This brings me to my favorite story from the Panchatantra (Indian folk tales much beloved by children) of the Six Blind men and the Elephant.

Do check out this charming clip in the original accent:

Another tale retold in my words (tweaked and twirled). There were six blind men who went to inspect an elephant and upon being asked  what they were touching each retorted adamantly that he had touching either a rope (the one holding the tail), a wall (the one holding the stomach) or a pipe (the  one holding the trunk). Each describing the part he could identify from his experience. The 6th blind man (in my version) who upon hearing all his buddies describe the individual body parts and realizing that such a composite beast did not exist in his experience denied each of his 5 blind buddy’s individual experiences. Then of course the normal ruckus followed with the 6 blind men beating each other up to affirm their own idea and the 6th joining in the fray denying all their versions as logic and his experience told him that such a composite beast did not exist.

The question often posed to the kids is who is right and who is wrong. And, since television has proved irrefutably that we, (the majority of humanity) ARE NOT smarter than a 5th grader, our laws must be comprehensible at a minimal to a 5th grader, don’t you agree? Did you see that TV program? 

Panchatantra Tales: 

“The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John G. Saxe 

Is each blind man’s experience false? One that has had the experience of a tail and believes that to be his truth, then what about the man touching the trunk and the tusks? Is not each experience true for each man in his own space? What about the 6th blind man, is he stretching his knowledge and experience to interpret the unknown, perhaps the unknowable through these devices (ironically that is what logic propels me to postulate)? the fact that he too joins in the fray hitting the others over their head and asserting the denial of the existence of such a creature, is he by his denial closer to the truth? 

From my perspective(this is where I get into hot soup), the vehemently positive experiences and the denial of the same are two opposite sides of the same coin with each claiming to have superior knowledge or the truth. In my opinion (which is probably why I have been chased to the hills by the hordes – The Legend of the Legendary Outlaw), the spiritual experience is an individual, private one which cannot really be spread over the masses trying to persuade all that one particular experience is the truth and must be collectively affirmed. Thus, as you can see, I choose to call myself Agnostic, the one who just does not know, has not reached, acquired the knowledge that spiritual plane where I can claim to clearly view the truth, but of course something apart from my all possessing grey matter tells me that this cannot be all, I want to know, I want to know, I want to know (Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull)!!! 

Do check me out as Cate Blanchett in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull:

Did she say it was all about Love…?

Good night!


On Jun 10, 2010, at 10:56 PM, “Roger Stevenson” wrote:

Dear Purnima,

I did indeed get it, and it came in triple.  It was odd that I didn’t get it before.  I also check my spam folder regularly and it wasn’t there either.  It not arriving in my mailbox explains everything, and here I thought that it was my email that hadn’t reached you.

It was a delight to see you this afternoon.  You always look so fresh and lovely, and the outfit you were wearing was totally light and airy and becoming.  Thanks also for the marvelous meal.  I loved the fish curry and the grilled eggplant and yogurt dish.  I’m going to have to try and make it myself.

It was fun meeting your friend.  The UN is a huge organization.

I loved your reaction to our project about an online guide to Japan.  We hope to begin working on it a bit more in the next few weeks, but the trip to Valencia will get in the way.  I just started to download (I’ve become an internet pirate !) a film by Wim Wenders about Tokyo, Tokyo Ga, which was released in 1985, but that apparently is an excellent reference to the city of Tokyo.  I’ll let you know how it is.  In the meantime, I’ll bounce some other ideas off of you.  Your vision of things is always leaps and bounds ahead of anyone else’s.

And Montreux ! ! !  You’re right it’s one of the all-time great festivals, and there has been some wonderful music presented and recorded there.  It has gone down a bit in my estimation of pure jazz festivals, however, since it has broadened the range of music it books (My favorite festival is still Jazz a Vienne just south of Lyon.  I’ve seen some marvelous concerts there).  Keith Jarrett, my all-time favorite jazz pianist, is playing Montreux this year, but the ticket prices are really very steep – upwards of 280 CHF, and I decided the other night that it was just too much to pay for a three-hour concert, especially since I got to see him in Brussels last fall.  What else on the program looks appealing to you?

More later.  I’ve still got my little ear story to tell you (it’s really nothing terribly grandiose – nothing at all like your chasing the handsome young ski instructor down the slopes of Crans-Montana, but another Murakami oddity to relate).

Sweet dreams,




Dear Purnima,

It’s been hard to get at a computer the last couple of days.  Although there are a lot of them around, they are in high demand.

Sorry my dear.  I have absolutely no contact with my supposedly well-endowed friend of my bike racing days, so a steamy match with him is not very likely. I always thought the tongue was the most satisfying of all – Your too sexy for KISS !

Grislidis is a wonderful champion of her profession, and you are totally correct to point out the hypocrisy of society in the disdain it shows for the oldest profession in the world: It’s the males of society who insist on easy access to women, thereby creating the demand, and yet when ever there is a perceived need for a crackdown on prostitution, it is always the girls themselves who are victimized by the law, hardly ever their customers (except in Sweden, of course).

I finished White Tiger yesterday and really liked it.  It is amazing how the author is able to set up his narrative so you are cheering for his “hero” to carry through with his despicable act of murder and robbery.  The vengeance is  just too sweet, and the fact that he gets away with it it also in a perverse sort of way quite satisfying.  And, of course, I can very readily see you writing the same kind of book with your wonderful prose. (I loved his little reference to Switzerland when he talked about dictators and big businesses that hide their money in a small, European country full of white people and black money.

I was very curious as to the reaction to the book in India and found a couple of blogs and reviews of the book that seemed to suggest that some quarters in Indian society were not very happy with it.  Some of the reviewers, I felt, picked on really stupid things to criticize him for in order to dump on the book, like for instance, saying that his character couldn’t possibly have had he intelligence and insight to be able to understand the workings of the master-servant relationship in India so well, and that his dialogues rang false and were aimed at largely a non-Indian readership. Or that his device of writing to the Chinese prime minister didn’t work very well (I thought it was masterful, myself), or that he tied all the loose ends in the novel together a little too neatly in the end (not at all.  He left us with the suggestion that his young nephew 

was in the process of figuring things out and could very possibly turn out to be his undoing, unless he was satisfied with simply insuring his continued supply of milk and ice cream.

Got to run and go shoe shopping (for me, of course !)  More later.  Hope you are having a good week.




Les Liasions Dangereuse: Cecile de Volanges 20 years later in Strasbourg!

Dear Roger,

I am off the following week on a long train ride ending in Strasbourg where I meet a childhood friend, yes, the young Cecile de Volanges (very much a part of the cast of Les Liasions Dangereus and a part she played brilliantly) with the core story starting out, like ours, in Manhattan. There are other members of the cast I would love to introduce to you!

Do check out Les Liasions Dangereuse on youtube:

However, 20 years is a long time, and there has been a name change Cecile is now Begum (having taken the name of the prophets wife) and the prophet himself is a madrassa buddy (my source for the “heh, heh, heh”) from our infamous madrassa (I know Cambridge has a hand in this somewhere).

Hope to hear from you soon.

Good night.


Dear Roger,

Its well past midnight but I cant go to bed, I feel I must tell you about my adventures in Strasbourg before I lose them to the day. Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace region in North East France on the border with Germany was established as a Celtic town in the 3rd century BC. It has since exchanged hands between France and Germany many times through its history. A city, very much like Geneva and New York, though not a capital city but just as important, being the base for large international organizations and in this instance the seat for large European ones. Strasbourg, with it’s historic center, this Grand Island, surrounded by the river Ill, charming buildings, grand structures and fascinating facades has been classified as a world heritage site by UNESCO and is a “must see”! (Do check out the pictures posted below)


Strasbourg courtyard with friends and family:

I was first introduced to this region by a close friend in California who had embarked on a journey to document her roots through the moving story of the dynamic and determined Poumy, her grand aunt, who secured and saved her family as she worked silently for the French resistance. This first attempt at film making was well received and a glimpse of the the region for curious eyes like mine who wanted to see the film, the scenery and the story through the eyes of an American journeying through time back to her roots. I have pasted a clip from her movie “Poumy” for you below , do check it out:

Poumy (on youtube)

My first stop during the tour of the historic city center was the grand Roman catholic cathedral of Strasbourg (Notre Dame) one of the finest examples of gothic architecture, with its intricate carvings and dramatic spires touching the sky, visible from across great distances tall and imposing (see pic above). Then I learned a very interesting fact, that in 1794, the Enrages who were in control of the area planned to tear down these dramatic spires based on the notion that it hurt the principle of equality! The smart citizens apparently gathered together and covered the spire with a Phrygian cap thereby saving the spire.

Phrygian cap:

 The story behind the Phrygian cap, forever the symbol of freedom and liberty has intrigued me for a while encouraging me to put on the Indiana Jones hat and take you back with me on a journey to San Jose California, I promise you an adventure for there is a brilliant Egyptian museum in these remote recesses of the universe. The museum has a theatre and in this theatre they screen many fascinating films. I assure you that with my budding egyptologist all of 5years old, I was dragged southwards to San Jose to the point where i was reading the Rosetta stone in my dreams. It was here in the midst of the mummies and the deep dark crypt that I was introduced to the cult of Mithras and the Mithraeum. Yes, a  never ending film which we saw forever. The cult of Mithras, a Roman pagan cult that was popular during the early part of the first millennium across Europe was subsequently subjugated/eradicated. This was a mystery cult worshipped in deep dark caves where the central figure of the carving was shown slaying a bull, there were symbols of a dog, snake, sun and moon gods, raven all possibly astronomical symbols depicting the skies (perhaps the knowledge of which would be very important for farmers and those dependent upon agriculture). The central figure slaying the bull is often depicted wearing this Phrygian cap, perhaps a symbol of their freedom to practice their cult/belief, an expression of their liberty to practice any faith/religion (and as you know liberty is my favorite topic).

Check this out at the Louvre: Mithras Slaying the Bull

 This of course brought me to Strasbourg where I was meant to find the grand Mithraeum with its majestic reliefs embedded in the subterranean caverns awaiting my arrival and introduction to the world. This was also of special interest to me since Mitras is a prominent Vedic deity featured in the Rig Veda with its counterpart in the Persian pantheon, and of course Mitran for Mitra is the name of my grand uncle (a part of my French connection @Sorbonne). Unfortunately, even though I got to the dark basement of the museum that promised to house its relics, i could not get to my final destination, which sounds like a return trip to Strasbourg, perhaps you would like to accompany me?

Then of course there was the much awaited meeting with my childhood friend Cecile de Volages, one with whom I have shared my oldest and fondest memories, and whose life has paralleled mine as we have traipsed across the world with bubble baths, babies, bags and 6ft tall baggages. One with whom I treasured sharing my fears and sorrows, stories and journeys, secrets and mail. As I sat across her in the charming 16th century courtyard (see pic above) pouring my heart out, I momentarily slipped out of my shell and watched us both bend over the table so that our whispers might contain and not float over the ledge to eager ears, two birds of Asia having journeyed far from their watering hole, getting together in this remote region far from home, sharing stories, making stories, and translating your stories in our accents. I wish you were these to see how Guttenberg’s incredible invention of the printing press here in Strasbourg was translating your epics in the exotic tongues of the East, Persian and Sanskrit (see pic above)!

The journey back to Geneva was altogether another story/nightmare. The misty memories of childhood evaporated and I was faced with practical mom and my pragmatic childhood buddy, who after being introduced to my adventures in Geneva said, “time for a reality check…wake up and smell the coffee, you are a train wreck”! No, not a sympathetic ear, not a tear, just horror at hearing about the bulging eyes, darting glances, villainous vermin…

Cecile reiterated for the nth time that “It’s just an Illusion” check it out on youtube:

Hope to hear from you soon.

Good night!


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 

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