Geneva Diaries #2

Musee d’Ethnographie -Geneve


Bonsoir Purnima,

Excusez-moi de vous écrire si tard, mais nous avons regardé toute la soirée

l’investiture d’Obama.  C’est un moment historique:  Vous l’avez regardé ?

CNN has had live coverage of all the events since about 4:30 this afternoon.

We even ate in front of the TV to be able to catch it all.

I’ve checked out a few museums in Geneva, and there isn’t a big choice in

terms of special exhibits.  There is an exhibit on Egypt at the Musée d’art

et d’histoire, which isn’t far from you place.  It’s called Akhenaton et

Nefertiti: Soleil et ombres des pharaons

The other place that looks very interesting is the Musée d’art moderne et

contemporain with some interesting permanent collections of modern art.

The Maison Tavel is also a possibility.

Let me know what suits your fancy and we can either meet there or at your

place and walk to the museum.  All three of the above places are within

walking distance.

J’espère que vous passez une bonne soirée.  A demain,


Dear Roger,

I am not sure if you received my last (delayed) email regarding meeting up tomorrow. I would absolutely love to, but have family friends over for lunch not sure how long that will be, but late afternoon should work fine. Do let me know.

Believe it or not, the summer is turning out to be more hectic than I imagined with the me Home Alone with the kids who don’t give me a moment during the daylight hours if they can help it. And, I in all my enthusiasm have been trying to fill their summer days with more walks in the park , many talks, and museum trips.

Just yesterday we visited the Perseus and Medusa exhibit at the Musee d’Ethnographie. I was keen to show them this exhibit on African ritual masks as I thought it might stir the Picasso in my budding artists. The masks were hung around a dark room with strategically placed lights so that their shadows marked the wall behind them etching out fantastic designs and expressions. All very spooky, all very real. You could feel the drum beats of Africa. It was here that Dhruvum pointed out to me that the shadows were nothing like the original masks and sometimes eerily contrary(I am forever amazed at the world the kids see). The mask he pointed to appeared to have an oafish smile, however its shadow was the exact opposite…it had a sinister look, a fierce and fearsome frown.It appeared Alive and animated with one eye cut out larger than the other. The shadows appeared to be the real beings wearing these benign and sometimes comic masks as a front.I decided to continue in this very vein and keep up the interest of my tired and hot party, and managed to make it to the end of the exhibit. It was here that I suddenly saw an object almost physically jump off the shelf onto my lap. I called out theatrically for the kids to witness the spirits at play (knowing that it was probably the vibrations from their thundering feet) and Tara informed me that it was labelled  the Chiefs Staff. The closer I looked, It seemed to dance even more and I clearly saw it eyeball me. (It DID and so did the red gnome/fire hydrant on Florissant. btw I have identified the red gnome as an object from the Art and History Museum, 1st century BC, Alexandria, Guardian of the Valley. must show you). And then however much we jumped, to make it move, it stopped bouncing. I ran out as the joke was on me…so much for animation, I seemed to have spooked myself more than the kids. Have you visited Africa?

See below my fav Art and History Museum, Geneva:

By Sanyam Bahga – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Since we happen to be in Geneva during this historic 500th year of Calvin, and Calvin is so tied to this city. I was keen to take the kids for the Calvin exhibits around town and thus introduce them and myself to Calvin. Well, Parc des Bastions which was supposed to host of of the more elaborate exhibits was shuttered, so I sat down on my computer trying once again to fully comprehend Calvin and translate it in my own words and into a language/idea that I understand and I can translate. If you remember, I was trying to do the same thing when we first met, and I looked to you to help me figure it out. But, at that point you were very SERIOUS about your French lessons, and were not entertaining many distractions. Well, how about now, would you have the time to guide?

I find myself fixated on the concept of predestination which I understand to be central to Calvin’s idea. The idea that somehow life is already mapped out, predetermined, and there is no heaven or hell. Also, nothing you do can change the path chosen for you and nobody can give you salvation. It is all designed by the eternal designer.(please correct me where you will). This follows so closely on our idea of Kismet or fate which I have heard over and over again through my life and against which I rebelled furiously. The very idea that we are merely going through the motions of what was planned for us with no hope of what I view as being personally able to make a difference! How hopeless, how futile it all sounds and how does one then within this idea do the right thing. Persuade our children to do the right thing. 

My paternal grand mother, who is now 94, the one that played a pivotal part in my upbringing, a part of my heart and soul, and for whom I keep running back to India has had this idea of Kismet, predestination at the core of her soul. Her life started in Madras, the eldest child of an old vibrant Tamil family, with her father as a great patron of the arts, supporting many an impoverished artist, a prominent lawyer and an integral part of the group that struggled for the freedom of India from the British Raj. A supporter of Sri Aurobindo, he finally gave up all his worldly possessions (including symbolically the clothes on his back) and retired to join Aurobindo’s Ashram in Pondicherry (an Indo-French enclave). He had 5 children and my grandmother saw all of them die in the prime of their youth with much to live for. Her greatest sorrow, the story she often repeated as I was growing up was of the loss of her brother Tyagarajan (Tiger) who joined the RAF and was shot over Normandy. With that we lost all ties to our roots, no home in the South. She saw so much glory, and she saw so much loss, the final blow being the loss of her youngest son, my father. However, she still continued to live proudly and elegantly, happy for what she had. Happy for all of us. The people she lost were good, kind and noble, who pushed themselves to take that extra step to do the correct thing in life, and they were gone. How would you explain the world to her. So, she always repeated Kismet, Kismet, Kismet. Somehow, it was designed to be, designed by the “Ultimate Reality, and no other explanation but that.

Today, since I play the role of mother and guide ( with my head buzzing with “tell them the moral of the story”, a vestige of my catholic school upbringing), I find myself telling them that this idea proposed by Calvin is also another point of view, another way of looking at the world. Something that that has an echo back home, (playing up a cultural connection is important for me). And in this view there is no heaven and hell and everything is predestined, predesigned. But in this predesigned world our existence is not merely passive, it is an alive and active one as we have a real and specific role to play. If we take life as a journey to be undertaken by each one of us, and if this is to be a hard and arduous journey(I often fall back on Buddha and his teachings),  with our fate already predetermined. Then, its our role and our duty to make this stop, this visit, this harbor as hospitable and comfortable as we can for our fellow human beings. Peoples lives may be mapped out and their salvation may not be in our hands, but we can certainly make a difference by giving comfort and solace to those that come to our shores that seek our shelter. You may not be able to change their path, but you can certainly provide a watering hole a resting spot. A sanctuary, a stop.

See below Cimeterie du Plainpalais – Calvin – Candolle et Moi:

What can I add, what do you think?

See you soon.


Dear Roger,

I have to tell you more about the Chief’s Staff (from the Medusa and Perseus exhibit). As I had mentioned earlier, It was jumping about when I first saw it and shouting at me to wake up and sniff the cocoa beans. It was doing a furious dance as it demanded to know why I was attired in these strange clothes, and where I left the chiefs gear. Where were my tribal markings and the retinue of slaves and wives to fan and feed me! And who were these pesky dwarves that I have allowed to take control of me. Why are they such close proximity and how was I permitting them to tug at my clothes. Enough, enough, enough he shouted as he spun around and demanded I return to the World and my responsibilities.

Tell me Roger, do I have issues???

See below Musee d’Ethnographie Geneve:

See attached African Masks and Hunting Spirit Staff from The De Young Museum San Francisco:

On Jul 24, 2009, at 10:47 PM, “Roger Stevenson”  wrote:

Dear Purnima,

Your visit of the Musée d’Ethnographie sounded fascinating and just a bit troubling.  It’s often amazing how one can identify in such a personal way with a particular piece of art –  your description of the Chief’s Staff is almost eerie.  I wouldn’t say you have issues, but are simply very much in tune with certain mysterious aspects of African art.  No, I have never visited Africa, with the exception of Egypt, which I love, by the way.  I’ve never had the chance to see other parts of that intriguing continent.

And where do I start on Calvin.  I have always abhorred any religious dogma that even smacks of predetermined outcomes.  The very fact that we are capable of making conscious decisions in our daily lives logically excludes, as far as I am concerned, any possibility that our fates are determined and laid out in advance by some higher, guiding power.  It’s really that age-old theological debate over free will and predestination.  Since I am very much an agnostic leaning heavily toward atheism, I can’t seriously entertain any religiously founded argument or explanation for my existence or for my « salvation »  Salvation from what ? ?

I think your  «The very idea that we are merely going through the motions of what was planned for us with no hope of what I view as being personally able to make a difference! How hopeless, how futile it all sounds and how does one then within this idea do the right thing. Persuade our children to do the right thing. »  sums up my own thinking very nicely.

In my life I have been strongly influenced by existential thinking from Kierkegaard to Camus and Sartre and de Beauvoir.  The key issue, as far as twentieth century, atheist existentialism is concerned, is lucidity : being constantly aware of one’s inherent condition, i.e. we live in a universe that is impossible to explain or understand.  There is no heaven or hell, indeed.  We are, or we become, what we make of ourselves through our decisions, through our actions.  There are, to be sure, various states of awareness, and many individuals do indeed make less than fully conscious decisions, and we are often influenced by unknown or little understood factors in our environment or from our past experiences.  The arguments of Freudian disciples concerning the role of the subconscious has been a fascinating dichotomy in existentialist thinking.

In short, my disdain for Calvin and his like has always been complete.  I have no interest even from a historical point of view to join the happy Genevois throngs in celebrating his 500th  year of influence.  And further more, he banned the production of plays in his little kingdom.  How could you ever respect or rever someone who hated the theatre ?

Weds. morning sounds great.  Would 9 :30 be too early for you ?  I would love to go to our favorite cafe at the Art and History museum.

Have a good weekend.

Je t’embrasse,


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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