Mornings are glorious in Santiniketan. I was visiting Santiniketan in the sixties and staying in the home of the Vice Chancellor of Viswa Bharati University. There was a sizable lawn next door and, early one morning, as I woke I saw a man going around and around in a circle. As I walked up to him, I saw a tall, bearded foreigner and was about to say Good Morning in English. He pre-empted me, by speaking in Bengali, and that too sardonically, “Finally, you are awake!” He justified the dig with his next sentence, coupled with an elaborate gesture of his arm, “Bright morning!” Paul Detienne had displayed his three most characteristic ploys in the very first moment of our encounter.
He spoke Bengali better than a native. He loved sarcasm. His arms, like his face, were not just expressive, they were dramatically demonstrative. These were not features one expected in a Jesuit missionary. But Detienne seldom did anything very expected. When he said he was Belgian, I quickly suggested, “Why don’t we talk in French? I want to improve my French conversation.” He countered, “But I want to improve my Bengali. I’d rather we talk in Bengali.” After some haggling, we reached a deal. He will speak to me in Bengali; I will speak in French. That created what Thurber would have called “a hullabaloo of misunderstanding.”
Since I worked in an office near Park Street and he was often there for his work, our paths crossed frequently, and we stopped and talked at street corners. We attracted attention. Passersby stopped and chided me, “What’s wrong with you? That sahib is talking Bengali and you are talking some gibberish. Can’t you be polite and talk to him in English?”
One time, when we went to the Flury’s cafe for some tea, two persons, after hearing our conversation from the next table, came to help me, “It is all right if you don’t know English. Just tell us what you want to say in Hindi, and we will translate it for him in English.” Detienne relished such confusion. He would pull their leg and say, “English is a far cry for him. He can’t even speak Bengali well. I am trying to teach him a little bit.” Sometimes he would drop by my office. If I was busy, he would not waste his time, but talk instead with my secretary, my assistant, or even the receptionist.
In short order he knew their names, where they lived, whether they were married, what they liked to eat. One time my assistant made the mistake, while serving him tea, of using the word ‘sugar’ instead of the Bengali equivalent, and Detienne said, “If you are a Bengali, and you don’t know the Bengali word for sugar, you need to improve your language. If you know the word, but choose to use a word from another language, then you need to improve your idea of yourself.” He said it gently and with a smile, but he detested the practice he had noticed of Indians mixing English words while speaking an Indian language.
I took him home to meet my parents and my brothers. He told Ashis, “I have a better beard than yours,” and he deliberately poked Pritish by mispronouncing his name as British. My mother wanted to know about his family and Detienne disclosed that all his brothers, six of them, were priests in different countries, mostly Africa, except one. His mother had apparently said that she needed one near her and would not let him join the Jesuits.
The youngest brother was to get married, and Detienne wanted the bride to wear a sari, a Benarasi, for the evening reception. My mother dictated the steps involved in wearing a sari; I translated her words into French and my secretary typed them out. We helped Detienne buy a beautiful sari and he carried it to Brussels. But my mother’s instructions or my translation was poor, and the bride had to seek emergency help from the Indian Embassy before the reception. But, reported Detienne, the bride looked gorgeous, and he was the hero of the evening.
A heavy price for my nomadic life is the number of friends one lost in pre-internet days. When I connected with Detienne again after twentyfive years, he had mellowed somewhat, but he still retained his proclivity for sarcasm and dramatic gestures. He was a literary celebrity, for he had produced a stream of witty, enjoyable books that had made him a best-selling Bengali author, a literary lion.
I took it as a great compliment when one or two remarked that some of my own writing reminded readers of the flavor of Detienne. I have a whole collection of Detienne’s books. I woke up early this morning, made a cup of coffee and walked out on the deck with a Detienne book. I looked at Detienne’s picture on the cover and half expected him to jump out, make an oversized gesture and say, “Finally, you are awake!” I turned the pages and, toward the end, this is what I came across: “My time has come to leave. I have finished all that I had to say. But not quite. I will hope to see you again.”
(The writer is a US-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])