Dialogue with Prithwindra MUKHERJEE – The Cultural Shock (end of 1966)
Bertrand de Foucauld: “Can you share with us happy moments once arrived in France?”
Prithwindra Mukherjee: “At the end of 1966, the general atmosphere in France was filled with a joy of being able to forget the dark years of the Occupation. The Head of State had shown himself capable of carrying out his definition of a Glorious nation. After years of deprivation, the feasts ended with dandelions and Jerusalem artichokes. Each household had at least its 2 Chevaux a very popular cheap and strong French car, colloquially nicknamed Dodoche. Chez Ginette de Montmartre made way for the new bistros of Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des -Prés. Everyone smoked their Gaulloise cigarettes with or without filter. The American cigarettes also perfumed the air. Little by little, the traditional aperitifs – pastis, suze, dubonnet, gentian and many others, strictly organic – disappeared in favor of bourbon or, more sophisticated, single malt scotch. We danced the twist, the tango or we improvised our choreography while the discs-eater sent Lara’s Song. We went to the shows to laugh a little with Maurice Chevalier. Desperately we were looking for the sweet and sour accents of an Edith Piaff in the jet of spontaneous youth in high notes of Is Paris burning? springing from the throat of young Mireille Mathieu. Marcel Marceau was walking his Bipp through invisible walls of ice. At the Odéon, Madeleine Renaud and Jean-Louis Barrault rode Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. I had a good laugh with friend Edme, enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine; having received from his parents as a birthday present a Dodoche, he proposed, quite simply, to accompany me on my evening outings. To complete my contemporary French culture, he lent me Asterix comics. His German mother – selective in his reading – would gladly recommend these classics. Crossing the courtyard of the Sorbonne, with a Comment ça va, cher ami?How are you, dear Friend?, we received warm handshakes from a Lévi-Strauss. We also received armfuls of his publications on Christian existentialism when we visited a Gabriel Marcel at his home in rue de Tournon.
A brand new building in the 14th arrondissement, halfway between the Saint-Jacques and Glacière tube stations, housed our university residence for men. Monsieur Gautier, the guard, took me to room n ° 212 which was reserved for me. It is the most beautiful and spacious of all. It is right above the desk of Monsieur Guérin, our manager, he whispered. We were 50% of foreign scholarship holders from the French Government including a dozen from Red China (they would be recalled after a few weeks) and the rest of brilliant French students from all social and geographic backgrounds, enrolled in faculties of the capital city. Almost opposite our residence was Le Méridien de Paris, another new building, larger, more elegant. We had the impression of seeing a mustachioed man coming out of the building and a big dada with bean teeth. Jean-Pierre, my next-door neighbor, identified them: It’s Brassens! … It’s Jacques Brel! … With a wary and fierce look, Brassens looked at us, then gave a friendly smile before continuing their path. After a few days, Brassens took steps towards us and asked where we were from. India? Wonderful ! Come and have a cup of tea with me one day: I live up there. “
Bertrand de Foucauld: “Tell us also about a difficult situation in your confrontation with French culture”.
Prithwindra Mukherjee: “On a vegetarian diet in general, I made exceptions to the Ashram to accept meals with friends accustomed to meat dishes. Housed, fed, laundered by the community, we were content to take care of the work that the Mother entrusted us as a service of the Divine, being part of the Yoga of works (karma yoga). Our daily life was limited to a journey that saved us from going to the market, having no contact with money. The management of the monthly grant from the French Government – 480 francs – was very painful. The rent: 120 francs Ticket restaurant U, 1fr60, the newspaper Le Monde 0fr30, cinema (in rooms which practiced the student rate) 1fr50, hairdresser 5.00 frs: proud of the admiration of French friends for the whiteness of my teeth and the “beautiful jay color” of my mane, I saved 15frs, having dropped the hair salon. By an automatism, by leaving his hairdresser, my father father had an appointment with him day by day, thirty days later. Luckily, on Ash Wednesday, I had a private five-minute audience with Paul VI. Very happy with the beautiful photo with the Pope, my dad slipped a word: Do not forget to go to the hairdresser. After encouraging us to celebrate his eightieth birthday when, in 1989, he breathes his life, everyone will be surprised to see the absence of a single gray or white wick in his beautiful shiny black hair. Good tongues will attribute it to “a form of illness, too”.”
Although varied and plentiful, the menu at university restaurants left little choice for staying vegetarian. Eat or die, you had to get used to steak, roast beef, minced Parmentier … At the time, the storefronts exposed a whole carcass of beef (a photo of which I will find later in a Cartier-Bresson album). At the sight of such a spectacle, a deep feeling of disgust took hold of me and, for weeks to come, I was unable to swallow a single bite. The all-knowing friend Jean-Pierre, who came from Jarnac (his mother had gone to school with a certain political figure named François Mitterand), out of pity suggested that I go and consult a good homeopath, Doctor Jacques Deniau, who had his nearby cabinet at boulevard Saint Jacques.
Worried, Deniau pointed out a low tension to me: You must eat well, dear sir. If you want to stay vegetarian, come back from where you come from! As long as you are in Rome, do as the Romans do. On the book shelves behind Deniau were works by Sri Aurobindo, published by our ashram. Pointing to these books, I replied, I come from there. Impressed, Deniau offered me a complicated but effective treatment. Six years later, when we were invited to have lunch with friends of Jean-Louis Barrault, our driver – Samuel Beckett, not yet Nobelised – will stop in front of n ° 38 on boulevard Saint-Jacques: Give me two minutes; I have to drop something off at my place. To my answer why his building was known to me, SB will rave: Ah, you are being treated by Jacques. Me too. And together we read Aurobindo. “
(Cover photo: Prithwindra in 1975)