As the summertime approached, we were engaged in another holiday search; the destination was as usual France, so it wasn’t too far to drive, and we could enjoy the freedom of going anywhere we wanted, and anytime. We booked a camping site in a small village in Normandy called Le Brévedent. Normandy evokes a lot of familiarities, the most significant of them is, of course, the D-day landing sites. So our choice was made, that D-day beaches will definitely be the place not to miss. The first item sorted on the list, we were gazing through TripAdvisor and Visit Normandy websites to look for other attractions. There were many places to choose from — historic Caen and its patrimony related to William the conqueror, the famous Bayeux tapestry and other museums, the Riviera of Normandy Deauville-Trouville and Honfleur, picturesque small villages in Pays d’Auge region. Amongst all these difficult choices, almost by chance, I came across Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux, one of the most important places in France for Catholic pilgrimage. Our penchant for religious architecture made me tentatively put it on our list, although apart from looking at an elegant edifice almost reminiscent of Basilique de sacré-cœur in Montmartre, I had no idea about the place, its significance in Catholicism or what I’ll soon be discovering — an arcane connection between a remote Catholic monastery in rural Normandy and me!
Spending most of my youth in Calcutta, the city is in my veins. A place I still call home, the city I’d not replace with any other place. In a world rapidly transforming at a lightning speed, it still didn’t bother me how Calcutta dug its heels in and held on to the character it portrayed for over the last 300 years. The rickety facades along the bylanes of north Calcutta leading to an ocherous swathe we call Ganga, the fish markets of Gariahat where you desperately want to look closely at the fish but don’t want the mud splatter on your new sandals, the central Calcutta with its confluence of nationalities and religions living in harmony and camaraderie, and to the swank South City shopping mall or affluent Alipore mansions — Calcutta has a vibe about it that I seldom found anywhere else. A perfect example of adopting a multilingual and multicultural personality without banishing its own inherent cultural roots and character, Calcutta is indeed a fatal attraction. And that attraction, or familiarity, is not just limited to India, but across the world. Apart from being known as the pearl of the British Empire in its heydays, and the perceived cultural capital of India, there is one person whose reputation has made the City of joy known to people from far corners of the world, not just amongst the intellectual circles, where most of the renowned Calcuttans belonged. That person is Mother Teresa, who’d soon be canonised as the Saint of the gutters. I don’t believe she cured the unknown Brazilian man long after her death, but she had nevertheless made miracles happen while standing by the poor and distressed population of Calcutta, who we never thought of while pontificating about the cultural richesse of our beloved city. The shadow under the lamp was a term we often used during our school years; Mother Teresa was the light to that darkness in a city where, despite old money from the Raj reigned, there were more and more people in poverty and destitution, especially during the war and after the partition.
It was during searching for her early life that I came across the name of Lisieux. Agnes wanted to be named after St. Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of the missionaries; and through her life she followed the footsteps of Thérèse, devoting her life to the service of thousands, and inspire millions. So as the opportunity came to visit Lisieux drew closer, it was no longer a tourist destination – marvelling at the awe-inspiring architecture of Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux, but it was a pilgrimage for me as well, of a different kind, of witnessing the place where the journey began for Thérèse, and therefore for Teresa, one of the greatest ambassadors of the city I always call home.
The surprise didn’t end there. Lisieux highlighted another connection to Calcutta that I never thought existed. Carmel school for girls in Jadavpur is one of many high echelon missionary schools in Calcutta that boasts of excellent educational standards and alumnae. My friends, ex-colleagues, relatives — I knew many Carmelites. In fact, my cousin is a teacher there, the familiarity is that close. I often heard their alumnae be referred to as Carmelites but the term never made me delve further into its origin. Not until I learned that Thérèse joined the Carmelite order in Lisieux, a thirteenth-century order originated from monasteries in Mount Carmel near Haifa. Voilà! It was the Carmelite missionaries who were inspired by the success of the order in Lisieux, and travelled the world and opened new convents. Carmel in Calcutta is one of them. Now, there were two reasons that Lisieux became a must-see place, as a place that popularised the Carmel convents across the world, and above all, pay visit to the Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux and the shrine of Thérèse, and understand who this young lady was, who made a profound inspiration on young Agnes, beckoning her to come to Bengal. I almost felt a sense of belonging to Lisieux without even being there, through the connections it has with Calcutta.
Our travel to Normandy was a nightmare involving a broken down car, rain, lost day stranded in a hotel with the entire week in jeopardy…so on the second day when we were told that the car won’t be looked at until another day, our decision was made. With a replacement car, when we crossed the Seine on the bridge of Normandy, our holiday had suddenly become a reality again! The closest resemblance I could think of is when you wait for a cricket match and it rains, the pitch and outfield were all wet and you keep hoping that the match doesn’t get cancelled and after a long wait the sun suddenly makes an appearance, and although curtailed, it’s all ready to go ahead again. We had to shorten out plans to fit all the things we wanted to see in three days rather than four, but Lisieux was only 16km away, and en route the nearest McDonald’s; hence, our plan to visit Lisieux didn’t change.
After our trip to the nearest shopping our first day in Le Brévedent, on our way back to the camping site that I first noticed the Basilica. It was getting dark and the sky was overcast as it only stopped raining a while ago, and I had no clue where we were. But just as I looked around our car, the silhouette suddenly jumped out into our view. In that dim background, on the hill on our left situated the structure I already felt familiar, yet it looked like a surreal dream. There are moments when you see something remarkable and wished you had a camera in hand, and all I had in my hand then was the steering wheel. Yet, that view will be stored in my mind for a long time, if not forever.
Two days later, on our way back from historic Caen, we decided to come to Lisieux. The eerie silhouette finally gained its shape, a familiar shape yet the size and grandeur were out of proportions from what was seen on a TripAdvisor page. The off white neo-Byzantine edifice was awe-inspiring, just as were the breathtaking intricate designs at the interiors and the crypt. The description of the building stops here as this is not a travelogue, and the rest can be found in any travel guide. On the contrary, it was my attempt to connect the dots in my mind, with a young Albanian nun starting her life of sacrifice and charity, her becoming an inseparable part of the persona of Calcutta, and therefore my existence and identity, and me standing there in the suburbs of a quaint town in Calvados country looking at the shrine of Thérèse, where this all began about 125 years ago. And another set of dots following the footsteps of the Carmelite monks, which would throw me much further back in history, at least 900 years and up to the genesis of Abrahamic faiths thousands of years ago.
And there I was, teleported to the daily life of Thérèse in Alençon, to her life in the monastery in Lisieux…walking along the sections in the crypt detailing Thérèse’s life, it started to cast more light on the early life of Agnes, and a striking similarity between the aspirations of the two women, to serve the most deprived and forlorn strata of the population…
“If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of “darkness.” I will continually be absent from Heaven–to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”Blessed Teresa of Calcutta
I love the night as much as the day…I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth. Yes, if God answers my desires, my Heaven will be spent on earth until the end of the world.”Saint Thérèse of Lisieux
That was the revelation for me. My circle was complete. It became evident that these two extraordinary women took the same trajectory of life, making small changes to people’s lives that led to phenomenal transformations. I felt like Robert Langdon standing in front of the inverted pyramid in Louvre. I was standing at the place that spiritually inspired Agnes to come to Calcutta, the city she gave all her life to, and in turn transfused the traits of her self into the character of Calcutta that I imbibed. My pilgrimage was complete — the answer to “why of all saints, Thérèse de Lisieux?” had been found, as was the answer for who the Carmelite missionaries were.
I think the natural curiosity would set me on the course for the Carmelites monks all the way to Mount Carmel in Israel. But let’s not go that far yet…let’s first, wait for a discussion on Palestine!
I thought that this post would need a few disclaimers on my motivation for writing this, and here they are…
1. Is this a religious post?
No, it is about nostalgia with me searching for the influences on Calcutta and its image outside West Bengal.
2. Does this make me feel more religious?
I’m as raving an atheist as I ever was. I have a hate-hate relationship with religion where I don’t know religion thinks of me but I’m all in to send it away to somewhere like Azkaban, banished forever from human contact.
3. Less religious then?
No, I never was religious to become any LESS religious.
4. Why then I still visit religious sites?
Because despite their religious origin, I see them as brilliant examples of architecture and craftsmanship, erected by ordinary men for the extraordinary greed and hunger for power for their rulers. The same applies to my interests in religious texts as well.
5. So, do I support the Sainthood of Mother Teresa?
Yes and No. No, because her deed didn’t need a convoluted story to establish her miracles. She made miracles happen to the lives she transformed. Perhaps the Vatican needs to reassess its policy what they treat as a miracle. Yes, because if she did this for her religion, she deserved the highest acclaim the church could proffer. And her contribution meant actually life-changing transformations through care and humility, not phoney cures with lights passing through a photo or any such trash.
The idea of Spain did not invoke many imageries when I was a child. Apart from of course the country of the bullfight, the Matadors and Spanish Armada. However, my earliest recollection of Spain is a funny fact that came from a general knowledge book – a common sight in eighties’ Calcutta, mainly sold by hawkers on footpaths and public transports. There was a Spanish village, where all the people are born with seven fingers in their hands. In those books, written in Bengali, the name if the village was shown as ফের ভোরা ডিবুই ট্রাগো or “Fer Vora Dibui Trago”. I could not check the veracity of this information then, as our mind worked as a darkroom putting the information away but later in its hard to find them, although they are always there. About thirty years later, searching for this fact showed two references, one in Ripley’s believe it or not and another from Berkeley Times in 1929, claiming that there is a Madrid suburb, where people have six or more fingers as the norm with five fingers a rarity. Cervera de Buitrago, the township was misinterpreted by the Bengali compiler, but it’s amazing how news about a township around Madrid landing up in a general knowledge book in Calcutta many decades later.
Coming back to the reference to Spain, as I grew up, with the penchant to know about the world we live in, I soaked up all the information in the geography books about Europe, from industrial regions in Ruhr to Steppes in Russia and then about Sevilla steel. In 1992, when I watched my first Olympics I was stunned by Barcelona and how in grandeur and culture it only rivalled Paris. Starting to learn a bit more about sports and especially the fact that football teams show the name of the cities, made me aware of some other cities — Valencia, Bilbao, Zaragoza. Other than football, with time I came across names of famous Spaniards from a diverse background and time ranging Cervantes to Pablo Picasso to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. However, I did not have a complete image of Spain as a country and its culture for a long time, all such previous snippets formed a jumble of jigsaw pieces that needed putting together.
I read For whom the bell tolls around the year 2000, which gave me a little more insight about Spain, but that was a long time ago and the information somehow was lost in the way. However, the mysteries of Spanish culture slowly started to unfurl through Shakira, when she shook the world with her “whenever wherever”. That was, in essence, my first taste of Spanish language and music, although by then Spanish pop was quite popular in far corners of the world through Enrique Iglesias Ricky Martin and other new talents of the nineties. The songs of Shakira created enough interest in learning about Spanish music and language that made me buy a collection of her Spanish songs. Then in 2008, when I was coming to the UK, I decided to widen my gamut of languages, adding Spanish to the repertoire. And thus began endless nights of staying up at night, chatting with people from Spain and South America, which has given me first ideas of the structures of the language and words.
Then in 2008 whilst Cranfield, my next-door neighbour Clara took up a job in the community centre as a Spanish teacher and persuaded by her, I decided to join the Spanish class. Also, while listening to Shakira around this time, I came across a band named Amaral, and Miguel Bosé. The growing interest in the language paired with the love for Spanish music gave me a perfect platform to learn more about the country. Since Cranfield, I continued following this newfound passion through listening to Spanish music and watching Spanish films.
It made me appreciate Spain as a confluence of different cultures that extended its roots all over the world. How Spain remained, like Turkey, a witness of the coexistence and conflicts of Christian and Islamic regimes, how it even stayed under a dictatorship in the twentieth century, how bullfighting is still a popular sport in Spain, and how Spanish economy is on the brink of a meltdown — it paints a grim picture sometimes, but isn’t that always the case if we keep aside our nationalistic pride? To me, Spain is a country always gleaming in Mediterranean sunshine, the land of Alhambra and Santiago de Compostela, home of tiki-taka football, the country with arid landscape and gateway to Africa. Spain is the land of Paella, of colourful food but without being spicy, it is the ritualistic tomato-throwing in La Tomatina, the ideological debate between Madrid and Barcelona. But above all, it is the home of the fiery Spanish language, which is extended from literature to music to performance arts like dance, films, theatre and form the very core of the Spanish life and existence.
I didn’t intend to write a treatise on every country I plan to visit. My travelogues will serve that purpose. This is an exception that occurred to me, while we were planning the places to see on our Spanish holiday in October. Looking at the volcanic Canary isles, their famous lunar landscape and surroundings of deep blue Atlantic ocean in the Google StreetView reminded me that there is Spain beyond the European mainland, but the spirit is still unmissable, and the sun pours out its unabashed rays of golden sun all round the year — a far cry in the UK near arctic circle. The expectations of a great holiday in the glorious sun made me reflect how well that picture blended with my imageries of Spain. From a fun fact of people having seven fingers, past thirty years have added many pieces of the conundrum, and finally setting foot on the Spanish soil will be a giant step in bringing all such snippets together. Now just looking forward to la playa y el sol…
This is an exact copy of the report I had written as a synopsis of the personal reflections during the International Business Experience tour to China during my MBA in 2009. Just sharing this report here as it raised some poignant questions on our view to society…
Scenario-1 Day-1 in China, at the Urban Planning Exhibition Centre, Shanghai
The Chinese guide explaining in her inept and deeply-accented English the history of Shanghai and the upcoming Expo 2010 to her entourage from Cranfield. Not many understood everything, but a number of us stated smiling derisively, some aloud. People marvelled at the miniature architecture, but not the guide for the showing us around – the mechanical way of speaking without much personal touch was considered, to the least, cold.
Scenario-2 Same Day, at McDonald’s restaurant
We had difficulty in placing an order for the vegetarian menu, as would happen anywhere in the world. The conversation between my colleague and the lady managing the till was like this:
Colleague: “Do you speak English?”…Lady: “No English”… Co: “Does anyone understand English here?”…No reply… Co: “ENGLISH! ENGLISH!”… After much toil when we are seated, my colleague commented: “Oh hell, no one speaks English here, we are far better off in India”. I’m still struggling to find the link between being an Anglophone and being better off in life.
Scenario-3 Day-3, Yuyuan garden commercial centre, the silk factory
Our tour guide for the day, Marie, showed me around the area, and I purchased some raw-silk items. On our way back, she excused herself to register some information about visitors at the counter. Afterwards, I asked her blatantly about the amount of commission she gets. She informed that it’s something they have to do for the municipality. In that unfamiliar situation, I tried to make assumptions drawing from my Indian context.
Scenario-4 Day-7, Beijing Chaoyang theatre acrobatic centre
The entry pass to the acrobatic show mentioned that the guests must enter before the time of the show; else they’ll have to wait until the intermission. Yet, some entered the hall even after 30 minutes from the start. Most of the people in the hall were foreigners. The ticket said, “no photo or video during the show”. The trapeze artists were performing a frightening game of balancing on a 30 feet high wheel, without any safety rope. Yet, the majority of the visitors clicked their cameras indiscriminately – most of them with a flash. The temptation of capturing some memento on a foreign land contained the risk of life-threatening injury. But why bother! “The security didn’t prevent us!”
I tried to provide a few snapshots of some of the situations I encountered on the China trip, but as a whole, it reminded me of the lectures we had during OBPPD and People Management, especially about doing business with completely different national cultures. Although IBE meant to enhance the business experience, and with visits to the numerous companies from different industry sector and size, the learning was exceptional, to me, the best learning was the cultural exposure, to watch and be a part of the transactions among people with geographical, cultural and linguistic diversities.
The key learning was when realised that it is easy to fall into the trap of comparing and judging other cultures from one’s cultural mindset. It is easy and dangerous because once a false image about a person is created; it almost always gets more distorted following different form of ‘ladder of influence’. It might seem difficult to interact with people from a completely unknown cultural values and contexts, but I realised from this trip that it only takes the willingness to learn and accept the contrasts, to bridge the gap. Kudos to the MBA curriculum to have stressed on the people aspect so much – it is ABSOLUTELY important to do business internationally.
To this point, I’d try to turn to the theme of this report. The IBE experience: visits to the companies, made us captivated within the glossy façade of cityscapes, which is expectable in most of the South-East Asian places. I wanted to see, as Jeanne-Marie Gescher mentioned – ‘the Invisibles’ of China. In Shanghai, the contrast in living standards was visible, unlike in Beijing. I wanted to interact with people to have a better insight into people’s lives; our two tour guides – Marie and Matthew provided helped me a lot on this. However, in the concluding section, I’ll talk about two other experiences, that will lead to another crucial learning from this tour.
Scenario-5 Day-6, Wangfujing shopping district
I arrived at the wrong time, as most of the shops were getting closed. A young woman approached me and asked if I speak English. Then she asked that she wanted to talk, and we talked about the place I’m from, what did I see etc. After about 5 minutes she asked whether I’d accompany her for a massage. On my denial she asked me to go for a coffee; I agreed on the condition that I chose the café. We talked for about 15 minutes, and she told me how the local police, despite prostitution being illegal in China, keep silent and extort illegal sex workers by threatening prosecution. I also, learned that tens of thousands of women, from neighbouring provinces (she was from Hebei), come to Beijing willingly or by force.
Scenario-6 Same day, same area, China foreign language book shop
I wanted to buy a book on ‘learning Chinese’. The bookseller showed me an unabridged language learning pack, with speech modulation tools etc. I kept on mentioning that I’m looking for a basic book, but she wanted me to try and learn some words in Chinese, how the accented words are pronounced etc. Only after 15 minutes of the demonstration did she mention that it’s a great language pack and it will only cost Rmb 499.
The key point that emerges from these two scenarios, confirmed by Rob Hughes of Linde, that business in China is all about relationships. Establishing a workable relationship or communication is a prerequisite, before even making a business proposition.
To conclude, the China IBE added new dimensions to my lines of thought – to understand, interact and do business with people from the diverse cultural setting, which will enrich me and my values in the long-run.