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French pen dipped in India ink

Winter of 1979. A Frenchman landed in Bombay, fresh from his PhD under Roland Barthes. As he made his way through the streets, the “huge burst of new reality” that is India exploded in his face. The hippie movement had just ended, leaving the damages on the streets — junkies, robbers and beggars. Add to that so many people, so many gods… Pascal Bruckner, 29, was “disturbed”.

But the same thing that scares you can also seduce you. India had seduced Pascal Bruckner. “It was a relationship of love and hatred. I had to come back. Every year,” the author says, gazing at the blue waters of The Oberoi pool after attending a lunch meet with the French ambassador, organised by Alliance Francaise de Calcutta.

In town on a vacation, the Prix Medici and Renaudot Prize winner was in memory mood. As a young man, Bruckner thinks he was lucky not to have to teach for a living. “My first work, The New Disorder of Love, had sold bigtime in Europe. So I could afford to travel,” he reflects.

If he was a tourist the first time, criss-crossing the deserts of Rajasthan, the second journey put his political acumen to test. The Italian newspaper Couriere de la Serra had asked Michel Foucalt to gather a clutch of authors to report on select countries. Bruckner was one of the chosen few and his choice was India. “Indira Gandhi had just returned to power. I stayed here for months, talked to people, went back and produced a 20-page article on the situation.”

The Eighties were exciting times. It took Bruckner to a cave at Rishikesh and a sage who had buried his own guru in there. “I didn’t understand what he said but his voice was so soothing that I spent a week there,” he recalls.

It also took the student of philosophy to the ashram of Rajneesh. But Bruckner’s reasons for signing up at the god-man’s were far from the obvious. “His Pune ashram was full of beautiful women,” he says, a deadpan voice hiding the twinkle in his eyes.

The visual delight apart, the ashram left him with mixed memories. “I didn’t buy his faith, consisting of Rolls Royce and hard work for his disciple-slaves,” he says, adding that the Osho was a “bright man”.

Bruckner may be called a bit of a seer himself. The French daily Le Monde certainly thought so. In 1985, he wrote a novel, Pariah, on an American agronomist living in India, who runs over a beggar one night. The accident has such an effect on him that instead of killing misery, he starts killing miserables. “When the Stoneman hit the Calcutta streets some years later, Le Monde wrote that my work had inspired the serial killings on the pavements.”

The author of Bitter Moon, (who feels the film was not Roman Polanski’s best), also had his first taste of Calcutta around that time. “I halted here on my way to Bangladesh,” he says, adding how he had to “beg with the English lady at the Sudder Street hotel” for a room. His interest “in the conjunction of the East and the West” took him to Ramakrishna Mission and Mother Teresa’s “squalid dying house”.

Calcutta has changed, he feels. “Gone are the beggars and the refugees on the streets. Instead there are neon signs on shops. The city looks more prosperous,” he states.

The author, who is looking forward to a movie on his book The Divine Child by a Canadian producer of Jurassic Park (special effects) fame, does not have an India project in hand. “To work on India, one has to be in a special mood. I am not in that kind of a mood now,” he smiles.

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