Blood Sweat and Tears
April 13, 2009
My History professor in hypokhâgne at Henri-IV was an extraordinary man. He has now retired.
I hated my years there. I certainly learnt a lot, but I also spent three years holed up with books in a tiny room, being miserable and lonely. In three years, I made three friends.
However, if I had to do it again, I would, for the History classes.
Our formidable professor said that politics were like tripe-sausage, the stinkier the better. He kept telling us “Oh for God’s sake kids, don’t be so naive!”.
He lived in Normandy, coming to Paris thrice a week for his classes at Henri-IV and the Sorbonne, and loved talking about cows. After two months, even the die-hard city kids among us knew how to differentiate a Charolaise from a Normande. And we were extremely proud of our newly acquired bovine knowledge.
He quickly deflated our egos: “Everyone must be telling you you are the elite of the nation, and so on, but let me tell what you really are: a bunch of spoilt brats, whose refined education is being paid for by the State.”
Unlike most of our professors there, he wasn’t a snob. He had the largest hands I have ever seen, and when he slammed them on his desk, carried away by his description of Churchill, the 1500-year-old walls of the school would shake.
He said we brainy kids lived in a mellow sea of concepts, but that History was all about blood, sweat and tears. He insisted we describe historical characters physically. He said appearances played a big role at the negotiating table.
“Just imagine, he would say: Francois 1er, tall, handsome, I guess you would say hot. He is not in the strongest position strategically, but here he is, looking dashing, opposite Charles V, smart Charles V, but tired, short, wildly unattractive with his lantern jaw. It is important kids, it is. They were human beings!”
He is the one who taught us that promises bind only fools. “Right, so they signed a treaty. Big deal.”
I’ll never forget his course on the Middle East. He was explaining us Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud’s cunning matrimonial strategy (when Saudi Arabia was still a desert inhabited by various tribes, at the end of the 19th century, Ibn Saud consolidated his power by marrying a girl from every tribe – some say he had 22 wives, some say over 80, a jaw-dropping number in any case). We were aghast, and quite amused.
“Well, will you stop giggling like idiots! he said. There is nothing funny. This is politics, wicked politics. The man was sharp.”
We all had to research one subject during our first year, and present it to the class. It was a very clever way to make us learn about a wide variety of events and cultures. I remember the girl who had to present Nehru. She did a brilliant job, but did not once mention Edwina Mountbatten. She must have thought she’d get stoned for bringing gossip into a respectable classroom. “But my dear”, our professor said, “their affair made history. What? Do you think 1947 was all thought out by good old Dickie Mountbatten in his pretty study? My kids, don’t be so prude. Always look out for the woman.”
He did traumatize a few students. After all, his methods were rather unconventional, and we were in the temple of intellectual orthodoxy. One girl fainted during her presentation. A few didn’t like his lack of reverence towards History – especially the Hellenists, because he always said he didn’t know how they could write 900 pages about a whole civilization just by looking at a pebble. “A pebble, kids, I mean, very well, very pretty and all, but personally, I need a bit more material.”
I completely adored him. I skipped a lot of classes during my third year, but never his. I would sit enthralled, and hope it’d never end.
He was extremely funny, but never ever derogatory.
He taught me much more than History.
I gave him this blog’s address. He wrote back: “I saw some picture of saucisson, is that right?”
I had lunch with him in Paris after I moved to India. He was adamant he’d never visit me in Jaipur. “Very strange people, he said, one minute they are all gentle and preaching non-violence, the next one they are slaughtering pregnant women. Scares me. No, sorry my dear, you’ll have to marry a maharaja, then maybe I’ll come to the wedding.”
“But Sir, I said, they are awful!”.
“Oh you’re not too bad either.”