I lived in New York for two years in the mid-nineties, between 1995 and 1997 to be precise. When I look back upon those years, I see a stay divided into two distinct and equal periods; the first year when I was not a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the second year when I became one. Membership entitled me to the privilege of free admission for one year to the museum as and when I chose to go, which towards the end turned out to be quite often. If I ever sit down to write about my New York sojourn, I’ll have a lot to say about the Met. I have spent many a weekend ambling through its galleries, taking in the masterpieces of artistic creativity hanging on the walls or encased in glass showcases or strategically strewn around in the aisles and corridors. An equal fascination was the international collection of the bold and beautiful to be found crowding the galleries on weekends.
I went there for the first time on a tranquil Sunday morning. This was the weekend after the Labour day holiday which officially spells the demise of summer in America. I had two of my colleagues with me and after three tiring hours spent sauntering through the galleries, we were truly a tired and hungry lot as we made our way into the museum cafe. The place was very crowded. We took our trays, picked up the sandwiches and drinks, and began searching in earnest for a place to sit. We spotted an elderly lady alone at a table meant for four. We took her permission and seated ourselves.
We talked among ourselves like we always did, in a mixture of Hindi and English, which seemed to arouse her curiosity. It was not long before she wanted to have her doubts set right. Did we belong to India? She was pleased as punch that her hunch was right (the rhyme, I confess, is not up to the mark but call it a quirk, I insist on retaining it here). Having thus identified our nationalities for starters, she was soon to join us in our conversations. She talked slowly and haltingly, peering closely every now and then, into our faces, looking for the often elusive signs of encouragement to carry on. Her voice was hoarse and masculine, a quality I believe is identified by the term “virilescense”, that comes in some women with age. Behind her thick glasses, her eyes appeared magnified but they seemed very alive. She was alone and had come down from New Jersey specifically to see the retrospective on Winslow Homer (a nineteenth century American painter) that was then on at the Met. Her son had dropped her at the station from where she had taken the NJ transit to Penn station. Her husband had died early. They were Jewish. She had managed to put all her children (and there seemed to be five of them) through college. Now, they were all settled in life and doing very well
I am not certain how we came about to the next part of the conversation. The fact is, we were soon to find ourselves talking about war and the horrors of war. Not surprisingly it was a subject that touched her deeply. After all, it must be remembered she was Jewish and, what was more, of an age to whom the Holocaust is not just another gory chapter in History but a painful, festering wound that time has not healed. This was also a subject about which she had thought a lot. She did not come across to me as an intellectual, or even one with faint pretensions to being one. Therefore, I do not mean thought in that sterile, scholarly sense which culminates in doctoral dissertations or articles for publication in academic journals. She had thought about it deeply in the way that ordinary people with mundane concerns think deeply about issues that affect and bother them —with the heart, and to a rather lesser extent, with the mind.
She had this interesting theory which I was to hear for the first time and therefore one for which I shall grant her credit for conceiving. “If only”—her voice taking on an authority that belied the infirmities wrought by her age —”if only more women were to become leaders of nations and governments, there would be fewer wars”. No, she was not over. She did have her substantiation for such an off-beat conclusion. By now, I was curious and truly eager for her to continue. She went on, aware that for once she had our undivided attention, “Because no woman would ever like to send her son to war”.
It was a theory that possessed the merit of appealing simplicity. I now think I should have let matters rest, conceding to her a moment of unalloyed triumph. But no. My years of training as a sceptic, with a deeply ingrained distrust for the conventional easy wisdom, was to assert itself. “At least three major wars in the twentieth century”, I began in a low key manner that held no hint of the fact that I was about to lay waste her pet theory. “Three major wars in this century involved women prime ministers. In 1967, Golda Meir took Israel to war with the Arabs. In 1971, Indira Gandhi led India to war with Pakistan over Bangladesh, and in 1983 Margaret Thatcher took Britain into battle with Argentina over the Falklands”.
If I thought I had just had the last word, I was quite wrong. She was not done yet. As she was Jewish— and it bears repetition once again—what she had to say in defence of Golda Meir was predictable. “Golda Meir had no choice. Otherwise, the Arabs would have destroyed Israel.” No, she was not aware about Indira Gandhi and the circumstances of India’s 1971 war with Pakistan. “As for Margaret Thatcher”—and she said this with vehemence and such strength of conviction that I was taken aback—”I don’t think she was a woman”.
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