Prologue: As I approach my sunset years I realise I have a large bagful of anecdotes from my thousand trips abroad and my bountiful embarrassing encounters that might make for some entertaining titbits. This is one from that bag.
It was early December 1971, or in nerd-speak it was 27 BG (Before Google). I was a fresh graduate employed as management trainee. In those early days an MBA bestowed a halo on us. Five months into my traineeship the management asked me to travel to Finland to renegotiate an important contract. I had been handling the business via phone and mail and a thing called telex- so it did not come as a big surprise. But the possibility of screwing it up made me pause. Going abroad was an attractive proposition, so after only a brief thought I said yes. My middle-class parents were thrilled their son was going to “a foreign land “. For my parents, migrating from a tiny village to Bombay was indeed like going to a foreign land.
As I was born and bred in Bombay, naturally I had no woollens. But I did not want to invest heavily in them, in case it turned out to be a one-off trip. I decided to be very circumspect and buy the cheapest woollens. I decided to visit to the famous chor bazaar, much to my parents’ disgust (they had their pride). I found a smart, what looked like almost-new, Indian Air Force officer’s woollen jacket (with no epaulettes) that fitted snugly. It was jauntily cut and made of good wool and just wearing it straightened my spine and added inches to my height. I felt battle ready.
I arrived at Tampere in west Finland after a change at Helsinki. It was night and in winter the nights there are inky black. There was no sign of my host. A first trip to Europe, in winter, landing in a tiny airport on a dark moonless night, with not a taxi in sight – it drove a frisson of fear. I sought the help of the airport staff to call up a taxi (I had no local coins). I stepped out of the heated Terminal to experience my ‘first real cold’. It was a blunder – a fierce freezing Arctic wind was blowing outside. Soon my teeth were chattering and the cold had penetrated my bones. It was minus 20 C outside. Viking mythology has Hell as a freezing cold place; not the inferno we all know. I agreed with the myth. Hell in Finland must be freezing – no fires could survive in that cold.
The following morning Ted and I met in the hotel lobby. He was a large bear of a man with a hug to go with it, and he apologised for having mixed-up my date of arrival.
Ted: “Welcome to Finland, Mahatma” (His Finnish tongue could not get around to pronouncing ‘Mahendra’, so he decided to use an easy name from history.)
I: “Thanks Ted. Yes so far it has been a bundle of surprises.”
I am sure he did not catch the irony.
Ted: “Your first trip to Europe?”
Ted: “And you chose December of all months! Well, you’ll learn.”
I: “Yes, the cold is something very new.”
Ted: “Take your coat and let’s go to the office”
I: “Coat? What do you mean? I am wearing one”
Ted: “No, not your jacket, your coat”.
I: “Oh! This is a jacket? It’s all I have.”
He pointed to his long overcoat worn over a ‘jacket.’ The chor bazaar salesman, who was my winter dress consultant, may not have been the right advisor for clothing for minus 20 C.
Ted insisted we go to a department store first: “I don’t want Mahatma dead on the first day.” For a big man he had a childlike smile. At the store I looked at the choice of coats on offer and selected one with Ted’s help. He suggested a triple layered coat. The layering was clever: you zipped off and peeled each of the layers as the weather warmed up and use the outer coat all seasons. I bought it.
I liked Ted’s office: large and warm. Huge windows looked out on to the town square and gave me my first real glimpse of a town in Europe. I was mesmerized at the street-scene I saw: the earth blanketed with fresh powdery snow, kids in colourful clothing throwing snowballs, steeply pitched roofs shedding their excess overnight snow in slow sneaky drifts, and babies gambolling under watchful eyes of young mothers: it was a Christmas card come to 3D life.
Ted was a gracious host – he turned up the heat in the office and ordered a jug of hot coffee and some Finnish cakes. He saw me wolf them down with parental satisfaction. I forgave his leaving me in the lurch at the airport. We dived into the negotiations and after a couple of hours he suggested he wanted to bring in his colleagues into the discussions. ‘Let’s go to the club; it is nice and hot,’ he suggested.
At the club we downed a quick drink – ‘For health, Mahatma,’ and then headed for the sauna. He threw this over his shoulder: ‘The Sauna is good in this weather; it will warm you and we can discuss in a relaxed surrounding.’ My stay was very short and I was anxious to complete the negotiations so I asked if we wouldn’t be better off finishing the contract first before relaxing, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, Mahatma, we have plenty of time! And my colleagues will join us. ’
In the locker room we changed out of formal clothes and wrapped large Turkish towels around us and made our way to the sauna. Ted chose a vacant corner in the sauna. It was an immaculate place with smooth slatted benches and a fresh natural smell, which I learned was from green birch branches used by some of the guests to smack their bodies for better circulation. How much better could the blood circulate without boiling off, when the temperature was already 70-80 centigrade?
As I looked around taking it all in, Ted took off his towel and spread it on the slats as a cushion. His nonchalant nakedness startled me; I didn’t know where to look. I had never been in a sauna (nor publicly naked) so I wasn’t sure if this was a sauna etiquette and if I was expected to follow suit. My Indian reticence won: I decided to keep my towel firmly on.
After a short while the sauna door opened and three young women walked in and headed for us with smiles. They were young and attractive, with blonde hair and tall slim bodies with flat stomachs. Wrapped in fluffy robes they looked to me like some mythical ethereal apparitions. In my in heated hazy state they seemed to me soft and fragile and vulnerable and mesmerising; innocent deer caught in headlights on a dark winding road. Ted, still seated, waved his hand nonchalantly and introduced them – this is Katrina the finance manager, this is Lena logistics, and Helena the export manager. So this was Ted’s planned ‘business meeting’! Immediately another panic set in – should I keep sitting like Ted, or rise since I was the visitor? I had never imagined such stumbling blocks on my first trip. I rose and shook hands, my other hand holding tight the towel knot.
The girls said hellos and shook hands firmly in business-like fashion. Then in a smooth unexpected motion, they took off their robes and folded them into seats as Ted had done, and sat. Lena and Helena sat either side of me. Their outer thighs and legs were in casual contact with me. I tried to shrink my body to create a gap but it was hopeless. Their unclad state so close to me made me aware of several physical facts: their bodies were warm, their legs toned and feet immaculate. Never having seen a naked woman or having touched one, my blood was going hysterical. I dimly recalled a sign outside: ‘Mixed Sauna’ but foolish me, I had thought it was a mixed ‘sauna and massage’ place.
I noticed that out of extreme politeness no one glanced down at my towel. In all this tumult I wondered how would anyone take notes – where would they keep the pencils? I would be lying if I said I was equally polite – involuntarily I made a quick survey of the lady parts and made several mental notes; I hope I was discreet. The girls were used to being inventoried in saunas and did not flinch.
We began our discussions in earnest with the to and fro of a negotiation. After a while I stopped being aware of all the bare flesh around me. Au natuerel became natural. The girls were witty, laughed at my self-deprecating humour, and each one brought a great deal of expertise against my raw jack-of-all-trades newness. For me it was a hard baptism – the complex bargaining, the rewording of clauses, the cultural nuances, and finally the indelible joy of success. Sweat dripped all the while and droplets glistened on my forehead and their breasts and faces.
Business finally over, agreement reached, it was time to relax and make small talk. The girls were eager with questions.
Lena: “Mahatma, are you related to Gandhi?” she rhymed it with Sandy.
I: “No, no. That’s my nickname given by Ted here. He couldn’t pronounce Mahendra.”
Lena: “What does Mahendra mean?”
I: “I believe it’s one of the Indian Gods. My parents had delusions about their son.”
I was the first Indian they were meeting, so more questions followed: spicy food, vegetarianism, multiple deities, and eventually, inevitably, arranged marriage.
‘How can you marry without love?’
‘How can you know the inside persona of the person you will spend your life with?’
‘How can parents know what’s good for you?’
– the usual gamut, and I fielded them well with a sprinkling of humour, implying superiority of the ancient Indian wisdom (that was a hoax) and marriage being a journey not a destination.
Helena suddenly seemed to have thought of something and boxed me playfully on my arm and said: “Mahatma, I have been meaning to ask a personal question, I hope you don’t mind.”
I: “No, no, go ahead.”
Helena: “Do Indians always wear a towel in the sauna?”
So here it was – THE question! It must have been nagging them all the while.
I had worked hard on this trip to look very experienced and to discount my youth; a kind of battle-hardened world-travelled braggadocio. But whichever way I looked at it, I could not explain my refusal to be naked.
I said, after a short pause: “Well, actually it’s like this. In December we Hindus have to fast. And the rituals involve complete abstinence, including not showing our naked bodies to anyone else.”
Lena chipped in: “Does it mean no sex also?”
I: “Yes. No sex also”
Lena: “That must be very hard.”
I: “We don’t mind.”
There was a poignant silence as each one absorbed the grave information about an alien culture that forbade itself a necessity like sex.
Katrina, the one sitting across, had been pensive during my explanation.
She reached across and slapped my knee splattering some sweat drops.
Katrina: “You are a phoney, Mahendra. This holy month excuse is all bullshit. There is no such religious month. You are just shy. Such a babe!”
For a moment I was terrified that she would reach across and pinch my cheeks. I could never live that down. It was like Indian girls quickly converting male friends into a ‘brother’ to prevent any carnal thoughts.
Everyone laughed. Ted rose and said: let’s go; so we all trooped out; I leading, while the others stopped to put on their robes. At the door something snagged and my towel came undone and fell with a plop to the floor.