On February 24, 1942, Francis Wacziarg was born of French parents with Polish and Turkish ancestors, on a German ship in Portuguese possession, sailing on Cuban waters. To this mix of six nationalities was added Mexico, Morocco, England, Brazil and Switzerland to become the auspicious Indian number of eleven. Perhaps India was the only nation that could have so naturally assimilated someone of such civilisational diversity. This birth on a ship was 450 years after Columbus had sailed the same Atlantic Ocean in his search of the same India. This year, as we celebrate 550 years of the founding of Neemrana fort (1464-2014), which Francis and I conserved as a heritage hotel, we know that, through whatever convoluted route Francis reached Neemrana, it was he, unlike Columbus, who reached the real India, the true India.
When he first came to India 44 years ago, he did not know a single Indian. It is so hard to imagine that today. His only connection with India was Gandhi. As a skinny child, when he did not eat enough, his marvellous mother Donna would say, “You’ll grow up to be like Gandhi!” She had subconsciously pointed him in the direction of India. Francis was a reverent atheist, but also a karmayogic faqir with an aesthetic bias for Vaishnavism: he used to collect Krishna in art. I called him a Hinjew.
He first landed in India a radical journalist, after the 1968 socialist movement in Paris, to write for a leftist magazine, following the legendary E.M.S. Namboodiripad around Kerala. But by the time he returned, the magazine was defunct. He then travelled the Aurobindo-Krishnamurti route, but did not settle into being the ‘baba-cool’ hippie, so much in vogue those days: after all, he was a grounded MBA from one of Paris’s best schools. He returned to India in 1970, to work with the French Trade Commission, which put him on first-name basis with India’s industry heads and leaders of art, culture, music and cinema.
Eventually, with his successful buying-house and the Neemrana model of honest heritage hospitality, which we founded together, he became a benevolent employer, treating employees as comrades. The warm, sincere tributes from them are overwhelming: he’d have wept with joy reading them. He had synthesised Western materialism with the philosophical learnings of the East: Kipling, Marx, Smith would all have approved.
In tribute, the Mumbai Mirror wrote, “The country is mourning the loss of one of its most passionate citizens...”, and in France, Le Point called him “the Frenchman most famous in India”. Former tourism secretary Shil Bannerji wrote, “Francis represented the finest in European culture and he imbibed the best of India”, and William Dalrymple mourned the loss with “The world is a colder, poorer place for his passing.” Of Francis’s passing, Lalit Panwar, an IAS officer of Rajasthan, says, “Sometimes, even God commits mistakes.”
Francis had been the discreet but continuous ‘French ambassador’ to India for 44 years, but he was embarrassed by this recurring introduction from Indian friends, for it could ruffle both diplomatic protocol as well as egos. I think it was his humble radiance that powered all his contacts. But he was infinitely more comfortable being the French trade commissioner or cultural councillor—jobs that came almost instinctively. The only things he did not promote were French wines, though his office did represent them briefly. He never drank a glass himself and used to joke that the French had thrown him out for being a teetotaller! Nor did he use any perfume. Very particular on hygiene, he could never set out of the house without his splashy, Indian ritual bath.
It’s evident from the hundreds of mails his office has received how many hundreds, if not thousands, of French people he must have facilitated in finding their purpose, and how many used to come to tell him that they would love to step into his shoes. Francis’s India story began with Gandhi, but it could also continue on that path. It was Gandhi who said that the fragrance always remains on the hand that gives out the rose. Francis was that French fragrance for India and, in very transparent sincerity, also the khushboo of the Indian ittar for France.