A very long time ago, when I was a young boy, maybe around five or six years old, I had a rather unique experience—although I wasn’t able to appreciate it until much later.
My father was then posted in Rome, Italy, at the Pakistan Embassy. It was in the very early ‘70s, and Rome, the Eternal City, was at that time very much alive, the home and playing ground of many famous people, where ‘la dolce vita’ was celebrated with great zest. Film stars and sports celebrities were a common sight on the streets—Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Franz Beckenbauer, Dino Zoff—these were only some of the people I remember seeing quite clearly. Sometimes, too, you could encounter more intellectual types, writers and poets and dramatists and such, out to catch the ‘atmosphere’ where Keats and Byron had once lived and died.
One weekend in autumn or early winter, with the smell of roasting chestnuts pervading the streets , I was walking down with my father to the famous Lion Bookshop, , where we used to both go quite regularly to check out what they had in stock, we crossed an oldish man, in a long, dark overcoat and dark glasses. My father suddenly stopped and said, “Come on”. So, I ran along with him as he followed the man and then accosted him with a few words. The man stopped and turned and looked at my father. He seemed like just any old man out on a Saturday evening walk, maybe a pensioner or something like that. His shoes were rather bulgy and his dark trousers flopped over them. He had neatly parted and slicked back hair and a dead-white face, all the more startling against his dark coat and in contrast to his dark glasses. His hands—or hand, as he slowly dug one out of his pocket and shook my father’s—were also the same, leprous colour and his fingers were rather long and trembled ever so slightly. He smelled vaguely of tobacco, up close. Somehow, the expression on his face seemed very, very tired and melancholy as if he was carrying a great weight, maybe the whole world’s weight, on his stooping shoulders; and his actions and movements were very slow and deliberate and weighty, almost robotic. Was he a dead man’s spirit? I wondered; or maybe a Zombie? One of the living-dead? Or maybe even a very sick mechanical man, his batteries and circuits worn out, who might just blow a fuse and fall down soon and die? For a moment, I also mused over the possibility that he might not be an earthling at all (I used to be very keen on Science Fiction at that point in time and a great fan of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek), maybe a Vulcan in disguise (his ears seemed a trifle prominent and pointed to me), visiting us here briefly? But I soon dispelled this idea. I don’t know why but he didn’t seem to me to be a Vulcan after all—his countenance was too emotional, intense but kept rigidly under control, not at all impassive and cool like Mr. Spock’s. Yet, why did my father want to meet him? And talk to him on the street? Was he some kind of spy (my views about embassy/diplomatic work were also rather sensationalist, then!) who had a secret tryst with my father, prearranged, here?
My fanciful musings were all of a sudden cut short as my father smiled at the stranger and said, “My son”. The man looked down at me and then bent a little and extended his long white hand towards me. I said ‘Hello’ and also extended my hand to shake his; and it was a cold hand, like a dead fish, and I shivered ever so slightly as I shook it. Wow, maybe I was right, he was a dead man, or a dead man’s spirit! Then he was gone, walking down the street again. And my father and I also turned back towards the bookshop and my father looked at me rather solemnly and said:
“My son, you don’t know who that was. But remember—one day, you can say that you once shook hands with one of the world’s greatest thinkers and writers. With Jean-Paul Sartre. And that is no small thing, let me tell you”.
And that is how I shook hands once, way back many decades ago, with Sartre. And the ‘moment’ is frozen in time for me.