Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Don't Spare Me the Lecture

When I saw the name of the event published in the University Gazette I knew I had to attend: "The Bapsybanoo Marchioness of Winchester Lecture." The lecture could have been on cuticle growth in South American ungulates or the economic ramifications of medieval shipbuilding techniques and I would have been there. After all, how often do you get to hear someone say the word "Bapsybanoo"?

Held last week in the Examination Schools, the Bapsybanoo Marchioness of Winchester Lecture is one of those annual endowed lectures that universities such as Oxford are rife with. Someone dies and leaves a pot of money to serve two purposes: 1. to further knowledge on a particular subject and 2. to keep alive the donor's name.

And what a name! Born in India in 1902, Bapsybanoo Pavry was the daughter of a Zoroastrian high priest. She moved to Britain as a young woman and, according to bits and pieces I gleaned from the web, was quite the society beauty. Among her acquaintances was the 16th Marquis of Winchester, four decades her senior. It was not until 1952, when she was 51, that she married the 90-year-old Marquis and earned her title. (As you are no doubt aware, a marchioness falls between a countess and a duchess in the leader board of British aristocracy.)

The union was not to last, however, for just a few weeks after the nuptials, and before the marriage had been consummated (at least according to the subsequent divorce case), the Marquis left the Marchioness for another woman. That the other woman happened to be Eve Fleming, the mother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, adds a nice touch to the story.

Before she died in 1995, Bapsybanoo endowed at least three things: the Oxford lecture, an annual academic prize and a community center in Winchester. The community center, it is speculated, was prompted by her disappointment at not being greeted by children waving flags and banners when she alighted at some public event. A 500,000-pound bequest was made but the building still hasn't been put up, since Bapsybanoo's stipulations were very specific. The truth is, the city says it doesn't really need a community center, at least not where Bapsybanoo wanted it. So the money just sits in the bank, earning interest.

But the lecture, launched in 1996 and meant to address international relations, lives on. The title of this year's was "Islamic persuasions: pathways to change in Islamic norms," delivered by Washington University's John R. Bowen.

As 5 o'clock rolled around there were 10 people in a room that the fire marshal said could accommodate 100. "We'll give them a few more minutes," I heard the convenor say to Dr. Bowen. "They've got to find their way upstairs."

"It's the worst possible time to have a lecture," the convenor added in explanation. "Thursday of Seventh Week. Lord Rees is speaking. Edward Mortimer is talking about the U.N. There's someone lecturing on Virginia Woolf.... Mind you, you're probably not competing with all of those."

"Well, Virginia Woolf I'm not," Dr. Bowen noted dryly.

Three or four more people drifted in and Dr. Bowen began. "I'm happy to have such a distinguished audience," he said good-naturedly. "Which is what you say when it isn't a large one."

The lecture--on how different Muslim communities adapt, or try to adapt, sharia law to their particular places--was rather interesting. I'm sure Bapsybanoo the Marchioness of Winchester would have approved.

3 comments:

Candadai Tirumalai said...

The Zoroastrian descendants of those who fled Persia centuries ago are the Parsis of India, an enterprising though dwindling community, of whom the Tatas are the most famous representatives. A century or so ago a Parsi was the first Indian member of the House of Commons.
As for the lecturer you heard, Milton too hoped to have for his "Paradise Lost" a fit audience though few.

mark from alexandria said...

The City of Winchester must never have seen the movie "Field of Dreams"...if you build it, they will come.

Adi said...

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