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French lawman back in tiger land

Emmanuel Pierrat landed in Calcutta from a Paris flight, staggering with two oversized suitcases. The man who came to receive him posted him in his apartment, pointed out his cook, and promptly left with the parting advice: “He speaks only Bengali. But you can try Urdu.” The bemused 22-year-old’s struggle in the city had begun. But he was not complaining. After all, it was his two years of compulsory military service that he had chosen to spend in Calcutta.

“The next month I did not know how to manage,” recounted the celebrated intellectual property rights lawyer (who counts the Victor Hugo family among his clients) about his sojourn to the city a decade ago, when he worked for the local French consulate. All that he had picked up to give a sense of direction to his life were “esho baba, dandike, bandike, that comprised the entirety of my dialogue with rickshaw-pullers”, he says, at the Alliance Francaise de Calcutta library.

Five years down the line, Pierrat is back, this time with his just-published book La Course au Tigre (The Course of the Tiger) that he read out on Tuesday evening at Max Mueller Bhavan. He accepts that the protagonist Bastien Sentiment, who encounters the Calcutta of 1977, “the changeover year in Bengal politics”, is partially the young Pierrat who groped his way around town. “But Sentiment was a serial hunter and came to Calcutta with the sole motive of adding a Sunderbans tiger to his collection of trophies. So there is more of my father in him.” Pierrat’s father Jean Michel was a policeman who loved the gun. “During my posting here, he came all the way to visit me so I could take him to the Sunderbans. Of course, the hunting restrictions were already in place and the son made sure that Pierrat senior “could not take even a knife” to the jungle. “We spent a week but couldn’t even see the tail of a tiger. My poor father was shocked.”

If Pierrat’s father missed out on his one-stop tourist destination, the son caught up on a lot during his stay. “My favourite haunt was Kumartuli. I visited all the gods round the year. Yet, whenever I tried to show my knowledge to the artisans, I would invariably go wrong.” Next on the list was Nimtala Ghat where the parrot of the seer would tell him to “gift money to the cow for prosperity”.

The writer plans to return during Durga Puja for the launch of the Bengali version of La Course au Tigre, when he plans to brush up his Bengali again.

For now, it’s time to catch up with his favourite haunts and friends. On Friday, it’s back to a Paris courtroom.

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