| Nothing pedestrian
I can’t remember it exactly, but T.S. Eliot had a great observation about the first thing hitting you upon arriving in a different country being the smell of the place. To build on that, smell also sends memory-dominoes toppling whenever you arrive in a foreign place you’ve visited before. People have described with great poetry the smell of Paris in the past, the acrid whiff of French tobacco (Gauloises or Gitanes, take your pick) paired with strong coffee, the loaded plates of food swimming by in the bistros, the open gutters, the pissoirs, the different flowers in the great gardens and so on. For me, the trigger-smell remains that of fuel fumes hanging in the cold air as you come out of Charles de Gaulle airport on a late autumn morning. That smell presaged my being enveloped by all of western Europe when I first took a sniff of it in 1975, and that, at least, hasn’t changed much.
This time, I arrived at 6 am and spent half an hour pleasurably breathing in what seemed like very clean diesel as I waited for my bus. On the way from the airport to Montparnasse, I counted nine McDonalds, all tastefully done up with a rust-coloured ‘M’ logo on their very French-looking awnings. I looked for traces of arson and other kinds of trashing at each site but, alas, without success. Consoling myself that Paris was attacked by millions of taste-challenged tourists every year, I proceeded to go on a strictly French food binge for the next few days. My insatiable craving for la cuisine and le vin phorashi was countered when I reached Lille for my small gig at the India festival that’s draping the city for three months. The organizers, extremely generous and even more well-meaning, had organized several non-French meals for us — the assumption being that we desis would not be able to survive too well without regular doses of spice and chilli. So the superb carbonnade of veal at lunch was balanced by the unexceptionable Thai meal at night, and so on. Not wanting to live up to any grossly undeserved reputation for being difficult that might have attached itself to me, I went along with the company of fellow lekhhoks, uncomplaining and compliant, till the Sunday lunch presented itself.
We had just heard a proper, musical gig by Amit ‘This is Not Fusion’ Chaudhuri and his backing band of Calcutta rockers (including a brilliant bassist) when we were told where we were being given lunch: Le Palais du Kachmire. “S’il vous plait, mais non!” I said, using up eighty per cent of my French in one pithy sentence before reverting to my fourth favourite Indian language, “Please can we not have French food'” Some element of my pleading got through and a French restaurant was quickly organized, a lovely open air place in the centre of town and, it seemed, as far away from suburban Palace of Kashmir as Kashmir itself. One of the hosts recommended something called a ‘toutib’ and a few of us ordered it. When the toutib came, it was a thing of beauty: a piece of superbly cooked steak, topped with melted Roquefort and bracketed in a very nice wholewheat bun of local provenance.
It was, in fact, one of the best cheese-burgers I have ever tasted. Crunching into it, I wondered yet again why the French allow the ubiquitous global fast-food chains any foothold in their sacred culinary space. Then, somewhere between a bite of meat and a sip of red wine, I had it. They allow them for the same reason they don’t march in outrage at all the ghastly ‘Indian’ restaurants, all the dreary Tandooris and Taj Mahals — because that ‘food’ makes French cooking look even better than it actually is.
Think about it; imagine a chain of decent udipis, or a franchise of good Bangali mishti’r dokaans, or even a proper Mughlai restaurant which didn’t produce its curries out of tins; imagine the locals developing serious addiction for upma, rava dosa or mishti doi and khejur gur’er norom paak shondesh, imagine a proper Hyderabadi biryani competing with some dull pseudo-Spanish paella stall and you imagine the empire of French bourgeois culinary self-confidence being shaken to the core. Perhaps not something desirable in a society besieged by so many other dangers, not least of which is the inexorable spread of English and its Siamese twin, Computerese.
If you let yourself follow this logic a bit further, then a really dreadful thought wakes up: could there be a similar reason why, all too often, Westerners, especially the French, have feted and felicitated some our most mediocre painters, film-makers and writers' Could it be that the different segments of the famed French intelligentsia are actually all too aware of how pedestrian some of the ‘names’ are that they have invited over from India' Could it be that it isn’t, as we suspected previously, plain old laziness and ignorance but shrewd insight that has led to some quite bizarre celebrations of so-called ‘maitres Indiennes’ at the expense of genuine talents' Where the exotic poseur-painter, the pseudo-cineaste, and the loud charlatan of a writer have all served to bolster some fraying Gallic sense of cultural self-esteem'
The fact that some would immediately include this writer in their list of usual suspects didn’t stop the thought from accompanying me all the way from Lille in northern France to Marseilles and then Arles in the stupendously lovely south. On the non-smoking, superfast TGV train to Marseilles, I formed a small community with other nico-despos, who got off at each 5-minute stop and puffed madly away on the platform — again, not something you would have seen in the not-so-long-ago France of smoke-filled trains.
The small town of Arles is where Vincent van Gogh lived and painted for many years. In the Maison de la Sante, the nunnery, where Van Gogh recovered from his bout of insanity, resides the Collège International des Traducteurs Littéraires. CITL, as it is more often called, is a fantastic little place for anybody translating literature into or from French. The library and workspace sit under the vaulted roof and the second floor has a hostel where visiting translators can stay, with a large common area including a kitchen where they can cook. My talk with the college took a couple of hours one evening, (an insightful, probing session about my novel between the director of the college, my French translator and myself which re-convinced me that there was a point to this fiction-writing lark) and then there were the rewards. Most immediately, there was dinner, and no nonsense about Indian food at all (in any case, Arles probably, thankfully, doesn’t have a subcontinental eatery) but a very good French bhojon which included several different parts of duck.
The next day found me wandering through the old Roman bullring, the early Christian cemetery called Alycamps and through winding, narrow streets that reminded me oddly of Ahmedabad. Somewhere there, apropos of nothing, I suddenly thought of the huge bookstore in Lille and the tables stacked with Indian writing that had been translated into French. There was Manto, and Mahasweta’s La Mere de 1084; right besides were the Palais de Tandoori equivalents, of course, but I had to admit that not all of it was bad or silly. Trailing behind this admission came another one: for every know-nothing, arrogant French Indophile there are an equal number of phorashis who know a bit about our culture and many more who are willing to learn. For this, along with the toutib and canard and Van Gogh and Matisse, I suspect we should be thankful.