The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The great French gift is supreme unconcern about triviality

Louis XIV must have turned in his grave. Versailles was his retreat from the mob, which invaded his boyhood bedroom at the Palais Royal during the civil war called the Fronde, leaving behind an indelible memory of sweat, garlic and heavy breathing while he pretended to be asleep. Recently, another mob, filthy rich and Indian, took over the Sun King’s palace for some of its nuptial ceremonies. It may be fitting that an edifice that guide-books call “extravagant, pompous, dazzling, formidable and vainglorious” should have found favour in the Mittal eyes.

Innocent of such matters, I had no idea what a cousin in Calcutta, who never leaves his room yet has his finger on the world’s pulse, meant by asking if we were coming to Paris for the wedding. It was obviously a tongue-in-cheek question, but I knew very little more about the event even in Paris. Not a whisper of it rustled the pages of Paris Match. The great French gift is supreme unconcern about triviality. Historically, it was best expressed by Henry IV’s famous “Paris is worth a mass” when he gave up the Protestant faith for which he had fought and nearly died to become monarch of a largely Roman Catholic nation.

There are few takers for mass nowadays, and it was painful to see an attendant in Montmartre’s Sacre-Coeur cathedral edging her way up and down the aisles to request hordes of tourists not to take photographs and not to chatter. France’s mood is secular. Not violent as during the revolution when sacred images were decapitated and the abbots of Cluny driven out of their magnificent medieval Gothic mansion, but intolerant of overt expressions of religious zeal. Hence, no Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, outsize Christian crosses or Sikh turbans.

Electoral statistics indicate that the far right, led by Le Pen and the even more conservative breakaway faction, is gaining ground. Thus, a certain neurosis about terrorism is creeping into life. Suspect Arabs have been rounded up. Trains will no longer allow suitcases to be placed in the luggage compartment; they must all be hoisted to the overhead rack. My argument that a hidden bomb is as likely to explode in the luggage compartment as on the rack cuts no ice. No one thinks things through. A rule has been framed in the face of self-evident danger: therefore, safety lies in blind obedience to that rule. The land of Montaigne and Lafay- ette will not reason for itself.

Obedience does not make a dent in indifference to matters that lie outside a strictly Gallic sphere of interest. The government’s threat to privatize Electricite de France can still touch a revolutionary chord, provoke widespread strikes and prompt a stinging rejection of Jacques Chirac’s ruling centre-right Union for a Popular Movement in the recent European parliament election. It captured only 17 per cent of the vote.

But the Mittal wedding is by no means the most momentous happening to be overlooked. Far more pertinently, no one is excited that the president has at last cleared the way to the Elysee Palace for his supposedly brilliant finance minister, 49-year-old Nicolas Sarkozy, for whom he is said to entertain a robust dislike. Sarkozy played ducks and drakes with Chirac’s daughter’s affections, but that might be pardoned in a land where tradition allows a man to seduce his friend’s wife but never his mistress. Sarkozy’s real crime was to back one of Chirac’s rivals in the 1995 presidential election.

It would have been different if India had placed a huge order for military hardware. The French media would have gone to town on it. But it has seen too much ceremonial to bother with the wedding even though it spread itself in an orgy of garish apparel, raucous mu-sic and gluttonous feasting over three of Paris’s most lavish hotels, the Tuilleries gardens and, of course, Versailles. I asked if Parisian high society, members of the Jockey Club, the Compte de Paris, pretender to the Bourbon throne, or Prince Murat, with his Napoleonic connections, had graced the several occasions like engagement, mehndi and sangeet. No, I was told, probably not even the Princesse de Sarila, plain Mrs Narendra Singh to you and I, whose husband, a former Indian ambassador to France, now lives in Montreaux, in Switzerland. The current Indian ambassador, Dilip Lahiri, did not attend. So who were the guests' The glitterati of Delhi, I was told, imported with the chef and the costume designer.

Paris is no stranger to Indians. “There are many Indian man in Reunion,” said an obvious ethnic Indian at Austerlitz station. When I replied in English, he thought I was Mauritian. We didn’t have a language in common and conversation petered out. The Chandernagore family is prominent in politics and design, but no one can tell me if there is a connection with the Prince de Chandernagore who lies buried (or did) in an overgrown corner of the crumbling French cemetery in the eponymous town. The French ambassador in Singapore used to sing a merry little song incorporating the names of all the old colonies in India — Chandernagore, Pondicherry, Karaikal and Mahe — but no one in Paris remembers it.

The earliest Indian connection I can think of is a family one. B.L. Gupta came to Paris in 1871, after qualifying in London for the Indian Civil Service with Romesh Chunder Dutt and Surendranath Banerjea, and was promptly arrested. The Franco-Prussian war was going badly for the French, the Second Empire was tottering and Gallic nerves were on edge. By all accounts, Gupta was a dark tubby man, then without the bald pate and full beard of later photographs. The French thought he was a spy — for whom for heaven’s sake' — and only British intervention effected release.

In the next phase, the young Jawaharlal Nehru, just down from Cambridge, called on Madam Cama, a long-time nationalist exile and perhaps the first non-resident Indian on French soil. She stared at him with dark soulful eyes and asked questions that convinced Nehru that the Parsee grande dame had lost touch with Indian reality. The notorious Sita Devi, a princess of Pithapuram, who left her husband to elope with the Gaekwad of Baroda, was yet another glittering exile to hold court in Paris. The gossip columns in the Fifties used to report her doings. She liked muted furs, finding black or brown too dull; she insisted on being addressed as Highness and when a Paris socialite asked her first name, snapped back, “Don’t bother, you won’t have occasion to use it!” Her son, Princey, came to a sad end, and she herself, separated from the Gaekwad and a Monegasque citizen thanks to Prince Rainier’s favour, lingered an invalid for many years.

On the subject of grande dames I must mention Cornelia Vanderbilt, some time Duchess of Marlborough, whose Churchill mother-in-law ordered her to have a son pronto as, otherwise, “that upstart Winston” would inherit the ducal title. She visited India in style and found the cuisine inedible even in the viceregal train. The more lasting connection is that No 2 Rue General Lambert, the gracious mansion in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower where the Indian ambassador lives, was her house. I remember Air Marshal Latif, whose wife Bilkees was a true grande dame, saying he had had to have all the wiring changed because the Vanderbilt wiring being cloth covered, had perished.

Why did the Mittals choose Paris' To go one better than all those millionaire NRIs in London, said someone. For style, said someone else, murmuring “The Judgment of Paris”. I was reminded of the archetypal dumb blonde Hollywood starlet who, hearing the phrase, airily remarked that no one bothered with Paris any longer because London and New York were the centres of fashion. Would the wedding guests — or hosts for that matter— have been any wiser, I wonder.

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