Friday, January 15, 2010

Parlez Vous Desi??

I wrote this for Sunday Times and it elicited some interesting reactions. Right now, I have the Mumbai Marathon on my mind. I'll be attempting the Dream Run, on behalf of Childline 1098. We are hoping it will soon be converted into a Category1 line, like the police or ambulance services, so that kids in distress can reach out easily without going in search of a PCO.
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I had yet another frenzied day today, but am not complaining. The two interviews I did were both interesting, starting with the one conducted by Krishnan Guru-Murthy, the popular Channel 4 news anchor. The ITN team has been in India doing a series of interviews covering a wide range of subjects. And yes, they did get to meet India's Twitter King, Shashi Tharoor.
The second interview was with Jason Orgdof, who is a free lance writer based in Delhi. He was doing a profile for a British magazine called 'Monocle' - very niche and comparitively new. It's for a slot called 'National Icon'. Well.... I'm flattered to be featuring in it. Whether I deserve to be there or not ???? Hell.... that's not my call!!
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The Bangladeshi fruit seller right outside the Segur Metro station in Paris offered me pineapples at a discount. He was the sole human being on the street, apart from my daughter Arundhati and me. Was it the beastly weather( -8 degrees?), a Sunday syndrome … or both? “ It’s just Paris,” Arundhati explained. The Parisiennes take their Sundays seriously. They also take their breaks ( X’Mas, for example), equally seriously. Nobody works. The city comes to a standstill. And God help you if you need something desperately – something as basic as milk , veggies, bottled water. Nothing stays open, not even your friendly , neighbourhood grocer – unless that person is Korean\Desi. I looked at the scrawny Bangladeshi dressed like an abominable snowman, shivering in his inadequate , thin winter coat, with a tattered muffler around his neck, the icy wind cutting easily into his threadbare gear, and wondered what could have driven him so far away from home? If it was poverty and hunger, well, he looked undernourished and poor standing forlornly on that pavement, waiting for a stray commuter to pick up a pineapple or two. He was a regular there, my daughter told me ( she lives in Paris), and she often bought fruit from him, more out of a feeling of kinship than even the competitive pricing ( how much can one save on a pineapple, anyway?). Strangely enough, they spoke French with one another. I heard the exchange and was most amused. The man knew Bangla, but no English. His French, as it turned out, was pretty good. I was curious about his immigrant status and wanted to ask him whether he had his paper work in place, but my daughter’s fingers were beginning to turn purple in the cold. “It is none of your business”, she hissed, and we swiftly moved on with a pineapple we weren’t going to eat.
A couple of blocks away, I had frequently spotted two homeless drunks who had taken over a small corner of the pavement and made it their personal space. Whenever we passed them, they’d be swigging from a bottle of wine, smoking cigarettes and chatting happily. They looked like they had not a care in the world – perhaps they didn’t! The state paid for the booze and ciggies ( indirectly), and if they needed medical attention, the state paid for that as well. There are thousands of such people living on the streets of Paris at government expense. The tax payers hate them, but there’s little anybody can do with the growing numbers of these shelterless people. Beggars don’t fall into this category – and there are many of those, as well. At least, the Bangladeshi was trying to earn a living.
‘Le Crise’ (The Crisis) as the recession is referred to, is talked about constantly, but going by the hordes flocking into Galleries Lafayette and buying, buying, buying, there was no evidence of this ‘crise’. “ Tourists,” sniffed a BoBo ( an amazing category representing a subculture known as the ‘bohemian bourgeoisie’). “ Tourists,” in French, is almost an insult. They bring in the bucks, but locals shun them and the places they frequent. Most of the old -fashioned traditional French restaurants cater exclusively to these despised creatures, since the French themselves cannot afford these pricey places ( remember, le crise?) any more. This leads to much resentment, even at small bakeries which serve the best breads ( bread, is a religion in France), which are steeply priced ( Marie Antoinette was right – cakes are cheaper!). For the same reason, nobody takes taxis. “Too expensive….” the locals shrug, while freezing their butts off waiting for the metro. Pennies, sorry, centimes, are diligently counted before buying even a single macaroon. Oh…forget about owning a car. Especially an expensive car. “ People here are too jealous,” explained a beautiful tv anchor over a New Year’s day dinner, adding, “ They see a fancy car, and something happens inside them – they’ll go to any extent to damage its sides with keys, or even slash the tyres.” She rolled her eyes skywards before concluding, “ The French love to suffer and like feeling guilty about wealth.” Other guests at the table nodded in agreement and looked exceedingly morose. What an admission!
What about the celebrated ‘Joie de Vivre?”. What about the Great French Lover? What about excess and hedonism, for god’s sake?? That question led to much shrugging and sighing. I prepared myself for another round of ‘Le Crise’ conversation. I almost refused the next glass of champagne. But just as suddenly, everybody cheered up – a basket of freshly baked bread had arrived. We cooed over the loaves and chorused our approval. The lights show at the Eiffel Tower was on right outside the French ( what else?) windows of the apartment . Even though our hosts felt the hourly illumination was a colossal waste of tax payers’ money, it was agreed the wretched tourists (me!!) loved it.
As we trudged home ( didn’t dare take a cab, in case the hosts were watching!), I thought of the shivering Bangladeshi fruit seller once again. I sincerely hope Le Crise treats him better in 2010.C’est la vie…

13 comments:

sepo said...

i read this article in the sunday times and just lovedd it..!! i mentioned it in one of ur previous posts as well..!!

the story of the pineapple guy especially touched me nd ofcourse the info. on the paris culture was insightfull

gauri said...

The pineapple guy reminds of an incident in class when I was in FYJC. Looking outside the window, I asked my teacher out of curiosity, "Madam, aren't these people in slums fool to leave their homes and land up here to live like destitute at times?" She replied by saying, "My dear, at least they get to eat here.... If not twice, at least once a day."..

EQcoachindia said...

Hi Shobhaa,
Had gone to Paris in 2006 and your post made me a bit nostalgic, I fell in love with the city, there is something magical about it.....though you brought out a different dimension to Paris or Parie ... fully agree with the your tweet, watched Arnab on Times Now on australian prob, the discussion became a joke with someone of Parthasarthy stature saying they are illegal immigrants, hello, so pl kill us we dont deserve to live!!!

ves21 said...

Next time Vous comme to Paris during LA (!!! ) crise, come & have a glass of champagne in my tent under the pont Alexandre - not paid indirectly by the State (le champagne i mean, but by the bloody tourists. Well hamen desi tourist who buys me precious pineapple pasand he! Aur I don't know if i should speak Inglish or English with desis....

Alex Engwete said...

I gather you finally found your lost travelogue post from Paris? The story of the Bangladeshi is fascinating... I've always been fascinated by those encounters of Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis at a remote place called the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In case you didn't know, there are contingents of thousands of Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani peacekeepers working side by side in the Congo. If only they could bring back home that sense of cooperation, problems would suddenly vanish in your neck of the wood!... But I was digressing. This page from your travelogue is just masterly--to say the least...
And I'm proud to be following the blog of an Indian icon...

Himanshu said...

nice one really i never go overseas but now get a good idea of that especially the fruit sellers and the homeless thanks

bhawna said...

have never been to paris, but i never imagined something like the fruitseller incident....once again an eye opener...city of romance doesnt prohibit beggers to have a scoop of it

The Panorama said...

"The state paid for the booze and ciggies ( indirectly), and if they needed medical attention, the state paid for that as well. There are thousands of such people living on the streets of Paris at government expense. The tax payers hate them, but there’s little anybody can do with the growing numbers of these shelterless people."

Seen from the eyes of the tourists. I don't feel sorry for the taxpayers at all( I am one of them, living in another country that is also known for high taxes.
We pay taxes for a lot of things not just so that the sick and the homeless can benefit from it.But the way some taxpayers bitch about it, you'd think they don't get anything out of it themselves. It isn't true. They do. They just lack the humanity to feel compassion and help those who fall out of the mainstream society.

Nice post otherwise:)

bindu said...

Hi Shobhaa,the plight of the fruit seller touched me.In my neck of woods,its the state of the Afghani children that's heart wrenching.You find these tots,instead of being at school at every traffic signal peddling chewing gum,napkins & the like.Pity nobody's doing anything 'bout it.

jkdkaur said...

I've been hoping you'd write something about the Haitian catastrophe but I'm astonished at the way you've ignored it completely.You could do a great deal in helping bringing some relief to the affected people.

Amal Nicholas said...

well,add some dust, litter, pan stains, a few bad roads and truckloads of people, and I think Paris sounds just like Bombay!

BecomingMe said...

Really good read. You really should consider writing about your travels... unless you already have and I missed it!

Sidhusaaheb said...

A number of those homeless folk died of the cold this winter, I've heard.