It was a glorious April morning in Paris. The sky was blue. Spring was in the air—trees covered with lilac blossoms, flower beds bursting with daffodils and tulips. People sipped double espressos and glasses of wine in sidewalk cafés. There was a nip in the air but the sunshine was as buttery as a croissant.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” a Parisian muttered grimly. “By the weekend it’s going to be grey and rainy.” Another said that it had snowed just 10 days ago.
Later, I realised Parisians are like Bengalis. They like to complain. It might be an inborn cultural negativity. Or it might be the fear that they could jinx the good weather by praising it too effusively, some Gallic version of nazar lag jayegi. Either way, they complain about the weather, their electoral choices and price hikes at the neighbourhood boulangerie with the same elan with which Bengalis complain about the weather, electoral choices and the price of mustard oil.
To be honest, it had never struck me that Paris might resonate with me as a Kolkatan. The cities are very different, historically and architecturally. Paris is a compact city, about 105 sq. km. Kolkata is a sprawling 206 sq. km. You can easily do 18,762 steps a day in Paris because it is a city ideal for walking, and increasingly so, with no-car zones along the Seine river. In Kolkata, I struggle to hit 8,000 steps because the pavements are meant for everyone except pedestrians.
Paris takes its history seriously. Its grand old buildings are meticulously maintained, their facades spruced up every 10 years by law, though the Eiffel Tower looks a little rusty. Kolkata, on the other hand, often allows its stately mansions to moulder into ruin and tears down graceful old buildings with slatted French windows to build 3BHK monstrosities.
One skyscraper in Paris, the Montparnasse Tower built in 1973, is looked upon with universal disdain by Parisians. It sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the crêperies and cafés. The best view in the area is from the Montparnasse Tower, admitted a Parisian, before explaining that that is because once you are in you cannot see the tower any more.
Paris feels like an immaculately maintained museum, a monument to good taste—and like its wine, it keeps ageing gracefully. Kolkata is also sometimes called a museum but that’s more because former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi once unkindly called it a dying city. Paris can give a masterclass in how to understand and maximise your tourism potential, something Kolkata seems to still only dimly comprehend.
But while Kolkata and Paris are very different cities, chalk and cheese almost, or Amul and Roquefort, I felt oddly at home there. Like Bengalis, the French regard holidays as sacrosanct. “Oh you are arriving on Easter Monday,” fretted a friend. “I don’t know if you will be able to buy a SIM card.” It sounded like someone warning some naive outsider trying to get something done during Durga Puja in Kolkata.
Also like Kolkatans, Parisians have an innate sense of superiority which does not necessarily match their actual clout in the real world. And like Bengalis, two French persons who encounter each other will instantly burst into excited, voluble French, not caring if it leaves everyone around them nonplussed.
There is also a shared common love for bureaucracy, coffee houses, books and a general lack of hurry despite the bustle all around. When I expressed surprise that a museum I wanted to visit opened only at 11am, Parisians shrugged as if to say, “What’s the rush?” They had a point, and, as a Bengali from Kolkata, I should have understood that.
India was the guest of honour at the Paris Book Fair this year. It was an honour that had been delayed by the pandemic. It had been meant to happen in 2020 and then in 2021. It finally happened in 2022, in the middle of the presidential run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.
Here there was a clear difference with Kolkata, though. While Macron and Le Pen consumed conversation and air time and magazine stands just as Mamata Banerjee-Narendra Modi might in Kolkata, there was none of the band baja baraat of an Indian election campaign—no three-wheelers spewing campaign songs, no graffiti, no posters defacing the walls of houses and electric boxes, no ragtag band of marching activists shouting Inquilab Zindabad. Like religion, politics was omnipresent in France yet oddly private.
A Macron supporter told me how I would know who had won. If Macron fell, you would hear a loud triumphant roar from Le Pen supporters. If he managed to win, it would just be quiet, like a hushed sigh of relief. He was right. Even those who voted for Macron because they were alarmed by Le Pen’s politics, complained he was too condescending, too smug, too know-it-all. Too much, what’s the word in English they said, arrogance. It’s arrogance, I told them, but it just sounds snottier with a French accent.
It’s true that the French accent can render everything both charming and incomprehensible. The travel writer Bill Bryson wrote, in Neither Here Nor There: Travels In Europe, about how you might try to order a loaf of bread in halting French and end up being offered a dead beaver. “No, no,” you would say, hands aflutter, “not a dead beaver. A loaf of bread.” The woman at the counter would look at you in disbelief and address the other customers in a volley of high-speed French, the gist of which was: This American tourist had come in and asked for a dead beaver, and she had given him a dead beaver, and now he was saying that he didn’t want a dead beaver at all, he wanted a loaf of bread.
I had tried to master some French before leaving for Paris. But my online language course had only allowed me to graduate from “I want cake” to “I must eat cake”, which was rather limited vocabulary, though not entirely culturally inappropriate given France’s history with queen Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution.
Armed with those smidgens of French, I tried to faux-pas my way through the book fair, the embodiment of the clueless tourist.
In reality, Paris is much more tourist-friendly these days. Some restaurants even offer you an English menu after taking one look at you silently mouthing the syllables on the French menu. On the other hand, I bravely attended a book fair session on a French operatic reinterpretation of the Mahabharat and realised the surreality of having my own epic rendered entirely incomprehensible to me. When I finally understood the words Ghatotkach and Draupadi in the barrage of French coming from the stage, I clutched at them like a drowning man at straws.
But the Indians had their linguistic revenge. The sessions at the India Pavilion at the book fair, designed by India’s National Institute of Design to showcase Indian scripts, were often in shuddh Hindi, with writers from India talking to each other about everything from “Science and Ayurveda” to “Social Media as the Agent of Change”, while the Hindi to French translator (and there are not that many in Paris) took frantic notes and tried to keep up. At moments it felt as if we all might end up spinning in our own orbits, despite lofty aspirations of cultural exchange.
The language confusion reached its climax at my own panel at the literature festival. At some point, the very dynamic but overworked translator abruptly translated what we were saying in English back into English. For a moment, we stared at each other and then everyone burst out laughing together. Suddenly, entirely by chance, we were lost in translation and yet all on the same page at the same time.
Perhaps that’s what Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is supposed to feel like.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.