[As mentioned in the Preface to the book, this story is set in India of mid 1980s]
Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, known popularly among his friends as Buds or Buddy, considered himself to be an intellectual. There was nothing unusual about him harbouring such a notion about himself, as there was no dearth of such self-styled intellectuals in University of Delhi those days. On any given day a large number of them could be found in all the coffee houses in the university whether it was the one behind the Registrar’s office or the one in the Law Faculty, the one opposite the Art’s Faculty or in Delhi School of Economics. Even the canteens of Gwyer Hall, Jubilee Hall or PG Hostel, in fact the entire campus, would have a fair sprinkling of them. Buddhadeb however, considered himself to be an intellectual that was a shade different from all other claimants to that title.
Buddy had migrated to Delhi for his post graduation, after he had finished his B.A in Economics from Presidency College in Calcutta. He was a serious and reserved person, whose attention was forever focussed on studies and who did not like to while away his time in idle pursuits that most of the students around him would usually be engaged in. He preferred spending most of his free time, after his classes would get over, in the library. One would always see him perusing some book or the other, with a pencil in his hand, underlining a word here or a passage there, jotting a note in the margin or copying something from it in a notebook.
During an occasional free period between the classes too, when almost everyone else would rush towards the coffee house, Buddy would prefer to go to the magazine section of the library and quickly browse through the daily newspapers or some magazine. He felt more at home there than in the coffee house, which he considered to be the haunt of idlers, girl-gazers and pseudo-intellectuals—he detested them and considered them as good for nothing people. Moreover, he did not care much for coffee either, which he considered as the favourite drink of the pseudo-intellectuals.
Even on some of those rare occasions on which he would deign to visit the coffee house, he would refuse to participate in any conversation about movies, girls, cricket or some light-hearted gossip, that would be the usual fare for most of them who frequented that place. He really looked down upon anyone who indulged in such conversation. In fact he would usually avoid even an academic discussion, unless he was sure that his interlocutor was not a pseudo-intellectual—and who was or was not a ‘pseudo’ was something that depended wholly on his personal and subjective appraisal. Once he had pronounced his judgment, that such and such person was a ‘real’ or a ‘pseudo’ intellectual that would be the end of it. The few close friends he had, who were privy to his opinions about the people around, would never question his judgment on this issue.
Yet, when it came to sartorial matters Buddy did not seem to be too discriminating, for he too would wear the same attire as most of the self styled intellectuals did. The prevailing fashion was a brown or grey khadi kurta from Khadi Gram Udhyog, blue denim jeans—purchased usually from the seconds store of Wings situated in one of the by lanes of Kamla Nagar market and Kolhapuri chappals from Janpath. Buddy would usually be found sitting in a corner, among other like-minded souls—most of them ex-students of Presidency College—engaged in serious conversation on some subject like dialectical materialism, class or caste struggle or transformation of the Indian society. Like him all of friends too claimed to be leftists: Marxists, Leninists or just plain and simple communists. It was the done thing, a prerequisite, so to say, to profess to be a leftist in order to qualify for the sobriquet ‘intellectual.’
Buddy came from an ‘upper caste middle class’ Bengali family in Calcutta, where he had lived all his life till he had shifted to Delhi. He had credentials strong enough for being accepted as a member of their tribe by all the self styled leftists in Delhi University. Buddy distinguished himself, however, from those run-of-the-mill leftists by claiming to be an adherent of the Chinese school of communism. But then there still remained quite a few who could fit in that mould. In the company of such ‘distinguished intellectuals’, he would have yet another card up his sleeve, which he would take out whenever required, as a last resort, to prove that he was still a class apart from them.
Buddy was deeply interested in Impressionist paintings and was a great admirer of Vincent Van Gough. It was a rare accomplishment that established him as a cut above everyone else; for few amongst his peers, who were mostly hard-core students of economics, had any exposure to such an esoteric subject as Impressionist paintings. He was, therefore, considered as an expert on that subject in his circle. Whenever he would find himself losing out in a routine discussion, which would not be too often, Buddy would somehow steer the conversation towards Impressionism, especially if a girl happened to be around and that would be the end of the matter. As he was the sole authority on that subject among his friends, they would have no option but to listen, for it would be considered as a sign of lack of culture and upbringing not to show interest in a subject that commanded so much of snob value.
For Buddy it was more than just an idle interest—the intensity of his involvement with it would probably justify using the word obsession. Once he found somebody displaying even a passing interest in that subject, he could go on talking about it endlessly. More often than not, it would turn out to be a real test of patience for the other person, though Buddy would remain oblivious of that. Many a times, when he would be alone in his room with nothing else to do, he would sit in his chair staring at the wall, daydreaming about the bohemian life of Impressionist painters in Paris. He would conjure in his mind images of cafés and bars situated in narrow lanes in an area called the ‘left bank’ of Paris and of tall, lean and lanky artists wearing white suits and bowler hats, pretty white girls wearing fluffy flowing white gowns; of dancing arcades, accordionists and artists sitting on benches smoking their pipes with an intense gaze in their eyes as if they were looking for some inspiration.
It had started when a friend in Calcutta gifted him a copy of Somerset Maugham’s Moon and Sixpence, who moreover strongly recommended that he read it. He did not care much for fiction, but as the gift and the recommendation came from a girl for whom he had developed a soft corner—some of his contemporaries said that it was almost an infatuation—he felt obliged to go through it from cover to cover, as if he were reading a love letter from that girl. As he read the book, it struck a deep chord in some part of his mind and it was as if a part of it got dedicated permanently to Paris and the life of artists in that fascinating city.
After some time, the same friend recommended that he must read Irving Stone’s Lust for Life. He read that book too—from cover to cover and with total involvement. He identified with the artists who appear in that book and imagined himself being a part of the same fraternity, moving around in those narrow winding lanes of Paris, frequenting the cafés and restaurants there. He would dream of balls and close dancing with beautiful girls in night clubs, with accordionists playing waltzes in the background; or simply sitting laid back in one of the bars with painters and artists, sipping wine, beer or absinthe; the latter being a drink that especially struck his imagination.
In spite of such deep interest in the subject, the extent of Buddy’s knowledge of Paris and the life of an artist in that city remained confined, surprisingly enough, to the information derived from those two books. He did not have much time to search for more information on that subject, for he was already quite bogged down by his studies. Moreover, not much information was available easily about Impressionist painters in Delhi those days, and even if it could be found somewhere, Buddy had no idea about such a place. The library of Delhi School of Economics or that of University of Delhi, for that matter, had hardly any material on the subject. And Internet, on which one can now search, sitting at one’s home, paintings displayed in the museums all over the world was something that existed at that time probably only in the mind of its inventor.
Whenever Buddy happened to visit Connaught Place those days, he would make it a point to browse through the books in the book stores there. He would spend even longer time glancing at the second-hand books displayed by way-side vendors in the verandas. He was forever on the lookout for some material on Paris or the French Impressionist painters. As he did not find much information on the subject anywhere else in the city, he even took the membership of Alliance Française de Delhi.
In the library of Alliance Française there were a few books on Impressionism but they were all in French. As a result, he could not proceed much further than seeing the prints of various paintings in those books, or at the most reading their titles.To make up for this handicap, he joined a course in elementary French at Alliance Française. But that meant travelling for almost an hour by bus both ways, three times a week, as the Institute was located in South Extension that was at the other end of the city. He was not able to attend his French lessons regularly.
Finding that he was not making much progress with his French and was losing out on his proper course of study, he was obliged to give up the idea of learning French. However, he still visited the library of Alliance Française once in a while to borrow books as long he was permitted, without having to pay the fees for the second semester. In that manner he became familiar with various famous paintings by Impressionist painters. But he developed a fascination for Toulouse Lautrec and even more for Vincent Van Gogh, probably because he was the only painter about whom he knew so much after having read Lust for Life many times over.
Over the next few years, Buddy completed his post graduation and PhD and became a lecturer of Economics in a college in Delhi University. His interest in the Impressionist painters was still alive, even though he had almost forgotten about that girl who had initiated him to it. Whenever he came across any article or news report about Impressionist painting in any newspaper or magazine, which was not too often, he would not only read it carefully but also keep a cutting or a photocopy of it in a folder. Once the French Embassy in New Delhi organised an exhibition of prints of some Impressionist painters—Buddy visited the exhibition on all the three days it lasted.
Buddhadeb quite often toyed with the idea of making a trip to Paris, even if it were to be just for a few days; but his salary was not sufficient to even dream of such a venture. The opportunity, however, came all of sudden in an unexpected manner.
Buddhadeb had been contributing articles on Indian Economics to a few journals published in England and he had earned a bit of reputation for himself in that field. He was therefore invited to attend a conference organised by a university in England. It was not a university of the Oxbridge type but one that was comparatively lesser-known, situated not very far from London. The Conference was a four day affair, scheduled from Monday to Thursday followed by a three days weekend during which the participants, most of them from distant countries, could see a bit of England if they so desired.
The idea of visiting Paris during the long weekend after the conference came immediately to Buddy’s mind. He made enquiries from British Airways on which he had been booked for the to and fro journey by the host university—they had no problem in converting his return flight from London-New Delhi to Paris-New Delhi, provided he bore the expense of travelling from London to Paris on his own. Once he had informed himself about the nitty-gritty of travelling from London to Paris, he made up his mind to visit Paris on his way back from England.
Buddy thought he will take a few days off from work so that he could spend a few more days in Paris, but the Principal of his college refused to grant him any leave during the week following the seminar. The old man, who had never stepped out of the country all his life, was a little jealous of that youngster getting an invitation for a seminar in England and that too so early in his career. He was of the firm opinion that a week in England should be more than what he ought to expect. Just to make sure that he did not extend his trip he assigned Buddy an invigilation duty for the examinations during the week following the one during which he would be visiting England. That left Buddy with only three free days after the conference, for he would have to take a flight back to New Delhi on the Sunday evening.
The university hosting the conference had sponsored yet another participant from India—a lecturer in Economics from Chandigarh University by the name of Balwinder Singh. The latter had a first cousin, who had migrated to England and who owned a grocery store in the South-Hall area of London. That cousin was going to take care of Balwinder’s stay in London during the weekend after the seminar. Balwinder, even though a lecturer in Economics was a simple hearted and generous jat from Punjab—he proposed that Buddy shared his cousin’s hospitality, even without bothering to check up from his cousin if that would suit him.
Usually any Indian in Buddy’s place would have grabbed that opportunity in order to save the precious foreign exchange that he would be allowed to take from India. Buddy, however, not only did not exhibit any enthusiasm but also dismissed the idea of visiting London at all—he intended to go straight away to Paris after the conference. Nevertheless, he was forced to travel to London with Balwinder after the seminar was over, as he was required to go to London both for catching a bus as well as a flight to Paris. When they reached the Victoria station in London on Friday morning they found Devinder Singh, the cousin, waiting for them at the platform. He gave each of them a warm bear hug, even as he continued talking in Punjabi in a loud voice.
‘Everything has been fixed up’ he said ‘your stay, sightseeing, shopping…’
When Buddhadeb told him that he did not want to stay at London as he had plans to go to Paris, Devinder looked perplexed.
‘Why do you want to go to Paris?’ Devinder asked him, ‘You can get everything here that you will get there’ he said emphasizing on ‘everything’ and winking an eye, which Buddy found to be somewhat queer, for Devinder’s covert reference, probably to some forbidden pleasures, was lost on him.
‘In Paris you can’t even talk to anyone’ continued the cousin switching off and on to Punjabi, ‘I went there once and had such a horrible experience—don’t ask me how bad it was! Assin ton bilkul pagal ho gaye si. Othey koi tuadi gal nahin samajda! tusin kisi di gal nahin samjde. (I almost went crazy there—there no one understands what you say, you don’t understand what they speak). The moment I sat in the coach to return to London meney Babaji nu dhanyvad ditta. Assin ton kan pakde—dubara Paris nahin zana.’ (I thanked the God. I touched my ears and took a vow—I would never go to Paris again).
Buds pitied as well as envied the cousin: ‘What an uncouth, rustic kind of a fellow this man is—he ought to be tilling land in some obscure village of Punjab, which he probably sold for migrating to this country, rather than be living here in Europe. He does not deserve to be in this part of the world. Yet not only is he here but he can also visit Paris whenever he likes—on any weekend. The good for nothing boor doesn’t even want to go there. On the contrary, I who know so much about that city and who have been dreaming all my life to be there, would be able to do that only for two days and god only knows if ever I will be able to visit it again in my life!’
‘Don’t worry, I know someone in Paris,’ said Buddy interrupting the cousin, cutting short his commentary on Paris, ‘A friend of mine is posted at the Indian Embassy in Paris. He will take care of me. You just tell me from where I can catch a bus for Paris.’
Devinder Singh shrugged his shoulders and went to make some enquiries from the tourism office at the station. There was a coach that would be leaving in the evening from Victoria station and which would reach Paris at eight o’clock the next morning. He reserved a ticket for Buddy and then took both of them to his home for lunch. Buddy made a long distance call to his friend in Paris and informed him about the details of his arrival in Paris.
‘Why don’t you too come to Paris with me?’ Buddy asked Balwinder Singh.
‘Oye mennu pagal kutte ne katha ae? Am I bitten by a mad dog?’ said Balwinder, ‘Here I am in London with a place to stay free of charge and someone to take me around. I can do all my shopping here—colour TV, cassette player, VCR and all that stuff. Devinder knows some dealer here and he will even get me a good discount. And here it is so much like at home; there are so many Indians everywhere. Why should I go to Paris?’
‘No use talking to him about Paris and of course none at all about Impressionists’ said Buddy to himself, ‘Perhaps he doesn’t even know what it means,’
In the evening when both of them saw Buddhadeb off at the coach station near Victoria, Devinder gave him a warm hug and said, ‘Bye, bye ji. But there you must see Eiffel Tower and Champs-Élysées—those are the only things to be seen in Paris’
‘Buddy almost felt like laughing when he heard Devinder pronouncing Champs as in champion and Champs-Élysées in a manner that it rhymed with stamps and paralysis. He said good bye to both of them and went and occupied a window seat. He sat there gazing outside watching without much involvement the sights of London as the coach drove past the city. His mind was already in Paris.
When the coach came to a halt at its terminus near Gare du Nord in Paris the next morning, Buddy found his friend Arbindo Mukherjee waiting for him there. Arbindo was one year junior to him at Presidency College, but unlike him he had continued to study at Calcutta University itself after his graduation. Then immediately after completing his master’s degree, he had appeared for the civil services examination and got selected to the Indian Foreign Service.
‘Hi Buddho da, how are you? It’s really long time Buddho da! But you are just the same’ said Arbindo as Buddy came out of the coach.
‘You too’ said Buddy shaking hand warmly with Arbindo, ‘except that you have got a bit of a paunch now. How’s the life in Paris?’
‘Great! Let me pick up your suitcase Buddho da. We’ll have to hire a taxi. I thought I’ll get one of our office cars from the Embassy but they are all engaged—there is a delegation of some members of parliament from India in the town: members of the Parliamentary Committee on Hindi, you know. They are here to inspect how much work we carry out here in Hindi. Thankfully, they are leaving for London this evening. In fact they seemed to have come here only in order to be able to visit London during the weekend.’
They got into a taxi and Arbindo gave the chauffeur the directions for his house.
‘How did you like London? Isn’t it a great city?’
‘I don’t care much for London…I was there hardly for a few hours. I don’t give a damn to that capital of all those imperialists and colonialists who exploited us over the centuries’ said Buddy.
‘But the same may be said about Paris too. The French were no less. But personally I would have liked to be posted at London than here.’
‘London reminds me of Calcutta. You feel so much at home there and there is no language problem. Here, I often find it difficult to communicate with the people, even though I have done a long course in French. Moreover the people here are so cold to outsiders and they think no end of themselves. Leave aside us poor Indians—they look down upon even British, Germans, Scandinavians, Americans, practically everyone on the earth.’
‘You don’t seem to have come across the right kind of crowd here. You should meet them—the artists and painters of Paris.’
‘Buddho da you know I am not much interested in those kind of things.’
‘That’s why! I know, I mean I’ve read so much about that really cool set of people here. They work hard the whole day engaged in honest work of painting, sculpture etc. and meet each other over drinks in the evenings—in one of the many cafes and bars in the lanes and by lanes of Paris. They don’t have much money but there is no one high or low among them—everyone is equal; they are a real fraternity and everyone is welcome amongst them. They sing and dance waltzes to the tune of accordions. I’ll show all that to you.’
Arbindo looked at him sceptically,’ I’ve been here for more than a year. I have not come across or even heard of any such people here.’
The taxi soon reached the place where Arbindo lived. They carried the luggage to the lift and went up to the fourth floor.
‘It’s is a small apartment’ said Arbindo a bit apologetically, ‘but it is located in one of the best areas of Paris—it has even a view of the Eiffel Tower.’ As he said that he pulled the curtain off from the window, through which they could see Eiffel Tower at a short distance.
‘I have the luxury of watching Eiffel Tower from my dining table every morning, while I have my breakfast’, he said with some pride.
‘I’ll share that honour with you soon.’
After Buddy had finished his bath they sat down for the breakfast. Arbindo pulled the curtains wide open so that Buddy may enjoy the view of the Eiffel Tower. He was staying alone in Paris as his wife and son had gone to India for the vacations.
‘So what all would you like to see here Buddho da? Would you like to start off with Eiffel Tower itself or with Champs-Élysées, or would you like to go to Louvre Museum first.’
‘Well Louvre may be all right, but that Eiffel Tower and Champs-Élysées are for philistines and bourgeois. I don’t care much for such places. And if you assure me that you won’t mind it, I’ll have no hesitation in saying that Eiffel Tower is a bit too overrated—to me it appears as an atrocious looking tower made of steel and nothing else!’
‘I remember what you wrote to me about what interests you here’ said Arbindo ignoring that remark about Eiffel Tower. He seemed to feel a little hurt about it after all that he had told Buddy about the snob value of the area his flat was situated in and the premium it commanded because of the view of the famous Tower.
‘In fact I have made a small itinerary for you with the help of my stenographer. My steno is local girl you know, though she is from Pondicherry originally—absolutely fluent in French and quite up to date about what’s going on in Paris. She has suggested Centre Beaubourg, book stalls on the quays of Seine and as for museums—Jeu de Paume, Louvre and Marmottan, and a visit to Montmartre’ said Arbindo reading from a note pad.
‘I don’t seem to have heard about any of these places except Louvre and Montmartre, which of course is the village frequented by the Impressionists.’
See Buddho da. I will be quite tied up today with this delegation of M.Ps. Therefore, an assistant of mine will accompany you to these places.’
‘Don’t bother. I’m sure I’ll be able to manage by myself.’
‘No, I’m absolutely sure you won’t be able to do that. Take it from me Buddho da! Unless you speak French fluently, you can’t manage to go around in this city and that too on the very first day of your arrival. I have come across so many Indians feeling so thoroughly miserable here because of the lack of knowledge of French. See, tomorrow morning I’ll take you and Sharma, my assistant, in my car and drop you folks at Beaubourg. You can go around that place and then walk around on the quays of river Seine. Afterwards you can visit Louvre which is nearby from there. My stenographer told me that the Jeu de Paume Museum is closed for a few weeks so you won’t be able to see that. By the time you finish with Louvre it would probably be two in the afternoon. You could come to my office then and have your lunch there, and we’ll see what we could do thereafter.’
As Buddy and Sharma got out of the car on Boulevard Sebastopol near Centre Beaubourg, Arbindo said,
‘Have a nice day Buddho da. I’m sure you will like this place. According to my Steno, it is the place for anyone interested in arts and culture. There is always some exhibition or the other on arts or paintings going on here and you can also see painters and artist in action while they work on a portrait or landscape.’
As Buddy walked towards the Centre Beaubourg along with Sharma, he was looking quite impressed by whatever he saw, which moreover appeared so totally different from anything he had seen in India or even in England. As they reached the end of the lane that led to a large square, Sharma said, ‘That is the famous Beaubourg Centre.’
What lay there in front of him appalled Buddy a little even as he was a little fascinated by it: it was a huge rectangular building made of steel pipes and glass with a circular transparent stairway in front of it. At that hour of the day the square was quite deserted except for a few tourists. Buddy could not find anything artistic about that place except for a big poster in French that was probably an advertisement for some exhibition as Buddy noticed the word exposition in it, which he knew, meant an exhibition in French. At the other end of the square there were some cafes and a number of shops selling Paris memorabilia.
‘Generally this place is very lively and crowded—almost jam packed’ said Sharma. ‘It’s the first time I am seeing it so deserted—usually you find so many painters around sketching portraits and what not. But I think it’s because we have come here too early—you should have come here in the evening.’
‘It’s not I who decided to come here at this hour’ said Buddy, feeling a bit cross with Arbindo.
‘He should have been a bit more thoughtful before dropping me here at this hour’ he said to himself. ‘Or perhaps even he doesn’t have any first-hand knowledge. From what I knew of his apathy to things like paintings, I’m sure he would have never cared to come to such a place’ said Buddy to himself giving some benefit of doubt to Arbindo.
Yet, he appeared rather disappointed looking around the deserted square, with a vacant look in his eyes. He could not find anything familiar, anything that fitted to the image of Paris he had been carrying in his mind over last so many years. He then noticed the spire of an old church situated at the end of the square in a corner.
‘Shall we walk that side a bit?’
Soon they reached a narrow lane with cobble stones, which seemed to have a distinct old world ambience. Buddy felt a little reassured. However all that he could see there were shops selling vegetables, fish, poultry and meat products.
‘Shall we go to the river bank now?’ asked Sharma, ‘considering that you have just two days or so in Paris.’
They went back to the main road and took a bus and got down after crossing the bridge on the river Seine near Boulevard St. Michel.
‘There is the river Seine’ said Sharma pointing towards the bridge, ‘and there you can see a whole lot of stalls selling paintings, posters etc.’
As they crossed the road running parallel to the river, Buddy espied the unending row of stalls displaying what appeared to him from a distance as Impressionist paintings. He quickened his pace. As he approached nearer all that he could see were prints of paintings by some unknown painters, lithographs, engravings and posters apart from second hand books. He browsed through the books hoping to find some book on any of his favourite painter. But he gave up soon as all the books were in French. They walked a short distance past a dozen or so stalls, and then stopped at a clearing between them to look at the river down below. Buddy had been feeling disappointed at not finding what he had been looking for, but the panorama of beautiful and grand looking old buildings, running parallel to the river on both sides with a huge cathedral at the right end distracted him from his thoughts.
‘Can we go down to the river?’ he asked.
‘Yes but not right here. A little further ahead’ said Sharma.
They climbed down a flight of stairs and sat on a stone slab on the bank of the river. Buddy lit up a cigarette and smoked, looking at the river flowing by and the beautiful building on the other side. After the cigarette was over Sharma said,
‘Shall we carry on now? Let’s finish off with Louvre fast so that we reach the embassy in time for lunch.’
Buddy looked a little pained at the uncalled for display of such haste by Sharma. ‘Here I am in Paris for the first time in my life, which may probably be the last time, and that too for just a day and a half—and this idiot is trying to rush me, as if I were a farm animal or something.’
What Buddy did not know was that he was yet another visitor from India, whom Sharma had to take around to what for him had become stale and familiar sites of Paris. In fact what Sharma detested in particular was the Louvre Museum, which was so huge with almost unending galleries full of paintings, statues and such things, in which he did not have the slightest interest. Whenever there was an Indian visitor to be escorted, he would make it a point to find out if Louvre was on his itinerary—if yes, he would try his best to pass of the responsibility of taking him around to another assistant who was his junior. That morning he could not avoid it knowing full well that he would have to accompany the visitor to the Louvre, because all the other assistants were drafted for the meeting of the Hindi Committee. After a while Buddy got up and they proceeded towards the Louvre Museum.
Louvre could not help much in uplifting Buddy’s mood or reducing his disappointment. He had not slept well the night before during the journey from London to Paris and was, therefore, feeling tired after walking so much that morning. He walked quickly through the display of artefacts belonging to the ancient civilisations—the Persians, Greek, Egyptian antiquities, looking suitably impressed, though not much interested, for those were not the things that he was looking for.
After walking through a number of halls and climbing a staircase they reached a huge gallery where equally huge paintings by French painters were on display. He read the names of the painters—David, Delacroix, Corot and some others, which meant nothing to him as his interest was limited to a few impressionist painters he was familiar with. He then passed through the section of museum displaying works by Italian Renaissance painters, which too he found really impressive but he was feeling too tired to stand and watch them carefully. When it came to Mona Lisa, however, he was forced to stand a while and show a semblance of interest, as there was quite a crowd of spectators in front of the famous painting.
In the meanwhile Sharma had started feeling quite fed up with that, yet another, visit to the Louvre Museum: he had been there innumerable times during his last four years of posting in Paris escorting so many visitors from India and he was not interested at all in whatever was on display. He had noticed Buddy’s growing impatience and weariness. ‘Perhaps he is not one of those real arty types—he looks like one of those culture vultures who just want to come here so that they can tell people back home that they visited Louvre Museum’ thought Sharma, ‘poor fellow, he has been travelling all night in that godforsaken coach from London and he is looking really tired also.’ Quite convinced that he would be doing Buddy a favour by reducing the duration of that tour, which he moreover considered as a complete waste of time, he deftly cut the visit short by guiding him towards to an exit, thus depriving him of the sight of few impressionist paintings displayed in a section of the museum, which that they had yet to reach. Buddy had no inkling of that deceitful conduct displayed by Sharma. Had he discovered that, he would have inflicted on Sharma the severest punishment that he possibly could.
When they reached Arbindo’s office it was about three in the afternoon.
‘So Buddho da how was your visit? Were you able to cover all those places?’
‘Yeah, sort of…but I am feeling quite tired walking so much—and I didn’t sleep so well last night.’
Let’s have some lunch—you will feel all right after that. It might be just because you have not had your lunch.’
He had already ordered some chicken sandwiches and coffee for Buddy. After the quick lunch they had coffee and lit their cigarettes.
‘I reconfirmed with my secretary. But I am sorry Buddho da but the Jeu de Paume Museum, which my secretary told me, is the place for impressionist paintings is closed for some renovations. I am afraid you will have to keep that for your next visit to Paris.’
‘I wonder when it would be, that is if at all there would be a next visit’ said Buddy taking a deep puff and looking wistfully at the wall.
‘But she recommends Marmottan Museum. She says there are a lot of paintings there by some Impressionist painter called Monet.’
‘Monet! Yeah I am familiar with Monet’s works.’
‘And it is close by from here. I have also found the locations of those streets you gave me the names of. They are all near Montmartre. We’ll go there tomorrow morning’ said Arbindo and called Sharma again over the intercom.
‘Sharma you take Mr. Bhattacharya to Marmottan Museum. I have written down the address on this slip. It’s quite nearby from here.’
Sharma gave a strange look as if saying ‘not again sir!’
Realising his state of mind Arbindo clarified immediately, ‘You just have to drop him there. He’ll see the museum on his own. And I’ll pick him myself at five thirty by which time I’m sure he would have covered the place.’
[The cover page of books shows Buddy at Marmottan Museum]
There were very few visitors at the Marmottan Museum that afternoon, except for a small group of very well-dressed and rich looking tourists from some north European country. Buddy, who was in that part of the world for the first time in his life, assumed that they must be French. Some of them gave him, what he felt were rather supercilious looks, as if trying to ask ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Buddy was wearing his usual blue denim jeans from ‘Wings’ and a white shirt, also from ‘Wings’, which looked like a curious cross between a shirt, a bush shirt and the Indian kurta. He had thought that it would be the right attire for someone with an artistic bent of mind and a desire to socialise with artists. However, that somewhat outlandish attire, which would have been considered quite fashionable in the Mandi House area of New Delhi those days, combined with his somewhat unkempt beard and hair had lent Buddy an air of a typical immigrant from some poor third world country, whom those well heeled Europeans probably did not expect to see in a place like Marmottan Museum. Even the eyes of the man at the ticket window appeared to reflect a somewhat similar sentiment. Buddy felt a little pained by the kind of welcome he received at the museum.
‘You don’t give that kind of glances to a foreigner visiting your country for a few days! ‘Who the hell do they think they are?’ he said to himself, ‘when these people were still roaming around half naked wearing nothing but animal hides, thousands of years back, we in India had already scaled the heights of grandeur as far as art and culture is concerned. Do they know about paintings in Ajanta and sculptures of Ellora and all that’? Any way let them go to hell!’ he said to himself as he walked past them towards the adjoining room.
Buddy was quite impressed by Monet’s paintings that were displayed in that museum. Some of them looked familiar to him as he had probably seen them in those books on Impressionism in the library of Alliance Francaise. He could recognize immediately at least three of them—Water Lilies in the pond at Giverny, the Bridge at Argenteuil and the scene of Victoria Railway Station in London. He was feeling somewhat overwhelmed that he had got that opportunity to see those original paintings, framed in such beautifully carved wooden frames, which itself looked like pieces of art. As he was looking intently at those paintings, the group of tourists that he had encountered earlier walked in. He turned around and his eyes met theirs. This time he gave them a rather aggressive glance, which put some of them on the defensive and made them look around sheepishly at the paintings on the other side.
Buddha walked triumphantly, as if he had scored a victory, towards the next room. He was feeling very excited yet a little disappointed. Monet was not exactly his favourite painter. What he had been looking for were the paintings of Van Gough and Lautrec. And he would have also loved to see some of his favourite paintings of Degas, Renoir and Manet. But none of them were displayed in that museum. By the time he finished his visit to the museum it was about five twenty in the evening. He came out and stood outside waiting for Arbindo, who came at the fixed time to pick him up.
‘How was it Buddho da? Were you able to cover the entire museum?’
‘Not bad’ said Buddy.
‘Where would you like to go now? Would you like to do the Champs-Élysées? I would say that it’s worth a visit Buddho da and even Eiffel Tower, for that matter, even though I remember quite well what you had to say about them this morning. But I’m sure you must also be feeling quite tired’ said Arbindo.
‘Yeah, I’m really tired Arbindo, but then you don’t visit Paris every day. I wonder when, if ever, I’ll come again to this city in my present life.’
‘I could make that out Buddho da—you have been walking the whole day and you didn’t sleep well last night. Let’s go and have a coffee in some nice road-side café on Boulevard Saint Germaine. It’s a very nice area in the heart of Paris.’
‘I’m sure by ‘nice area’ you mean one of those bourgeois infested places a diplomat like you would be frequenting. I would prefer to go to some café which the artists frequent…near that place…what was its name?’
‘Montmartre?’ said Arbindo, ‘but Buddho da that area is highly avoidable at this hour! I was told that to reach there one has to pass through an area which is full of pickpockets, prostitutes and drug peddlers. In any case we are going there tomorrow morning—it’s very much there in the itinerary that my steno prepared for you—don’t worry, every place you wanted to visit is taken care of Buddho da. Right now I think you need to relax a bit.’
They sat in a café at Boulevard St. Germaine for a long time, talking about their days together in Calcutta and watching people walking by on the pavement outside. Buddy was feeling somewhat odd in the rich plush surroundings, even though it was a rather mediocre grade café. He was feeling rather out of place sitting amidst those fashionably dressed people whom the hard-core leftist in him perceived as representatives of the haut bourgeoisie of Paris. He just could not help referring off and on to his usual themes of inequalities in the society, the high standard of living of the people in the west and the sad plight of people in the third world. However, every time he initiated any such topic Arbindo would immediately switch the conversation to some other topic. After some time Arbindo felt that it would be better if they shifted to some other place where Buddy would feel more at ease. He was familiar with a bar not too far from there that was not too expensive and which also had a nice friendly ambience.
‘Shall we go to some bar and have a drink?’ asked Arbindo.
‘I would love to go to one of those bars where the artists and painters get together’ replied Buddy.
‘Buddho da frankly speaking, I don’t know any such joint.’ said Arbindo with a shrug, ‘In fact we can just go home and do some serious drinking, listening to some nice music, the way we used to do in college. I have procured a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label just for you…moreover, I’m sure you must be feeling tired. And then tomorrow it would again be a hectic day for you.’
‘All right…let’s do that. In fact I am quite tired and would like to hit the bed a little earlier than usual, as I hardly slept last night.’
Back in Arbindo’s apartment they sat drinking for a long time, with the view of Eiffel Tower that was nicely lit up at that hour, serving as a constant reminder to Buddy that he was in Paris. But for the view of Eiffel Tower Buddy could hardly differentiate if he was in Paris or Calcutta—the décor of Arbindo’s drawing room and Rabindra sangeet playing in the background made him feel as if he was back in Calcutta. Buddy was feeling cheated. That was his only night in Paris as he was to take the flight to New Delhi the next evening, and he was stuck up with a man whose sole agenda seemed to be emptying a bottle of whisky that evening.
‘I would rather have some cheap drink in one of those bars in Montmartre, rather than have Black Label whisky in this apartment’, thought Buddy, ‘and that too in this posh district, which must be the centre of the haut bourgeoisie of Paris, overshadowed by this monstrous steel tower so much admired by philistines, who have no idea about art or culture. As for this bottle of whisky, I’m sure he must have bought from the duty free outlet of the Indian Embassy, and he is posing now as if he is doing some great favour offering me Black Label, even though I don’t really want to have it. And in any case I’m going to have just a few pegs and it is he, who is going to guzzle the rest of it till the last drop is finished and then I’m sure he will play that usual trick of shaking the bottle and dropping a burning matchsticks in it and I’m sure he’ll do that thrice.’
Buddy had no option but to console himself with whatever was available, as Arbindo had already expressed his reservations about venturing in that area at night.
‘He says he has been staying in this city for two years and still he feels so shit scared of going out here in the night—as if we were a pair of sixteen year old girls whom someone would kidnap and rape.’
However as Buddy was in no position to go there on his own, he reconciled himself to his situation. In any case he still had another day. They kept drinking late into the night, even though Buddy tried to excuse himself on more than one occasion. Every time Buddy would try to call it a day, Arbindo would start talking of the ‘good ole days’ and their boozing sessions in Calcutta and insist on having just one more drink.
‘This fellow has become a real drunkard’ Buddy said to himself, ‘and he’s talking as if we had been doing nothing except for drinking when we were in college, whereas I can hardly recall more than three or four occasions, on which we had some beer on the sly at the hostel and every time this fellow would end up puking.’
Finally when the bottle was finished, Arbindo shook the bottle vigorously and then said, ‘Now Buddho da just keep your matchbox ready.’
By then Buddy almost seemed to have forgotten that he was in Paris—he was feeling as if he was in Calcutta once again. He lit up a match stick and dropped it in the bottle and the flame leapt out of the bottle. They tried the trick twice more and then Arbindo said,
‘Buddho da, one has been drinking for almost a decade and trying this trick but it has never worked out for the fourth time.’
‘Really! Just give it to me. He put the stopper back on the bottle and shook it vigorously, as if he had got into a fit of epilepsy, for a long time.
‘Now, Arbindo, light your matchstick.’
Arbindo lit a matchstick and dropped it in the bottle—it caused a light flame, though not so bright as on the three earlier occasions.
‘Buddho da no one can beat you…I must say that’ said Arbindo, ‘shall we have dinner now…I ‘m sure you must be feeling really famished.’
Even though he was feeling really drunk, lying in the bed after the dinner Buddy tried to recall the places he had visited in Paris that day. Except for that beautiful panorama of the city, near the Seine and some of those paintings that he had seen in the Marmottan museum, he had not come across anything which he liked. And he had seen nothing that really corresponded to the image of Paris he had been carrying in his mind all those years. He hoped that his visit next morning to the village of Montmartre and some of those streets referred to in those two books about Impressionist painters he had read would yield something more promising.
Next morning both of them woke up with a bad hangover—Buddy had had about five drinks but as he used to drink only occasionally that proved to be too much for him. When he got up he had a severe headache and his throat and mouth were absolutely parched. As for Arbindo, who had insisted on doing a ‘bottoms up’, he too seemed to be in a bad shape. He vomited a few time, had black tea with lime, popped in some homeopathic pills and it was only around ten o’clock that he was in a shape fit enough to venture out. Yet, in spite of the hangover, before they left for Montmartre, Arbindo ensured that he had noted carefully the names of the streets Buddy wanted to visit and checked up the Metro connections that they would need to take for reaching there.
‘Buddho da… I don’t want to drive my car after all that drinking last night. So we’ll take the Metro. In any case the Metro in Paris is bloody comfortable—more comfortable than travelling by one’s own car, especially if you have to drive it yourself,’ he said apologetically.
‘Don’t worry, I too would feel happier travelling by the Metro’ said Buddy, ‘one would get the chance to see some Parisians from close quarters.’
As they got down at Place de Clichy and came out of the Metro station, Buddy wondered if he was in Paris—most of the people he came across hanging about in the square, or in the shops and bars in the neighbourhood, seemed to be either Africans or, what he came to know from Arbindo, Arabs from the ex-colonies of France. He noticed even some Indians among them. According to Arbindo, they were either French citizens from Pondicherry or refugees from Sri Lanka, some of whom had recently been given asylum after the civil war broke out in their country.
‘Buddho da, take care of your wallet. This place is said to be infested with pickpockets.’
Buddy took out his wallet and kept it in a leather hand bag that he was carrying which he held firmly, while its strap that circled his wrist provided an additional ring of security against a bag snatcher.
‘First of all let’s go to rue Caulincourt’ said Buddy. They walked almost half way down the street but did not come across anything of interest there—all that he could notice there were the facades and closed entrance doors of a row of houses that seemed to continue up to its end. Buddy was a little disappointed but he did not lose hope.
‘Let’s go to rue Lepic now. It has all the celebrated cafes and bars where the Impressionists used to get together.’
They walked painstakingly past the entire street but did not come across any café or bar of the type that Buddy had imagined he would find there.
‘How can that be possible?’ I’ve read those books so many times. It was clearly mentioned in the book that they used to visit those bars in these streets every day. I am forgetting the names of the bars though’ said Buddy with a perplexed look.
‘You know Buddho da that I am quite ignorant about these things. Shall we go to Montmartre now? My secretary said that’s the place if you want to see painters and artists in action.’
‘As you say, but you said the same thing to me yesterday about Centre Beaubourg.’
‘Look Buddho da, you can’t blame me for that. I can only try, you know’ said Arbindo giving his shoulders a shrug. He was feeling a little irritated, for he had not yet fully recovered from the hangover caused by the drinking binge the night before. They stopped for a while in front of a road side map, as Arbindo wanted to check the way to Montmartre.
Buddy read the names of some prominent places of tourist importance listed in a corner of the map, ‘yeah, that’s it man: the village of Montmartre, café de la Moulin, Lapin Agile. I say we’ve got it. These are exactly the places’ he said in an excited voice.
They trudged along slowly up the street leading up the Montmartre hill. After walking for some time Buddy again started feeling a little sceptical,
‘This place looks hardly like a village’ he said looking at the beautiful mansions and expensive cars parked outside them. ‘It looks better than the best of the posh localities in New Delhi. You call it a village?’
Arbindo shrugged his shoulders once again and kept walking silently. A little further they passed a low lying building with the signboard ‘Lapin Agile.’ Buddy was visibly excited but the excitement gave way soon to disappointment as the establishment was closed at that time of the day.
‘I’ve read about Lapin Agile. I think Toulouse Lautrec painted posters and leaflet for this joint, and for that he was allowed free drinks and stuff like that. What a pity! I should have come here last night.’
‘Well Buddho da, you can do that the next time you visit Paris.’
‘Who knows if there will be a next time?” said Buddy with a sigh.
As they started walking again, Buddy once again regretted why he had chosen to stay back with Arbindo and suffered his whisky binge instead of coming to a place like Lapin Agile which was a favourite haunt of all those people he cared so much for. After they had negotiated another few hundred yards of that lane that seemed to be going up a hill, they found they had almost reached its top. It took a turn and suddenly they were in front of an old church behind which was a much bigger white building,
‘Oh I know that….that’s the Sacred Heart Cathedral. I’ve seen it so many times—I mean its pictures’ said Buddy with excitement.
‘And look there Buddho da’ said Arbindo pointing to a square that he had not noticed till then. The square was full of artists whose paintings were displayed all over. Some of them were busy making portraits, while others who had not found any clients stood around smoking and talking to each other. The clients, all of them tourists visiting Paris sat absolutely still posing patiently, waiting for the completion of the respective work of art that would be displayed prominently in the drawing room of each one of them, as proud mementos of their visit to Paris.
‘Oh yeah! That’s the place. We’ve finally made it’ said Buddy and leapt towards the square.
As he came nearer he could see the paintings displayed in the square more clearly. Most of them were paintings of village of Montmartre, Sacred Heart Cathedral and other land marks of Paris done in what appeared to Buddy as a hybrid of various styles; others were just crude imitations of some Impressionist painting. After his experience in the Marmottan Museum the day before, Buddy had put on his blue blazer and a tie, though he was still sporting his faded jeans. As he stood watching the paintings, one of the painters approached them a bit hesitatingly and asked Arbindo, who had a more prosperous air about him than Buddy, if he would like him to make his likeness.
‘What’s he saying?’ he asked Arbindo.
‘He is asking if you want him to make a likeness of yours.’
‘Oh no…not me brother! I’m not so much of a narcissist as to get a portrait made of myself.’
‘No, thank you’ said Arbindo to the painter in French.
‘Ask him where one can meet the famous artists.’
‘Arbindo interpreted the question to him and the man replied somewhat dryly,
‘What do you mean famous artists? There are no more artists like Monet or Van Gogh and his like, if those are the people you are thinking about. Otherwise all of them are artists’ he said pointing to the band of painter sin the square.
‘Ask him which are the cafes and bars they get together at?’
Arbindo repeated the question in French. The artist seemed to have sensed that he was not going to get any business and was losing his patience.
‘Which bars and cafes? Well there are dozens of them around. We go anywhere we like. To that one for example’ he said pointing to a bar nearby. ‘Well, does monsieur want me to make his sketch?’
‘No merci’ said Arbindo.
‘Ask him …’ started Buddy again but before he could finish his sentence the artist gesticulated, waving his both his hand and blowing a puff of air from the corner of his mouth and walked away. Buddy appeared a little hurt at his behaviour.
‘They are not real artists but mercenaries’ he said.
‘They too have to earn their living, after all’ Arbindo tried to clarify.
‘They too worked for their living! Do you know how much of poverty Van Gogh and the others lived through? But I’m sure they would have never asked people to pay for getting themselves sketched, like this.’
‘Now that we are in the artist territory shall we have a drink in one of those bars that you wanted to go to’ said Arbindo trying to change the subject.
‘This fellow can’t think of anything but drinking’ Buddy thought and then pointing towards the bar which the artist too had recommended, he said ‘All right let’s go to that one there.’
It was almost midday and the bar was quite crowded. The clients, mostly Americans tourists, stood around drinking beer from big bocks. Buddy and Arbindo went and stood next to the counter.
‘Monsieurs que’est que je peux vous servir?’
‘What is he saying’ asked Buddy.
‘He’s asking what we want him to serve us.’
Buddho thought for a while and then said, ‘I’ll have an absinthe.’
‘You don’t know?’ asked Buddy mockingly feeling a little superior, ‘That’s a superb drink.’
Arbindo was not sure but he placed the order.
‘One beer for me and an absinthe for the monsieur please.’
‘One what?’ asked the bar man.
‘Absinthe’ repeated Buddy and then wrote the world slowly on the counter with his finger so that it registers in the mind of the bartender.
The barman took a little time to understand and then burst into a loud laughter. Every one turned around and looked at him.
‘Monsieur wants to have an absinthe, c’est tout a fait drole!’
‘Why what’s gone wrong with him…has he lost his senses?’ said Buddy.
‘Tell monsieur that absinthe was banned in France nearly a hundred years back’ said the barman.
‘He is saying that absinthe was banned in France about a century back. Have a beer instead.’
Buddy did not take long to realize the faux pas he had made but he was not to be bogged down so easily. He quickly glanced through the bottles displayed above the counter and said,
‘All right I’ll try a Cointreau’ he said.
‘Cointreau?’ asked Arbindo ‘But that may not go well now. I think it’s probably meant to be a liquor.’
The barman who was looking at him rather impatiently murmured to himself, ‘D’abord une Absinthe, ensuite Contreau et quoi alors?’ ‘First an Absinthe, then a Cointreau and what next?’
‘All right I’ll also go for a beer’ said Buddy after reflecting over it for a while.
‘Two beers please’ said Arbindo.
The barman poured beer in two bocks and place them in front of them.
‘Voila deux bières. Cinquante Franc s’il vout plait.’ ‘There your two beer Fifty francs please.’
Arbindo paid for the beer. They picked up the mugs and sat near the window where a table had just been vacated.
Buddy was feeling a little sheepish, even a little embarrassed. The encounter with the waiter seemed to have brought home to him a sudden realization, that what he had been carrying in his mind as the image of life in Paris was something that did not exist at all, simply because it was nearly a century old—a life that had long ceased to be.
He talked little during the time they were at the bar preferring to have the beer quietly and smoked a cigarette. As they came out of the bar Arbindo looked at his watch,
‘Well it’s one thirty. Let’s have something to eat first. And where would you like to go after that? You have just a few hours left in Paris. There are still some places left in your itinerary. Shall we try looking for rue Laval next’ said Arbindo looking at the list of places that he had prepared for Buddy’s visit.
Buddy thought for a while and said, ‘Let’s go to the Eiffel Tower.’
Arbindo was a little taken aback at the sudden turn-around in the attitude of Buddy. Just the night before he had heard Buddy calling Eiffel Tower as a monstrosity and those who visit it as Philistines. But he hid his feelings and said,
‘You may as well. They will laugh at you in India if you tell anyone that you visited Paris and didn’t see Eiffel Tower.’
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