As you drive up to the Maison de l’Inde or India House in Paris, part of the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris (CIUP), meant for housing students from all around the globe, you blame that innate sense of patriotism for the warmth you feel in your heart. Though Christmas is almost a week away when I visit, India House seems brighter and livelier than some of the other maisons of the Cité. The Christmas tree is up already in the Salle Indira Gandhi, a hall named after the late prime minister. And everyone I meet is smiling.
Why this place seems to be a home away from home becomes obvious when I meet the Maison director Bikas Sanyal, a former Unesco official and his wife Priti, a cultural attachée of the maison. They’re as warm as the booklined office they are in, talking Bengali, Hindi, French, English, all mixed together, constantly keeping you supplied with interesting anecdotes about the place ... When Yamini Krishanamurthi danced here, or Shashi Tharoor or Naseeruddin Shah visited.
Built in the 1960s, the Maison was a gift from the Indian Government to the Cité. It’s seen as an institute providing affordable hostel accommodation to young doctoral and post doctoral students who have come from India (and other countries to promote cultural integration).
The House comes under a ‘non-rattache’ (non- attached) category. The CIUP has 37 houses such as Brazil, Morocco etc in different categories and the attached houses are administered and maintained by the council of the CIUP with limited autonomy depending on the countries they belong to. India house runs on grants and subsidies from the Indian government. When Sanyal was asked to join as head of the Maison, it was heavily in debt and “in a dilapitated state”. The condition he had set for taking over was that the entire loan of the Maison be waived. When that was done, the painful renovation process began. Telephones and refrigerators were added to the 104 single rooms, the kitchen was renovated, a microwave added, and toilet and shower facilities were provided near the hall.
Now, from organising festivals to networking for funds, the Sanyals do it all. They have also managed to get grants for an additional block with 70 rooms as the number of applications from India have increased manifold.
Priti takes me for a round of the kitchens and the dining area with a great view they have managed to carve out of the small space.
A cultural room with a beautiful gate done in the Bengal style with Mughal arches has been executed by resident Avijit Ghosh, who is now working on a waste material project in Paris which aims to educate people on the proper utilisation of waste.
The beautiful light-eyed Jamila Maalaoni from Tunisia, a PhD scholar in the social sciences, struggles a bit with her English as she tries to explain how she has refused the offer of moving to another Maison as she finds this place to be “very good for my health. I’ve had surgery and have recovered well and feel my health has improved considerably over here.” As the students have a kitchen to cook their meals, Maalaoni has learnt a lot about “de Hindi cuisine.” Gesturing frantically, she indicates how the Sanyals have been “pillars of the Maison, who have a very good relationship with the students and give them wonderful support.”
Sudhir Bhatt, a research scholar in plasma physics at the Pierre and Marie Curie University, France’s largest medical and science complex, who is also president of the residents’ committee, talks about the various festivals — from Id to Diwali — that are organised.
The students also volunteer for a number of duties at the Maison, including assisting the Sanyals with their work. Parashmani Chandro from Pondicherry, studying international affairs at the Science Po, a school best known for diplomacy and international studies, mans the reception desk at the Maison sometimes.
Many students such as Chandramani Singh from Bihar, doing post doctoral research work in wireless technology and Quynh doing her PhD thesis on pharmacy from the University of Paris say they are enjoying their stint here. Many are not going home for the winter break and say they don’t mind. Gathered around the Christmas tree, warmly exchanging greetings, they seem a part of India House... Despite belonging to different nationalities.