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Do in Lille what Indians don?t

The northern French city, Lille, comes alive with elephants and our fireworks, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Nov 11, 2006 01:03 IST

There’s something that can be deeply disturbing about multiculturalism. Take the day I landed up in the northern French city of Lille, the day before Diwali. After an hour’s train journey from Paris, I come out of the station and I am told to ‘look up’ by Jean-Claude Perrier, my enthusiastic publisher, whose wearing a Indian tri-colour T-shirt (“I bot eet from Pahargaunj!”) under his shirt. I look up and see that the whole facade of the station has been covered with bulbs that, after sundown, will make the Gare Lille-Flandres turn into Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus.

Perrier points to the street in front of us. Rather incredibly for a northern-European town replete with 18th century classical-baroque architecture, there are giant elephants paving either side of the road. It turns out that before my arrival to Lille, Bollywood art director (of Lage Raho Munnabhai fame) Nitin Desai has already been here. Instead of a French version of Unter der Linden, Berlin’s famous boulevard with lime trees on either side, Lille’s Rue Faidherbe is lined with bedecked Nitin Desai elephants — not to mention giant deepa stambha. I guess if it’s Lille 2006, it has to be Deepawali. So much for running away from the bright lights of New Delhi.

My being in Lille was, to be honest, rather baffling. The whole place had been converted into ‘Bombay Town’ — if converting a city 40 minutes from Brussels and with a population of about a million inhabitants into Suketu Mehta ‘Project City’ can be a full-fledged metamorphosis. Suketu Mehta deserves special mention because it is his book, Maximum City, which has inspired ‘Bombaysers de Lille’, an October-to-January extravaganza that will celebrate India’s cultural delights. And I, mon ami, was supposed to be one delightful representative of India’s cultural delights.

Lille Goddess, Big Questions

My mind, of course, was less focused on answering difficult questions — “Is there punk rock in India?”, “You have a negative character called Ajit Chaudhuri in your novel. Is that a camouflaged depiction of your fellow Bengali writer Amit Chaudhuri?”, “Are you a misogynist?” — and more inclined towards discovering Lille’s nooks and corners. And which better place to explore these wonderful, historical crannies than the main town square, Place du Général-de-Gaulle, named after the city’s most famous son.

Chloé Aeberhardt, a student of journalism at the university of Lille, points to the statue perched in the middle of a fountain at the centre of the square. “That’s la Grande Déesse, literally, the Great Goddess.”

“What’s she the God of?” I ask, trying to remember my Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology.

“No, she’s just the Great Goddess.”

“I mean, what’s her name?”

“That’s her name. Le Grande Déesse.”

At that point I realised that you can take Hinduism out of the boy, but you can’t take the boy out of Hinduism. At least in Lille on Diwali eve while facing a female deity standing on a tall pillar.

Blah, blah, bliterature

The Furêt du Nord bookstore, overlooking the fountain and the goddess, was where things were happening. A whole bunch of Indian writers — Suketu Mehta, Amit Chaudhuri, Shashi Deshpande, Tarun Tejpal, Ruchir Joshi et moi — had been airlifted from our various vantage points to congregate and brush shoulders and clink glasses of plonk. The good news had already come in: The Paris Book Fair in March 2007 would, like Frankfurt this year, have India as the focus. As we talked about our craft — “You think we should try Delirium Tremens or some other beer this evening” — I realised that the old canard about Indian writing in English would make its appearance sooner than later.

Sure enough, the discussion of editors and critics about contemporary Indian writing inside Furêt du Nord spilled over the next day at the Grand Palace, where I, along with three others, were holding forth — I, just about holding on. Let me explain.

Practised as I am in the gentle art of writing from behind the purdah of newsprint, I am terrified of facing a public audience. Our subject of discussion was, I think, writing against stereotypes. This was a jolly good topic to argue about, but then, I was tongue-tied even before I began. Thus, even in France, I resorted to Dutch courage. Which essentially meant having a few beers before I held forth about urban modernity and death to the words ‘post-colonial literature’. But Dutch courage, at some point, must have turned into Bengali-French supreme confidence. Beerful (yes, we did have Delirium Tremens) and feeling totally literary, I engaged with the voice in my ear (the translator).

Matters pertaining to the ‘Indian literary tradition’, ‘the individual writer forever seen through a culture’, ‘the total logic in listening to Nirvana in east Delhi’ were all brought up and placed before an eager crowd. There must have been something monosyllabic I said right towards the end of the discussion, because the translator went blank, the panel dispersed and the usually enthusiastic Jean Claude Perrier didn’t mind leaving Lille that evening.

Beating the Bongo

If I were a Scottish writer writing in English, I would have said “Och!” If I was a Czech writer writing in French I would have “Bah!” But before spending a wonderful day ’n’ night roaming the streets of Paris with a bag on my shoulder, I, Bengali writer writing in English, left Lille’s literary lot, saying, “Dur sala!”

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First Published: Nov 11, 2006 00:43 IST