Time Travel Fantasies

It was cold, bitingly cold. The scrawny rickshaw-puller seemed to have had a particularly healthy breakfast, for he was pedaling fast. Or perhaps the pleasant surprise of having a light passenger load had given him added wings. In any case, the cold blast of wind felt like needles piercing my face that not even a generous application of Tuhina cream could thwart. My fingers were getting numb and I longed to be able to put them in my trouser pockets, but I couldn’t as I also had to balance my maroon colored school bag, a green lunch box with cute little plastic spoon, knife and fork and a water bottle with it’s screw-on cap doubling as a cup. It was my first day at school at St. Xavier’s, in the sleepy little district town of Hazaribagh in Bihar, India, famous for once being a summer resort for wealthy Calcuttans and for hosting a forested national park, reputed to contain a few tigers in the wild.

My school: St. Xavier's Hazaribagh
My school: St. Xavier’s Hazaribagh

It is indeed amazing how the mind filters trillions of data bytes and decides to retain the most trivial of information but is often content with only a vague recollection of what are surely more important events and occasions. This was my first day at school after all, and yet all that I remember of that day is that my newly bought uniform of grey trousers, white shirt, red V-necked sweater, navy blue blazer and a striped tie on blue background was wholly unequal to the bitter cold of that January morning of 1970. And the fact that my teacher’s reluctance to let me go to the bathroom during her class led to a completely wet and avoidable situation which I do not need to recall today.

The school crest showing the four houses: Britto, Gonzaga, Loyola and Xaviers and the motto “In Veritate Et Caritate”

One week was enough to have me enamored with my school. The elegant buildings, seven different playgrounds, including two cemented tennis courts, the wonderful school cricket team (district champion, no less), immaculately dressed fathers of the Society of Jesuits in their pristine white cassocks, awe-inspiring teachers and wonderful friends — it had all the elements needed for a lifetime of friendship, love and more. But three things stand out as having created a permanent mark in my impressionable seven year old mind within those first six days:

  • the school crest laid out in mosaic spanning an entire hallway width of the main building, showing the logos of the four houses that the students would eventually be assigned to,
  • the absolutely mouthwatering “Aloo Chop”, available for 25 p from the canteen during the morning breaks between 10:00 AM and 10:15 AM only, and handed out on strips of yesterday’s news papers, along with shredded onions and green chutney, and
  • the annual drama production on “Moon Landing at Hazaribagh”, to be performed in front of a 1000 strong audience.

The last point needs some elaboration. You see, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed on the moon on 20th July, 1969, the very first time that humans had walked on the lunar soil, and thereby ignited the world’s imagination. The landing was broadcast on live TV worldwide, but India did not have any TV stations to tune into then, and internet was not even a dream. But people did follow the landing live on the radio and I understand that the school authorities had given a one-time exemption for students to disregard bedtime rules and listen to the commentary. The exact time of landing was 1:48 AM on Monday and I guess there may have been quite a few tired yawns in the classes that day.

Edition of The Daily Telegraph on July 21st, 1969.
Edition of The Daily Telegraph on July 21st, 1969.

The impact that one scientific success can have on malleable and receptive minds is hard to describe but readily apparent for all to see. I can visualize the feverish discussions among the students about the Apollo XI’s preparations, the actual moment of landing, how it might have felt to be in Michael Collins shoes, what it would take to work at NASA and similar other innumerable innocent queries. When grainy newspaper photographs were all one had access to in terms of immediate visual confirmation, imaginative powers in fertile young minds must surely have rushed in to provide stimuli. One such outcome was the decision by the Dramatics Society to have the annual school play titled “Moon Landing at Hazaribagh”.

I do not remember the details very well, but one of the astronauts needed to befriend an “alien” at Hazaribagh, having landed on Hazaribagh soil and then discovered that his craft, the magnetic Zeus-XI, would not re-start. I was that “alien kid” and being the only one who could understand their language, needed to convey their needs to the “adult aliens” from Hazaribagh and convince them not to tear the Zeus-XI apart. As to why I was the only one to know the language of the astronauts I do not remember. And the reason why I was chosen to play the part is one of many abiding mysteries that I shall never be able to fathom, though I have a sneaking suspicion that it was because I was the only one ready to dress up as a girl and play the character.

The encounter with Zeus-XI and it’s astronauts started my lifelong obsession with theoretical science and science-fiction. My personal contribution to science and technology may be debatable, but no one can doubt my interest and passion. Isaac Asimov, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Michio Kaku, Carl Sagan and Robert C Clarke dominate my Kindle list and I salivate at the release of other such books as much as a kid did during the Harry Potter days. On slow days, the mind goes back to the school years and sometimes I wonder if I should recreate my version of the play called “Moon Landing at Hazaribagh”. Maybe one day I will.

That was an inordinately long introduction to what I intended to focus on in this blog, which is time travel. But that is how I have evolved to be — a slow, shuffling rambler who cannot get to the point fast enough to hold anyone’s attention. It is fortunate that I am not a travel agent as I would have probably planned a direct New Delhi-Dubai trip via Melbourne (because one absolutely had to see the new baby at the city’s Orang-utan sanctuary, and who incidentally, are our closest relatives). But I digress again.

Illustration of Time Travel: Google Photos
Illustration of Time Travel: Google Photos

My love for theoretical physics and metaphysics takes me to subjects such as string theory, black hole, parallel universe, Big Bang et al. I do not profess to understand them — in fact, I am far, far away from understanding the physics of these esoteric terms — but what I am fascinated about is the futuristic fiction that emanates from all these theories. And hence, my enchantment with time travel. Think about it for a minute. If you had a chance to go back into history, would you not want to do it and view how a different era lived? Does the thought of being in Marty McFly’s (the protagonist of the comic

The computer laden car of the 1985 film
The computer laden car of the 1985 film “Back to the Future”

science fiction film “Back to the Future”) shoes, or rather, his futuristic 1985 car, not give you goosebumps? Or perhaps you are more open to the suggestion of viewing the future — yours, your descendants, human-kinds, the worlds, universes, whatever… And therein lies the beauty and elegance of time travel. Within a blink of an eye you are transported to wherever you want to be, in whatever dimension, century and universe you fancy, be an observer or benign participant, and stay with the conviction that if things got too crazy, you could be escorted back to the safety of your current congenial environment.

It is indeed strange how the human mind connects dots. I am part of a WhatsApp group of my college friends and the usual messages and posts circulated there can be categorized into four:

  1. Good morning/Good evening, with some feel good message and image
  2. Message/image related to the greatness of God
  3. Humor, usually of a mature (some would say puerile) variety, and
  4. News of group members

It is rare to get general information to be circulated here, and to be fair, that was not the intent of this circle. But, last week, there was a video interview posted showing an interview of Prof Michio Kaku talking about the US H1-B visa. While that was engrossing in itself, it called to mind his book “Physics of the Impossible” in which he talks about, among other things, teleportation and time travel. And toying with the concept of time travel led me to conceive a time-filler, a game if you will, on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It was in the form of a simple question: If I had the ability to travel in time, what would be the incidents I would like to witness as an impartial historian?

I laid out a few rules, as otherwise it would be messy:

  1. List of top five events I would like to witness, in no particular order
  2. It necessarily has to be in the past
  3. It will not involve me or close family members (to avoid bias)
  4. I could only be a benign observer, and in no way influence the outcome
Timeline of the Universe
Timeline of the Universe

I realized the exercise was not as simple as it first seemed. I would have loved to be present at the Big Bang and witness the moment of creation, or singularity as scientists have called it, but I was uncomfortable assigning to me such limitless powers. I would have loved to be present during the Jurassic age and get a selfie with the T-Rex, but since humans had not evolved at that point, it would not have been logical for me to be there. Similar rationale prevented me from shaking

Illustration of Lucy: classified as a hominin, with capacity of bipedal upright walk
Illustration of Lucy: classified as a hominin, with capacity of bipedal upright walk

hands with Lucy, the 3.2 million year old ape, our most famous ancestor. That left me with the realization that while my time travel could be to the distant past, it had to remain within the constraints of human development. Now, evolutionary history  says that modern humans developed around 200,000 years ago, migrated from Africa 100,000-150,000 years later and developed the ability of modern symbolic culture and language around 50,000 years ago. While fascinating, this was too broad a time range to indulge in the fantasy of time travel and so I perforce had to add a fifth and a sixth rule to my previous four: the travel to the past has to be where there is a recognizable and historically acknowledged event in documented human history, and it could not be a succession of events separated by considerable length of time. So, evolution was out and so was a visit to the city of Atlantis or Lanka (of Ramayana fame). Or even the Kurukshetra war, detailed in the Mahabharata, though the idea of being able to observe all the great warriors propelled to action by their individual understanding of dharma (right) seems fascinating.

Pandava and Kaurava armies face each other: Artist's impression
Pandava and Kaurava armies face each other: Artist’s impression

Armed with these set of rules, and a writing pad and pencil, I plopped down on my comfortable sofa to decide the five most important events that I would like to witness. It turned out to be a momentous exercise. I had initially given myself thirty minutes to come up with my list. I came up with at least twenty that seemed to be all equally enticing, and some twenty more which were very close also-rans. To my surprise, ordinary events from ordinary lives were as alluring as historically significant events. Strange is the way how the mind works.We think we know ourselves, but deep inside us, there is often a thought or a wish that can truly amaze us when it floats up to the surface.

Pruning the list to five was very difficult — what was in my top five one moment turned out to be in my bottom ten in the next iteration. The thirty minutes turned to a couple of hours and I was still nowhere near a conclusion. Hours turned into days and I knew things were beginning to look ludicrous when I even had difficulty falling asleep, which is a rarity, as Rupa will readily confirm. Apparently, under usual circumstances, I need to hit the bed and the next moment I am in slumberland. However, as with everything else in life, things eventually returned to normal. A quick jog in the crisp cool morning air of the Bois de Boulogne cleared my head and I had my final list. Here they are:

  • Watch Macbeth being performed at the Globe theater during Shakespeare’s times (around 1600’s). Perhaps I could venture backstage during the performance and sit with the bard and watch Lady Macbeth spout “Out, damned spot! Out, I say.”
  • Hear Jawaharlal Nehru speak at the Parliament House on the midnight of August 15, 1947 on India’s “tryst with destiny”.
  • Witness the war between the Macedonian and Paurava army on the banks of the Jhelum river in 327 BC and the defeated king Porus’ defiant wish that he be treated as a king ought to be, in spite of being vanquished, and Alexander the Great acceding to the request.
  • Watch Leonardo da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda). Would then know for sure the identity of the model and the mystery behind the Mona Lisa smile. But be assured, not a word shall pass my lips — the suspense must endure for all times.
  • Watch the apple fall on Sir Isaac Newton’s head and his stunned realization of the powers of gravity. OK, the story is probably apocryphal but it is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that for the purpose of my blog, we shall assume it happened. At the very least, we will be able to determine its veracity.

Dear Reader, what would be in your list? There is no right or wrong, just what appeals to you.

Oh, I need to get this out too. One of the rules above was that anything directly connected to self or family could not be listed. But if  that was not one of the requirements, the top ranked item for me would be to hold hands with my father when he was battling the final stages of Alzeimer’s. The disease had robbed him of his memory and his ability to speak. He was not able to recognize anyone and had turned into a thin shell of his former robust self. Weighed down by the powerful psychotropic medicines and sedatives, he would spend most of the time lying down on his bed, gazing out at things unseen. If I could time travel I would go down to Kolkata in the monsoons of 2007 and just sit beside him and hold his hands for hours and days together. He would probably not recognize me, but who knows — maybe he would, through my touch. I know we had a special bond together.

Paris — one year later

Eiffel Tower -- All Lit Up
Eiffel Tower — All Lit Up

It isn’t obvious, but Paris grows on you — a slow seductive charming muse, in whose bosom you willingly lay your head and conjure up visions of blissful eternity. Be it in the graceful lilt of the language when even strangers greet you with bon jour, the stylishly dressed handsome men and graceful women at all hours of the day and night, the bustling street-side cafes and bistros to watch the world go by, the absolutely delightful bakeries and patisseries with their own wonderful aromas and promises of sinful pleasure, the attention to detail in anything culinary, and in the decorative and expressive facade of each and every building hinting at the glorious past, Paris will captivate, enchant, and eventually, bewitch.

It isn’t easy and it wasn’t going to be easy for us. A change of residence is always beset with teething problems, particularly if it is inter-country and inter-continental. And Paris is known to present difficulties to the incoming resident. There are mega bytes of web pages all detailing the rude Parisian, the “no-English” iron curtain that puts a stop to all attempts at conversation, the small apartments that come bare with electrical wires substituting for light fixtures and unfurnished kitchens, the cost of parking, the deplorable absence of toilets in public places, the poor service mentality (and what more could you expect when you are mandated to work not more than 35 hours a week, and then have generous vacation entitlements?), the announcements every other week of some organization or the other going on strike, the pickpocket laden metro and so on. Add to that the extremely high cost of living and even higher taxes, and you have a recipe for a perfectly disordered stay. As the plane banked to the left in its final approach to the Charles De Gaulle runway on that cool April evening I wondered how the next couple of years in the “City of Lights” would turn out for us.

The glass pyramidal entrance to the Louvre: Artist I.M. Pei
The glass pyramidal entrance to the Louvre: Artist I.M. Pei

You will have realized that I am talking about establishing residence in Paris. This is a completely different experience from the general tourist who would probably spend a few days to a week here, dashing from one “must-see” attraction to another, cameras and cell-phones on the ready, determined to make the most of his visit, chatting excitedly with other members of the group whenever a site is recognized and trying to have as much of a cultural initiation as possible within the short period of time. And where else can you get more monuments which are universally recognized than Paris ? From the Eiffel Tower soaring majestically into the blue sky, the glass pyramidal entrance at the Louvre made memorable in “The Da Vinci Dode”, the awe-inspiring cathedral of Notre Dame which started construction as early as 1160, the Arc de Triomphe to celebrate Napoleans’ victory at the Austerlitz wars and to the Palace of Versailles, where Louis XIV moved his court from Paris in 1682, and many others in between, Paris is a vacationer’s dream city and is on the bucket-list of many retirees as places-to-visit-before-I-kick-the-bucket. For many such tourists that this city hosts temporarily, the visit is an episode in their life that is going to be unsurpassed by anything more resonating. To all such visitors, I quietly doff my hat and agree with their sentiments, mostly. But my thoughts on that April evening of 2014 as I made my way across the immigration line at CDG airport was more apprehensive than reassuring, less of delightful anticipation and more of contemplative silence. And then my passport was stamped and I entered Paris, France.

The green grass and multi-colored flowers on road dividers
The green grass and multi-colored flowers on road dividers

The first thing that hit me was how green the city was. If it was not green, it was in bloom. Coming from the Middle East, where sighting such scenes outside of oases and carefully nurtured super-luxurious housing compounds was well nigh impossible, I could not have enough of the bounty of nature. Eyes flitting from one green patch to another through the rain-spattered tinted glass of the taxi as it sped towards the destination, I could not help but marvel at the exquisitely beautiful play of colors that the world had to offer. For a brief moment, I wondered if the occupants of other cars and buses were also marveling at this delightful show of Mother Earth or were immersed in the artificial lighting of their tablets, cell phones, laptops. And then the taxi took a curve and a small jardin (garden) in the corner, with a forlorn green bench beneath the statue of some lady of nobility, and some ready-to-bloom lilacs behind, caught my attention and I forgot about all other co-travelers in separate vehicles.

Our temporary accommodation
Our temporary accommodation

My initiation into the real Paris started soon enough. Deposited outside an arched doorway with a metallic number-pad to key in the building access code, an apartment on one of the higher floors was going to be our temporary accommodation for the next month while we searched for our own place to rent. The first shock was seeing the capacity of the lift. It proclaimed boldly on its wall plate that it could accommodate 2 persons (150 kgs), but I am absolutely certain that if at any time it carried two adults, they needed to be consenting adults. To me, the most it could accommodate was one person plus one medium sized suitcase. Coming in on a transfer of assignment, I remember there were multiple trips that needed to be made before all our luggage had safely landed on our apartment floor.

The second shock was as we made a tour of the apartment. Actually, “tour” is a wrong word as it emphasizes distance and time. Here the “tour” was over even before it started. Surely, there would be more floor space — was I missing a door somewhere that led to the main living room or another bedroom? The “hallway”, was wide enough to allow one person-width to walk along. If another person came from the opposite direction, both needed to turn perpendicular to avoid brushing against each other. The door of the kitchen opened into the pantry and guess what — both could not be opened at the same time.  You had to enter the kitchen, close the door behind you, and only then open the cupboard. A similar situation existed for the bathroom, and speaking of which, was this a bathroom or a toy-bathroom? The only way I could console myself was that this was just temporary — our own apartment was going to be fine. There was legitimate reason to worry because our furniture was being shipped from the Middle East and Texas (US), both known for sizes extra-extra-large and I had a full 40 ft container, packed to the gills, waiting to be delivered at whichever would be my new residence in Paris.

A forlorn park in an autumn afternoon
A forlorn park in an autumn afternoon

It will be fair to say that France does not look very welcoming to long-term visitors. Starting from the rather abrasive visa interviews held at the French embassy of the previous location, where volumes of paperwork are needed, and where much of the information is helpfully provided only in French, one gets the feeling of being tolerated rather than received with open arms. Bureaucracy is endemic in all official work and “time” has no meaning. There is no website where one can monitor the progress of one’s file as it supposedly moves through hierarchical office desks before a final arbitrator decides on the merit of the case with your destiny stamped in bold red letters — ACCEPTED or REJECTED. The labyrinthine rules and procedures of filling in various application forms must surely exist, as no Government office in any country can function otherwise, but none is readily visible to the uninitiated. And no document is more important than the coveted “Titre de Sejour“, the residence visa, as almost every other document, including the “Carte Vitale” (Social Security Card — required for medical reimbursements) and French Driving License, need to refer to it.

An ever-popular roadside delicacy in Paris: Nutella Crepe with various garnishments
An ever-popular roadside delicacy: Nutella Crepe with various garnishments

But I am making a hash of the sequence of events. Let me back track a couple of weeks. Before applying for the Residence Visa, we needed to have a residence first — bought or rented. Buying was out of the question as Paris realty prices would have bankrupted me a few times over. My wife took the onerous task of locating an apartment that would not put a fatal dent in our monthly paycheck and yet qualify as being in Paris. You see, after spending all our married lives in the suburbs of various cities, complying with the stereotypical lifestyle of parents of school going children, we desperately wanted to live in Paris, to explore and experience what city life has to offer. She realized soon enough that this was going to require some serious juggling. Located in Paris but yet financially sustainable, financially sustainable and yet having two bedrooms,  having two bedrooms and also two bathrooms (a not too common feature, unfortunately), having two bathrooms and yet a furnished kitchen, a furnished kitchen and yet, financially sustainable — this was definitely not an easy task. She marshaled all her resources — friends, company expatriation agent, local relocation agencies, company spouse association and others — and to cut a long story short, within a couple of weeks we could agree on an apartment with as few concessions to our wishlist as possible.

Macaron: A popular sweet meringue-based confection that traces its history to the VIII century in the Venetian monasteries
Macaron: A popular sweet meringue-based confection that traces its history to the VIII century in the Venetian monasteries

Even with all advance preparations, there were a few major causes of headache, if not actual trauma. The strict rental contract with penalties for every known or unknown cause for any change to the apartment should be used by law schools to define what iron-clad means. The naked bulbs hanging precariously from the ceiling conjured up visions of lighting arrangements in small-town grocery shops of India. That an apartment could be rented without ceiling fans, leave aside air conditioners (because Parisian weather does not require such fanciful gadgets), was an act of faith that I still find difficult to comprehend. The fact that you have no letter box of your own and all mails are delivered to the common pool, whereupon the Guardianne sorts and distributes, seemed especially quaint in today’s day and age. And getting the furniture delivered via a mobile crane and through the balcony door was an experience that had to be experienced, but not without generating innumerable hiccups prior to the actual operation. It was indeed remarkable that we got done what we got done within the time frame that we had initially set out for.

And that gave us a false hope — that the most difficult part of settling in was over. We had, however, not accounted for standard work practice, or SOP in organizational parlance. To set up any recurring service, such as internet, cable, electricity or water, one needs to have a bank account as it entitles you to what is called a RIB. However, opening a bank account can be a long drawn out process, quite contrary to my experience elsewhere and counter-intuitive, because I was going to put in my money at the bank. First, I needed an appointment with a banker — you cannot just walk into a bank and request to see one — and I got one three days later. Second, I needed my paper work ready, including a note of introduction from my employer certifying something (since these official looking documents are always in French, I can only guess at their contents). And third, I needed the rental agreement to the apartment, which at that point did not have electricity, gas or water connection set up because I did not yet have a RIB, but where I was supposed to be living anyway. You need to have an understanding employer in such cases who will put you up in some hotel or serviced apartment for this period.

Having procured my RIB, and after doing a double somersault on realizing that the monthly charges of accessing my bank account through my debit card would cost me Euro 14 a month — yes, per month,  I went after the other necessities of life. Some went relatively smoothly, thanks to our executive relocation agency, but I do want to highlight two cases here. The fact that I have a much more pronounced MPB, or male pattern baldness, now than even a year back, must be due to the innumerable times I almost pulled my hair out in frustration.

We needed to buy a fridge. Friends had warned us to measure the maximum dimensions that the doorway and kitchen space would allow before going to the store, as American style fridges, though available, usually would not fit in the provided space. The beauty of American style double-door fridges are that once you do some serious grocery shopping you should be good to go for a couple of weeks, and even more. All I can say about my landlord is that she seemed to be one who preferred everything fresh. The space provided for a fridge in our kitchen would get me at most a 200 L sized unit, and would require me to stock up every third day. If we went on a diet, perhaps that could extend to every fourth day, but not a day more.

Steps leading to the Grande Arche at La Defense: The Quatre Temps is just to the left of this.
Steps leading to the Grande Arche at La Defense: The Quatre Temps is just to the left of this.

Anyway, we went to one of the gleaming shops at the local Quatre Temps in La Defense and ordered our coveted unit. Delivery could only be scheduled after a couple of days and we were thankful that the wait was only for a short time. On the appointed day, the fridge was surreptitiously brought up the elevator (building regulations apparently allow furniture and goods movement only via the staircase), unpacked and connected to the electrical outlet. The proud owner in me immediately placed six beer bottles to cool. When after six hours the beer still had no chill, I knew something was wrong and called up the store. You may already have guessed the next step — we had to set up an appointment with a technician, and which was not available for another 72 hrs. On his arrival he looked at the fridge and after a cursory glance, certified that the unit indeed was defective and that we could now go ahead and place a replacement order. Losing no time we rushed to the store minutes before closing time and ordered a replacement — and, in a recurrence of our bad luck, the delivery was scheduled again after 3 days. You see, no delivery is allowed on the weekends as per labor union rules. Thankfully, the saga of the refrigerator ends there, or so we continue to hope.

The second incident was the more painful of the lot. If you do not have a working fridge, you can eat out. But what can you do today if you do not have a working internet? Since TV, internet (wi-fi), and landlines all come bundled today, it effectively meant being cut-off from the world. And add to that the football World Cup being played in all its splendor in Brazil and the blank TV set mocking your helplessness here in France, can you really fault me for dark murderous thoughts that were never very far from my mind? We wanted fibre optics instead of ADSL because we thought we would also do a fair amount of streaming. We did not relish going through withdrawal symptoms of “House of Cards” or “Homeland”. It was too bad that “Breaking Bad” was over, but there were new seasons of “Orange is the New Black” and “Downton Abbey” to look forward to, if only the technician from Orange could give us a time. On the anointed day he came, he saw and he made a list of things that needed to be completed before he could “draw” the fibre-optic channel from wherever the last landing point lay quietly in the neighborhood. Two weeks later, and a full 21 days after we moved into our house, we finally had a working phone, TV and wi-fi services. Thanking Him for small mercies we directed our laptop to the Netflix URL to check out the latest in the lives of Nicolas Brody, Lady Edith Crawley, Piper Chapman, and all the other “streaming” friends who we had missed the last few months, only to learn that Netflix was unavailable in France (it debuted later in Sep 2014).

Steep cobbled streets at Montmartre, where painters such as Monet, Dali, Picasso, and Van Gogh had worked
Steep cobbled streets at Montmartre, where painters such as Monet, Dali, Picasso, and Van Gogh had worked

Meanwhile, we hung on — tenaciously, unwilling to let go of Paris without giving it a chance to redeem itself. We had lived in Mumbai, Beijing, Dallas and Dhahran (Saudi Arabia) and it took time to adjust in each, but once the initial teething period was over, the stay would turn out to be very enjoyable. The problems here, however, seemed so interminable that there was a serious test of resolve. The Titre de Sejour was ready in about 8 months, but since the visa validity for my wife was for only a year, she would have to undergo the process once again in another four months time. The internet stopped working one fine day for no apparent reason and we perforce had to call the utility help line, which charged us an exorbitant rate per minute for calling them for something they should have been ensured was working in the first place. There was a water leakage in the upper apartment but it affected the walls of our kitchen. Remembering the no-nonsense rental agreement, I contacted my insurance agent and it has now become my responsibility to make sure that the upper floor tenant fills out three forms (Constat Amiable Degats Des Eaux) and have them co-signed  by and sent to different agencies and then my insurance company will hopefully initiate contact with his. I am still looking forward to a successful resolution to this case.

A typical Parisian building facade
A typical Parisian building facade

But slowly, subtly, things began to change. I guess it is all a matter of perception. It was Yeats who said, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for senses to grow sharper.” Nothing could be truer for us than our daily mishaps with the French language. What was a hurdle one day turned into a desire to learn a beautiful language that’s harmonious and lilting and so much like a song. What I initially complained about as ridiculous — the fact that the words are rarely pronounced the way they are spelt — I now find endearing. It now seems so much more natural and free-flowing than if it were written exactly as it sounded. And so much more fun too. And what better excuse to learn a new language than to be able to immerse into a culture known for its richness, vivacity and charm?

One of the many lakes at Bois de Boulogne, second largest park in Paris, created during the reign of Emperor Louis Napolean
One of the many lakes at the Bois de Boulogne, second largest park in Paris, created during the reign of Emperor Louis Napolean

And look at the city. A vibrant happening place that has space for everyone — young, old, babies, teens — mothers with strollers, aged with walking sticks, active joggers, wandering tourist, playful kids. The innumerable parks, gardens, forests and water fronts ring out in joyful abandon as children play, couples romance, people walk along, groups commune while the solitary sit on a bench somewhere and watch the world. Each is happy in his own way. Every fragment of time in these salubrious surroundings soothes the self.

One of the many starred hotels in Paris welcoming tourists from all over the world
One of the many starred hotels in Paris welcoming tourists from all over the world

But Paris is more than this, of course. It has been at the cutting edge of science, mathematics and technology since ages. And what to speak of art! Look at the architecture and design of the chateaus, palaces, monuments, churches, cathedrals, and even the facades and intricate designs of wrought-iron grilles of supposedly ordinary buildings, and you get a sense of pride just being able to experience all of this. My wife and I love to walk along untrod avenues and rues and seek the thrill of locating a church tucked away in a forgotten corner or a beguiling statue half-hidden in a small patch of green. Even on streets well traveled we are often tingled to discover a fascinating structure hidden between two late 19th century buildings that may have eluded our attention the previous umpteen times we walked there.

River Seine at night
River Seine at night

In which other city will you have objects of arts displayed across countless public and private museums spanning centuries of human efforts to capture the noble? The beautiful bridges across the river Seine connecting the left to the right bank, the majestic Horse Chestnut, Linden and Honey Locust tree-lined boulevards with numerous round-a-bouts, the weekly farmer’s market in temporary stalls, the cafes, bistros and brasseries with small circular tables monopolizing the pavement and filled with beautifully dressed men and women watching others rush by — all seem so very delightful. Every neighborhood has its own charm and we often find ourselves on buses, trams and subways with no plan other than that to just walk around another out-of-the-way locality. We find it so very pleasing that Paris still hosts charming little independently-owned bookshops, and the smell of half-opened books, together with the aroma of espresso coffee wafting through an open window,  is enough to make our day.

The many layers of flavor
The many layers of flavor

No discourse on Paris will be quite complete without a reference to the cuisine that has won the hearts of the sternest kings and nobles. I hate to classify the locals as epicureans, which has shades of gross sensuality attached to its meaning, but the cuisine really transforms a daily kitchen chore into a subliminal culinary journey. It is something that a non-French palate has to develop a taste for, but once you are there, you are hooked. I had heard about layered flavors earlier — I understood it only after coming here. Like the various levels of consciousness laid out in various religious texts, I never realized that one could savor a preparation with so many nuances at different levels. Dorie Greenspan (DorieGreenspan.com) says it so well: “It’s about building flavors…It’s meant to unfold, so its really a relaxing moment at the end of the day. Its about the pleasure of sitting down, enjoying family, company and food.”

One of the seven dishes from our culinary experience that celebratory night
One of the seven dishes from our culinary experience that celebratory night

I remember our first experience of a Michelin starred restaurant in Paris. We were three of us: myself, my wife and our daughter, freshly arrived from the USA and jet-lagged. She had just got admission to a prestigious university in New York and we wanted to celebrate. The maitre ‘d understood our discomfiture and took extra pains in explaining the ingredients of each dish, the significance of pairing the correct wine with the correct course, the different kind of cheeses and finally, the array of desserts that could only have been conjured by the chefs in Heaven. Suffice to say that months after that delightful rendezvous with the God of Taste we still talk about it — and one day, when we have recouped our savings — we shall be there again.

Farmer's market: usually all localities of Paris have one of these on certain days of the week
Farmer’s market: usually all localities of Paris have one of these on certain days of the week

Oh, one last thing about food, and then I’ll shut up. Did you know that there were more than one thousand varieties of cheeses? Take any one, and bite into it with a chocolate croissant and your sip from the morning cup of Joe — you shall start your day on Cloud Nine. I do not have a favorite variety of cheese, yet. There are just too many to choose from, and have not yet ventured into the aged cheese section, but I’d definitely like to hear from you if you have any favorites already.

As Ernest Hemingway once said, “Paris is a holiday, which is always with you”. We are indeed so lucky that our residence has a Paris address, for now. And as for the supposedly rude Parisian, I’ve never really met anyone, except for an occasional grumpy waiter somewhere. But then everyone has a bad hair day. Let us leave it at that!!

The Ultimate Unknown

Unknown Chasm

The patient lay staring at the ceiling where an ivory colored fan, once pristine but now dirty after decades of soothing tired, dispirited and disinterested mankind,  whirred with a croaking sound, as if complaining about the inordinate workload in a humid, vapid city. The blades of the fan had accumulated dirt only along the inner depression where it connected to the rotating shaft and along the periphery. The rest of the surface area was relatively clean. The patient wondered if this could also be explained by physics and made a mental note to ask his many friends who would come visiting him today, tomorrow or perhaps during the weekend.

He had many such questions listed which felt scientifically challenging at first, but which he would never ask because on second and third thoughts, seemed downright silly or pointless. Questions like why does the skin swell up after a mosquito bite, or if boiling water kills all the germs, would it still be safe to drink the water when it could be teeming with millions of dead germs. Other questions needing a fair amount of research for his non-medical friends such as “How would one perceive the universe if the image falling on our retina was not reversed — would it mean we would see others walking upside down?” had never been satisfactorily composed, and therefore never asked.  And sometimes even meta-physical inquiries like “Do we have free will?” would crop up in his fertile mind, but he would inevitably think better than ask questions that raised the hackles of predominantly blind followers of faith based religions.

Of course, with death not very distant, questions on death and the “Grim Reaper” were never far from his mind. He liked to believe that he was a true Hindu, and though people from today’s day and age had mostly outgrown the concept of Yamaraj and Chitragupta, he still believed in an eternal soul and the merging with the ultimate Brahman at the conclusion of the cycle of births and rebirths. Between bouts of intense pain and nausea, there would be intervals of surprising mental acuity, which he would use to read a number of books on this unknown — from the works of known atheists like Richard Dawkins on one hand to comprehensive summaries of how the great religions of the world look at passing away, on the other. To his surprise, the religions differed a lot in their interpretations of death and afterlife, while atheism, unsurprisingly, said there was no evidence, yet, of an afterlife — Fullstop. It seemed to him, then, that there was no recourse for him other than to believe that what he had imbibed about the Hindu concept of afterlife would come true, and because he had led a pretty humdrum and, while not virtuous, at least an “unsinful” life,  he would be fine.

One thought had been troubling the patient the last few days. After the initial few weeks of absolute frenzy with wailing, flailing, denial, anger and God-why-me? following the sudden unraveling of his colon cancer, he and his family had come to accept the inevitable. The last few weeks spun by at a dizzying pace, filled with more important work such as account nominations, will, tax returns, signatures on blank forms, insurance updates and such activities. What troubled him, though, was the fear that he saw in the eyes of his friends and other visitors who would come to visit him. His close friends were reaching out to him out of genuine love and affection, some apologetic for not having been in touch recently while the majority, and others more awkward and perfunctory than consoling, as if somehow his imminent demise was also a reflection of their own limited time on this earth and they would rather not think about it.  But one common thread ran through all his visitors — each and every one was uncomfortable. No one mentioned death by name, of course,  but the small talk that littered the room seemed ever so farcical. He knew that each one of the visitors understood that this was probably the last meeting that they were going to have with him, that a month from now this hospital bed would have a different terminal patient attached to it and the crow that sits on the window sill at around 4 PM every day would have a different person to gauge, and that all of this was inevitable and there was nothing anyone could do about it — and yet, everyone seemed so ill at ease. He almost felt sorry for them, as if somehow asking them a question that they were not capable of answering. He wondered how he would have reacted if the tables were turned — if he was visiting a friend on his death bed. Would he be tongue-tied too or would he have the courage to say goodbye with words of candor, reassurance and love?

The above is a figment of my imagination — well almost. I have a friend, AK, who I heard is at Stage 4 cancer. AK and I were in school, and then in college together. We thereafter went our separate ways and we would meet, maybe, once a year during our annual summer vacations back home, but as our job, career and itineraries diverged, this grew less and less. However, the popularity of social media put us in touch once again after 30 years and that is how I came to know of his condition. I shall be visiting India later this month and I will take this opportunity to meet him at the hospice where  he currently is. I cannot bear the thought of not saying good bye — and while saying a permanent “au revoir” is hard, not doing so and telling him how fortunate I am to have a friend like him would be a source of regret throughout my life.

I wonder what he thinks of lying on the hospice bed. Is his body racked by so much pain that a quick release would seem a blessing or can he still gaze out of the window and think happy thoughts? Thoughts, perhaps, about his parents, marriage, birth of children, vacations with loved ones, career growth, or the idyllic childhood with friends and siblings that many of us who grew up in non-descriptive small towns seem to have. Does he still have enough strength in him to recall what a fantastic footballer he was? Can he visualize the Krishnachura tree in full bloom under which we would have our lunch on school days and which was a constant source of amazement for him? Does he care that he was, or rather, is, the vice president of a Fortune 500 company? Will he be coherent or even able to recognize me?

If he is feeling like small talk maybe this will be a good time for me to confess that the letter purportedly written by Parvati to him was actually written by me (at the instigation of others, absolutely, oh yes), using Parvati’s school letterhead. Maybe this will also be a good time to solve the existential dilemma that wracked our class of 1977 — which was the better movie: Sholay or Magnificient Seven. Or perhaps I will just show up, and if he is not feeling like talking, just be there. One can have meaningful conversations without a word being spoken.

APJ Abdul Kalam — my humble pranams

Mumbai: A condolence meeting for the late former president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam organised by the South Indian Education Society at the Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai on Aug 1, 2015. (Photo: IANS)
Mumbai: A condolence meeting for the late former president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam organised by the South Indian Education Society at the Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai on Aug 1, 2015. (Photo: IANS)

For the past one week India has been paying homage to APJ Abdul Kalam, perhaps one of our greatest Presidents, along with Dr S Radhakrishnan. These two stalwarts, and to some extent Dr Rajendra Prasad, elevated the Presidency to a much higher pedestal than just political. And in an age when Presidents are chosen depending on one’s political survival in the “cesspool of politics”, as Amitabh Bachchan once famously described the Indian parliamentary system,  APJ Abdul Kalam is the only President in recent memory who restored the glory of Rashtrapati Bhavan to one that illuminated the past heritage and projected a shining future of a young nation in equal measure. And this was not done on the basis of modernizing a 340 room mansion, built on a 130 hectare Presidential Estate, and boasting of being the largest residence of a Head of State in the World. Instead, Rashtrapati Bhavan once again became a beacon of light, hope and aspiration for 1.2 billion people because it hosted a President who was a “reluctant politician”: an engineer, space scientist, science administrator, teacher, mentor, and a public servant. He was truly a People’s President who resided in the hearts of all of us across the entire spectrum of political affiliations, race, gender, wealth and religion.

Hundreds of anecdotes and news reports on different facets of his life, or various incidents that illuminate his personality have been highlighted in the media. What compelled me to write this blog was, however, a short post on today’s yahoo.co.in site detailing the material possessions of Abdul Kalam: a wrist watch, six shirts, four trousers, three suits and a pair of shoes. He did not own any property, not even “essential life-accessories” like fridge, TV, car or air conditioner. And this was a man who ultimately rose to become President of the Republic of India. It goes to show his passion in life though that he did have 2,500 books.

How much material possession is enough in today’s world? How can one distinguish between need and greed? Even in today’s corporate culture, where one is expected to be “suitably dressed”, where does one draw the line? One would presume that Abdul Kalam was suitably dressed on all the official occasions during his Presidency, even if he owned an average of only three suits at any one time and just one pair of shoes. Although, if one were to assume that as President, the sartorial decisions would be the Government’s and not personally made by him, the question that haunts me, as I stare at my wardrobe, is how much does one need to be happy?

We live in a world where packaging is important. We are conditioned to believe one needs to dress for success. There is pressure everywhere — pressure to look good, pressure to go up in life, pressure to compete and win, pressure to ensure that our responsibilities are well taken care of, pressure to build wealth, and pressure, perhaps, even to flaunt success. And if we achieve all, or some, of these, it is supposed to make us happy. Various reports tell us that there is a “Happiness Hormone” that is released by the brain when one buys new stuff, though it fades away rather quickly. I am sure there is some truth in all of that — money, security and smiles are somehow intricately linked — but that is surely not the end all and be all.

In a society where appearances are the topmost priority, how can one be the proverbial duck which swims in the water and yet does not get wet? How can one function in today’s world and yet remain unaffected by it? How does one downsize from Rashtrapati Bhavan to a house with no AC or fridge with nary a hint of displeasure or discomfort? I do not have the answer but I suspect it has a lot to do with one’s confidence in one’s self worth and the value that one brings to the world.

And so, Sir, my humble pranams to you for showing us the way and leading by example. For making each one of us believe that “Yes, we can”, if we put our mind to it. For caring little about pomp and glory and for even thinking that one can live out one’s life without a four wheeled transport to call one’s own. For noticing the often invisible common man in the most wonderful of ways, as evidenced by your thanking a jawan for remaining standing on guard duty throughout your two hour drive from a local airport to IIM Shillong (incidentally, your last public engagement) and for proving that teaching is indeed the noblest of all professions. After all, on being asked what you would like to be remembered as, you had replied “Teacher”.