Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

It was raining in Paris…

Navtej Sarna

It was a very brief stopover in Paris between flights. In fact if one thought of the time that it would take to go from the airport to the centre of the city and back even under the most charitable traffic conditions, it hardly seemed worth the effort. Just about one hour.

But fortunately, the thing about places like Paris is that you can’t resist the temptation. And having read somewhere at a critical time in my formative years that it is the temptations that you resist that you live to regret and not the ones that you have succumbed to, I capitulated to this one readily. Without a glance behind, I gave myself up to enjoying an hour just driving past the familiar spots, weaving in and out of midday traffic waiting at red lights and crisscrossing a lackadaisical Seine.

It was damp and grey. It even drizzled a little. It was beautiful. The gold of the dome of Invalides stood in dulled glory against somber clouds, the Louvre kept faith with its magnificent mysteries and the solid Eiffel glowered down at us. The famed Champs Elysses which obviously does not take too kindly to people who are in a hurry and can’t afford to sit at its wayside tables and sip mint or pernod let us pass by with stylish indifference.

…. The years drop away and memories mushroom everywhere and suddenly there is so much to see. Like that stone parapet with a statue on a bridge on the Seine. It looks ordinary and empty now and there were no trains passing overhead. But that was the place where we had talked an entire night while the little bright windows of the trains passed overhead and the boats with their lights and their tourists and music passed below us. I can’t remember what one talked about for so long but I can remember the terrible head that I woke up next day with.

OR the old bookshop near Notre Dame at which I will never in my life have a full day to spend. The place which has the combined magical smell of old paper, strong coffee and well worn leather and the heady romance of the literary world of Paris of the twenties. One can expect a Hemingway or a Fitzgerald to walk out of the Old Smoking Room. Years ago I bought an old original Scribner’s edition of a Fitzgerald novel here. Today they only have the Penguin edition of The Great Gatsby. It’s somehow disappointing that the place is not beyond change. Sometime I’ll take a week off, put life on the pause button and sit in this place drinking black coffee and browsing through all the books that line the walls. For the moment I walk away full of regrets, my shoes slipping on the damp pavement where a busful of tourists are being framed against the patient Notre Dame cathedral.

…There is a glimpse of an evening in the Latin Quarter with its fire eaters and juggler. And lot of music from the accordion of a man in an olive green jacket around whom two women and a man danced with their hands raised over their heads moving in the lazy tantalizing manner which reminded one of Central Asia.

…On the sweeping stone steps of Sacre Couer a can of beer was jerked open and the fizz hit someone else in the face but there was only laughter. An instant band sang Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you… and artists made incredible likenesses of deep-set, heavily shadowed eyes and high cheekbones. There were electric green headbands, empty coke tins and wine…

ROUND little tables with cane chairs facing the street as if set for the greatest and longest passing show of all times. After climbing two levels of the Eiffel by the steps the black strong coffee is welcome. I wonder how long I can sit there on that table just on the strength of that one coffee. Sooner or later I would have to order something more. But nobody bothers. Here nonchalance on a grand scale seems to be not only the way of life but an art.

There is more traffic on the way back and the check-in has already been announced at the airport which has the glass and marble indifference of all international airports. And as the plane rises above the wet green fields around the runway, one can see the hares scurry away.