Thursday, May 20, 2010

Cahiers de Paris

So I fled marking hell today. Vive l'Eurostar. Some British eurosceptic allegedly raised concerns about the construction of the Channel tunnel on the grounds that rabid dogs could make their way into England. I'm not sure who this was (google for a reference), but he's probably in power now. Anyway, I'm staying in the lovely Marais, which is delightful and quaint and Jewish and gay and untouched by Haussmann, whom I have taken a dislike to before even seeing the boulevards. (Suddenly, New Delhi is beginning to make sense: India Gate = Arch de Triomphe; Louvre = Rashtrapati Bhavan; Rajpath = Champs Elysees; Lutyens = Haussmann; Paris feels like an urban planning textbook.) But more on that later. Today, I 'se promener'd. To an English speaker, this is a weird, fussy, camp verb for an action as simple and matter of fact as walking/strolling. But in these lovely sun-dappled streets with independent stores that don't look like they're part of chains to my untutored eye (I could be so wrong), and cafes galore (most of the restaurant sits on the pavement), I am taking great pleasure in 'se promener'ing. Je me promene, Tu te promenes, Il se proment. Etc. 

I am ticking things off a list. Gently, because I am coughing and sneezing far too much for comfort and thinking, disturbingly, of Mimi dying of consumption in La Boheme. Fortunately, Lemsip will save me. Also, I am determined not to tick things off lists as it violates the spirit of 'se promener'ing. Notre Dame: too touristy and not particularly impressive EXCEPT - here's a story. My father is a civil engineer and many of his buildings dot the Bangalore skyline for good or ill (although since he is not the architect, you cannot credit or blame him for the design; rather, for the fact that they are still standing.) Possibly the most tense moment of his career came when something didn't quite work out the way it needed to and the building needed some hastily erected buttresses to make sure it, well, stood. Ever since then, buttresses have acquired very stressful connotations (engineering pun intended) in my mind: afterthoughts, damage control, meant to prop up something that cannot stand on its own. Until Notre Dame, whose flying buttresses are its most dramatic and joyous architectural feature, giving the whole building the illusion of movement as if the upper storeys were reaching down to grab the lower ones and lift them off to some higher place. The irony is that the great dame's buttresses were also a panicky afterthought.  

In the evening, I found myself at the Open Cafe on Rue des Archives with all the gay South Asian men in Paris. All three of them. M was giving a Mexican friend a back massage and then the Mexican suggested that he transfer his attention to me because he had to leave. I didn't think I needed a back massage but submitted anyway. It turned out that M had lived in Hackney and after many years working for an airline, had decided to set up shop in Paris as a yoga teacher. M's friend G was a fashion designer, who lived near the Louvre and worked only three days a week (rich boyfriend). G retained a camp bitchy South Delhi brattishness, making him extremely recognizable and enabling me to warm to him instantly. We decamped to a midnight Moroccan joint where we got talking to another table of boys and girls. Everyone was French and from somewhere else - Indochinois, unspecified Africaine, and E who claimed to be Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and looked like he could have been distantly related to Shashi Kapoor. We moved again to Raidd Bar, which is packed to the gills with a clientele drooling over half-naked bartenders who occasionally get more naked and take a shower in a cubicle mounted in a wall (no touching). The shower is broadcast live on screens to other parts of the bar.


21/5: At breakfast over a croissant and cappuccino at a street cafe in the Marais, I overheard a table of two elderly men and one woman talking animatedly (in French of course; everyone speaks French in this place, not just the sophisticated people). At one point in the conversation, one of the men banged his hand on the table and said 'Maimonides', and then he repeated this several times over in various parts of the conversation. Look, I don't live here so I don't know if people talk about Maimonides on a regular basis, but it made me happy to see that non-left bank intellectual types were talking about Maimonides (how utterly condescending of me). I have not yet made it to the left bank and, frankly, I cannot understand why anyone would name river banks right and left. It's an anti-dyslexic world out there.

The Centre Pompidou begins to be fun even before you enter it. In this city of monochromatic architectural beauty, Pompidou is a riot of colour and architectural innovation. All the functional aspects of the building (pipes, ducts, elevators, escalators) are exposed - what my father calls 'truth in architecture' - and colour coded, so that the building looks like it has been assembled by a kindergarten class under strict colouring instructions from their teacher. As it turned out, the place was full of school groups of tiny children rolling around on the floor, looking at magnificent works of modern art, scribbling on worksheets and crying 'regarde regarde!' in their perfectly formed accents. As I climbed up the escalators to the permanent exhibit on the fifth floor, I saw the Eiffel Tower by accident (which is really the best way; I always worry about iconic structures; they almost never have the desired effect in the flesh, so to speak, when you have already (deja - I love that word) consumed countless representations of them). Of course I had forgotten my camera, but I assure you it was a good moment. Lots of flying buttresses everywhere.

I saw a LOT of stuff in Pompidou over the next six hours (no I don't generally last that long, but this place is something else). All the great masters (they are almost ALL masters with the possible exception of Sonia Delaunay - in the contemporary art section on the fourth floor, the Guerrilla Girls' posters rage: 'Less than 3% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 83% of the nudes are female') Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Dali, Giacometti, Miro, Rothko, Pollock. It's striking how many of these guys get less retrained as they age - cf. Picasso's La Pisseuse, which does exactly what it says on the tin. I made a mental note to read Edward Said's book on 'late style'. Some of the work in the contemporary art section was quite subversive of the very practice of museum curating. One work in particular by Jana Sterbak entitled 'Vanitas' was utterly unforgettable. A dress made of flesh, Sterbak describes how it arouses disgust on the first day it is exhibited, when the meat is raw and smells. Gradually as it dries out and becomes more leathery, it begins to be more acceptable. Curators (and presumably the world at large) treat artists like this: the living ones are tricky, the dead much easier to handle.

The best thing about Paris is the time between things, when you sit around in cafes (interior? exterior? dans le soleil? so many choices...) and people-watch. Pompidou has a lovely great big forecourt that slopes gently upwards away from the building, so that the structure feels like it's located in the pit of a giant amphitheatre. There are lots of people lying in the sun, snacking, watching performers of varying levels of ability. The highlight today is a girl playing the didgeridoo and accompanying herself with a variety of different maracas-like instruments. She's emphatically not one of the usual drugged out white rasta types farting noises out of a pipe. In fact, she's so exceptionally good, I could imagine clubbing to this kind of thing. Behind her, a man blows gigantic soap bubbles into the air while people who look far too old to be enjoying this sort of thing run after the bubbles and burst them (I'm rooting for the bubbles). A tramp is belting out rock and roll numbers on a guitar in a voice that sounds like Bob Dylan might have if his nose had been pinched shut with a clothes peg (well, Dylan sounded like that anyway), providing much comic amusement.

I got a text from M asking if I wanted to come up to Montmartre, where he lived, to check the place out. I detest looking like a tourist when I'm doing touristy things, so of course I jumped at the chance to be shown around by a local. When I got out of the metro at Chateau Rouge, M said 'Welcome to Dalston'. The resemblance was unmistakable. (I'll skip the descriptions of vibrant immigrant communities, in the same way that I will give you no accounts of iconic monuments.) Chateau Rouge is to Montmartre what Dalston is, let's try that again because there is nothing quite like Montmartre anywhere in the world. It's hilly. Lots of dramatic level differences, bridged by staircases. The houses are pretty in a paysanne sort of way - cobbled streets and ivy-covered cottages that would look perfectly humdrum if they were in the countryside, except that this is the middle of a world city. THE CATS ARE FAT. We skipped the cemetery and the tourists, although the latter were unavoidable as we neared the Sacre Couer. Which is a truly weird architectural jumble (by the way, it's superbly odd to walk around Paris and find poststructuralist terms like 'bricolage' in the names of shops: you almost expect Levi-Strauss to be sitting behind the cash register). Sacre Couer in my really humble opinion was built by Dali. It looks like a perfectly normal cathedral that was elongated, so that the domes have a shape that has no word, or no word that I know.

We walked around aimlessly, nibbling on crepes, till M spotted a white couch lying abandoned on a pavement (what we would call in London, inexplicably, flytipping). M decided he could use it in his yoga studio, which we were not far from, but couldn't be bothered hauling it there. If I had to live my life again, this is the part I would change: I offered to help him carry the couch. Those of you who know Montmartre will appreciate how difficult it can be to carry a couch, first uphill, and then down one of those famous staircases (lovely to photograph, a bitch to carry furniture up or down). Actually, none of you will understand this because those who you who know Montmartre would also be smart enough to hire movers. Needless to say Mr. fighting fit yogi picked up his end of the couch and charged ahead with me huffing and puffing in pursuit.

My 'reward' for this exertion was a 1.5 hour yoga class (my first ever). The studio is located in one of those gorgeous apartments buildings that need a paragraph of their own (this comes later). It's small (a yoga class of 15 maybe?), but was built by collapsing two ridiculously tiny apartments into one unit. One of these had an adjoining toilet, but the other - to my astonishment - did not. It would have been inhabited, M told me, by the sans papier. So they live here, in the middle of fancy, touristy Montmartre. I've always been indifferent to yoga neither expressing interest in it nor taking a position against it. Actually that's not entirely true. I've always felt unable to engage with yoga from any but one of two positions, both of which make me uncomfortable: either as ancient Indian ritual, or as faddish yuppie trend (darling, I'm so stressed I have to finish this transaction in time for yoga class at 6). But I'm at a point in my life where I'm trying to be a little less pre-judgmental (you wouldn't believe that reading any of this blog, but it's true). So I gave it a shot. Imagine what Mimi might have felt like if you had put her through a yoga class somewhere in Act 3. But I have new respect. Doors have opened in my mind. And there was something poetically just about a Pakistani Muslim taking an Indian Hindu through the yoga asanas appropriate for a debutant on the loveliest street in Montmartre.


22/05: Somewhere in A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemmingway writes that the paintings in the Luxembourg museum 'were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry.' 'I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry', he says. Unfortunately, I didn't take Hemmingway's advice when I went to the Louvre. After a late start and a heavy lunch on linguini avec des gambas dans le soleil, which made me drowsy, I made my way to the Louvre. On the way, I made the tremendously exciting discovery that ugliness exists in Paris - in the form, specifically, of the Forum des Halles. A gigantic tumour-like structure covered entirely with  large mirror surfaces, this is a shopping mall that makes Mota Royal Arcade and Fifth Avenue in Bangalore look like architectural jewels. Let's just say that the International Criminal Court needs to enlarge its understanding of crimes against humanity. But its existence serves the valuable purpose of making Paris feel like a normal place, and reassuring those of us from elsewhere that the French are capable of spectacularly bad aesthetic decisions.

I don't think I was prepared for how big the Louvre was. The building is so enormous that it isn't possible to see all of it from any one vantage point. It must say something about a country that its most monumental building - in many ways the focal point of its capital city - is turned over to a celebration of culture, rather than, say, housing the head of state. The Louvre was exhaustive and exhausting and I decided to see just one gallery. Said's Orientalism begins with a reference to Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798-99, notable for its accompaniment by an army of personnel we would now call academics. For Said, this is a moment in which we can observe the Foucauldian nexus between knowledge and power: to rule them, you have to know them. So it seemed appropriate to begin with the Egyptian antiques. There are close to 20 large rooms of these alone. The wooden coffins for mummies are particularly beautiful and there is a room with scores of these lined standing up on either side of a staircase. Gigantic sphinxes and chunks of statues and temples fill some of the other rooms and - thinking back to the British Museum's comparable collection - I could only think 'pauvre pauvre l'Egypte', although this opens up complex questions about the appropriate basis for claims to cultural heritage, decisions about who is best placed to curate that heritage, etc. I missed an account of how the Louvre had come to acquire these magnificent objects, a story that would have been as interesting as those about their original use. There is another section of the Louvre that presents the history of the museum, but I suspect that something is lost when that is ghettoised into a separate gallery that the majority of visitors may not encounter. The everyday objects made me laugh because many of them looked like the junk in my great-grandmother's house - low wood and cane footstools, brooms, coir mats.

Exhausted and overwhelmed, I staggered into the blinding heat of the Jardin des Tuileries and the monumental Paris of the 1st and 8th arrondissements. This part of the city was not built for walkers without sunglasses, and as I fell into this unfortunate category on this fiercely sunny day (funny, how many of my holidays are spent wanting, and then wanting to escape, the sun), I found myself scurrying for the trees. Haussmann is not winning my love. Well, I should qualify: the boulevards are not for me, but the apartments are a different story. Please get in touch if you wish to bequeath one of your high-ceilinged first or second floor pads. Actually I'll even take one of the top three floors high up in the Mansard roofs. I gave up at Concorde, turning right, only to stagger into the equally imposing monumentality of the Eglise de la Madeleine, built on the orders of Napoleon along the lines of an ancient Greek temple to commemorate his victories, but eventually consecrated as a church by his successor Louis XVIII. You only have to know that it was once suggested that it be used as a train station, to understand how un-churchlike it looks. I figured it was time to go home.



Tuesday, May 11, 2010

here and there

In India After Gandhi, Ram Guha notes that India is Europe's past, but it is also Europe's future. He's talking about nation-building, or at least the construction of larger conglomerate identities out of a multitude of more local ones. Watching British MPs scurry around to form a government, the sentiment seems more appropriate than ever. Westminster utterly lacks the vocabulary, let alone the stomach, to deal with hung parliaments: common minimum programmes, anti-defection laws, cooperating at the centre even as you fight in the regions (witness Douglas Alexander's squeamishness about working with the SNP). I had a similar thought when everyone was up in arms at Rowan William's suggestion a few years ago that one might have to consider the introduction of shariah law in some areas  of social life - a controversial suggestion no doubt, but the outcry that greeted it seemed blissfully oblivious of the fact that British imperial policy in many parts of the world was precisely to permit religious law to remain in force in many places, leaving a legacy of pluralistic 'personal law' systems in many former colonies. When the British chatterati does look more widely at modes of governance elsewhere, the frame of reference is still European. There is a virtually total historical and geographical amnesia in the public discourse about the sorts of institutional innovation that has taken place elsewhere (read: outside the white world) - innovation that is relevant because it has often taken place within institutions that attempted to closely replicate Westminster, but quickly had to adapt to govern the very different societies for which they were intended. Of course Indian parliamentary democracy leaves much to be desired, but LOOK at it - even if to criticise the way it works. Put it in your goddam comparative politics textbooks because it might just save you the trouble of reinventing the wheel. 

Here's something else that irritates me. When viewers were treated to the spectre of people waiting to vote in queues snaking around polling booths and reports of voters being turned away because of time deadlines and insufficient ballot paper came flooding in, David Dimbleby shook his head in disgust and said 'this is Third World politics'. Dude, we have electronic voting machines. 600 million+ voters and we have a pretty good idea of what's going on the next morning. The hassled UK election commission official who confessed, perhaps in an unguarded moment, to a 'Victorian' electoral system was on to something. Sometimes it doesn't pay to be first mover.

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