This picture has pride of place above my desk – a framed caricature that was drawn on my first trip ever to Paris (Summer, 1993). I remember the artist’s face (he’s signed simply as Viv) – late 20s, squarish face, wavy blond hair and with an evil sense of humour. He kept asking me to smile and keep it fixed and you can see why. My grin is stretched out wide and my face shows some of the dread in what the result of that was going to be. To me, this portrait is a stroke of genius – it captures everything about how I felt that time being in this most alluring of all the cities in the world. Awed and thrilled. That first time we had dinner at Souvenir de Gandhi, a restaurant in La Defense, run by Tamil people. There was Lalgudi Jayaraman’s violin playing on the stereo and we got talking to the owners. I clearly remember the French people sitting at the next table looking at us with indulgence. They were beaming at us, watching us openly (unlike the English) and genuinely happy to see us bonding. A Scottish man on the ferry back to England had had a similar enjoyable experience – he told me that he’d slept under the Eiffel tower for that whole week as he couldn’t afford accommodation.
Another time, at a Romanian restaurant, near the Eiffel, with only meat on the menu, the manager asked us to sit down and wait. We had a five-course vegetarian meal that his mother cooked fresh for us. When the tunnel became functional, we were there first in line, driving into the Shuttle. For years, we kept going back, never needing more than the lamest of reasons to visit. I still hope to catch the train to Paris one of these days and when I get off at Gare du Nord intend to walk across to the Saravana Bhavan there for tiffin.
In our heads we all want to be living and breathing Paris. It was the reason Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart couldn’t take their eyes off each other in Casablanca. It sealed the matter for Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy who meet there in Before Sunset. Ethan Hawke’s character talks about the German soldier who had his finger on the button, at the end of the war, under orders to blow up all the iconic buildings – the Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur etc. but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Woody Allen’s love-letter to the city in Midnight in Paris is another example…the list is actually endless.
Almost as if to burst this romantic bubble, the events on the evening of Friday, the 13th have sent a shockwave around the world – that wreaking havoc of this scale is possible and easy to execute. Just the previous day, the British and Americans were slapping each other on their backs for sending an expensive drone that they said ‘most definitely’ killed one dangerous ISIS soldier. Subsequent events have shown how insignificant a victory that was. It’s almost as if Syria, that was the bastion of old civilisation has suddenly erupted into this seething, bubbling oil field, breeding inflamed terrorists.They remember 2003 and Iraq while the rest of the western world is desperate to forget that huge mistake.
After 9/11, I remember going around Bristol in fear of being picked on. I got my first newsroom job on that day and my first task was to ring around the Muslim community demanding them to apologise on behalf of the terrorists. I remember feeling truly ashamed of being asked to do it. When the hysteria died down, an important lesson I learnt was to be really moderate about faith as beating my chest about how great it is, makes for boring conversation and moreover achieves exactly zilch. People choose to live in their insular pockets, follow their traditions and beliefs. Just when the dada and dadi are proud of their culture being kept alive in this alien, Christian land, they don’t realise that they are pushing their own darlings into other dark corners. Testosterone fuelled youth want blood and gore and combined with extreme religious ideology, it spirals out of control. It is in letting go of this major addiction (call it affliction) that any peace will follow.
There’s a precedent in this. When the Mumbai massacre of 2008 happened, machine gun wielding militants blew innocent lives to smithereens. The Indian police were woefully under-equipped – scrawny cops with First World War rifles cowered behind pillars, sure of certain defeat. But somehow, when such events happen, people and politicians seem to think in emotive ways and are unable to provide clear, calm thought. Now, they cannot stop referring to the hoary past and how that lesson hasn’t been entirely understood. It isn’t understood because old stories are now irrelevant – we are now in the 21st century and we need to create modern, evolved stories of higher levels of thinking.