by Peter Byrne
Peter Byrne, Rue Saint Gilles in Pondicherry, India - March 2010
(Swans - July 26, 2010) I shuffled in the heat at the sharp, lowermost point of India, trading small talk with the locals. My opening gambit always turned on the coming monsoon. Down there, where the subcontinent tailed off in geographical elegance, I'd ask which side of the reversed peak would offer more shelter when the cannonball wind and rain arrived. Actually I was on the Bay of Bengal side and had no intention of crossing to the Arabian Sea no matter what I was told.
The people I chatted with probably took me for a meteorologist on vacation. In fact the monsoon didn't much excite them. It was like the sun, death, or hunger, too big and immovable to talk about. I might as well have asked them if they got along with their in-laws. The monsoon would come, make the dry heat soppy, beat on their houses entailing the usual annual repairs, and cause flooding that would vary from inconvenient to lethal. Romance it was not.
Not that, in any case, I intended still to be around when the rough weather whirled in. I didn't care about climate one way or another. Hadn't I chilled my obsessions at the top of Ontario and sweated them out down toward Sicily? I was on a secret mission, one of those self-imposed contortions whose romance content was the kind that could put me in jail or the poorhouse. I was sniffing around for France in Joseph Conrad's "ant-heap of the earth" in "the land of palms, and spices, and yellow sands, and of brown nations...".
The mission had to be secret. It was too embarrassing to admit to. The common sense retort would tell me not to be foolish and to land in France directly. But I'd done that, spent years there, and all it taught me was that when millions of people got together, cursing each other in the same language, their essence was not necessarily revealed. I preferred retreat, taking thought from a distance and only then extending my big toe into the water. So here I was, inching my way up the coast, trying to think in centimeters, toward Pondicherry.
But not so fast. In this sort of endeavor, it's best not to hurry the thinking involved. France at a distance was an old story. Out there in the wide, vapid Midwest, how had France looked to me? Chicago threw up a few misleading sparks. The joints on an unreconstructed North Clark Street always had a Mademoiselle Fifi or Marianne L'Amour depicted big as a wet dream outside their premises. The French Angel was a misshapen pro wrestler who did the dirty to honest farm boys come to town for good clean sport. A schoolmate imitated to perfection, though without much variation, an announcer on Radio Vichy, which had once beamed a message our way.
French ticklers sounded interesting, but where did you buy them and where did you stick them? A more frowning question was why the Frenchman who taught us his language disliked us so. He provided a first bitter taste of French spleen. In a U.S.A. that wasn't to his taste, his mal du pays was undercut by his rage at France. Pétain's fall had obviously forced him to leave his rocking chair and run for cover while his goatee was intact. He gave us nothing that wasn't stipulated in his university contract. The only gratuitous knowledge he ever imparted was a recurring riff in favor of spruce gum, which he'd discovered motoring in New England and chewed assiduously thereafter.
Consensus rose out of mid-America's vast swamp of banality that France was a country where they did things differently. As if that wasn't precisely what made any country foreign. But this travel note came with a leer that went back to the Kaiser's war and Mademoiselle from Armentières. Garbled intelligence from the Left Bank brought the sexual fantasy forward in time. Classmates obsessed over les intimistes and their circle in Paris, and especially about what they in detail did to one another.
Residence in Quebec cast me into a French miasma of a different order. The citoyens were not French provincials or in fact not even citoyens, but subjects of the British Queen. They were naufragés, marooned in the 17th century with a pile of French grammar books to torment them ever after. They could no more meet European norms than Parisians could dance on snowshoes. It was no wonder they took to religion. Their love-hate for the grandmother country gave birth to enough urban (and rural) legend to stock a parallel France.
Even someone happy to be without a country would be tempted to join India Railways. IR was an empire worth serving: the largest network in Asia with 7000 stations and 1.6 million employees, many in cute uniforms. I got into a train going north. Finding a seat could involve a scuffle, but once you were in you were in. Your territorial rights included that of stretching out full length night or day and from the prone position ordering a three course meal from happy waiters who whispered in your ear the joys on offer. They would bring your metal plates back and then turn into peddlers moving through the carriage at a pace and with a countenance attuned to the item on offer. Bland and blank with bottled water, they were nervous and peppy with spiced samosa triangles.
On long train trips a solitary foreign traveler would invariably get caught up in the web of a family on the move or else, if surrounded by Indian solitaries, they would coalesce into a group to confront him with the equally invariable questions of where he was from, how much things cost there, and what he thought of India.
I'd been grilled on these bread and butter issues too often before. The only thing that interested me about such talk now was the variety of English. In the same family this could range from the high Victorian of an Anglican bishop to the Liverpudlian of a bad John Lennon imitation. My curiosity fixed on a plump young fellow who kept his head in a book. It was French, Guy de Maupassant's Bel-Ami. Was this a coincidence or karma? Wasn't I, an amateur of Frenchness in the world, on my way that instant up the Bay of Bengal to Pondicherry?
A clinical discussion of Maupassant's syphilis soon told me that I was speaking to an Indian fundamentalist of the French gospel. I tried hard not to goggle when he told me to call him Pierre. He had even read provincial figures like Barbey d'Aurevilly and Alphonse Allais. We could have been steaming up the valley of the Seine through cider and camembert country toward Gare St. Lazare. Here was my chance to fill in the blanks of another place that looked back to (as in Boris Vian's song) "Nos ancêtres les Gaulois." Not that Pierre was ripe to hear the rest of the verse: "Eurent tort d'être grand-papas/ C'est leur faute si on est là/ Et si on fait le mambo des Gaulois." (Our forebears the Gauls were wrong to play at granddaddy and leave us doing the mambo of the Gauls.)
Pierre had it all down pat, including the monarchical flourishes. In brief the French had mostly got the best of the British in this corner of India since the 18th century. In the 19th, with their plates heaped full of empire, the British left France a scrap. The French held on till 1954. The names Pondichéry and Pondicherry persisted until 2006. Then officialdom opted for the lazy revolution of nomenclature and the Union Territory of India became Puducherry. Though I decry imperialism with the loudest, those two u's sounded puny and punk to me. Pierre and I arranged to meet for dinner in the city center the next day.
I found the restaurant easily enough. It was in the middle of town, up a lot of stairs and called Chez la mère something or other. When a waiter finally approached me I told him I'd wait to order till my friend, a Frenchman, arrived. The waiter was content not to be driven to immediate action and vacated the horizon. I enjoyed just sitting and looking up at the covering of brown, woven wicker high above the tables. The rain would surely drip through but, no worry, we were still months from the monsoon. Meanwhile, the ceiling fans turned without hurry and a ripple of air came in the open side that looked out on other rooftops toward the sea. I liked the restaurant though the food was mediocre, the omnipresent matting dusted with grunge, and the waiters permanently out of sight or earshot. As for Mother what's-her-name, she never showed.
No place could have been more French in the Indo-Chinese variant. It made my mouth water for a Saigon stir-fry. But Pierre's arrival changed my mind. He was equipped with a battered briefcase like students used to carry on the Paris métro from Porte d'Orléans to St. Michel. These in reality contained a knob of yesterday's bread, two dog-eared livres de poche and a back copy of the Nouvel Observateur. I fell into Pierre's mood and ate a bifteck-frites, an anemic chèvre, and a soggy length of baguette. But what the hell, it was French, wasn't it?
When we finished, Pierre looked into his glass of red wine and gave a smile that I read as "good stuff."
"A decided east-of-Suez tang," I said.
In fact the wine brought to mind what I was told by a Sicilian farmer, and I thought of passing on to Pierre. When the farmer asked for a decent price for his grapes, a Palermo godfather came to see him and said, "You know, we don't need grapes to make wine." But, no, that would have been like telling him McDonald's was now a focal point of Montparnasse.
Still, I couldn't entirely hide my feelings. When he asked what I thought of my day's ramble, I had to say,
"Puduville's a ghost-town of a place. No, don't get me wrong. It's lively enough for its size. And this is India with its own noise quotient. But the French floor plan is a map without territory. It's..."
He thought hard and then said,
"Didn't you notice that the numbering of the houses is unique compared to other cities in Tamil Nadu? Even numbers are on one side and odd numbers are on the opposite side."
Maybe that was how the numbers ran in France. I'd never noticed. What the hell, let him dream. I'd take another tack.
"That Catholic cathedral for instance. All those people praying in the middle of a weekday. And the way they go at it, full volume. The loud-speaker system is shattering. In France, in Europe, people don't..."
Pierre brightened up.
"I see, you're a Dreyfusard. You must have liked the Romain Rolland Library?"
"Sure I liked it. He's one of my heroes. But those old guys sitting around chewing betel. They're not much interested in reading Le Monde, are they?"
Pierre looked hurt. Why was I doing this to him? Full-turn again.
"You see, Pierre, this ghost town thing, it's personal to me. There's an editor in California I work with. He's French. And you know how writers and their editors have differences of opinion. They fight. We fight. It's cat and dog, you know, "comme chat et chien."
"Non," said Pierre, "comme chien et chat."
"Right. You got it. Now that keeps this neo-Californian on my mind. And today I went to see the Ashram. Strange that great spiritual lump right in the middle of town like a department store. And do you know what street it's on?"
"Rue Saint Gilles, a fine thoroughfare that runs right into the French Consulate and the sea. Alors?"
"So? So this bulldog editor just happens to be named Gilles."
Pierre mused. He seemed pleased by the idea of my French connection, even if it was in California. But he didn't get it.
"Think how I felt there up against the other-worldly Sri Autoblindo Ashram, with a sainted roadway underfoot. Then I looked up and he was above me, spelled out on a street sign, Saint Gilles."
Pierre still didn't get it. Well, why should he? He was busily immersed in a delusion of his own. He thought he was French. That was the way to reach him.
"National character's a strange thing, Pierre. At times I doubt that it really exists. Take the first governor general here, that Joseph François Dupleix you were telling me about."
This touched Pierre's pseudo-French heart! He sat up straight.
"Brilliant man, an organizer, a chief accountant who made all the little state businesses pay," I said. "At the same time he stood up to his British rival Robert Clive. But Dupleix was stubborn and got into a kerfuffle with another French bigwig, La Bourdonnais. That brought him down. He went home broke and died that way."
Of course Pierre contended that Dupleix outshone Clive.
"I admire your national spirit, Pierre. Clive couldn't keep books and was something of a brawler. The army made him. He wouldn't have amassed a fortune without war. He was good at that. Back home he spent everything trying to buy his way into parliament. He had to come back here and make more war to get rich again. In London they accused him of bleeding the natives. He took to opium and finally did himself in."
All this Pierre knew, but as scholars do, he enjoyed going over it again. He was waiting for my conclusion.
"Now in their national mythology the French gradually made Dupleix into an exemplary old-regime Frenchman. There's a square and a métro station in Paris named after him."
Pierre nodded as if he'd often sat in that 15th arrondissement square.
"It took until 1912 for the British to single out Clive as a typical great Englishman. A statue went up in King Charles Street, London, to "the conqueror of India."
Pierre pointed out that Dupleix was also a man of study while Clive only swung the sword.
"Agreed, Pierre. But the British Isles were full of bookish men at the time just as France had its share of brutal soldiers."
He thought about that. Did he think in French?
"My point is that we're all in thrall to national characteristics and there really aren't any such things."
A mouthful like that had to be refined or else skipped over. I did a hop and a skip.
"And that brings me back to my editor colleague. His pilgrimage from the douceurs of southwestern France to the hard smile of California was not without a memorable knock or two. His Holden Caulfield placidity got muddied along the way, his utopian soul bruised more than once. It made him intermittently cantankerous."
Pierre seemed to understand and nodded in sympathy. It was time to plunge the knife into the myth of nations.
"But, a good soul at heart, my editor was almost always contrite after coming down hard on the send button for a vicious put-down. He had a fine range of apologies at the ready. In the long run, though, everyone, including the saintly Gilles himself, had enough of the routine. His solution was radical: He conjured up a vile-tempered French gene to blame for his fulminations. 'It's not my fault, friends, it's a goddamn national characteristic. You know, like walking down the Champs-Elysées with a baguette behind your ear or wearing a béret basque in the shower.'"
I'd lost Pierre in this last canter. He seemed only to be analyzing my grammar. Anyway, my own confidence in my paltry thesis had slithered away. It was time to bid Puduville farewell.
"Well, Pierre, we can't sit here until the monsoon croons. That Hanoi wickerwork up there isn't seaworthy. Let's take a last walk together on the most elegant gridiron street plan in the developing world. I've got my camera and there's a picture I'd like you to take of me."
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