Tuesday, 21 May 2013
|40th Anniversary of Maison de l'Inde|
|Friday, 21 November 2008|
Maison de l’Inde: Some Fond Memories, by Dr Shiv Prasad
In 1977, almost immediately after submitting my Ph.D. thesis to University of Delhi, I received a bourse from the French government and decided to join Dr. R. Krishnan’s group in Laboratoire de Magnetisme in CNRS, Bellevue. After a language course in Besancon, I landed up in Paris in the last week of September 1977, along with a friend of mine who was supposed to join University of Orsay on a similar bourse. My friend was promised an accommodation in University Residence of Antony, which we thought of sharing until I get mine. So we reached Antony with all our baggage. But to our shock, we were told by the person on the counter that the room is not free, so he can not give us the same. We did not know where to go. We kept our baggage at the counter and thought of looking for a hotel. Not knowing that it is not a hotel, we started walking towards the sign Hotel de Ville in Antony. Fortunately, we met a couple of Indian origin on the way, who told us our mistake. They were also living in University Residence of Antony and promised to help us. With their intervention, we could manage to get a room in a different block of University Residence for a few nights. Fortunately, while in Besancon, I had applied to Maison de l’Inde, so I thought of trying that out. Next day when I reached Maison, I was so delighted to find my name on the list of allottees. Needless to say I took possession of my room at the earliest. Oh it was such a relief to find a living place in Paris, my dream city.
Need for Indian Food:
After finding a delightful accommodation the next thing was to look for food. We had some restaurants in the Cite campus where we got subsidized food. But for vegetarians like me, there was hardly anything available. Also being new to France, I looked at every dish with suspicion. You never know it may contain meat or fish. Occasionally when you say that you are vegetarian, they would indicate some dish containing fish. In short my craving for occasional Indian food was increasing. Fortunately, there was some facility for cooking in the Maison. The simplest was to cook rice and curry. Rice was available at any normal French departmental store. For curry, we used tins of preboiled peas or beans. Black pepper and mild red chilies powder were available and served the purpose of spices. On weekends we even tried preparing lentils after soaking them overnight and cooking for about forty five minutes.
Graduation to Chapaties:
Once I along with some residents tried to put an effort to prepare chapaties (the Indian bread, which is flat like tortillas). We bought farine de ble (wheat flour) from the stores, which was a bad substitute for atta (special wheat flour made of whole wheat and ground slightly thicker than normal flour). We could make dough. But the problem was to roll it. When there is a will there is a way. We thought of using wine bottle to roll, in the absence of a traditional belan (A rolling pin used to flatten the dough). Unfortunately, in wine bottle the thinner portion (the mouth) is only on one side. So it was impossible to roll by putting our hand close to the mouth of the bottle. So we decided to roll chapaties by putting hand on the thicker portion. I can bet even professionals will find it difficult to roll chapaties like this. Still the enthusiasm and the expectation of the outcome were so great, that we ventured into it. The resultant chapaties were nothing close to real ones, but we enjoyed them thoroughly with a great sense of achievement. One day some one told us that it is possible to buy in some shops a thing which is similar to a belan, which is used by patisserie persons for making tartes etc. It was similar to Indian belan in all respects other than one. Unlike Indian belan, the handle was not rigidly connected to the body. It was loosely fitted in a hole along the axis in the main body. It, therefore, requires a particular technique by which you can make the outer body roll by applying force on the handle. Nevertheless, this was much simpler than the wine bottle. We bought a couple of the French belans in the Maison and soon mastered the art of rolling. Later anyone who was interested in making chapaties will borrow the “belan” from us. Final success in making chapaties came when some one announced (thanks to some Indian families living in Orsay) that there is a bakery near RER station of Palaiseau Villebon, which can supply farine de ble complet (whole wheat flour). This was very similar to our atta and good for making chapties.
Discovery of an Indian store:
The last thing needed for perfecting our cooking was real Indian spices. Some of the residents, who traveled to London, did bring some spices, but would not like to share it. I can understand the spices were so precious. One day someone told me that near metro “Cadet” there are some shops selling items from Middle East. Here one can buy turmeric powder and different variety of pulses. Sure enough, next Saturday, I was walking near metro “Cadet”. I succeeded in locating some Middle Eastern shops but it was difficult to explain what I wanted. I did not know what turmeric powder and toor dal are called in French. But almost like God sent, I saw two ladies moving around wearing sarees. I jumped towards them, soon to realize that they either spoke French or Tamil. Fortunately, they understood when I said I am looking for toor dal and some turmeric powder, in my bad French. Here came the real discovery. They told that recently one Indian shop has opened in Paris where we can buy all spices and Indian food items. The shop was near Metro St. George, with the name “Shah Stores”. I ran towards the shop shouting “Eureka”. I bought a lot of food stuff from there and this discovery was properly reported to the residents of Maison the next day.
Now when we see Gare du Nord area where you can buy almost everything Indian, and you can locate an Indian restaurant in every corner of Pars city, it is difficult to believe that thirty years ago, we could be so desperate to locate a place, where we could buy the basic ingredients of the Indian food.
With most of the basic problems solved, the ‘cook’ in most of us started growing and we started concentrating on improving the quality of the food. One method of testing our success was to serve our food to non-Indians and test their reactions. For this there was no better occasion than Diwali. So we decided to celebrate Diwali on a grand scale. I do not remember how the finances for this function were obtained, but I remember I was in charge of making poories (similar to chapaties in shape but are deep fried). Oh what a success! It was a real scene to demonstrate how a rolled poori pops up when put in hot oil. All non-Indians were looking as if a magic show was going on. “How do you pump inside a poori” was the common question. I do not remember too much of that function except that it was a real successful one. Cultural Scene: One obvious difference between my hostel life in India and the one in Maison de l’Inde was the cultural scene. We had many cultural programs in Maison helping us to appreciate the culture of other countries. I still remember some of them. We had a program in which a person of Indian origin living in Paris played sitar. The Indian ambassador was also present in this concert. I do not remember whether this was clubbed to our Diwali function or it was a separate program. This program was followed by a dance based on Rabindra Sangeet by a girl from Bangladesh. This girl was a student living in Cite but not in Maison de l’Inde. We also had a classical Hindustani vocal recital by Vinay Bhide who was regular visitor in Maison. Once an evening of Mexican folk dances was organized. Most of the dancers were resident of cite. Then there was a performance of the modern dances again from the residents of the Cite. We had also organized one evening of music with performers from our Maison. I had also played violin in that function. A small entry fee was charged for this function and the money was sent to India for some disaster relief. Late evening dancing sessions in the basement of Maison were also common during weekend. In all it was a great fun together with appreciation of different cultures.
A good meeting place:
Living in Maison, we got an opportunity of meeting persons of various nationalities and cultures. It was here that I first learnt the variety of thinking that existed around the world. This helped me in becoming open-minded and tolerant. I specifically remember one French girl, who often visited Maison. She was crazy about settling in India. She had also changed her name to “Kalpana” to sound Indian. It was also a fun telling about Indian Music, Cinema, Theatre to other residents. I learnt to appreciate my own Indian culture as a result of interaction with other residents.
Money saving measures:
One problem that most of the residents complained, was the higher rent in Maison in comparison to other houses of the Cite and also in comparison to the facilities it provided. The logic given to us was that this is one of the few houses in the Cite which did not receive any regular grant from the sponsoring government and hence has to depend totally on the income from rent. The plea of the residents was that the Maison could charge larger amount from short term visitors but should have lower rent from students who are getting much smaller scholarship. There existed a differential rent depending upon the income, but still the rent could not be reduced below an amount. I remember we had several long drawn discussions on this issue, including a meeting with the ambassador, who promised us that he can try for one time major grant. There had been efforts on how to reduce the cost of the Maison. Initially the femmes de ménage would make up the bed of every resident every day. The frequency had to be reduced and if I remember it was eventually made to zero. The lodge was made to close early and was open only for selected hours during weekend to save the cost. During the closure of the lodge, the main door of the Maison will be locked and we have to use our own keys to enter. If some unexpected guest turns up after the closing of the lodge, he/she has to wait until a resident entering the lodge is found or until some one walking inside the house is located.
Well I could continue describing many more incidents of fun, fight, romance in this wonderful homely place called “Maison de l’ Inde”, but I have already crossed the words limit given to me. So I better stop. I shall only say that during this stay here my personality saw many mature changes. Most important of it was occurred when I got the best gift of my life. I became father on 18th December 1977, when my daughter was born in India.