A Desi In Paris

by Mahadevan Ramesh

I never spent so much time underground as I did when I was in Paris. The Metro system of subway trains is a brutal reality of life in Paris and there is no escaping it. Something akin to the Bombay trains or Madras buses, except that you creep around in the bowels of Paris. And it is a great place for 'people watching'- one of the many dying arts.

Even getting into a Metro station is very intriguing. You know that Paris is like many pizzas cut into slices, with eight or nine streets converging into a street corner. I wonder how it feels to live in the wedge shaped houses in the street corners, with triangular rooms. At any rate, you have to choose the right street in the corner to get to your destination or you would be traveling in the wrong metro line till hell freezes over.

There is a subway station every two hundred meters or so, which is good, and you can go from anywhere to anywhere. Reluctantly, you bid farewell to the sunlight and fresh air and disappear down below. Where your personal space will be violated by a mass of humanity. When you come back to the ground level, who knows, there could have been a nuclear holocaust or at least a duststorm and you never knew about it.

There are thousands upon thousands of steps to descend down - at least it seems so - all this walking is supposed to be one reason why the Parisians are all healthy and not obese. Personally, I prefer the elevators. We could hear music permeating the atmosphere. There was a complete string quartet and strains of that endless piece 'Bolero' would echo through the cavernous space every time we reached our 'home' station.

Subway musicians, like subway pickpockets, form a layer of the special subterranean society. They are territorial, holding on to their benches and corners. They are punctual and hook their fleeting audience to their favorite tunes. There are those itinerant ones too, who set up their mikes inside the train and time their songs to be just long enough to cover two stations and pass the hat. (and one even said 'Love you' in English to thank his patrons - see, the popular culture the world over is American and Paris is no exception. On another note, the local TV shows are almost all imported from the USA - there is even a French 'Wheel of Fortune', only you buy a lot more vowels !)

Then you pass through one more endless hallway. Cigarette butts decorate the sides of the floor like runway lights. The tunnel has advertisements on both sides. A bare breasted woman urges you to eat Dannon yoghurt; there is the grand spectacle of American football between New York Firebirds and Detroit Drive in a nearby stadium complete with cheerleaders 'who are more beautiful than nothing', a Hare Krishna hoarding asking you to check your Karma, Michael Jackson's new album, ad nauseum.

Most stations also have knickknack pushcart vendors, almost all of whom are Sri Lankan or Indian immigrants, trying to sell belts, wallets and general junk. Once you have passed these obstacles, then you only have to deal with the beggars before you become one with the riders on the platform.

Subway beggars are as varied as the general population itself. There are the high-brow ones, who write their stories beside them, let the stories speak for themselves and not mutter a word; then the loud, body-touching, attention grabbers; the 'just-in-time' guys who would wait till a patron just approaches them and beg only when there is a potential for a dole; the enthusiastic entertainers - all of whom are serious about their fateful situation and make a pitch at their trapped benefactors.

Then there are these other marginal personalities who simply hang around the stations and don't do much traveling. The old woman who bends her body in half and slithers through a turnstile without paying for the ticket, the drunk who is merrily urinating in a corner - and so forth.

In the split second the train stops at the station and after a huge crowd gushed out, you quickly run into the nearest car and situate yourself at a vantage point - to observe even more people - namely, the fellow passengers.

The seated bourgeouise seems nonchalant. An old woman with piles of shopping bags filled with goodies is happily knitting. The woman next to her is applying another layer of lipstick to her already dead lips to make them glow like a neon sign. The bookworm. The reciprocal people watcher. The self-conscious one. You are supposed to sharpen you ears to catch on the latest ethnic joke about the Belgians or pick up the latest 'chic' slang used in Paris. When I was there, transposing the words, for example, saying 'Meffe' for 'femme' was the in-thing. Occassionally, there are other interesting sights, like a woman smuggling her apartment-size dog in a plastic bag.

In a thunderous rhapsody you pass through subway station after subway station. Some of the stations have their own personalities and are decked up (like the Louvre station, near the famous museum). But most of the rest are quite ordinary. It is amazing to discover how many things are underground - enormous stations for long distance trains, swimming pools, huge shopping centers boasting of shops with weird names like 'Uranium' and 'Grapefruit'.

Once, all of a sudden, the train came to a dead stop between stations. There was panic in the train. "Oh no, not another strike" said someone exasperatedly, since the subway workers are habitual strikers who know that they are too powerful and indispensible for anyone to mess with them.

It is interesting how people buzz in and out of the stations almost as if it is their second nature. They know exactly when to get up and exit from trains, even though they may have been napping till twenty seconds ago. How do they fix their coordinates ? They wander through the mazeways of stations and glide through the tunnels without tripping or blinking. And they always get the right connection. Are they perfectionists in some sort of an art or are they simply human sewer rats ? They even develope a special personality to be displayed while in transit. By and large, many of the Parisians riding the subways are a nervous bunch, hoping to quickly end the ride and get out into a less confining world.

Finally you exit the metro and experience the sunlight and the crowds. It is almost evening and the shoppers are carrying their daily French bread like javelins. You are in the Indian part of town. There are hundreds of desis, milling around in front of the India Saree house or Mourougan grocery store, with some elite Indian women even greeting each other with the Sorbonne kisses. You take a break and indulge in samosas and a cup of the super strong French coffee. ('petit creme')

Then it is time to go underground and catch another metro.

Copyright Ramesh Mahadevan