Posted on 15-08-2010
Filed Under (ART) by Shombit

The Indian EXPRESS/ The Financial EXPRESS article

“Your article seems to reflect 3 stages of your life,” wrote a reader of my last column piece, Culture Connect Marketing. That has inspired me to write personal life-stage experiences in my next three articles: this first one on the struggling artist; second, the stupid NRI; and third, my consulting intellectual blah-blah stage.

From experiencing Kalipodo Dey’s miraculous ointment in Kolkata’s crowded suburban train, I landed into the Paris metro in 1973. Rushing in, I stepped on a passenger’s toe, very apologetically looked at her and said, “Merci.” When she frowned, I suddenly realized my blunder; I was supposed to say “Pardon,” the other French word I’d learnt. In complete embarrassment I longed for the station, abruptly got off to escape her, and continued my journey in the next train.

To fulfill my artist’s dream, I convinced my mother to buy me Air India’s Rs 2,700 youth fare Delhi-Paris-Delhi ticket. In those days, India government allowed $8, and $200 called FTS, for traveling abroad. I could only afford $8. To collect the foreign exchange I had to take my passport to the Reserve Bank. Being unsure how to handle things, I asked a Kolkatan classmate to accompany me. Our art college had 2 types of students, villagers like me, always very shy and scared of making mistakes, and the savvy Kolkatan who knew everything. My classmate insisted on taking Kolkata’s only automatic elevator installed at the Reserve Bank, but I refused. I’d been observing small town people like me bravely trying to get on, hesitating, failing and timidly taking the staircase; I didn’t want to become the public laughing stock too. But little did I know then that on disembarking in Paris, direct from my refugee colony outside Kolkata, I’d face a similar problem. This time it was a flat, automated moving road inside the airport terminal. With a thumping heart I’d awkwardly advance my leg on it, and retreat immediately in fright. Several Air India air hostesses passed me by without paying any attention. I didn’t speak any French, only tattered English. Suddenly a French woman appeared, held my hand, and taught me how to walk on a road that moves relentlessly.

Underprivileged people don’t have much scope or choice in life, so they struggle to take whatever’s easily available. For 95% of such people, it’s very difficult to take a visionary step to create a new scope. Being part of this situation, an art student with no promising future, I had to take the big risk to venture out of struggling times. I left for Paris with $8 in my pocket, courage in my heart, an ambition to be an artist and earn to improve my family’s living condition. I didn’t know a soul in Paris, but had heard of a Bengali scientist called Dr. CK Pyne who didn’t know me at all. After negotiating the airport’s moving road, I directly arrived at Dr Pyne’s laboratory on a cold November day. I’ll never forget his incredible generosity. He heard my story and gave me shelter without questioning who I was; it turned out he was an art lover too. Had he been on holiday that day, I don’t know where I’d have been today.

Living in Dr. Pyne’s 13th District apartment in rue Champs de l’Alouette, I went out the next day for toothpaste. Dr. Pyne even gave me 300 francs to live on, saying I could repay him when I started earning. At the supermarket I gestured teeth cleaning and was shown Colgate. But I wanted to buy something different from Colgate which I’d seen enough of in India. So I gestured the cleaning action more vigorously with my hands and people directed me to another shelf in the store. I returned with a large sized toothpaste tube and kept it in the toilet. After dinner I opened the packet and found the tube integrated with a brush that was round, sponge type. When I squeezed, the paste came onto this, and I put it in my mouth to clean up. I kept brushing and brushing, but there was no lather, the color was brown, and I was getting a waxy feel in the mouth. I felt shy to talk to Dr. Pyne about this strange toothpaste but mentioned how very different toiletries are in France. “I’ve seen your purchase in the toilet, I hope you haven’t put that into your mouth,” he said. When I asked why, he said I had bought shoe polish.

Everyday I’d go helter-skelter looking for a job, and still couldn’t speak French. In December 1973 I met a man in Alliance Française who promised a job if I went to him the next day at 3 pm. From Dr Pyne’s house my appointment was about 8 kms away, in Pigalle, North Paris. When I reached Pigalle to get my job, I entered a house in a small lane; everything looked quite bizarre, a large room was separated into cubicles with flowing curtains. I wondered if I’d come to the right place, and peeped inside the cubicles. Cubicle after cubicle, all I found were nude couples making love. It was a brothel! I got petrified and didn’t know what to do. I quickly made an exit and stood by the staircase. An old lady came and explained that I should be in front at the lane, from 3pm to 4am. My work would be to bring people from the road to the room, and I would get 25 francs per day, that was Rs. 37 then! With the only objective of making money, I wasn’t thinking of the brothel or the job being offered. I could start right away, she told me, or come tomorrow. I said I’ll come the next day.

I told Dr. Pyne I’d got a job without explaining more; he didn’t probe either. The next afternoon, a freezing winter day, I boarded the metro, dozed a bit and traveled a few stations. A sudden jerk from the metro changing tracks sent shivers down my spine and I hastily got off midway. The uneasy discomfort I’d been feeling told me this was not the purpose of my coming to Paris. At that time I didn’t even know there’s a professional called a pimp! I walked home and didn’t return to Pigalle. I decided this opportunity was not right for me. This is the first episode of my life’s journey from Kalipodo Dey’s dramatic sales pitch in Kolkata’s local train to my mental trauma over a pimp’s job in the Paris metro.

To download above article in PDF Please Artist, but at what price?

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