Paris, 1988; Cochin, 1975; Paris, 1988
After dark the poor came out. Small crowds of us on the boulevards, smoking our last cigarettes and drinking from bottles carried openly and legally. The cobalt night pressed in from all sides. In the air a smell of roast meat and smoke. The kind of smell that drove the destitute to distraction, or crime. We knew each other by sight and smell, and we went about our business, circumscribed by day but resurrected after sunset. I slept at a bookshop, in a room full of rare volumes. I had run out of money on my second week in the city. As a migrant from a country with limits on foreign exchange, I did not have a credit card. But coffee was available at the bookshop and once a day I ate crepes from a street stall on rue de la Huchette, about five minutes away on foot. On Sunday mornings I took a train from Les Halles to the Hare Krishna temple at Sarcelles on the city’s outskirts. The Hare Krishnas provided free vegetarian meals and allowed you to take with you when you left a few pieces of bruised fruit or a roll. The temple stood on a residential street behind a green wire fence that had been broken through in parts. There were white plastic chairs under a tin roof and makeshift tables and throwaway cutlery. A house in disrepair. About a dozen of us had come for the food and the Hare Krishnas who served us did so sullenly. But we ate our fill and returned each Sunday. I spent much of my time walking around the city, or I sat at the scarred communal table on the first floor and tried my hand at translations from Baudelaire and Rimbaud and Verlaine. I came to understand something I have never forgotten, that it is difficult to work when you are hungry. Hunger dims your vision and interferes with your judgment. You are always on the verge of rapture but it is only anxiety and all it brings is your unraveling. They were trying times but soon I had the good fortune, I believed, to meet a young English thief who taught me how to live off the land. They fat, we thin, he said when we met at the bookshop. Our job is to take, theirs to give, he said, pointing to the good citizens walking past on the rue de la Boucherie. His name was as extraordinary as his appearance. Gary Gilmore, recognizable in a crowd by the white-blond hair and friendly sneer. He said he was not related to the American thief and murderer, whose last words were ‘Let’s Do It’, a slogan later appropriated by an athletic shoe company. When I asked why he’d never changed his name, he said he enjoyed the association with fame.
– I’ve been two years in Paris, he said.
– Not a bad place to be.
– I’ve never had a job and I’ve never been hungry, not once, not really. What do you say to that?
– I’m wondering how you manage.
– I’m a thief, but I steal only one item.
– What item?
– Good alcohol from the supermarkets out in the suburbs, the farther away the better.
– As many bottles as I can carry. I sell them to bar owners I know on the Left Bank.
He flexed his hands and grinned.
– What do you think?
– One way to make a living.
– And doesn’t it make some kind of mad sense that I share my name with a famous criminal?
– Gary Gilmore.
– Do you want to come along next time?
I hesitated only a moment. It led, inevitably, to arrest. But that isn’t why I’m writing to you, Roselyne. I want to tell you about the confusion that met me at Baudelaire’s grave, which was the reason I went to Paris in the first place. Why Baudelaire? I’ll tell you.
It was in September 1975 that we went to visit my mother’s oldest brother in Cochin. My family lived in Hong Kong at the time, where my father worked as a journalist. Once a year we went to the south of India to ‘keep in touch with our heritage’, as my father liked to put it. I remember clearly my first meeting with the man whom I, in private, called Baudelaire Uncle. When we were introduced he shook hands formally and he was kind, which I did not expect. In the family they spoke fearfully of his rudeness and brilliance. For most of his adult life he had been working on a translation of Les Fleurs du Mal into the Malayalam, but this was not the only reason they saw him as odd. He had written and published a book. In that humid backwater town it was a fantastical accomplishment. They did not know, and I would find out only later, that the book was a source of anguish to him. It was his sole publication, an obscure legal tome, Public Law: Some Aspects, that got him invited to lawyer’s conferences he had no wish to attend. I asked once if I could see a copy and it was as if I had asked the question he dreaded more than any other. There were hundreds of books in his library but no copies of his own. He could not bear to look at it anymore, he said, because it reminded him that his dream of becoming a writer had come to nothing more than a slim book of jurisprudence. Sixteen years later at the British Library I found a copy. It had not been borrowed in decades. I was moved by the opening sentence of the opening chapter, ‘The Inarticulate Major Premise of Modern Public Law’, which declared that:
History to a great extent supports the view that forms of government broadly proceed in a circle. Monarchy degenerates into tyranny and is overthrown. Aristocracy that comes in its stead degenerates into an oligarchy. It is pushed out by the people for establishing what Aristotle calls a constitutional government (but which in modern political terminology will be called a democracy) which degenerates into what Aristotle calls democracy (but which we may call a mobocracy) which is displaced by a dictatorship which is nothing but a monarchy in the sense of a rule by one man. The cycle then will apparently continue.
Of his other writing I knew that a literary journal in the UK had published an essay or story titled ‘Inside Baudelaire’. But he had had no luck finding a publisher and he had written no more essays or fiction. He continued with his translations from the poet and hoped to publish a collection. In this, he reminded me of my father. If my uncle was a kind of poet manqué, working as a lawyer when his secret life was poetry, my father had hoped to be a novelist but had fallen into the world of journalism, a glamorous profession for a young man born in rural Kerala. As the only brown man at a colonial journal on one of the last outposts of the British Empire, he had endured his share of condescension. But he had a family to fend for and he had stayed in the profession. I would understand this central fact about my uncle and my father much later, when, at the age of forty-five, I gave up journalism to write fiction. That day in Cochin, I went into my uncle’s library during the siesta hour. The room took up the entire front wing of the tile-roofed tharavad and all four walls were lined with books and each title was by or about Baudelaire, in French or in English translation. Above his desk were three portraits, the poet as a young dandy, as a slightly older man, and the image from the last years, the poet as haunted syphilitic. After tea, when it was time for us to go ‘visiting’, my uncle invited me to sit in the passenger’s seat of his car. The vehicle was a legend in the family, and in the city, for its extravagance: a sea green 1957 Morris, thrillingly inappropriate for rural Cochin and its narrow mud lanes. The wide leather seats and dashboard of dark wood appeared to me as components in a dream of another life in which we were a distinguished family setting off for an evening of entertainment and repose. (Many years later I would own an Ambassador, the Hindustan Motors version of the Morris Oxford. I drive it still.) How it is, Markose sir, said a grinning neighbor as we set off. We’re going to Always, my uncle replied. This was his name for the suburb of Alwaye, he said, because once you get to Always it’s difficult to leave. He drove slowly past the city center. People came out of their houses to stare at the legend on the bonnet of the car, Oxford, in a spacious running font embedded above the enormous grille – and at him. His pencil moustache had been freshly shaped. He wore sunglasses and a short-sleeved cream tunic he called a bush shirt. There were numerous pleated pockets and a suggestion of epaulettes. His seat was pushed all the way back and his arms were held straight out in front. The car picked up speed on the highway, leaving other vehicles far behind. I remember I was entranced by the sound of the engine, soft and loud at the same time. We passed deserted village squares and endless waterways, where men poled canoes so small there was no room to sit. Then we turned into a side lane and parked. My uncle would not enter the house but set off with his hands behind his back. He nodded to me to come along. We took a path of packed red earth that wound through the village, emerald paddies on both sides. The afternoon turned to dusk. He had questions for me, accompanied sometimes by answers. A stampede of elephants killed twenty-four people in Orissa some time ago, he said. And do you know what the newspapers reported? I said I did not. Most ignored the stampede, but not a single one missed the big news of the day, that the Tamil movie star MGR was about to form a political party. Why do you think it is, said my uncle, that Indians care more about the movies than about the deaths of their countrymen? With a teenager’s certainty I said it was because for Indians life was not worth living, much less preserving, why bother when it was so brief and the next life would almost certainly be better? People should be allowed to die if death was in their stars. After all it is not our place to interfere in the natural order of things. And the dead return to us soon enough. The answer must have pleased my uncle who nodded as if I had said something thoughtful, though I had not. He said that in time I would discover the dead did not return. Their peculiarities fade first, he said, then their faces and last of all their voices. In time you will also discover that our forgetfulness about death and a hundred other things, for example the keeping of slaves, the contempt for people of darker races and castes, the belief in ‘godmen’, all this is not the sole prerogative of us Indians. Then, as if everything he had said was a prelude to his real subject, he turned to the poet whose book, in his opinion, announced the arrival of modernity into the world, whose opinions were simultaneously outmoded and avant-garde, whose philosophical insights were like tiny points of light in a room at a museum where an artificial sky boasted a hundred, no, a thousand electric stars. Here was a man whose reckless lifestyle brought him syphilis in his late teens or early twenties, who discovered that sex and its punishment go hand in hand, said my uncle, thanks to a disease for which there was no cure. Even a skeletal biography of the poet is tragedy amid the consolations of poetry. To read Baudelaire, he said, is to gather up the world and bring it inside. I asked: What do you feel, inside? There is no inside, said my uncle. Later, after I grew familiar with the poet’s work, I wondered if it was this that so fascinated my uncle. When he entered those visions of voyages and damnation and tender giantesses, he no longer felt the contours of his own life. He became as one with the writer he admired. You see, Roselyne, I believe there were certain affinities between my uncle and your poet. Illness might have been one – Baudelaire Uncle had had problems with his heart – but also there was the restless intellect and the vast private unhappiness I sensed, of which my uncle never spoke. He had a way of clenching his jaw, which gave his face the cast of an eagle or a hawk or kite. At those moments he seemed fearsome and I was happy I was not the cause of his distress. But on that day, my uncle spoke of Baudelaire’s hatred for his stepfather and how the poet ran through the streets of revolutionary Paris calling for ‘the General’ to be assassinated. Even now the name Jacques Aupick makes me recall the revulsion my uncle seemed to have acquired at second hand. He said Baudelaire had let jealousy go to his head. There was nothing filial about his feelings for his mother. His relationships with women were all of a type, Jeanne and Madame Sabatier and the others, a way to exact revenge against the mother who had abandoned him, whom he had to beg for money, who judged and misjudged him, who had remarried too soon, when her son was but five years old, who chose a military man of all men, a soldier with no feeling for art, or letters, or for the extraordinary stepson he had the privilege to raise. The poet only slept with those women who took his money and betrayed him, said my uncle. And this too he desired, the revenge of degradation. How he must have hated the General’s influence over his mother. And how can we blame him? For Jeanne Duvall my uncle reserved only sympathy. Imagine how Europe must have been at the time, how white, he told me, now imagine what Jeanne must have had to endure, a dark-skinned woman at the heart of the French Empire, lodged in the heart of the empire’s greatest poet. Imagine Jeanne as one of us, and by that I mean a woman of Africa or Asia, who marked a small piece of Europe as hers. Imagine her in solitude, surrounded by white men and women who saw only her color and remember that solitude is closest to the state of true innocence. And, he said, since Indians are also the detritus of Empire it is our duty to use its tools to dismantle it. Which tools do you mean, I asked. The language we are speaking, first of all, brought to us by Empire, and in my case the study of law and the reading and translating of French, which is the language of European culture, more even than English. Do you see? This was the way my uncle talked. I only set down here those things I understood at the time or soon after. On what became our first and last walk the summer I turned fourteen, he asked me what it was like to be a migrant in a place like Hong Kong. Was it unbearable? It was the first time I had thought of myself in that way and I had no reply. Now I would tell him it is a question I am unqualified to answer: I have been a migrant all my life. Then he told me about Cemetière du Montparnasse and the disappointment that awaited him when he visited Baudelaire’s grave, though he would elaborate no further as we passed the ill-lit dwellings along the main road of Alwaye and began the trek back to the house where his family waited. Later, he said. I thought, yes, later I’ll ask him the important questions. Why was he translating Les Fleurs du Mal, something no single translator had attempted? And why into Malayalam? I did not ask and never got the chance again. My uncle died of a heart attack while attending a legal conference in London some months later, his translation of Baudelaire incomplete, unpublished and unknown. Sixteen years after his death, I stood at the grave of the poet who was my uncle’s great love and I raged at what the poet’s countrymen had done. Which is why I am writing at last to you, Roselyne Bachelot, ministre de la Culture, to ask that you correct your nation’s historical error.
My first visit to Paris and to Cimetière du Montparnasse followed a family trip to London for the wedding of Baudelaire Uncle’s daughter. From London, against my parents’ wishes, I flew to the city I associated with the poet and my uncle. I spent the first night in a waiting room at the Gare du Nord with a thin Kashmiri shawl around my shoulders. I had a few hundred francs, a duffel bag with some toiletries and a camera, a pigskin hipflask with a hinged stainless steel cap, a pair of black trousers with a velvet stripe on the sides, some white shirts with billowing bishop sleeves (even then, even without money, I must have had a dandy’s sense of style, of which my uncle would have approved), and a volume of Les Fleurs du Mal. One day I chanced upon a bookshop on the Left Bank with an interesting name, and I wandered in and browsed among the stacks. I saw a new edition of The Thief’s Journal and considered slipping it into my pocket, but the bookshop was family-owned, clearly independent, and now that I was no longer in my teens I seemed to have come upon an ethical sense. As I stood there, a wild-haired old man with a cat in his arms came up to me. Are you Dravidian? he asked. I was surprised enough to reply immediately, in the affirmative. He had the look of a hobo, whereas the cat, a calico, was perfectly groomed. Small and rumpled and bird-like, the man’s attention seemed drawn to a hundred things at once. But the cat looked me straight in the eye. Do you need a place to stay, the old man asked. Yes, I said to the calico, I do. The man smiled, satisfied. And that was how I moved into Shakespeare & Co. where I slept among great untidy piles of books. Even the damp toilet was lined with them. The first floor had a writing room with a large square table and single beds secreted against the walls. The window looked down upon a courtyard. At night the floors were crowded with sleeping bags but in the day personal belongings were hidden away in recesses and alcoves. There was no shower. On Wednesdays a group of us went to the municipal baths. Shut from Sunday to Tuesday, there was always an unwashed crowd waiting at the entrance on Wednesday. The shower was a roomy cubicle. You pushed a large stainless steel button to start the water, which flowed for a few minutes and stopped, and then you hit the button again as you soaped yourself. Located across the bridge from the terrifying pontefract of the Notre Dame, the bookshop was already a tourist spot. Its residents were post-hippies or early backpackers. George called them tumbleweeds – George Whitman was the old man’s name and he was the owner of the bookshop. Once he too had been a tumbleweed, he said, who traveled to various corners of the globe, including India, and had been treated with such hospitality that he felt it was his duty to return the favor. Head tumbleweed was Tim, a bearded American in his early thirties. He wore crumpled denim shirts and torn blue jeans and his battered Adidas boasted a hole from where his big toe emerged. But there was an Amex card in his back pocket for the meals to which he treated himself at the cafe around the corner. One night, dining on roasted peanuts, I saw him enjoying a dish of crème brulée. I had filled my hip flask with pastis bought at the corner store. I took a small sip and watched as a waiter in a spotless white apron refilled Tim’s glass of wine. I was envious, but only slightly. I’d been working all morning. Only the poem was real to me as it unfolded its images over an AABB rhyme and short syllabic lines. It took two days to make the first stanza, and though I could not hope to reproduce the syllabics, I was happy with the rhymes. If I knew the language, I would have translated the poem into Malayalam. I would have continued my uncle’s work and finished his book of translations. But I had no Malayalam. I had only this:
Pale girl with the flame-red hair,
The holes in your dress lay bare
The shape of your poverty
Gary Gilmore and I went on the first of our ventures to the supermarkets on the outskirts of the city. We each slipped bottles of cognac and whisky into our trousers, two bottles apiece. Outside we put the bottles into the carrier bags Gary had thoughtfully brought along, and then we went into another supermarket, and so on, until we had stolen around two dozen bottles. We ended with enough money between us to finance a few days of drinking and eating. To supplement our income we also had a legitimate source of funds. When Gary discovered I played the guitar, he borrowed one from a friend and we worked the metro from the Louvre to Les Halles, the seven stations of the busker’s cross. Unlike the other buskers, who kept office hours, Gary and I worked an hour or two before repairing to a bar. We shared the money evenly. I was the musician but it was Gary who went up to the commuter and said, Quelque-chose pour le musique, s’il vous plait, and waited, intimidatingly, until he was given a few coins. One night, penniless again, I went to a supermarket at Les Halles, which the street people called a free market. I took a bottle of whisky out of its case, secreted it and walked to the bookstore. Two nights later I tried the same thing, with the same brand of whisky, and when I left the store they were waiting for me. At the station, two detectives asked what I did for a living. Écrivain, I said. They laughed, and said, Vous a volé vendre ou boire? Boire, I said indignantly, for it was true. They left me for a while in a cell with a man who was completely naked but for a pair of spectacles. He was civil and soft-spoken, though he would not stop talking in a language I did not understand. Then the policemen came back and told me to leave my own spectacles with them and fetch my passport, which I did. They checked my visa and let me go. In their manner I sensed a grudging respect. Unlike the Hare Krishnas, the police did not treat the poor as if we were not quite human. I knew my time in Paris was nearing its end. The next morning I went to Montparnasse’s city of the dead, where I wandered for hours. I expected a mausoleum or a modest tomb, considering even the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz rated a grand memorial. I wandered, lost, until a man who was tending to the flowers gave me directions. At last I found the grave, as my uncle had before me. It was shabby and uncared for. The gravestone put a chill on my skin. The poet had been buried with his mother and stepfather, the grave so narrow they were stacked on top of one another. Nearby, scrawled red graffito echoed my thoughts, Pourquoi avec son père? But the graffito was inaccurate. C’est pas son pere, c’est son beau père, I said aloud. Pourquoi avec son beau père? And now, Roselyne, here is my reasonable request. Give the poet a grave separate from his mother and stepfather. It really is the least you can do.
When The Arts House – a literature centre running from the former parliament building at the heart of Singapore – wanted to create a different kind of library, one grouped by themes and leaps of the imagination, rather than any readily searchable order, they chose the name ‘The Troublesome Library’. Like all libraries, it is a place where you have to ‘take the trouble’ to find insights and wonder. But trouble finds people everywhere (not only in libraries), in all kinds of shapes and at all kinds of moments, and is a kind of theme of its own. In parallel with the opening of its new feature, The Arts House supported a literary series on the theme of trouble.
Image © Pascal Terjan