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Dinesh Verma- Indian Under Spotlight

Currently based in Delhi at the helm of the Indian Revenue Services that he joined in 1981, Dinesh Verma studied English Literature at the University of Delhi. An alumnus of the prestigious institutes of Paris-  Institut International d’Administration Publique and Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, Mr. Verma lived in Paris for almost three years. He is married and has two children. Dinesh Verma has written ‘The Fine Print and other Yarns’- his first published book- an interesting collection of short stories derived from various experiences of Indians' stay in Paris and their view of the French culture. Here's a tête-à-tête with Mr. Verma on his Paris experiences, his views of the French and his book 'The Fine Print and Other Yarns'*.

 

Dinesh Verma

 

It is not uncommon to find Indian faces in Paris these last years. However, there have been fewer Indians who have stayed in Paris in an era where there was no globalisation, no cross-cultural education sources except one's friends or family who lived or had visited 'abroad' and of course, there was no Internet. This month, we bring you face to face with Dinesh Verma- an Indian in Paris from before the 'Indian software engineers all over the world' era. Despite what would look tough, if not an ordeal from an ex-pat's point of view, not only did he survive his French stint but he fell in love with Paris and the French culture. A life long affair, as we understand it...

 

IIP: In today's France, the urban, young French in major metropolitan cities are increasingly aware of Indian culture thanks to the growing popularity of Bollywood and musicals like Sahara's 'Bharati' or Vaibhavi Merchant's 'Bollywood Flashback'. India's shining IT image adds to the positive image. Back in the 80s, how exactly was 'being an Indian' perceived? Did you have to face any stereotyping or worse, no stereotyping of India or Indians in your institution/ everyday life?

DV: In the nineteen eighties, the Press in India had a tendency to project it as if it was the focus of attention of the entire world. However once in France, one noticed that India received little exposure in the French media, which at that point of time meant only the Press or the six T.V channels one of which, M6, was dedicated only to music.  I don’t recall any reference to India or anything Indian in the French TV channels during the period I stayed there in the eighties, except if some disaster had taken place, like a flood or an earthquake or a grave incident like a communal riot. For an average French person, India was just another developing country mired in poverty and misery. Few people seemed to know that it was almost self-sufficient, that it had a sizeable heavy industry sector or that it had made important strides even in areas like nuclear science or satellite technology.


Except for those who had visited India as a tourist or for business, an average French did not tend to exhibit much knowledge about India, except for well known things like Taj Mahal, river Ganges, Mahabharata (made famous by Peter Brooks), Himalayas and of course Pondicherry, Chandranagor and other ex-territories of France in India. Whenever one interacted with a French man or woman, he or she would usually marvel about the huge size of the country or sympathise about the poverty and misery prevailing there. One question that would invariably be posed by everyone was, ‘Mais pourquoi les Hindous ne mangent pas du boeuf?’


But on the whole the French carried a positive image of India. Those who had been to India as a tourist or for some other purpose would usually have a soft corner for it, for they would invariably have good memories of their stay in India. I never came across any negative stereotype except if one puts in that category some odd comment about things like practice of untouchability in India, its poverty and misery etc.
I must however mention here what a French professor of economics (unfortunately I forget his name now) had to say about India. During one of his lectures he said that in the twenty first century, China, Brazil and India will be three countries that would dominate the world economy. I remember feeling quite proud at that rare but such an edifying reference to India, but at that point of time one dismissed it as some kind of wishful thinking. But seen from today’s perspective it reflected the sagacity and foresight of a French academician who was well aware of the economic situation in India.


As regards Indians in Paris in eighties, there were hardly any, except for some from Pondicherry who would mostly be visible around the Gare du Nord area. There was an open air market there where some of them would put up stalls selling clothes, artefacts and trinkets imported from India. Because of the stringent foreign exchange regulations and low salaries in India few Indians could travel to Europe those days except for rich businessmen or bureaucrats of official visits. During my stay I rarely came across any Indian tourist or visitor in Paris, except for those staying in the Cité universitaire, particularly in Maison de l’Inde.

 


IIP: 'Fine Yarns..' presents a very good study of Indians based in Paris. Buddy, Dr. Chopra, Dr. Singh, Krishnan or Sakshi could be the people we know or have known. It is true that a place of living influences one's thoughts on a subtle level and the overall personality on a physical level as it happened to Amitabh and others. How much did it change you/ comment.

DV: You are absolutely correct when you say that a place where you live influences you both on a physical and a psychological level. It is true of any place where you happen to stay for a long enough period of time. But then Paris is an extraordinary place, a city that is incomparable. That is why whether you are an expatriate or a native from some province of France, a long stay in Paris is an experience memories of which remain etched in one’s mind forever. That has been the experience of almost everyone I know who had an occasion to live in Paris. The feeling is summed up very well by Ernest Hemingway in The Movable Feast: ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast’.


Even a native French poet like Charles Baudelaire For that matter, who moreover lived all his life in Paris, expresses a somewhat similar sentiment in the epilogue to Le Spleen de Paris as well as Les Fleurs du Mal.


As for me, getting transposed from what in comparison appeared then to be a backward and culturally starved milieu that prevailed in New Delhi in mid 1980s, to a developed, modern and culturally and intellectually vibrant place like Paris was something like a rebirth in a new world. It was an exposure to a new language, a new way of life, a new world view. Although I did not undergo any particular transformation in my personality on the physical plane as is the case with some of the characters depicted in the ‘Fine Print & other Yarns’ but on an intellectual, psychological and emotional level it I was greatly influenced by that one year stay in Paris. Apart from a lifelong ‘affair’ that commenced with the French culture, literature and music, it also gave me a new perspective to the world which till then one had viewed only from the Indian or the Anglo-Saxon point of view inherited by us from the British.


IIP: Living abroad also changes the ways one looks back at one's roots. How did the change affect you in the way you related back to India and living there after your stints in France?

DV: Frankly speaking, I found it very depressing to be back in New Delhi after living in Paris for fourteen months. One would forever be comparing everything here with how it used to be there and there being no comparison between the two places one would end up feeling quite disappointed. I am not talking only of the material comforts available to even to an ordinary person in Paris that even the richest in Delhi in the eighties could not afford with all their wealth. They were just not available due to the economic barriers that prevailed in India that time.  I also mean the experience of living in a truly civilised society, where people are not only aware of their rights and forever ready to fight for them but also of their duties, a society where there is great regard for law, respect for other fellow human beings. The words liberté, égalité, fraternité so much cherished by the French do not represent empty slogans for them. What the situation is there in our part of the world, not in eighties but even now, is something too well known to be talked about. And I also mean the experience of living in a cosmopolitan city which was one of the top cultural centres, if not the cultural capital of the world.


Another reason for feeling so was that one had got so much used to the French language and way of life that even in dreams one would be speaking or hearing French. In Delhi French was a rarity.  I remember once incident in 1988 about a year after I had returned from France. Strolling in Connaught Place I saw a copy of Le Figaro that was about ten days old, in a second hand books stall on the pavement.  I felt really overwhelmed by the sheer sight of it and bought it for fifty rupees and it remained with for many years.
But then Delhi was my home town, where I had lived all my life except for the preceding fourteen months; therefore, gradually I got used to the life back home once again and the stay in Paris became something like a dream one had had sometime in the past.


Then in 1997, I had another occasion to be in Paris for yet another long stay. However, as I had been there earlier and also because I had been staying for about five years in Bombay before going there, Paris did not offer any cultural jolt as it had done on the earlier occasion. Even the experience after returning to India was quite different than it was in eighties. When I reached back in February, 1999, I had the pleasant surprise of watching TV-5 at home thanks to the satellite television. I could also access all the newspapers and web sites in France on the Internet.

 

IIP: How different did you find Paris of the 80s when you were here for the first time and that of late 90s-early 2000s?

DV: Back in mid eighties Paris appeared to us to be a place straight out of a picture postcard—everything would be spic and span, orderly and laid out with attention to the smallest detail. Life seemed to be quite relaxed. The Parisian appeared to be somewhat cold and formal towards outsiders, or for that matter to any stranger. In nineties Paris had changed to some extent. Now one could sometimes notice litter on the streets, walls defaced by graffiti, unmanageable crowds (especially during the office hour rush) in the metro and RER, frequent breakdowns of metro, RER and bus service which was something very rare in eighties. But surprisingly people in Paris seemed to have become a little less cold and formal to outsiders, perhaps due to the continuous exposure to them over the last decade or perhaps due to the policies of the leftist government which had been in power for quite some time. There had been a fresh wave of immigrants—this time from the Eastern European countries. The Meghrban and African immigrants who had been there for a decade or two appeared more integrated, more confident, feeling more at home—something quite different from mid eighties. One could also notice a few Indians, other than those from Pondicherry, settled there and even some Indian tourists.  Another surprise was the presence of a number of well-appointed Indian shops near Gare du Nord and in rue du Fabourg St. Denis. There were also a few Indians working for multinational companies in Paris.  But that was the eve of the information technology revolution in India—I left Paris in early 1999. Now I believe there is a sizeable Indian community there.

 

* Editor's note: This interview is published in two parts. Read Part II of this interview here. We are thankful to Mr. Verma for his candid and elaborate responses that we think would resonate with the experiences of many Indians in Paris.