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Dinesh Verma- Indian Under Spotlight (Part II)

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

 

 

Presenting here the second part of the interview with Mr. Verma. Read the Part-I of this interview here.

 

IIP: For expatriates in France, regardless of their nationalities, life can be a bit overwhelming at times. At one point, Pieter points to the European system being a farce when faced with the frustration of not getting a desired job. Did your perception of the how foreigners were accepted and integrated in the French system change with your stays at different times in Paris?

DV: To be accepted and integrated in a foreign country is a difficult task no matter which part of the world one is talking about. As an example, I will mention the case of a Tamil friend of mine who has lived for a long time in Bangalore and in Hyderabad. When I asked him recently where he would ultimately settle down, he said he would like very much to settle in Bangalore or in Hyderabad but he would not, because he would not have the kind of acceptability in the society that he would feel comfortable with. Now here I am talking about a person who is from the same country, same racial stock, having same eating habits and religious beliefs. The only difference is perhaps in the way he would speak Kannad or Telegu, but the moment he would speak in that tongue he would betray his origins and then the prejudices relating to regions would set in.


Talking of France in mid eighties now, it was a period of plenty—the country was having a budget surplus year after year and its economy was booming. It had been inviting workers from Magreban countries and its ex-colonies during the time of its reconstruction after the war. But by eighties it was beginning to be flooded by illegal immigrants. There was also a big wave of immigrants from Spain and Portugal apart from those from Maghreb or the ex-colonies. Usually those from Spain and Portugal would find it easier to integrate being from the same racial stock and also because they shared the same religious beliefs. The others lived a somewhat marginalised existence for there would be no meeting point between an average French and an immigrant from Maghreb or ex-colonies of France, most of them manual labourers who were there to make a living. In Paris most of them lived a secluded existence in northern-suburbs or areas near Gare du Nord, Barbes and Belville. One would hardly find any of those immigrants in the posh areas of the city or tourist spots unless they were there for work. There were of course those who were employed in white collar jobs who were comparatively well to do and lived in better localities. But going by the experience of people I met, I felt that integration depended on amount of efforts made by the person concerned to get integrated.


By mid nineties, I felt the situation had changed to a certain extent. Those who lived a marginalised existence ten years back appeared to be more ‘integrated’  at least outwardly—they could be seen around everywhere in the city without any self inflicted inhibitions, as was their plight in eighties. Their children would be studying with the native French and well on the way to an even higher level of integration. But as for acceptability by the mainstream, it seemed to be a distant goal.


Having said that one must reiterate that this is a social phenomenon that hold true of all parts of the world and one cannot say that French were or are less open to expatriates and foreigners then the others. I must also add here that Paris is a city where even the native French from the provinces of France find it difficult to find the desired level of integration and acceptability. So for someone from a distant land like India with an absolutely different way of life, beliefs, and food habits etc, it is indeed a challenge. And then integration is also a state of mind. If you feel you are integrated with the mainstream you are on the way to integration. If you undergo some negativity or prejudice on the part of the others you have to take in the stride for it is you who chose to be in their land. Usually that does not happen unless one impinges on the private space of others or forces oneself on them. Generally people in that part of the world are civilised enough not to do so. But acceptability is a much more difficult thing to achieve.

 

IIP:  From your personal experience, in terms of the gaps in personal and professional expectations out of a Paris or France stay and the actual situation when these expectations are not fulfilled to their potential, what would you advise future travellers or residents coming from India to reduce the general feeling of disappointment or delusion we often see such as with Buddy and Dr. Chopra. Do you think the media or the general cultural education, or the lack of them, plays in role in building expectations?

DV: An Indian visiting France now is in a really advantageous position as compared to one in the eighties or even in the nineties.  In those days ignorance prevailed due to sheer absence of information and therefore one could have unreasonable expectations leading quite often to disappointments as one can see in the case of Buddy the Impressionist. But in today’s world no one could be in the situation in which Dr. Chopra finds himself in ‘The Visitor’, if one takes a little trouble to plan his visit. Now there is so much information available on the internet that one can take a really informed decision and have a much more realistic set of expectations. Language may still pose some problem, but I believe the younger generation in France is no more so disinclined or averse to speaking in English as an average French used to be in eighties. That is what I felt in 2000 when I was in Paris last. By now use of English there may have become even more widespread.


For someone going to France for a long stay, knowledge of French or lack of it can indeed make a great difference in the quality of one’s stay, though one can surely manage without it if the language at the place of work is English. There were people who managed to do so even in eighties. I had met an Indian back in 1987 who had lived in Paris for five years doing his P.Hd. He who used to boast that he had managed to live there without learning one word of French! One could not but pity him for missing out on such a rare opportunity to learn French.


Food habits, especially for a strict vegetarian can pose yet another challenge. But I feel the biggest challenge for an Indian or for that matter anyone in Paris could be loneliness and the problem could become even more aggravated if you don’t speak French. So the capacity to be on one’s own and face one’s self for prolonged period of time can be a big asset for someone planning to live alone in Paris for a long period.

 

IIP: Given that you are in the revenue services now, is the story of Ram inspired from a personal encounter?

DV: To a certain extent yes. During a train journey once I overheard a small conversation between two travellers one of whom bragged about being searched by a regulatory department and being reduced to penury and than making it good in life once again like a phoenix who rises from its own ashes. The rest is just a yarn twisted out of various unconnected experiences and imagination.



IIP: Please tell our readers some more about you.


DV: I was born in Delhi in 1956 and studied at the University of Delhi. I was a science student to begin with but after my first year of B.Sc (Hons.) in Physics, I switched over to English Literature: B.A (Hons.) from Ramjas College (1976) and then M.A in English literature from Hindu College (1978). I taught English for one year at Khalsa College, Delhi and then joined the Indian Revenue Service in 1981. In 1986-87, I attended a course in International Economic Relations at the Institut International d’Administration Publique in Paris. Earlier it used to be a training Institute for the officers from the overseas departments and territories of France- the DOM-TOMs (les Départements d’outre mer and  les Territoires de outre Mer); however in the eighties, it was offering courses to the haut fonctionnaires from ex-colonies of France and developing countries from various parts of the world. I believe it has now been merged with the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (l’ENA). I had another occasion to be in Paris while I was attending a course at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in 1997-99.



IIP: I know its uncalled for, but I couldn't help wondering that with all the wonderful notes at the end of each story that are actually very good for an international audience, there is no 'change' rate given for Francs to Euros and also their reference. eg. in 1980, one could buy a baguette for 80 francs and in 2000, it cost 6 times more, 80 cents, something like that...

DV: What you say is true—a note about the prevailing exchange rate would be indeed relevant for a story like ‘The Overcoat’ which has so much to do with prices and penny pinching. A French Franc in1986-87 used to be about six to seven rupees. I think even in 1997-99 also the exchange rate was more or less the same due to the very low rate of inflation in France those days. Euro was introduced just around the time when I left France in 1999—it co-existed with the French Franc for some time to begin with, before it became the exclusive currency in France and the other countries of the European Union.

 

* Editor's note: This concludes the two-part interview with Mr. Dinesh Verma.  We are thankful to Mr. Verma for his candid and elaborate responses that we think would resonate with the current experiences of many Indians in Paris.