Wednesday, 23 July 2014


The ten days I spent in Paris constituted the most exciting period of my 17-month stay outside of Mauritius. Not merely because I had the opportunity of going round sumptuous Versailles, of spending a day at the Louvres or of rambling in that enchanting city where history keeps staring the visitor in the face but because I could see for myself what le génie français and all that it stands for means. I had also the opportunity of coming to grips with the grandeur of French culture about which I used to hear a lot in Mauritius and of which I saw so little. Another thing which impressed me still more was the tremendous amount of work done by Roman Catholic institutions in several fields.

Three weeks before leaving London for Paris, quite unexpectedly I got a letter from Mrs. Renson. It was really an unexpected letter because when I read the name of the éxpediteur I could not make out who it was for I had never met nor written to any Mrs. Renson before. In her letter, Mrs. Renson explained that when she was in India in January 1957 she met an Italian friend of mine who gave her my London address and mentioned to her that I would be visiting Paris on my way back home; consequently, she had written to me enquiring about the exact date of my arrival in Paris because she wanted to be of some help to me. I could not ask for more and I wrote back giving all details. Mrs. Renson then wrote again saying she would come to pick me up at the station and "comme signe de ralliement pour me trouver, je porterais ostensiblement à la main, la revue Match".

When I alighted at the that Gare due Nord I looked for a lady ostentatiously carrying a copy of Paris-Match but there was none. Thinking that she might have been late I decided to wait but hardly had I waited for a few minutes when a young priest smiling winsomely greeted me: "Vous désirez quelqu'un M'sieur?" he asked and I replied that I have just arrived from London and was expecting to be met by Mrs. Renson. "Parfait", he said and explained that Mrs. Renson was late and that soon she would be with us. After some time Mrs. Renson arrived, apologising profusely for not being on time and we immediately drove to Jean-Bart Hotel in the quartier latin where she had a room booked. At the Hotel she showed me the programme she had drawn up for me; a crowded programme indeed but it was the best I could expect.

The first evening, the evening I arrived, was reserved for the young priest, l'Abbé Terrien, who came to see me at the station. The second day was kept free for any personal business which my hosts presumed I would have to attend to but as from the second evening I had to be at their entire disposal. On that second evening Mrs. Renson hosted a party when I was introduced to some of her friends who had previously agreed to take me round Paris. The party was indeed overwhelming: there was no barrier between my hosts and myself, neither my name nor the shade of my skin nor my nationality mattered, what actually mattered was that I was a friend of theirs. I could hardly believe that I was the subject of everybody's attention and I marvelled at the kindness lavished upon me by people I had never met nor known before. I could not but feel humble at the surge of spontaneous friendliness and goodwill that flowed towards me. Was it not a revealing experience for me, an Indo-Mauritian, to be so cordially received and treated on an equal footing by genuine French people, people from the very centre of Paris?

As agreed with my new friends, on my third day in Paris I began going out with them and thus I visited Versailles, le Panthéon, Les Invalides, la Tour Eiffel, le Palais de Chaillot, le Louvre, le Sacré Coeur, Notre Dame, la Sainte Chapelle and a host of other important places of historic or religious interest. The programme also included a visit to the two cafés of Boulevard Saint Germain, Aux deux magots and Café Flore which are supposed to be the meeting place of dabblers in literary and artistic pursuits. Afterwards I was told that those two cafés were regularly visited by Jean-Paul Sartre and his followers which explained the fact that they attracted quite a number of snobs. One morning, at two, I was taken to the quartier des halles, known as le ventre de Paris, where vegetables and fruits and other products are brought from other parts of France and sold wholesale to Paris retailers. Were also included in the programme two visits to the Théâtre de France where, in company of a student from the Sorbonne, I saw Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and Kafka's Le Château. Apart from all this, arrangements were made for me to visit la Maison de Christian Dior, the offices of l'Action Catholique, the Société des Amitiés Francaises à L'Etranger, l'Institut Pasteur, Institut Economie et Humanisme, the Unesco headquarters and last but not least, Monsieur l'Abbé Pierre.

I do not know much about the Institut Economie et Humanisme nor have I read enough which would allow me to speak authoritatively about it. But from what I was told by Rev. Father Lebret the promoter of this movement and his secretary, Melle Roret, Economie et Humanisme represents a new, fascinating trend of thought. On the face of it, it looks like a philosophy evolved to counter communism but on going deeper into it one finds that it does not spare capitalism either. Father Lebret told me that he and his fellow workers had come to the conclusion that in its quest for physical well-being, an aim absolutely conditioned by economics, society was losing sight of the human side of the problem. He was of the opinion that both economie and humanisme were essential to the survival of society and as in many countries there had been an economie bereft of humanisme, he was trying to evolve a line of thought aimed at the eventual synthesis of economics and humanism.

Meeting l'Abbé Pierre on the eve of my departure from Paris is an experience I'll never forget. When I rang him up before going to his office he told me that he was completely taken up by unexpected visitors from Switzerland and consequently would ask me for lunch as that was the only time he could spare; he added that Charles Moulin who had visited Mauritius would be in for lunch and suggested that it would be interesting to be together with him. So, at 1 p.m. I called on him and we drove to a restaurant where Charles Moulin was waiting for us. Charles Moulin was excited to hear that he was to meet a Mauritian and was banking on me to give l'Abbé Pierre an eye-witness account of his lecture in Mauritius; but when I told him that I was not in Mauritius when he gave his lecture his enthusiasm abated and he preferred to concentrate on his meal leaving l'Abbé Pierre and myself to ourselves. L'Abbé Pierre is a very impressive personality indeed; he symbolizes charity and modesty and breathes kindness. He is gentle beyond description and the way he speaks is fascinating. But behind his gentleness and calm demeanour, there is a compassionate heart guided by a stable and straightforward mind. Just by talking to him one can easily discern that he is not a man who would compromise on his ideals or his faith. If he is convinced that a certain thing is evil he is not prepared to bow down. What was the motive force, the guiding principle of his movement? I asked. He believes in God; and in his service to his downtrodden fellow countrymen l'Abbé Pierre is serving his Master who is the very basis of his existence.

In what circumstances did he start his movement? He could not stand the sight of people, owing to their circumstances beyond their control, digging the dustbins of the highroads for a morsel of food; he refused to believe that when a section of the population was comfortably fed and housed others should seek shelter from the cold and rain under bridges. What could have happened to such people? He thinks that such people have fallen victim to despair. The divine spark in them is about to be smothered by utter desperation and they have lost all sense of dignity. L'Abbé Pierre therefore thinks that such people need only one thing: they must be convinced that they are not as worthless as they think they are, they should be told that their lives are still full of rich potentialities which if developed may give a new direction to their lives.

L'Abbé Pierre has implemented this philosophy and has greatly succeeded. His movement has reclaimed thousands of sans logis and his message has spread far beyond the shores of France. I would like to end this account of L'Abbé Pierre by quoting a passage from himself in which he sets out the fundamental principle of his philosophy: "Entreprendre sans attendre d'être sans défauts. Par sa vie entière chacun doit s'employer à prouver que, pour pouvoir utilement accomplir une telle élèmentaire action, il n'est pas nécessaire d'être déjà devenu quelqu'un d'excellent, mais qu'il suffit de s'y vouer; et que c'est seulement en se vouant de quelque façon à cette manière de vivre qu'il est possible de tendre à devenir bon a quelque chose, et moins mauvais, et meilleur, car il n'y a pas d'autre voie vers la vie en plénitude, vers la perfection que la voie de la prise au sérieux de cette unique Loi, la loi des lois; aime le prochain comme toi, c'est-à-dire sers ton prochain avant toi tant qu'il est moins heureux que toi".

Paris once one of the greatest cities of the world still retains its splendour. It is more beautiful than a host of cities I have seen; it appears to have been better planned than London itself, though in some details London is to be preferred. Life in Paris is wonderful... provided you have bags of francs! The cost of living is prohibitive and pourboire is almost a national industry. The most common characteristic of the French people is the proverbial je m'enfichisme. What about government instability? No one cares. Why the mess in Algeria? No one cares. Why so much dependence on America? Well, that's that, if it is not America it will be Russia. My final impression of the French people I met and tried to question about the things referred to above is that they are indifferent: they have an acute sense of humour and when they happen to find something funny they would laugh à gorge déployée!

Speaking of the French temperament I may recall a rather funny incident which happened to me. One evening I went out with an American girl whom I had previously met in Delhi. At about eleven we entered an Italian restaurant where I was to taste pizza, the Italian speciality. We were hardly seated when a man, ungainly dressed, barged in with a bouquet of violettes; he went around the other customers shouting, "Violettes, messieurs-dames" but no one cared to buy his violets. Finally he came to us and staring at me, said "Violettes, m'sieur?" I didn't pay heed but he insisted. Seeing that I was adamant, he addressed the girl "Violettes madame?" The girl too did not bother. He looked at me and said "Monsieur, des violettes pour madame?" but I still refused to consider his offer. Poor chap, he got exasperated and blurted out, "Eh bien, si vous ne voulez pas faire le bon gallant, merde!"

That was the Paris I saw and I liked. I only wish I had stayed longer. An hour or so before I left Paris for Marseilles a friend of mine, the student at the Sorbonne, came to visit me. He wanted to know what was the one thing which had impressed me most. I told him it was the generosity and sincerity with which I was received by the group of friends. "Why, didn't you expect it?" he enquired. "I was not so sure". I evasively replied. He pressed for further explanations and I had to give him a picture of the situation here in Mauritius. French culture is so pure in Mauritius, I hinted, that we are kept at arm's length from the Franco-Mauritian community. "Hm," he murmured, "c'est la bétise française... Il y a une différence entre les français de France et les français de Maurice", he concluded. I agreed.

Mauritius Times, Friday 21st February, 1958.

Copyright Succession Keharsingh Jagatsingh

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