Wonder Woman

August 6, 2009



I can look at this girl’s picture for hours.

Who is she?

What are her dreams, her fears, her joys?

Who would have thought of mixing hibiscus prints with mirror work?

The End of an Era

July 30, 2009

Gayatri Devi

The Rajmata of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi, died yesterday, age 90. An immense sadness has descended over the city. It is, truly, the end of an era.

Everyone has read her memoirs A Princess Remembers. Gayatri Devi was a great beauty, a queen, a politician and a role model for millions of Indian women.

Despite her frail condition, she kept going out, distributing prizes and attending polo matches.

Although I can’t say I knew her, I had dinner with her twice. These were casual evenings, with very few of us, maybe 5 or 6. She felt, I think, at ease, and made us laugh heartily.

Walking with great difficulty, frequently admitted in hospital, she was still mischievous. Her conversation was delightful, her wit, dry.

She had a constant twinkle in her eye.

She drank whisky and smoked. Although everyone said she couldn’t walk anymore, she climbed up the stairs to my friends’ house, to have dinner with us.

The first time, she wore a sari, which wasn’t convenient, in her state, to climb up the steep staircase. The second time, she wore flannel trousers and a cashmere cardigan and looked every bit as chic. Especially with her silver cigarette case.

However, I think she didn’t like people swooning over her looks and saris – I suspect she found it all a bit naff.

She was very fond of England, where she had many happy memories. This is where her secret courtship with her husband-to-be began, and where they kept going on holidays, times she probably cherished, away from the rigid etiquette of Rajput society. She had many dear friends there, who cared for and looked after her until her very last days.

Everybody knows how she fought, and spectacularly won, the Lok Sabha elections in 1962, 1967 and 1971, thus enraging Indira Gandhi, who sent her to jail on a tax infringement accusation.

I have read somewhere about an incident which, to me, summarize her extraordinary elegance.

Months after leaving Tihar Jail, Gayatri Devi bumped into Indira Gandhi outside the British High Commission in Delhi. Gayatri Devi was leaving, when Indira Gandhi’s car pulled in. The Prime Minister rolled down her window.

And to the woman who had been her schoolmate forty years ago at Santiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s experimental school near Calcutta, to the woman who had then broken her promises to her husband and peers, taken over her ancestral homes, bared her of her name and sent her to jail, Gayatri Devi, every inch a queen, bent down in namaste.

Real elegance, she showed us, was rooted beyond style, in our manners and thoughts.

I feel very grateful to have known her, even so briefly, even so little. She taught me everything I know about poise and style: that it is all very dull, without a twinkle in your eye.



the massage table


When I was a little girl, my father gave me “The Man with the Miraculous Hands” by Joseph Kessel. The story of Felix Kersten, Heinrich Himmler’s personal masseur, who used his miraculous hands to save people from persecution and deportation. A fascinating story, and one I often think of when I get a massage. But I had never met a miracle masseur.

That is, until I met Shirin.

Shirin is a massage lady from Kerala. She works at an ayurvedic clinic in Jaipur where I go once in a while for an hour of bliss.  The place itself is unremarkable. Some people say it’s dingy. The rooms are dark, as a massage room should be. The ceilings are high, the music – sitar mostly – faint, the mosaics on the floor, old and beautiful. The decoration is surely dubious (plastic gods, artificial flowers, bazaar paraphernalia) but there is a charm to it. I love it. It’s shabby chic.

Shirin herself is a small young woman who looks 25 and probably will for another 30 years. She is petite and round. She has tiny but strong hands that seem to have a life of their own, their touch deep and smooth. 

Over the years, I grew used to her, and she to me. She knows which pressure I like and where are the knots on my back. And over the years, she started talking. Oh, nothing much. I like her for this: she is quiet. After three years, she now says three sentences to me. But as I told her the other day, every time her English improves. “Oh no, she chuckled, I think I know nothing.”

These last months sadly I didn’t have time for her.

Until my back broke down on me. The rickshaw rides, the tension, the swims and the late nights, I guess, little by little gripped my back. It grew really bad, to the point where I slept badly and couldn’t sit on the floor anymore. I emailed my father (a doctor as we all know) who wrote back “take some paracetamol“. Painkillers didn’t help. Sleeping on a hard mattress didn’t help. After two weeks of constant and intense pain, I went to see Shirin, fearing that even she couldn’t do anything for me. It was that bad.

I asked her to spend extra time on my back.

As usual, she started with my legs and arms. She massaged my hands, and at some point, she pressed my palm just beneath the thumb. It hurt. 

She stopped and asked me: “I hurts here?”

“Yes”, I said.

She smiled.

“Does it mean something?” I asked, my eyes still closed.

“It means your shoulders are hurting too much, your back also, and you are having headaches.” I opened my eyes. It was true. I never have headaches, but these days I fought them constantly.

She went on with her massage. She slowly got to my back. Unhurriedly, she unknotted every ball of nerves. She worked my shoulders, stiff as iron. She said they were “very bad”, but she kept her pace, her strength, and her smoothness. Then she got these pouches of herbs sunk in hot oil. She massaged me with them. They were rubbing hard against my skin, deep into my back, and I could feel the heat and the soothing herbs mollify my angry muscles. It lasted an hour and a half, and when I left, I felt light, dizzy, washed out, all tension gone, all muscles asleep.  

“You should always make time for massages, she said. It’s important. Once a week.”

I sighed. How can I ever move back to Europe?

However, I thought I’d need to go back at least twice before my cracked back healed. Not at all. It was still a little sore when I got home, but the next day I woke up fresh and rested and not feeling the slightest pain. 

I loved her already, but now I truly worship her.

Shirin, sweet genius with miraculous hands.

Graceful Hemingway

February 20, 2009


Today, my holy cows, I would like to ruminate with you a saying by Ernest Hemingway.

Dear Ernest famously said that courage was “grace under pressure”.

And pressure he certainly knew.

Hemingway fought WW1 as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy, where he was hit by a mortar shell and machine-gunfire shots but nevertheless kept saving lives. He spent four years in Spain covering the Civil War, then went on to naval warfare when WW2 started (his ship admittedly sank a couple of German submarines). He witnessed D-Day and later on in 1954 during a trip to Africa, survived two successive plane crashes and a bushfire. Severely burnt, he couldn’t make it to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize.

Undoubtedly, Hemingway’s idea of pressure was no joke. When you stuff cigarette butts in your wounds to stop the bleeding (WW1 on the Italian front), surely, you see life from a different perspective.

That’s what I think about when I hear people whining.

Grace under pressure.

Dear Ernest didn’t like adjectives. He cut, cut, cut, until his sentences were minimal. He believed that when a story is big enough, there is no need to blabber.

Strangely, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was the first serious book I ever read. I was 10, I think, and I didn’t understand much until the teacher asked me questions about it – I, however, perfectly remembers the love scene when the ground shakes. Sounds like I had my priorities right already.

I think a lot about Hemingway in India, a country he never visited.

A country that requires guts, and grace. I think he would have liked it here.

That is, before the hunting ban.

fat buddha

I met a fascinating man the other day. A huge man he was. Humongous. So big, there is not a single wrinkle on his face, even though he must have been in his late forties.

But in his own special way, he was beautiful. His voice, coming from underneath the vastness of his chest, was deep and rich. He looked Nepalese, or Assamese, or Bhutanese: big slanty eyes, a moon-shaped face, cappuccino-colored skin. He had the softness only very big people have, painfully aware that they are elephants in the china shop. His smile was warm and contagious, lighting up his large, flawless face.

He was a Buddha, an elephant, a mountain of a man in his tiny little shop.

The best part was his conversation. He certainly wasn’t stupid, but somehow in English his words seemed to have a life of their own. Mixing up the most improbable names, he spoke as a poet unaware of his own genius.

When I first met him, the economic meltdown had just started. I asked him whether he had felt its effects on his business.

“Certainly, he said, people is tight-upping themselves now.”

I loved it. I asked him whether he thought it’d last.

“It will last until the markets’ concert. After, if they will decide to embrace the transparent screen, maybe it will make people less afraid.”

I pictured an extravagant opera starring the Reserve Bank and Bernard Madoff, with dancers undulating around curtains of glass. The big markets concert.

“Yes, I said, transparency. I think Obama is going to have a lot of work.”

“Oh yes, America, America, he replied, agitated. But you know, in America, the Ossama, he is no magician that he can save all the bank!”.

My big Buddha, my sweet elephant, you made my day.

AA Gill and India

December 16, 2008

AA Gill ? On India ? This sounds too good to be true. And it is here.

The article is supposed to be about a vintage car rally but it is, really, about Bombay – and I am glad to see that he too sticks to the city’s old name: “Don’t call it Mumbai. Only CNN weather forecasters call it Mumbai“. I am with you, AA.

To say that I wasn’t disappointed by the article would be a wild understatement. I was bowled over right from the opening line about street-sellers in Bombay:

How often have you been stopped at a traffic light and thought, Damn, what I could really do with right now, this very minute, is a pink Barbie hairbrush and some skin-lightening ointment, or a plastic toy helicopter; a wrench set would be nice, or a yellow nylon teady bear.

Let’s not elaborate on his extraordinary command of the English language – I am merely grateful to be able to enjoy it.

To tell you the truth, I am actually tempted to shut this blog down and go build an AA Gill ashram somewhere around Matheran, with people chanting his articles and adorning his marble statue with strands of Golconda diamonds.

AA Gill is one of the very, very rare people whom I have had the urge to kiss and marry on the spot. Sadly, he is spoken for – he was married twice and now lives with Nicola Formby, Tatler’s society columnist, with whom he has twins. I was quite startled to find out that his cruelly witty restaurants reviews haven’t earned him only praise. He even got into some racism-related trouble because he said Welsh people were “pugnacious little trolls” or something like that. Which I must say quite sums up the only Welsh person I know. Now, I don’t want to keep digressing.

AA Gill, the Internet tells me, is a malicious Scottish star-columnist who jets around the world terrifying the likes of Gordon Ramsay ( thank God for AA Gill the world felt a little too safe lately). The man drives a bicycle and a Bentley and uses his pen like the Mughal soldiers their katar daggers.

Only, AA Gill doesn’t use a pen. He is severely dyslexic and has to dictate his articles to copytakers. Well, I am sorry to say but someone who managed to be a contributor to the Sunday Times, the Guardian and Vanity Fair despite not being able to handwrite a decipherable sentence will get my total and unconditional admiration, no matter how malicious he might be.

And it’s only getting better. He is a reformed alcoholic, and after a few phone calls to former and current alcoholics his age and nationality (yes, I have all kind of friends), mark my words: he was a hardcore alcoholic. The man comes from far. I don’t really feel like elaborating on the family scene (father died of Alzheimer, brother disappeared ten years ago) but let’s just say that there is some excess luggage there that makes the man highly likable to me.

Any. Way. You probably know all of this if English is your mothertongue, I only didn’t, being born and bred in the wuthering hills of Lorraine, France.

Sadly, the most interesting thing I read about AA Gill wasn’t elaborated on. He apparently claims to be of Indian descent. I searched that but didn’t find anything more than one laconic sentence at the end of a wikipedia article. Damnit.

Whatever he is, Scot or of Indian descent or both, Gill (a fairly common family name in India by the way) writes about India beautifully. There is the trademark wit, exquisitely brutal. He writes with the unimitable spice of someone who has seen beyond the curtain of knowledge and is telling us to laugh, because, well, because that’s the only way.

And indeed, sorry for all those who think about India with stricken, tragic faces, but a pretty good way to cope with India is to laugh. Because there is too much to take in and too little to rejoice on. Because wherever it is going, it is leaving millions and millions behind, stranded in their mudhuts or, for that matters, in their nothing. Because interreligious marriages might be the toast of Bollywood but they still mean, all over India, torture and murder. Because governments we support as the new India – India freaking Shining, they said – support the killing of 2,000 Muslims, no child spared, no pregnant woman left unopened, in the year 2002.

So yes, I am very seriously claiming laughter as the only way to get India. To get to enjoy it without letting it crawl under your skin.

AA Gill does this, and he does it brilliantly, because even though he is mercilessly funny, you can still see he cares. At least I do. I think he cares for this damn crazy country and wherever this thing comes from, it’s gotten him. He cares, and he understands what’s going on.

I can’t resist quoting him on the Indian middle-class:

” […] you know them when you see them. They have the worried and harassed, over-nourished look of the rest of us, and they suffer from all our acquisitive ambitions. They want stuff. Their wives want more stuff. Their kids feel entitled to stuff. Their aunts and their cousins, whom they count by the dozens, demand stuff. Then there’s the neighbor’s stuff to be kept up with. And stuff doesn’t just happen. They’re in debt, right up to the little red dots between their eyes. India’s emergent middle class is learning the first lesson of the international credit caste: that you will be held hostage by the very consumer economy you create, and the bigger it gets, the harder you work, the higher the ransom.

AA Gill, malicious writer? I am not sure. But maybe that’s because I am French. In my language, malice is not a vice. It is the breezy wit you only find in children. And in the Übermensch, says our friend Nietzsche.