We'll Always Have Paris

From our apartment in Paris, if we walked up half a minute on Avenue Charles Floquet and then turned right into Avenue Octave Gréard, we'd end up on Avenue Gustave Eiffel in just another minute.

On our left rose a massive iron edifice. We stood in front of it and craned our necks. We angled our bodies some more and then some more, and sometimes when we had stared long enough, we'd feel as if the tower might shoot down over our heads us and chop us into bits. But the tower has stood for a long time, since 1889. On our right, ahead of us, all the way until our eyes crashed into Ecole Militaire, lay a carpet of green: Jardin de Champ de Mars.

In summer, the gardens were splattered with flowers and frocks in red, blue, white—the colors of the French flag—and then some green and orange and pink, really, every color of every flag in Europe, and, one might say, of the world. The lawn could have been a garden in the old town they called Babel.

Standing on the wetness, we heard tongues, so many of them, and they weren’t just Greek and Latin and Italian and Hindi. We saw skins. Some, the color of a copper epigraph uncovered in Mohenjodaro. Some were pale, as if they had rarely, if ever, greeted the sun. Others were dark, black almost, as if all they did was fish all day in full sun in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But they all had one thing in common: their smile. It was so hard to not smile under the tower. That’s it. Everyone came to Paris to stand and smile under the tower.

And everyone who alighted at Paris, first paid obeisance at the Tour Eiffel, as if it was this wondrous thing, this Taj Mahal of Paris. It was beautiful in photographs. But, up close, where one could smell nail and rivet and bearing, it was just another structure, simply another monument built by another dreamer in Paris for a show at the height of the industrial revolution.

At the lawns of the Champ de Mars, children played catch. Old women sporting garish lipstick walked near the park, held securely by dark Sri Lankan women. Stylish women sat talking on green iron benches while their pooches yelped at each other. They smoked cigarettes. They wore cigarette pants. In 1998, I remember that people still talked to one another and not into or at something as they do today. Kids played ball. On the lawns, parents set out plates, sandwiches, drinks from picnic baskets. Every few feet, young couples made out. Some of them were glued by lip, by curve. They were about to make babies. They emerged from lip-lock to giggle and laugh aloud. Yes, there was always the sound of laughter and revelry in Paris. It was the sound of life being built, being lived.

Paris is not just a city of light. That’s what the brochures tell us. I heard so much that no one talks about. In April, I heard the splat of bird pee on my head. Round the year, I heard the sound of music: from apartment buildings, churches, parks, metros, and up the bus towards Pigalle. In July, there was the beat. At Trocadero, the drums played into the night. Guys in braids. Guys in nose rings and earrings and Shiva tattoos. And between the drumbeats, young men crashed on their blades, up and down, and again. This was the city of the sound of life and the living. Of metro doors banging. Of people kissing, for so long, that they were oblivious to the trains that came and went. Of chestnuts dropping on craniums. Of leaves falling on walking stilettos. Of kids thudding on ice at the Hotel de Ville. Of first-time skaters wailing. Of artistes finding themselves in Paris, again and again. Of writers finding themselves.

Paris is a place of beginnings. In this city of light and sound and lightheartedness and life, the year 2015 has begun and closed with death.

The tower. It will rise and shine. Again.

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All Ears

When I tell some people that I’m a writer, they respond with a smile and a raised brow. Then, a second or so later, they let it drop that they too have a book in them. They confide, in a low, serious voice, that they too would have written a book had they only had the time to do so between their endless professional commitments, their family life and their daily chores.

Isn’t it interesting how everyone thinks it’s easy to be a writer? Writing is not about putting words down on a page. It’s about conveying meaning and driving change, one word at a time. The easier something reads, the harder it is to write.

“It’s the same story with my profession,” Gurdeep Kaur Chawla said to me over coffee last evening. “People think they can be interpreters too.”

Gurdeep’s job is to listen. Sometimes, she has the luxury of a pause before a translation. Not always. For 20 years, she has been like a funambulist, testing the tightrope of the limits of language as she crosses between islands called English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.

Listening is one of the hardest things in the world to do well. I live with a man who always listens with all neurons on fire. He listens to the radio intently even though he isn’t having a conversation with it. He listens to my daughter’s ramble on weekends and overanalyzes her barbs. He listens to the GPS woman with complete attention—and she is not even his wife and her directions are not always more accurate than mine. He has that way of listening, I think, with all of his ears and all of his body. You could say that he listens like a cricket (which, by the way, has ears on its knees).

Most of us listen absently. If we were to analyze our manner of listening, I suspect there would be gaps in hearing, comprehension and analysis. And the juice of every job is in the analysis before a big next step. This is why I don’t dare discount the years people have invested in their careers, or their missteps and failures, often unknown, en route to their minor victories and major triumphs. That is why Gurdeep’s life of sudden interpretation seemed to defy interpretation. Even on deadline, writers had the luxury of sufficient time—to revise, polish and edit again.

“When I’m on the job, I’m all ears,” she said. No one wants to be asked to repeat something that they just said, especially when they’re in what one might call “a flow.”

What if your job depended on listening, analysis and simultaneous translation? What if you were helping broker deals in a lawyer’s office or at the United Nations? What if you had to bring in your experiences with life, your knowledge of world leaders, past and present, and your awareness of the globe you live in, of all the old news and all the new news, of the latest attack on an embassy building, of the crisis in Syria and of the term, in Hindi, for “technology outlook”?

“If I miss just one word, I cannot catch up,” Gurdeep said. The last time she felt that way—even though she didn’t exactly have time to dwell on it—she was seated between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a private chatter at a big white house.

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Meditation On Strains

I'm working while strains of Meditation from Thais fill my sunroom. I'm thinking of my little girl who played it with feeling and finesse years ago. She'll be 24 the day after.

I wonder when I'll ever hear her play the violin again. And then I remind myself that we let our children learn art also for art's sake, not just as a means to a particular end but as a means to any number of means and ends. To seek the finest in art and thought; to hear nuance; to winnow virtuosity from mastery; to not always tow the line of a chorus; to appreciate the choice of one word over another; to reread passages of fine writing; to stop inside museums on an alone-day; to chase the core of people in friendships; to weep at a new song; to remember to be graceful but to never forget to be gracious; to create something of value; to listen and in the listening hear more than just words; to hunt, not for designer things, but for the design of great things; to see the apples through an open window; and to buy an Apple, always, always, always, even if it's called an iPad Maxi.