Monuments revive the memory of the dead. In France, they also sustain the Asian immigrants who earn a tidy income by selling knick-knacks to tourists, says ZIYA US SALAM
He could have been selling bhuttas, the roadside joy so common in the Indian subcontinent. But in Paris, on a dark, misty evening, he only sells miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower and colourful umbrellas to visitors at the most-visited monument in the world. Only a few give him a second look. Undeterred, 25-year-old Baljit Singh continues, calling out to tourists in a curious mix of French and English with a heavy Punjabi accent.
The 324-metre tall tower, looking monstrous in the fading light, is the source of income for this Punjab man, who came to France with the idea of visiting friends, said to be doing well, earning Euros. So impressed was young Baljit that he too decided to stay on. Today, standing in front of the 120-year-old creation of Gustave Eiffel that celebrates the French Revolution, he says he earns about a thousand Euros a month but refuses to pose for the picture. “One guy’s picture appeared in a newspaper. The authorities deported him to India. Now, he must be struggling.”
At the Louvre
A few kilometres away from the iron lattice tower one comes across another immigrant from the subcontinent. Again a man whose life is inextricably linked with a French monument, this time the famous Louvre. Inside sits Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous 16th Century woman. There are hundreds of visitors in the giant hall, each of whom sees it differently. “She is happy. She is smiling,” offers an American tourist. “No, she looks quite sad,” says an Indian journo. Everybody has paid 10 Euros to have a look around the museum that deserves more than the couple of hours most tourists set aside for it. After all, it is the Grand Louvre, France’s largest national museum, and a historic monument on the bank of the Seine. It houses some 35,000 objects from prehistory to the 19th Century across an area of 60,600 square metres.
Just outside, Mohammed Asim, an LLB from Lahore in Pakistan, sells Spider-Man. “He climbs up, he sticks, he slides” the 20-something man offers tourists in English. A qualified lawyer, what is he doing selling plastic Spider-Man toys, in an alien land near the entrance to a monument that he uses only for its food court? Asim can barely manage a couple of words in French, and claims to have received political asylum since Benazir Bhutto was killed in Pakistan. “I earn around 1,200 Euros a month here which works out to well over a lakh in Pakistani currency. Yes, the police are a problem. But the policemen are usually nice. They just confiscate the stuff and let the seller off. So, I keep just four-five toys in my cardboard box here. The rest I stuff in Starbucks down the road. I give a discount to Pakistani and Indian tourists.” But won’t he be better off pleading cases in a Pakistani court? “No. I am a lawyer, not a liar. I cannot earn a decent living speaking the truth in a court.”
A little further, the Museum of Modern Art has a compelling tale to tell. The museum, built at a height so as to look at almost the whole of Paris, is a wonderful picnic spot. There are acrobats, jugglers and all the usual suspects near the entrance. Inside, there is a medieval church. The faithful pray in silence, lighting a candle to Jesus Christ and making a little offering to the church. As one takes an inverted U tour of the museum, there are paintings worth preserving in the mind. And on the fourth and fifth floors, there are some contemporary works. Inaugurated in 1977, as part of the bold post-modern venture that marked the opening of the Centre Georges Pompidou, MOMA with 50,000 works, houses one of the world’s most prestigious collections of 20th-Century art.
As tourists spill out, they find the immigrant story continuing. This time, there are two. One of them is from Sri Lanka. Muthiah has a few boxes of chestnuts, grilled and fried. All for a few Euros. He has been here for a little more than a year, he says, and hopes “to get maintenance from the French Government”. This “maintenance” is actually an unemployment dole from the authorities. More or less same is the story of Mohammed Subhan from Karachi. For some time he sold stoles at the site, now he is into paintings of the historic places of Paris. He has not started getting his dole yet but says, “The monuments, whether in stone or paper, keep my kitchen fire burning”.
Talking of kitchen fire, the immigrants to Paris usually stay together, eat together and there is a sense of camaraderie beyond political boundaries. Asim, for instance, stays with “a friend’s friend from India”. And Baljit shares a room with Jitendra, an MCA from Kurukshetra and four others from the Punjab-Haryana belt. And, living on the margins of society, they claim to survive on 300 Euros a month, even as they send anything between Rs. 30,000 and Rs. 50,000 home. Most have legal visas to stay in France. Few, if any, have work permits. So, the work is all undercover. No signboard proclaiming their shops or services, no advertisements. At tourist spots, they can masquerade as tourists before the law-keepers. Of course, a hawk’s eye helps: to catch the nearest tourist and keep the cops at bay. Monuments, most dedicated to the dead, may indeed be the source of income for the living in Paris.