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Our Lady of the Flames

In 1963, the year I was born, the first major restoration of the Notre-Dame cathedral began in Paris, to repair significant damage caused in 1944 during the Second World War.

In 1961 my father, who was on a training scholarship in Paris, bought for my brother, Miroslav Sasek’s wonderfully illustrated and large children’s book, titled This is Paris. It had simple line drawings, pictures that looked as if they had been torn out of a child’s notebook, ragged edges and all. There were shiny baguettes, smart concierges, supercilious waiters, flower girls, sidewalk cafés, gendarmes in batwing capes and boxy caps, many cats... and all the monuments of the great city.

I have gazed long and curious at the mysterious rosettes, learnt the words “stained glass” and “Notter Dahme”. And I have wriggled in fear at the shadow of the Hunchback, all sitting on my parents’ bed in Chennai.

That book fell apart eventually, thumbed through, scribbled on, perused hungrily, fed by my father’s unabated Francophilia — which led eventually to my own love affair with that city.

So when Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire, on the thirty-second anniversary of the day my own scholarship began, I felt the same hollowness in my stomach as I had in 1985 when the Moore Market in Madras went up in flames.

On that occasion, I do not remember being able to do much else other than share my parents’ shocked laments. There was no more haring off across town to watch the old stalls and bookshops burn, confront the irreparable, say goodbye... But this day, one look exchanged with a haggard husband and out we went, into the Metro, along the banks of the river, on to the bridges with our fellows, into the cool spring night, ominously warm and dry, to the very hypocentre of the catastrophe.

At least a kilometre away, we get the first whiff of cinders.

Two bridges away from the island where Notre-Dame stands, people crowd the balustrades, huddle in strange intimacy, the traffic is blocked off. Hands stretch up, necks craning in the now-all-too-familiar gesture of the smartphone or iPad, capturing what we perhaps do not trust to living neurones anymore. And over the silent river she has dominated, for ‘it’ is a ‘she’, incarnated splendidly in her gender-specific tongue, the cathedral’s belly spurts flames, a truly awful sight.

The six or seven fire hoses that we can see, spurting steadily for the last three hours, seem pathetically inadequate as derisory as school-kids in a contest.

We are silent, dense, tense together, the prospect of the two bell towers collapsing is vertiginous. Old and young of Paris, tourists, people like us who have wandered in from far away, neighbouring inhabitants on their balconies, we are all attentive as visitors in a hospital, waiting with bated breath for the verdict.

All at once a large group starts singing quietly, Ave Maria.

An hour later as we circumabulate, yes, the word pradakshanam pops into my mind, we find ourselves nearer the facade. On the opposite bank is the oldest surviving church in Paris, Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre.

A young man is leading an impromptu prayer meeting, people kneel, sit on the paving stones, pray, sing or, like me, climb up onto the railings to watch and listen.

Notre-Dame’s smaller sister is huddled under an old, old tree. I wonder what she thinks about her giant sibling across the water in flames. They have looked across at each other for 800 years. The thought makes me dizzy and I climb down to continue our peregrination.

The cathedral hunkers down like an old beast, drawing her compact, ancient stones together, in immense patience, receiving the care that the extraordinarily courageous firefighters give her, while we watch. Loud spurts of spontaneous applause and hurrahs break the air.

It is midnight. The flames have distinctly diminished, although bright orange sparks flower up into the sky around the bell towers. We can feel the collective tension breaking, a kind of sigh thrums through this April night — people start splitting away in groups to go home. She may be safe, she is safe.

The director of the theatre where I work said, “She probably held fast because of all the love she has received.”

Whatever our stories, we invent our interior cartographies, we need paths that our memories follow, landmarks that lead, symbols that reassure. And places of communion divine or otherwise. Where history reaches down a long finger and taps you on the nose, to tell me that — Besant Nagar or Paris? Same-same.

The next morning I walked along the quay, now freed from some of the police barriers. She was calm, shorn of spire and roof. The Paris sky drizzled its spring tears. I wished it had sent a storm the previous night.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 3:14:50 PM |

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