City Reading – The Delhi Proustians XV, Indian Coffee House
A la recherche du temps perdu.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Today is the 15th meeting of The Delhi Proustians, a club for Delhiwallas that discusses French novelist Marcel Proust. Every Monday evening for an hour we read his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time.
It is 7 pm and The Delhi Walla is with Jonas Moses, a Frenchman who lives in north Delhi.
Today I haven’t got the novel. I’m coming straight from my ancestral village, which lies north of Delhi.
“I could not hold the club meeting last week,” I say. “My uncle died. It was scary to have such a loss in the extended family. The normal patterns of life suffered and shrunk to this single event. For a few hours I could not read and I could not bring myself to eat. It was as if my mouth was filled with death. The things I took for granted – taking a stroll in Shahjahanabad alleys, buying books in Daryaganj’s Sunday Book Bazaar, watching important people in Khan Market – became dream-like. I thought of all those people with whom I daily commuted in the metro… they seemed so lucky. While my family was discussing the logistics of taking the ‘body’ to our village, those people in the metro were carrying on with their lives as if nothing had happened.”
Mr Moses says, “Proust must have said something on death.”
I Google ‘Poust’ and ‘death’ on my mobile phone internet. We reach a page. Mr Moses reads:
We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast, but when we say this we imagine that hour as placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance.
“When I was in the village,” I say, “I had a Jane Austen in my pocket though I did not read it. One afternoon as I was walking in the old parts of the village, I was reminded of Combray where Proust’s narrator went in his childhood. There were old brick houses and cobbled streets and ancient wooden doors and arched windows and one house had collapsed and its doors were still standing erect and I stood on the rubble and looked down at those doors and I thought of Proust’s novel.”
We stay quiet.
After a few minutes, I say, “I had taken a few photos of the village from my mobile phone camera. I have black & white prints of some of them. Will you like to see?”
Mr Moses nods.
He stops at the photo in which a train is chugging along a green field.
“That’s the village station,” I say.
“A temple!” he says, pointing at a tower partially hidden behind the train.
“It’s like that scene from Swann’s Way,” he says, referring to the first volume of Proust’s novel, “in which the narrator is in the train that is nearing Combray and his father spots the steeple of the village church.”
Mr Moses reads the passage:
The steeple of Saint-Hilaire could be distinguished from a long way off, inscribing its unforgettable form upon a horizon against which Combray had not yet appeared; when from the train which brought us down from Paris at Easter-time my father caught sight of it, as it slipped into every fold of the sky in turn, its little iron weathercock veering in all directions, he would say: “Come on, get your wraps together, we’re there.”
“This temple is like that church,” Mr Moses says. “In France, there is a church in every village, whose clock chimes loudly at each turn of the hour… and nowadays, there is also a football field in every village.”
Mr Moses continues.
And on one of the longest walks we ever took from Combray there was a spot where the narrow road emerged suddenly on to an immense plain, closed at the horizon by strips of forest over which rose and stood alone the fine point of Saint-Hilaire’s steeple, but so sharpened and so pink that it seemed to be no more than sketched on the sky by the finger-nail of a painter anxious to give to such a landscape, to so pure a piece of ‘nature,’ this little sign of art, this single indication of human existence.
I look at the temple of my village.
As one drew near it and could make out the remains of the square tower, half in ruins, which still stood by its side, though without rivalling it in height, one was struck, first of all, by the tone, reddish and sombre, of its stones; and on a misty morning in autumn one would have called it, to see it rising above the violet thunder-cloud of the vineyards, a ruin of purple, almost the colour of the wild vine.
“This last passage could be a description of my father’s village,” I say.
“Perhaps Proust did secretly visit India,” Mr Moses says.
“Perhaps he did stop by my village.”
“Perhaps he walked the same streets you walked through last week.”
“Perhaps he met my grandfather.”
The 16th meeting of The Delhi Proustians takes place on 9 April, 2012.
Where Indian Coffee House (it has three seating spaces; enter the enclosed area that looks to Baba Khadak Singh Marg), Mohan Singh Place, near Hanuman Mandir, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, Connaught Place Time 7 pm Nearest Metro Station Rajiv Chowk
Marcel on mobile
The village temple
My father’s village = Proust’s Combray
Scenes from the Proustian Land
I am so sorry for your loss, my friend Mayank! My prayers are with your uncle and his family this Easter.
In Proust there are infinite possibilities, he contains multi-verses. Perhaps in one your uncle walks the streets of your village/Combray with Marcel and they are going to the temple/church. Peace.
Bhai, Condolences for the sad loos.
sorry for your loss…
this is my favourite ever post of yours. your writing and the images are beautiful.
the photographs are an excellent metaphor for what you have written, the still and gentle shots of your village, generally not featuring people, are stunning. then there’s the one with the man made tiny by the expanse and age of the buildings, yet the road leads directly to him. and the boy, being last, and being a child, is perfect. really lovely, something else.
it inspires me to write today, thank you! and to read proust!
sad to hear about the demise in the family.
The reminiscences reminded me of a scene on death I had written as part of a novel-in-progress on the 1857 mutiny. Sharing it here.
Cipher never dies
It is said that the day Anais was to die, she had finished embroidering an enchanting nightdress. But she did not live long enough to wear it.
Then, was that yellow-white dress — unattained in its embroidered goal to make oneself look enchanting or seductive maybe (since it is said that Anais died a virgin) — a harbinger of assured fatality, when, in the wake of a calamity brewing in the depths of the future victim’s subconscious, the future victim toils to make everything perfect, expecting the perfection to continue: shielding her and subsequently taking her to the cipher or nothingness that makes the “effort-achievement” circle complete. And that belief proves to be flawed, since a person waiting for a calamity should never leave important business unfinished. Here, the effort was complete, the achievement not yet. Hence, to save her from perishing (hypothetically speaking since you cannot play with history; you have to either accept or reject it), Anais should ideally have worn the dress the moment she had finished it, because death, to be death, always catches us in the beginning, in the middle or near the end of an important business. Death is tragic because it never lets you attain that cipher.
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