Group Snark: Paris Edition

You might have come across this article from the New York Times Travel magazine titled India in Paris. As colorful as it was, some of us felt it could use a little more. So we’ve reproduced it below, with each of us snarking in a different color. And don’t worry, we’ll get better at this with more practice.

Legend: Phillygrrl Nilanjana Sugi Vivek

There are times when Paris is (unwillingly) touched by other cultures. (“Stop touching me!” “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!”) (Touché! Sorry, couldn’t resist.) The touch may be temporary — like a spritz of (jasmine? can it be jasmine?) perfume. (There’s always the possibility of sandalwood. Or… even better for the hippie love fest, Patchouli!!!!!) Or it can open up a well-established world hiding in plain sight. (Like a woman in a burka?! Sign me up!)

This, by the way, has nothing to do with how Paris has clobbered other cultures.

Because I just noticed, This is Paris’s India moment.

In December, Karl Lagerfeld took inspiration from India for his Paris-Bombay collection for Chanel, which included Nehru jackets, sweaters that draped like saris and opulent beading and embroidery. (Hermès! Don’t forget the actual saris lovingly targeting the Indian luxury market. I want.) “Paris-Delhi-Bombay,” which examined India through the prism of 50 Indian and French artists, was the Centre Pompidou’s most ambitious exhibition (no, really, taking on India was really going out on a limb) of the past year. And on Jan. 27, the Petit Palais museum will display nearly 100 paintings and designs by Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Having begun to paint late in life, he created a large body of works on paper — bold, bright, jungle-like! tropical! visions of fantasy and inscrutable mystery. (As the spawn of Tagore-o-philes, I’ll note that the man had also had a blue period, i.e. not so bright. But Asian people are all om happy and peaceful, so let’s not talk about that.)

In fact, Paris has long contained spicy hot pockets of Indian culture. Soo, how long has Paris’s India moment been going on, exactly? The Musée Guimet, for example, houses a small but serious collection of Indian art, including sculptures of wood, clay, basalt, bronze, sandstone and schist dating from as early as the third millennium B.C.

There’s good shopping, too. (Forget art, I’m all about the shopping.) Mandalas, one of my favorite boutiques in Paris, and where I bring visitors looking for gifts, is not French but Indian-Tibetan. For about 30 euros, you can find the most beautiful drop earrings with semiprecious stones from Jaipur. (Yaks, camels, it’s all the same. Speaking of… I so love momos!!!! Damn. Now I’m hungry.) And at Le Cachemirien, a shop in the heart of Saint Germain, Rosenda Meer sells some of the finest cashmere in Paris. A double-sided shawl — moss green on one side and muted rust on the other — costs 1,500 euros (or 5 if you go to the street corner, but then what would I have to brag about?).

Yet if you know where to look (and of course I do), there is a more complex picture of Indian Paris just beyond the gemstones. The French had a reed-thin colonial connection to the subcontinent, and in 1674, on behalf of Louis XIV, they negotiated the creation of a trading post at Pondicherry on the southeastern coast of the Bay of Bengal. It changed hands over the centuries before rejoining India in 1956, but it has retained a soupçon of Frenchness (as well it should). (Been a while since I followed the adventures of Mireille, so I had to look ‘soupçon’ up. It translates not only into “hint” but also “suspicion,” and the second works better here, imo.)

The region also sent a small number of Indian Tamils to Paris, who were joined by other Tamil refugees after Indian and Sri Lankan independence in the late 1940s (with smaller numbers of Punjabis, Bengalis, Sikhs and Gujaratis to follow). More came to France in the 1980s after Britain made it harder for immigrants from the subcontinent to settle there. It doesn’t really matter WHY any of them came or in what context – from some countries as refugees, from some as economic migrants, and from some as one then the other. The point is: A pocket of the 10th Arrondissement northeast of the Gare du Nord became “Little India.” And that’s GREAT for us shoppers! Um, also, it has loads of non-Indians! The Sri Lankans mostly came way AFTER the 1940s! And not all the Tamils were refugees! But don’t trouble yourself! All Tamil people are the same! Everywhere! They have a hive mind like the Borg! Don’t worry about the silly context!

The neighborhood is rough-edged, working class and very authentic (read: poor). So authentic that I clutched my Chanel bag closely to my side to ward off the peasants. Is that sentence for real? I am actually out of snark, that sentence is so stunning. VERY AUTHENTIC. If you come, check your map and plot a walking route in advance (or you’ll get mugged). When you emerge from the Chapelle Metro, you don’t want to look like you’re lost (or you’ll get mugged). Or like a tourist. (Or even vaguely North African.) The area is more adventurous than dangerous (heh, who am I kidding, I was terrified and made my driver come with me), but still it’s not Saint-Germain-des-Pres. You will, however, always find someone who speaks more English than French.

If a gritty urban settings [sic] leaves you skittish (as it does me), call Poonam Chawla and she, with the help of her son Nikhil Bhowmick, will guide you on a tour of the neighborhood. She also runs a small cooking school specializing in northern Indian cuisine (with simple recipes learned from her mother (or quite possibly, Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi)) from her apartment in the upscale 16th Arrondissement. (Confused about the Punjabi-Bengali action going on here between mother and son, and how it may affect the authenticity of N. Indian cuisine. I mean, there could be some Pakistani and Bengali food thrown in there, and that is so not authentically Indian.)

The first time I visited the neighborhood, I came in search of small colorful metal bangles worn by young girls (or just women of all ages). (They come in cylinders with about 24 bangles each, and about a dozen bangles mixed together make perfect napkin rings (So for a dinner party of 12, purchase six boxes of bangles. Or just skip the bangles altogether and substitute out-of-season diamond tennis bracelets for a whimsical, fun effect.) I passed shops selling Bollywood DVDs at bargain prices and Indian tailors, food shops, restaurants and travel agencies offering cheap flights to India. (Where’s a good halal butcher when you need one? Oh wait. That’s not Indian. That’s Queens.)

I found the bangles in the sari and costume jewelry shops that dot the Faubourg Saint-Denis, the main street of the neighborhood. These are busy shops that cater to brides-to-be, and many are not accustomed to curious Westerners who aren’t necessarily there to buy (just to gawk at the inscrutable mystery! Y’all know Western isn’t code for white, right?). But Chennai Silks is particularly welcoming. Saris there start at 25 euros and go up to the hundreds for a fine one of beaded and embroidered. Indian Designs dazzles with its wall of costume and real necklaces and earrings, and offers more than 150 patterns of bangles, hundreds of saris and fine cotton embroidered pajamas (they’re called salwars, not pajamas) for men and women. When it’s not too busy, Abdul Aziz Ansari, the owner, will show you around. (I heart Aziz Ansari! I’m so there!!!!) I was waiting for someone to be unable to resist that one. 🙂

I ventured onward to VS CO Cash & Carry, a large grocery with mysterious (because I can’t be bothered to find out what they are) spiked (With what? Has potential… ) vegetables and half a dozen kinds of eggplant. Anglo-Saxon-style baking powder is hard to find in Paris, but here it is sold in kilo-size tins. I left with cardamom tea and bottles of curry paste and chutney.

It was getting dark, so I dared not continue on. But I came back, again and again, always in daylight (because I didn’t want to be mugged!). After several visits, the neighborhood became mine. The natives started to call me Columbus madam. It just took several visits! Being entitled is AWESOME! After decades in the neighborhood, many of those residents still can’t say the country is theirs.

Want your eyebrows threaded for only 7 euros? Your hand hennaed? Try the Centre de Beauté Indien. Dass Ponnoussamy, who owns the shop with his wife, Stella, is full of wisdom (full of enlightenment passed down to him by the sages of eyebrow threading), about the area. His father, Antoine, opened the first grocery store nearby more than 40 years ago. The florist Hibiscus Fleurs flies in ropes of fresh jasmine packed in ice from the vast Chennai region. You pin it in your hair and suddenly you exude the sweet smell of fresh jasmine, a purer scent than Chanel No. 5 (but far less expensive, so use it sparingly — or the neighbors will talk).

Noon is the time to witness the midday ceremony at Temple Ganesh, the Hindu Temple on a side street a few blocks north of the main commercial area. Non-Hindus are welcome and no one reading this article could possibly BE Hindu, and picture-taking is allowed. Leave your shoes at the door and buy a basket of coconut, banana and betel leaf for about 8 euros to make a traditional offering. The ceremony, led by a priest naked to the waist (you KNOW what I’m SAYIN’!), fills the room with camphor and incense; chants and prayers; offerings of milk, honey, fruits and flowers. On the day of my visit, I was handed a plate of prasad, warm sweet rice, as a token of appreciation (or a desperate attempt to get me to leave).

Then comes lunch, starting with a lassi made with mango or rose. Southern Indian cooking features dosas (savory rice-and-black-lentil pancakes) and idlis (steamed rice cakes) instead of the naan bread (department of redundancy department, as my high school chem teacher used to say!) of the north. (Where’s the Chettinad chicken? Oh, it’s that sort of South Indian. Sigh. So hungry. The Bong in me is also craving a good Keralan fish curry… along with the momos.) Good vegetarian restaurants can be hard to find in Paris, but the neighborhood has two excellent ones (because DUH, everyone knows Indians are vegetarians!). The most recent one is Saravana Bhavan. Part of an international chain, it leaves even (even!) India-savvy diners with the impression of having just been to Madras (until the bill arrives). At nearby Krishna Bhavan, five of us ate well for 46 euros. (No Woodlands?)

Instead of ordering dessert, stop in at Canabady Snacks. The shop offers both savories (like the spicy chickpea-flour snacks that looks like orange worms) OMG, that phrase is part of the article? not part of someone else’s snark? and brightly colored cakelike desserts. (Holding out for monkey brain fritters on this end, ahem.) They are cloyingly sweet, but that’s part of the experience (oh the compromises one makes for exotic cultures, my carb count just went through the roof!). (If you just want jalebis, you can find them in the Arab or Persian stores. No need to venture out here. Ask for “zalabia” or “zoolbia,” and save on the Métro!) Ask enough questions of the charmingly timid men (so much less scary than those Senegalese and Algerians, I can’t even tell you) (you should see their women!) in the shop and they might pull out folding chairs (in defeat), offer you samples and make you boiling black tea with milk and sugar. (If it’s boiling, you can drink it.) For more on tea in Paris, here’s another Orientalist piece I wrote in these pages!

If you’re in the mood for more, head to the Passage Brady several blocks away. A forlorn, dimly lit covered arcade, its floor tiles are broken and many of its shops and restaurants are empty. (I would think this is more authentic. Dim lighting, forlorn air, broken tiles and all. Flâneur heaven. Just sayin’.) But it offers a piece of history: it was here that the first Indian businesses opened decades ago. Still going strong is Velan, an inviting one-stop shop for foodstuffs, decorative objects, incense, candles, costume jewelry and ayurvedic beauty products.

And in the Joan Miró garden near the Porte d’Italie in the 13th Arrondissement in the south of Paris, off a street called Tagore, there is another surprise: lost in a corner is a bronze bust of the poet and painter himself, pensive as he writes in a notebook. Like me, I am so thoughtful. So thoughtful, I “discovered” all of this.

8 thoughts on “Group Snark: Paris Edition

  1. Oh wow.. the “charmingly timid men” – what a wonderfully emasculating turn of phrase. And, re: ‘naan bread’, it’s the attack of the RAS syndrome ( Thank you for a fun read! Writers of the world, please do more nonsensical articles so we can get to Group Snark time at SM.

  2. This was amazing. I love the format. Y’all should start a band. A Keynote band.

    and no one reading this article could possibly BE Hindu

    and Sugi seizes the heart of the matter.

    I will say that finding vegetarian food in Paris was really freakin’ hard. I ate at Italian and ‘Indian’ restaurants the whole time, and got more leverage out of Bengali than French in terms of making sure it really was vegetarian.

  3. Love this! And really, this is what it takes to write for the NYT? What a load of crap. I felt like I was right back in Pennsylvania in the 80s with the “oooh so exotic and mysterious” crap. Sigh.

  4. Seriously, get over your self. A little defensive of you, it’s a tourist piece, that’s generally how they write them regardless of country. Nothing to make a song a dance out of.

  5. Wow, apparently Indians in Paris are this season’s new black.

    Or brown. Tres chic.

    The point is that the NYT times was so spot on – I mean authentic. Its making me want to go eat some of those spicy chickpea things shaped like worms. Too bad he didn’t realize if he actually went to the Indian store next door, he could have bought REAL worms (AUTHENTIC, straight from the Pondicherry Tamils). The cumin and slight touch of garam masala really bring out the zestiness of the worm guts. Skip that sweets store, man.

    As for the worms, they are cheaper as a side once you buy monkey brain’s of course. But don’t tell the Westerners that.


  6. When I was last in Paris about 9 years ago there were Punjabis outside every tourist spot trying to flog postcards and keyrings of the Eiffel Tower for a Euro each. Either they arent there any more or the NYT did not think them exotic enough to write about.

    There is veg food in Paris, but it revolves around eggs, cheese and bread.