Footprints in Paris – by Poonam A. Chawla

We were in Paris for two weeks at a stretch and after hitting some of the fabulous tourist spots – The Sacre Coeur, The Palais Garnier, The Notre Dame Cathedral – thought, we would cover every arrondissement by metro, tram and bus. Why? You may well ask. I can only shrug and say it seemed like a good idea at the time.

By the third day, however, I began to chafe and could no longer appreciate the distinctions between the many rues punctuated with cafes filled with tourists and serious cappuccino drinkers, the exultant columns of abundant monuments and capering figures popping artfully out of building fronts, or the burst of potted flowers balanced optimistically on fake balconies the size of kerchiefs embroidered in wrought iron.

It is easy to understand. One (or perhaps two) pieces of art can hold you spellbound. One sumptuous dessert and you are filled to the brim with wellbeing. One magnificent view can lead you to rhapsody but too much, too soon and the glow diminishes, leaving you holding your sides in discomfort, heading for the nearest pharmacy.
My sister in-law, who lives in Paris, sensing my ennui, suggested we do something different. “Go see the Père Lachaise Cemetery. It is pleasant. And it is free (a word you come to appreciate when travelling in Europe). And so we did.

I wondered whether it was not in bad taste to go armed with cameras to a cemetery, but since it was open to the public and we were there already, pushed the thought aside and told myself I would at least behave in a dignified manner and not chatter and laugh, however pleasant the surroundings.

Père Lachaise looked at first sight, like a well manicured, large garden with tree-lined walkways, a fountain, a monument and an old museum of some sort. It was only on coming closer that one noticed the grave stones, some ordinary and humble, others large and full of pomp, behind the trees. Very few had flowers besides them – as if families or loved ones had realized at last that their flowers and twigs meant little to those below the sod. It was only when I looked about for a map (to find the rest room, to be quite honest) that I realized that the cemetery was known really for the number of prominent intellectuals, men of honor and celebrities that it housed.

And that is how I found myself, along with several groups of gawking tourists, standing beside gravestone of Mr. Oscar Wilde. I stood there for what seemed like hours and thought of the books and essays, letters and stories he had written that shaped my life. He looked like a geisha with his white marble face and rosy red lips. (Some one had pressed their living lips upon his stone ones.) At some point, I left his side and came upon the actress Sarah Bernhardt tired of her ardent ways, and the divine Maria Callas her voice emptied out like her urn at the cemetery.

I thought I heard the spoken words of Jim Morrison whirling like dust motes in the area around his grave and felt the mood of the surrounding poets and the artists, tortured by their own insignificance, sacrificing their lives for one moment of perfection and laying besides them the philosophers buried amidst debate and young soldiers like deer caught in the headlights of politics. I stood by the gravestones of all these noble, fragile, gifted men and women and wondered what I was supposed to make of it all.

Tired, I shut my eyes. Soon I heard nothing but silence, felt only the amazing sunlight streaming through the joyous trees, my own breath mingling with the breath of nature and thought – this is what they were aspiring for.

Poonam A. Chawla
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