By Becky Band Jain
It was at the end of the year I spent in the South of France, fully in the grips of my Francophilia, when a friend invited me to a barbecue. A week after Bastille Day, the summer heat was at its peak. The rosy tan stucco on the houses matched the scorched soil, a shade lighter than their terra cotta rooftops. Their large shutters shielded them from the sun’s onslaught, and spoke of a time before air conditioners. It was a traditional, agricultural region still. Orchards of peaches and apricots, olives and grapes; this was the terroir of Cotes du Rhone, and the famous Tain l’Hermitage vineyards. Gardens burst with bougainvillea, hibiscus and oleander.
Valence, a city since Roman times, is often referred to as “the door to the South of France.” But that day, I traversed a threshold to South Asia, not realizing I was passing through an invisible portal, entering a post-colonial enclave. The ranch-style villas told me I was in the Mediterranean, but inside the home on Rue Marie Paradis was a hub of desis of varying degrees. It appeared to be a version of diasporic paradise, where families and countries left behind were momentarily forgotten in favor of savoring the good life, à la française.
Sipping my anise cocktail, the flavor cooling but the alcohol warming my throat, I glanced at two young men who appeared to be the only ones my age. I thought I recognized one of them, and in speaking we pieced it together: he had stood in front of me in line at the local independent cinema. His name was Kiran, and he’d brought a friend along who was studying in Grenoble with him, an hour away.
“My name is Salil Zen,” I heard him say.
“Oh, you’re Zen?” I asked, startled but trying to seem knowledgeable. “I’ve read some books about Zen Buddhism, like…”
He laughed and attempted again. “No, Jain.” I still heard a twinge of “z”. “It’s also a religion. Basically we believe in nonviolence and we’re strict vezetarians.”
“Oh, right,” I replied, pretending I’d heard of it. “I’m also trying to be mostly vegetarian since it’s healthier.” I explained that while I was a teenager, my mother had overhauled our diets after having breast cancer. But I’d already piled my paper plate with grilled tandoori chicken and was trying not to spill it from my wild gesticulating. I went on chattering about Grenoble, how beautiful the Alps were and how much I’d enjoyed living there during my semester abroad two years earlier. I’d hoped to stay there again, but had been placed in the much smaller town of Valence.
While the French Department of Education had recently notified me that they would not be renewing my assignment, I was seeking out private teaching positions for the coming school year to remain in the country. Here we all stood, most of us immigrants in France living with the realities of displacement, seeking out a carefree moment despite the uncertainty.
In college, when I began to try to comprehend colonialism, the way places and people were carved up and served on a platter to the powerful, I began to understand what a mess was made of the world. I came to believe that it was my role to do everything possible to fix what had been broken. I detested the US government for its foreign policies and the role it now played in governing globalization and neo-imperialism, and fled the country as soon as I got the chance. I landed in France, which, while once a colonial power, was now sensibly socialist and provided its citizens with a whole host of services. Even I, as an immigrant, was eligible for many of the benefits. Still, I was aware of how nationalist and racist France was, how its customs and policies demanded an unswerving and unsympathetic assimilation from its immigrants. One summer, on a grant in Paris to research just how these policies influenced the growth of French hip-hop, I had experienced these stereotypes firsthand when I was conveniently selected as an au pair over much more qualified African applicants.
I was so enamored with France that I was willing to overlook its colonial past as a minor blemish. I was convinced of my ability to assimilate; at least I looked like I could just slip right in, unnoticed, and join the ranks of the French. Or so I’d hoped.
The French were the last to follow the trade winds to India, having been more interested in their stakes in Canada than dividing their attention. They had a few outposts in India which the British grudgingly permitted, and from there arrived the vibrant printed textiles that would become iconic to Provence, the indiennes, with their olives and flowers and cicadas almost dancing across a bright background of canary yellow and royal blue.
Bahadur, the party’s host from Mauritius, welcomed me from his post at the grill searing the tandoori chicken, its spices mingling with the charcoal smoke. Mauritius, or l’Ile Maurice as it is called in French, was both a French and British colony, now nicknamed Little India. He’d left for France at the age of 18, most likely after Britain had closed its gates to immigrants from the island. His barbecue brought together ten or so amongst the less than 75,000 that make up the Indian community in France. The suburbs of Valence struck me as an unlikely spot for such a gathering.
Salil and I had both decided on a whim to come to the party, invited by our friends at the last minute. I declined to share that I was going through a breakup with a local man, Nico, and my French friend had taken me in like a stray kitten, diverting me with parties.
After a while, we all walked to Parc Perdrix nearby for a game of the beloved pétanque, the region’s popular, silver-balled version of bocce. I saw myself as too sophisticated for games, and instead explored the park with a couple of others. We had just sat down in a circle when I got a call. It was my mother.
I was, as usual, annoyed at the interruption. But I answered, walking away from the group to go over the details of my upcoming visit to see her. She’d lived in London ever since I’d gone to college at seventeen. She went after the cancer cleared. It seemed to me she’d cut off not only her breasts but also her daughters. While I was writing my college essay about the fear of almost losing her, she was plotting her escape from suburbia and from single motherhood, at a cool remove. Her executive decision to leave did not factor in my opinion. “I didn’t think you’d need me anymore, or want to be around me,” she later told me. “When I was your age, I hadn’t wanted to see my parents.” Nor did she mind leaving them in their old age, either.
Her departure was a devastation, a betrayal with far-reaching consequences that I could only collect as a passive observer, so helpless was I at the time to extricate myself from the vortex she’d created. It was as if I’d been sucked into the abyss of her absence. When I was older, I attempted to understand the reasons behind her move. But I still struggled with the knowledge that the main person on whom I’d relied up to that point decided to remove herself from my life, leaving me in complete limbo. She believed she’d fulfilled her obligations to me and needed to move on with her life. Simple and swift, no second guesses.
After hanging up, I tried to compose myself to return to the party. Speaking to her flustered me, aroused my dormant anger. I had no other way to express the pain I felt at her exit, which had left me without a mother or a home. I perched on a railing and looked out over the artificial lake, watching the swans glide around water lilies and under bridges that led to an island in the center. Towering above were two asymmetrical white helixes spiraling upwards, called chateaux d’eaux in French and less poetically in English, water tanks. They were made in the sixties by a Greek sculptor, Philolaos, himself named after an ancient philosopher who developed one of the first non-geocentric theories of the universe.
I gripped the railing just as I held on to my dream of staying in France, which had so quickly and so briefly become the center of my universe. As I sat there, content in my solitude, I glanced back at the group. Salil was approaching, his dark hair flopping and marking an outline against the bright green of the grass. His velcro sports sandals and cartoon t-shirt struck me as rather amusing, and I mustered a smile despite myself. But I dreaded another awkward conversation. I hadn’t yet collected myself.
“Hi,” he said, his voice a soothing antidote to the noise in my head. “Do you mind if I join you?”
“No, it’s ok,” I said, lying to be polite.
“I thought maybe something was wrong. Is everything fine?” he said.
“I guess. Where did everyone go?” I wanted him to go back to them, preferring to allow myself more of a mental tirade against my mother.
“They went to join in the pétanque tournament. Don’t you want to come?” he said, his smile making his cherubic cheeks appear even bigger.
Against my grumpy better judgment, I agreed to get up. More than offering a pleasant distraction, he was willing to provide kindness and attention, which I craved like a drug. We approached a curved line of cedar trees, their warm, spicy scent inviting us to sit down. He watched me closely as I told him the summary of my year in France: after graduating from college, I’d been awarded a Fulbright to teach English to low-income primary school children in a rural village area outside Valence. While I lacked the patience to be a good teacher and took time to adjust to my new surroundings, by the spring I’d wanted to stay.
Besides being passionate about French culture—food, nonchalance, and passion—I wanted to pursue my love of dance. The local studio I found had become a second home, and I went there nearly every day. I was even the star of their annual show, dancing on stage in a red unitard, pointe shoes and my signature pigtails; doing splits and cracking jokes in French about the cheese; and performing a G-rated hip-hop strip tease. Whatever troubled me when I entered the studio, I felt free when I moved. I wanted to continue to lead a creative life. The only obstacle was that I now needed a new visa, and the rules had just been made more strict the year I arrived.
I wasn’t aware that I was running away from my family in the way that my mother had, following a path that she’d laid down before me. There was nothing for me in the US, no one tying me there. But I believed that my expat fervor was based more in politics—we had elected GW Bush in the first election I could vote in—and admiration for the French joie de vivre.
I told Salil about how I was going to pursue my budding dance career in France and study in London the following year; how I’d tackled challenging subjects at university, like economics and philosophy, while making it a point not to miss the parties. Yet I felt a twinge of self-consciousness that I might be boasting or revealing too much, and as we talked, becoming aware of my privilege, I began to feel crass and irresponsible. While I spoke, he was planted unmoving in a cross-legged position, his shoulders softly rounded. There was a magnetism to his wide, open face, his large eyes focused on mine except when he looked down at the blade of grass he was twiddling. I got the impression he wasn’t a person who engaged in excessive behavior, though he didn’t seem judgmental of mine.
Unlike me, he didn’t have stories of wild antics. I took his shy demeanor for a calm one. He lacked the pretensions or big personalities of American men my age. He described his current courses and research—something to do with robotics—and his undergraduate studies in India, but even if it hadn’t been for his strong Indian accent, the world of computers and engineering was an incomprehensible one to me. He seemed pleased with his achievements, while his quiet voice lent him humility.
It wasn’t apparent, then, just how far he’d come from the small desert town in Rajasthan where he’d grown up, how dedicated he’d been to beating the odds of passing the competitive exam allowing him to attend a prestigious university. An internship in Toulouse the summer after his junior year in college was his first chance to leave India, and he was smitten. Though he’d had friends who’d gone to the US, the more common path for engineers, he shared my love of France and its distinctive laid-back lifestyle. He’d gotten a full scholarship to study and work in Grenoble. Most of the classes were in French and he didn’t understand much, but he was undeterred. He was staying an additional year to make the most of the opportunity, and was considering PhD programs in the US and UK. I offered to help him prepare his applications.
We began to let our guards down in the cedars’ arbor. Maybe we were intoxicated by their spell. Cedars have a holy history, appearing throughout the Bible, also in the ancient Hindu epics and myths of Shiva. In us, too, the stirrings of something sacred took root in that site.
We got up to find our friends and watch the rest of the game. It was close to evening, and the sky was the color of pink champagne. We walked back to the house as a group, laughing and joking. Suddenly, Salil and I faced each other in front of the house near a flowering oleander bush. It was time to part ways.
“It was great meeting you,” I admitted. “Here, take my email and let’s keep in touch.” He accepted the slip of paper with my barely legible scribble as if it were a hundred dollar bill. I was still using my “.edu” address even though I’d graduated over a year ago.
“Yes, hope to see you soon,” he said, his smile fading. He seemed to have picked up my ambivalence at the sudden departure.
I turned and walked toward my friends waiting in the car. It was the first of many goodbyes to Salil. He was a glimpse into a new, unknown world, one that was somehow both simpler and far more interesting compared to my own. There was so much to explore, and I, drunk on Sagittarian wanderlust, wanted to see it all. I’d lost my home and was without a gravitational center. I would shift my orbit towards whatever provided the most light.
Becky Band Jain completed her MFA in creative nonfiction at The New School while working with the United Nations. She is writing a memoir about her experiences living abroad in India, the UK, and France. She has a Master’s in Gender, Development, and Globalization from the London School of Economics and a Bachelor’s from Wesleyan University.