The June drizzle had just set in. Schools had begun and I was now in grade 5. As a meritorious student I quite enjoyed school. Life was good until the unexpected happened. One morning, the Principal announced my name over the intercom, post assembly. He asked me to come and see him in his office immediately. I turned the purest shade of white. The hushed whispers further escalated my fears. I had no clue what I had done wrong to deserve the wrath of the strictest principal in town. I nervously walked along the corridors only to be questioned by my equally puzzled teachers. This could not be happening. A trembling hand knocked feebly on Fr. Ivo’s cabin door. He asked me to come in and handed me a postcard nonchalantly and added, ‘This came in for you yesterday’. Puzzled, I turned the card to read. It had come from France.
Earlier on, somewhere in April, we were writing our final term exams. I was just about done with my Maths paper when our Supervisor walked in. She announced that there was a French gentleman visiting schools in Bombay. He was looking forward to interact with us students and she was hoping we’d ask a lot of questions. Soon we were in conversation with the young man who had the cutest accent ever. We talked, laughed and regaled him with stories of our city. As it was time for him to leave he handed me a packet of chocolates and asked to distribute them to all the kids. When I was done, he asked me to keep the rest. I was thus introduced to the only chocolates I love…. ‘Ferrero Rocher’. Before he left, he turned to me and said, “I promise to write about you, little one”.
I came out of my flashback moment. For the rest of the day ‘the girl who was called by the Principal’ had turned into a celebrity. I came home and excitedly led my mom through the day’s events. She asked me to reply to the letter, thanking the gentleman for his courtesies. I got to it right away. And unknown to me back then, I had initiated a long lasting relationship with that first step.
Alain (as he loved to be called) and I wrote diligently to each other. So much so that he wanted me to come visit for the cultural film festival to be held in Corbeil Essonnes. Now coming from a middle class family, it was not only financially not viable but also quite an impossible dream. My mother wrote to him citing her inability to comply with his request. He wrote back saying the expenses would be borne by the French Government, she just had to approve of me going. Before I knew it, I had been selected to represent India at the 8th Children’s French Film Festival at the age of 10 with four other kids from Maneckji Cooper. The date was 11th February 1987.
The preparations were humongous but my parents managed. My Principal gave me the permission to miss school provided my studies would not take the hit. I was only to eager to cross over to the other side. The D day dawned. It was my first plane ride as well. I was so excited I took autographs of the cabin crew.
From there on, it was a magical dream. The people, their hospitality, the scenic beauty, the monuments, the festival, all snugly fit like a finished jigsaw puzzle in the mind’s eye. I had my first taste of salmon, rabbit and frog legs. Not to forget, my accidental tryst with champagne that had me singing nursery rhymes. I was asked if I travelled to school on an elephant. It was quite amusing to hear their thoughts about India. We were only to happy to vanquish their apprehensions. Vivid memories include my first snow fall, my first snow man, my first barbie doll, my first shopping to name a few. Summing my experiences about those days might make an interesting book read……someday……
France changed a lot about me. For starters, I learnt to eat without a fuss after surviving on bland food for 10 days. I made friends for life. Alain and I have stayed in touch for 26 years now. Those brown envelopes with my name on them were an intricate part of my growing years. He was also one of the first to comment on my writing skills. He called me the ‘sunshine’ in his life. He walked the streets of Paris with me on his shoulders. He gave me my one and only porcelain doll which I still own. And as promised he wrote about meeting me in the Festival book. With Alain, I learned the art of communication the old fashioned way. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
I was told if you kiss the Eiffel Tower you come back. I kissed every piece of metal from the top floor to the base. I have yet to return. Alain did visit India the same year I travelled. We haven’t seen each other since. I know I will someday but till then………….Je t’aime toujours…..