It is 11 pm. I step out on to my favourite Allé Samuel Beckett, named after the great writer who spent the last decades of his life strolling under these beautiful plane trees. I, too, have been a regular promeneur on this road but, today, in the context of a ghostly lockdown, the avenue wears a forlorn look. It’s no longer its romantic self — no kissing couples, no whiff of perfume as girls go by, no rising hemlines to announce the onset of spring.
All I see around me are a few homeless men, shuffling shadows in the dark, lugging their unwieldy carts to god knows where. I know one of them, François, a haggard open-air inhabitant of the Avenue. He raises his tired eyes towards me and laughs sardonically: “Hey, monsieur, what happened to this world? What happened to the el dorado the politicians had promised? They don’t even have enough masks! Scoundrels!” As we are talking, the sound of a shrill sneeze comes piercing down from a building and, in one spontaneous move, we both stare at the invisible cougher in alarm. In the silence, a branch falls down from the winter-scorched tree, we both look up with a start. François chortles. “It’s scary, this wretched virus!” Fear, anxiety, panic.
But François has real problems to deal with. Before the lockdown, there were enough passers-by on the street to drop a few coins in his frayed beret. Today, there are none, and even those who venture out don’t give him a coin because they are scared to touch metal which might have the virus sitting on it. More than anything else, his principal worry is toilets. The public toilets are shut, the facilities in cafés and restaurants are closed. “Don’t worry for me, I’ll survive! (I went back to see him the next day, he had disappeared. The Paris municipality must have whisked him off to the coronavirus shelters.)
I step out for grocery shopping. First stop — the boulangerie. A notice outside says one person at a time. I walk in and don’t seem to recognise the baker anymore —a homemade mask, a hood, gloves, a credit card machine enveloped in plastic. It’s like being served by a nurse. Next stop — Monoprix, the supermarket. Another notice: “30 persons at a time”. Two guards monitor the customer flow. Inside, there is enough stock of almost everything, but what strikes me is the omnipresent fear and suspicion. The sales girls have lost their smiles. One of them is livid: “They used to brag that the moon is our backyard and Mars our future home, but they don’t even have a damned mask in their stores. They have nothing!”
I am back home in time for the daily 8 pm ritual, an applause for healthcare workers. The penthouse neighbour even plays music on his rock concert speakers, which has turned the applause into dancing as well. Today, he played a beautiful song — Alain Souchon’s Foule sentimentale. It’s been great, this ritual, an expression of popular solidarity in the midst of 600 people dying every day.
My building in central Paris is a microcosm of the larger scenario in the world. My immediate neighbours were the first to go down with COVID-19, but they have luckily come out of it, unscathed. In the Old People’s Home next door, where Samuel Beckett famously closed his eyes to catch the birds of eternal sleep, there were two serious COVID-19 patients: One has died, the other is battling with life. As there are no masks to be found anywhere, Natascja, my neighbour, a couture student from Italy, has been making homemade masks. They are red, green, golden, of all colours to welcome the onset of spring, and very tastefully made; you can’t take fashion out of France or Italy! She has put up notices on walls in the neighbourhood, offering to home-deliver masks to the needy.
We were admiring masks Natascja had left for us, when I got a phone call from Iqbal Singh Bhatti, a man who has shown great compassion towards the Indian community. He told me the sad story of Satnam Singh, 26, a handsome Sikh boy, who came here from Gurdaspur four years ago. He found a job as an insulation worker, working underground in a city which was, ironically, to the world a City of Lights. Soon, he found a small room, which he shared with four other boys. He developed a taste for Parisian lifestyle — a trendy hairstyle, a black leather jacket, a funky T-shirt.
And then, all of a sudden, Satnam developed the dreaded corona symptoms — fever, headache, bad throat. His roommates panicked. Have we been infected, too? What do we do with Satnam? The hospital emergencies were overwhelmed, the ICU units were super-saturated… So, with no hope of summoning medical help, the boys hatched a plot: they made Satnam lie down on a sidewalk, as if he had collapsed there, and called the emergency ambulance. The healthcare workers arrived and drove Satnam away only to release him 10 hours later, asking him to isolate himself at home. But how does he isolate himself in a tiny room with four others and nowhere else to go in an alien land?
Satnam’s roommates then identified a minuscule 5 ft x 4 ft “electricals” room in their building, where even a blanket could not be spread out on the floor. Satnam was given food at his doorstep, his only company being a mobile and a WhatsApp connection to his heart-throb in India. One day, the meal was served but Satnam, who had been distraught, refused to open the door. The roommates smashed the door open — and found Satnam hanging from a cable. Corona did not kill him directly but its anxiety did, by bringing together, with a Satanic guile, all the sombre elements — illness, chagrin, heartbreak. Farewell Satnam. Apologetically yours, the City of Lights.
I just called Trevor, the Haitian actor in my film One Dollar Curry, who teaches a Sikh migrant to Paris the ropes of survival in a harsh city. I told him Satnam’s story. He listened to it attentively and then cited a line from the film: “Be always bigger than tragedy.”
Vijay Singh is a writer and filmmaker living in Paris