I HAD just got back to work after smashing a supporting bone in my right arm into eight pieces. Already, I was thrust into a large project — a half-hour film on the making of an Indo-French opera. The subject was fun and exactly made to order, but my arm was barely out of a thick blue saddle and my mind was listless and vacant.
We were on our shoot, in the midst of a choir practice for The Making of Carmen. Looking for potential characters to focus on amidst the cacophony of half-tuned arias, I spotted him, grinning in the corner, in a brown shirt with white polka dots. I told my producer — “Let’s keep an eye on that guy. He has probably slept with half the cast. He’s a character for the film even if he looks a bit creepy.”
A few minutes later, a family friend in the cast approached us to say that I must interview the kids, particularly the street kids who were part of the cast. As these words were spoken, the man in the polka-dotted shirt came up to me smiling and said that he had brought the kids into the opera. He could arrange for an interview with them, if I were interested.
How idiotic and typical, I thought, for the magnanimous white man to swoop into India and do the oriental thing — look for the poor kids to befriend. Why bring street kids into a French opera? How cruel and alienating for them, my mind raced madly. Nevertheless, I decided to pursue this story. “Come to my house tomorrow and we can go shoot with the kids in their basti,” said Mr Polka Dots. “My house number is B-do sau unchalees,” he added in Hindi with a proud grin. The next day, to underline the white man-turned-desi cool picture, he greeted us in a white kurta pyjama and served us water in steel glasses. I had had enough. I blurted out — “Why on earth would you bring street kids into a French opera?”
Then the penny dropped. “When I first came to India,” Mr Polka Dots, aka Pascal Fautrat, explained, “I wanted to work with street kids. I volunteered with an NGO to go to the railway stations where most kids are abandoned. We tried getting them into our shelter, as long as they agreed to go to school, stop doing drugs and sniffing glue.” Most kids refused, the Frenchman explained. Being a trained psychologist, he dug deeper into why. “Indian friends told me the kids refuse because they value their freedom. I didn’t think that was possible. What freedom do you have when you’re dying of disease, being raped and sleeping hungry and cold? They say no because they are dying a slow death and the possibility of a new life is too painful. They have no sense of self, so the will to live does not exist.”
Pascal added that those kids who did come to the shelter needed one thing above all else — a sense of self. Making them take part in an opera and interacting with kids from the world over could help them see themselves as beautiful and worthy of love, attention and applause. Pascal, who had recently chucked his life in Paris and re-located to India, translated the French songs into self-taught Hindi. He wrote them on the blackboard for the kids to memorise and trained them for the auditions. They all made it.
By now, Pascal the creep was transformed magically in my gaze. I let go of my hurriedly formed judgements and he soon became my closest friend. A year later, I helped him set up a shelter for street kids. Now, there are two and soon there will be three. Called TARA, it is the closest thing that I, a single woman in the city, can call family, outside of the one I was born into. As far as faces go, Pascal’s is actually a beacon of light. On day one, I obviously wasn’t looking.
Revati Laul is 39. She is a special correspondent with TEHELKA