In December 2007, 25-year-old French national Jean-Baptiste Talleu disappeared from Mumbai. He was last traced withdrawing money from an ATM in the suburb of Goregaon and has not been heard since. For the past five years, his parents Maire-Claire and Pierre-Marie Talleu clinging on to the slender hope that they may find him some day have been visiting India in search of their son.
Jean-Baptiste’s family is from Nancy in the East of France, 300 km from Paris. His mother, Marie-Claire has been in India for one month since March 2012 this year, hunting for Jean-Baptiste. Her husband could not come to India this time, as their daughter also called Marie, was in France from China where she resides.
“He wanted to spend time with her,” said Marie-Claire with a smile. Marie-Claire has been searching for Jean-Baptiste, any sign of him, with a journalist friend called Dominique Hoeltgen. In fact, she has been in the country every year since Jean-Baptiste disappeared. “In total I have spent nine months in India through these five years,” said Marie-Claire.
When Jean Baptiste came to India in 2007, this country was one more stop on his proposed cycling tour of the world. The computer professional, one fine day traded in his keyboard and conventional job to take a trip around the world. His mother explained, “Jean-Baptiste was always the introspective one, from all my seven children. Reticent and spiritual, he was used to taking short bicycle trips along with his brothers.
In 2007, he decided to go around the world. I tried to dissuade him saying it could get dangerous —you might get robbed or you might get killed, but he waved my concern away, scoffing at these maternal misgivings saying, oh I don’t care about that and if my bicycle is stolen, I will walk.”
In this year’s search for Jean-Baptiste, Marie-Claire and her friend Dominique flew down to Chennai and went on to Pondicherry. The Talleus have been sponsoring a little girl called Kaveri “like the river” explains Marie-Claire ever since they have been coming down to India to search for their son. “Kaveri lives in an orphanage in Pondicherry and we are now paying for her education and basic amenities,” said Marie-Claire.
“She was a baby when we decided to sponsor her, today she is five-years-old,” explained the Frenchwoman about this labour of love. It is not just Kaveri’s impish innocence that continues to draw the Talleus to Pondicherry, the place steeped French culture. Marie-Claire believes that maybe somebody in Pondicherry could give them some hint of Jean-Baptiste, "Because he wanted to visit Pondicherry on his India stop.
We went to several ashrams, in fact, we have travelled extensively in the South this time, visiting several ashrams and holy places. Jean-Baptiste was a spiritual person. He may have spent some time at these places, somebody may have seen him," said Marie-Claire her grey eyes showing signs of quiet desperation. “Even though I have not found him, these spiritual places give me peace. I feel his spirit here,” said Marie-Claire.
The Talleus have printed leaflets (see picture), which they give at several sites they visit, promising a reward of Rs 2 lakh for finding Jean-Baptiste.
Marie-Claire said, “I do not believe in putting up posters in the city, that is not a good thing to do. Instead, we have these leaflets asking for information about him also so that Indians do not forget about him and even pray for him. I have given some of these at spiritual places.
When we printed these in fact, the police and the French Consulate here told us that we would be hounded by false claims from people who would be lured by the cash award. Surprisingly, though, that did not happen. There were a few calls, but that was all.” The announcement of a reward is not always counterproductive. It also galvanizes people to try and look for him, though, of course, money is the main motivator.
In Mumbai this time, Marie-Claire visited St Christobel’s Trust in Bandra (W), which provides shelter to homeless, destitute women and children. Said Sister Rosy F of the Trust, “Marie-Claire did visit us hoping that somebody from the shelter would have spotted Jean-Baptiste, considering we have so many people who we have picked up from the roads, rag pickers, beggars. They did not have a clue about Jean-Baptiste, but a possibility of a reward of Rs 2 lakh was exciting. They said they would also try and look for any trace of him.”
When Jean-Baptiste started off on his world tour, he did not have anything of great value that would make him a target for robbery.
He had his bicycle, a small bundle of clothing, not a great amount of cash, “He would withdraw cash from ATMs as he travelled,” said his mother, “He was not carrying a camera, no mobile he would keep in touch via the Internet, in fact, we would web chat and he used to communicate quite frequently,” said his mother. “He has also couriered us (the family) some books on spirituality he had taken with him while touring.” Today, those books serve as a painful reminder of her son’s disappearance. “He came to India and poof! Just vanished,” said Marie-Claire.
With disappearances, the most painful thing is the absence of any kind of cathartic closure. Without a clue whether one is dead or alive, the issue cannot be brought to a close emotionally. Even after five years, it is evident that Marie-Claire clings to hope like ivy to a wall. A strange thing has happened in five years of journeying to India. Marie-Claire and her husband have fallen in love with what Marie-Claire described as, “a beautiful country.”
She feels India bubbling in her veins, but that love could have easily been hate, as this is the country from where her son disappeared. “But, I love India, I feel Jean-Baptiste over here. This is his place, dead or alive.” Looking out from a coffee shop in Bandra, both Dominique and Marie-Claire explained they love the energy, dynamism and vibrancy of the city, never mind its dirt and pollution when compared to Europe.
“Even outside Mumbai, India is so picturesque,” they said. “People seem much happier, more ‘smiley’, here,” they add. When in Mumbai, Marie-Claire lives in Goregaon, “So that I can be close to where Jean-Baptiste lived in this city.” When asked why, if Jean-Baptiste were alive he would not contact his family all this time, Marie-Claire said, “We think he may have been hit by a vehicle and possibly lost his memory or not know who he is. He always intended to return to France, I had booked his return tickets though he did not have a definite date of return. He was also in excellent health when he left for his trip.”
Years have rolled by but Marie-Claire does not want to accept defeat. “I will return to look for him, next year, maybe I will also go to Rishikesh in the North as these places give me peace,” she said as she and Dominique prepared to go to Film City in Goregaon, “where Jean-Baptiste may have visited to have a look at the Bollywood industry,” they said.
“There is some force that keeps bringing me here. I know it is not realistic for me to leave my entire family, my other children in France and come here for good to look for Jean-Baptiste. Incidentally, Jean-Baptiste has a twin sister Catherine. She told me, I know you will be back with Jean-Baptiste this time,” ended Marie-Claire.
This mother feels her son’s presence in the gurgling of the rivers in the South of India, the cool marble of the ashrams she visits, where the crevices hold the secrets of souls seeking solace and even hears music in the belch and roar of the Mumbai traffic. “It is here that I can sing to Jean-Baptiste, sing freely and fully,” Marie-Claire signed off.
Jean-Baptiste cycle tour of the world took him from France to:
Italy, Croatia, Greece, Albania, Turkey, Iran, Dubai, India
He flew in from Dubai to India as earlier, he wanted to go to Pakistan from Iran on his bicycle and then come cycling to India. He was denied a Pak visa so flew in from Dubai to India.
In 2009, Jean-Baptiste’s parents were in the city to look for their son. A synopsis of a news report that appeared at that time, when they were appealing for somebody to sponsor an all-terrain vehicle to make the hunt for Jean-Baptiste simpler.
All-vehicle terrain to hunt for Jean-Baptiste
It has been a frustrating two years for parents of French cyclist tourist Jean-Baptiste Talleu who was travelling from France through India on a bicycle and went missing on December 5, 2007. The pony-tailed, small-statured adventurer was last seen on the day withdrawing money at 6.39 pm from the Axis Bank ATM on the Western Express Highway outside the State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) in Goregaon (East), Mumbai. From that day onward, he and his bicycle seem to have disappeared in thin air, say his parents, Marie-Claire and Pierre-Marie Talleu who refuse to, "Abandon him or accept him as dead, as long as there is still hope he is alive," they said at the conference held at the French Consulate in Churchgate in the city.
The parents, talking in halting English have now launched a project in their hunt for Jean-Baptiste. They are looking for sponsors and plan to approach automobile companies for an all-terrain vehicle in their hunt for the cyclist. This all-terrain vehicle would be used in looking for him, being driven all across the country. It would function as the mobile headquarters for Jean Baptiste.
The vehicle would then be worked on in terms of design like having sleeping arrangements, installing an internet within, plastering it with the missing person's posters and, says, his mother Marie-Claire, when asked what it would mean for the sponsor, "Great visibility as we would carry the company logo on the car. Other sponsors who contribute in terms of equipment also get brand recognition, as the vehicle would travel across the country in search of Jean-Baptiste." Incidentally this project was not realised and the Talleus abandoned the idea.