Billi ka Paris

Updated: Nov 10, 2019, 07:38 IST | Meenakshi Shedde | Mumbai

A few, we may have won for some competition or other. But they suddenly surfaced last week, during a bout of my sister's spring cleaning, and I felt an intense stab of pleasure, as memories flooded back

Illustration/ Uday Mohite
Illustration/ Uday Mohite

MenakshiMY first introduction to Paris came via three lovely cats. I must have been six or seven. It was through an adorable story book called "Gay Purr-ee", punning on how Gay Paris is correctly pronounced. My Mum and Dad gifted my sister Sarayu and me these wonderful children's books. A few, we may have won for some competition or other. But they suddenly surfaced last week, during a bout of my sister's spring cleaning, and I felt an intense stab of pleasure, as memories flooded back.

What made the book special were these splendid, evocative drawings that brought alive the love story of Jaune-Tom, the French country cat, and his girlfriend, the stylish Mewsette, her of the white fur, purple eye shadow and long eye-lashes; and Jaune-Tom's jigri dost, roly-poly Robespierre. Jaune-Tom is missing Mewsette, who has gone off to Paris, so he and Robespierre go to Paris to find her. Could she be on top of the Eiffel Tower "that glowed and gleamed and glittered in the sunlight?"

They climbed up and up and up the Eiffel Tower. Each 'up' was beside the next step, so we felt we were huffing and puffing with the cats. But Mewsette wasn't there. Could she be at a pavement café, spooning ice cream? Nope. Maybe she was gliding on the Seine? Nope. She wasn't posing for a picture by a Parisian artist, or riding in a horse carriage on the grand boulevards either. Finally it started to rain, so Jaune-Tom and Robespierre dashed into the nearest station—and found Mewsette! That drawing, of Jaune-Tom and Mewsette hugging each other, with pink hearts flying out furiously, remains etched in memory. I now notice exquisite details: the pink hearts are actually flattened, as if squeezed up between the cats' hugging. Mewsette came to Paris by train, but was so terrified of the all hustle and bustle, that she didn't budge from the station. So Jaune-Tom and Robespierre show her all the sights of Paris. Decades later, when I lived in Paris, it would bring alive the romantic world first introduced to me as a Billi ka Paris.

Some of the other books in the rediscovered trove included The Nightingale, adapted from Hans Christian Andersen, that always made me cry. The Emperor of China has a nightingale that sings sweetly for him, but he is soon enamoured by a bejewelled toy nightingale, that sings when wound. One day, he falls ill and the toy stops working. The real nightingale returns from the woods and sings outside his window till he recovers. I was very moved by this story, of the nightingale who sang sweetly for her master, though abandoned by him.

I see now that some of the story pages have a tick, MS and V Good in my scrawly handwriting, trying to be bossy like Miss, and struggling to write in a running hand that looks like a signature. There was also Pussy Willow, King Nutcracker, The Princess and The Pea, Chip 'n' Dale and more. Do you still have any beloved story books of your childhood that bring you intense pleasure? Tell all!

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist.

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