I was happily ensconced in Kolkata when all of a sudden I found myself getting married and leaving Kolkata behind for France, end 2000. I had a million things to do in a space of less than one month: hand in my resignation, hand over my responsibilities to some one else, visa, bank details, never ending farewell dinners and all the 1000 and 1 things associated with an Indian marriage. To be honest, R and family took care of the marriage end completely, but even then I had an enormous amount of things to tie-up. So, I had little time or thought to spare about warm clothes. Having lived in Kolkata for 12 years at a stretch, I had no warm clothes to speak of. No scarves, no gloves, no coats and not even socks (that hateful thing I was glad to see the last of, once I finished school). I found myself in Paris in mid-December in full scale winter which to me was of arctic proportions, with a suitcase full of tropical clothes and sandals. My mother in law had very kindly lent me her coat, a thick sweater and I had a shawl to shield me from the bitter cold on my arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport.
The first week, I wore A’s clothes. I braved the roads of the chic capital of the world in A’s black lamb wool over coat and his black boots. I have big feet for an Indian woman but even then I found A’s boots enormous not to mention heavy. And worse, the street where I lived had a steep gradient. I found myself dragging my feet and walking like Frankenstien’s monsters of the old B&W movies. But I happily went around experiencing Paris, without a care in the world. All that mattered for me was that I was warm. Till I spied myself reflected in a window pane. Who was this ridiculous hobo wearing some one else’s over large coat, boots and gloves? Oh god! It’s me. A wanted to wait couple of weeks till January for the ‘Janvier Soldes’ or January Sales where all brands and shops gave as much as 50% off.
Luckily (or perhaps not so luckily) for me, I didn’t have to wait that long. One day, in a rather expensive shopping arcade in ‘Opera’, A spied a shiny black thick coat going for only 150Francs. Without a second thought, he bought it for me. It was deliciously warm, had a velvet lining and was even waterproof. True it was a bit on the larger side but not as bad as A’s coat. I wore it and wore it and wore it.
Then came the January sales and true to his word, A bought me loads of warm clothings (coats, gloves, shoes, scarves, socks) including a very lovely black coat and two pairs of boots which even after 50% off was expensive. However, I found very little opportunity to wear them all. The shiny black one was water proof. What’s more black went with everything and was not too expensive to risk spoiling it by frequent use. It was spacious enough for me to wear as many things inside as I wanted to.
I would experience the occasional pang when I spied a smart body hugging jacket or coat. But then A would instantly point out how much more useful my coat was and what a bargain it had been. He kept insisting that the shop had wrongly marked it so cheap. So wherever I went, so did the faithful shiny black coat.
End 2001, I returned to India bag baggage for a hiatus of 6 months. When I returned to France in mid-2002, I bought along with me only the bare essentials which meant one pair of gloves each, one pair of sturdy boots and one workable coat each. And that meant – you got that right – the shiny black coat. I left most of my other stuff behind in suitcases at my in-laws’ in Delhi or at my parents’ in Kolkata.
Winter 2002-2003 was colder than 2001. And to my delight it even snowed! And the shiny black coat served me well. I wore it everywhere – to the movies, to the marché, to the library or even for walks. I didn’t buy anything else since I already had quite a few of them lying in India, including a wonderful cream goose feather jacket which I had worn only once since I bought it in Paris.
Perhaps the most striking feature or should I say characteristic feature of the French is their undeniable sense of style. No matter what their financial status, they dress well. And always. No matter what the time of the day – early in the morning, late at night or how banal the outing – they are smartly dressed, hair and make up in place. And there I was in my ugly black coat breaking all sorts of dress codes. The constant use had dulled it sheen but it refused to tear. It was warm as ever. All buttons were intact and the zipper not once got stuck. It even had a detachable hood, the buttons of which has gotten a bit loose and had once dropped off unknown to me when I had one day gone out for a walk. On my way back, I found it propped on a window ledge where a passer by had thoughtfully kept it. Hmmpf. A gave me such a good ‘jhar’ for being so careless with a perfectly good coat. True I didn’t do it purposely. The coat looked more and more ill fitting, made me look like a shapeless lump, like some poor immigrant, robbing me of any sense of style and confidence that I ever had. Since I wore it constantly, I usually left it propped behind a sofa or a chair and it soaked up all the rich smells of Indian cooking so I seemed to be walking around in a cloud of garlic.
And then, one day, it ended. I went to India mid-December last year and on my return, brought with me all the other coats that I had. And when I landed at CDG at 2am one night in January this year, I pulled out the plush cream coat and sailed out head held high!
It has been snowing these past few days and yet I don’t mind stepping out of my warm apartment – each time dressed in a different coat, topped with a peaky cap, a different scarf, gloves and boots and not feeling out of place at all!! What a difference one coat can make to one’s life.
Storage space is a big problem here. One has to give a lot of thought before buying anything. Be it a piece of furniture or a pair of shoe or an extra coat. Where do I keep it? So when we were packing for our India trip, A asked me to take the shiny black coat with me and leave it behind in India. That way I would have one coat less to hang up when I brought the other back with me. Our shelves in our wardrobe had already collapsed once and what trouble we had to go through to get them fixed and we don’t want a repeat. But somehow, I couldn’t find it in me to be parted from my long suffering constant ‘sathi’.
Even today, when I am getting ready to go out, my eyes automatically stray to the suitcase where I have laid it to rest, before of course selecting a smart one. It has served me well and beyond the call of duty. Like ma would often say ‘Aagey darshan dhari, pichey goon bichari’.
Goodnight sweet prince (of coats)!!
Glossary French Words
Janvier Soldes’ – January Sales
Opera - A chic area in Paris, so called because of the Opera Garnier
CDG - Charles de Gaulle airport
Glossary Bengali / Indian Words
Jhar - Scolding
Sathi – companion, friend
Aagey darshan dhari, pichey goon bichari – Beauty always scores over merit.