Text by Huzan Tata. Illustration by Dhruv Tyagi
I get off at Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris after a 50-minute train ride from where I am staying in Versailles, proud to have made it without any “I think I’m lost” phone calls to my friend who’s my host for this 10-day solo trip. As a terribly shy person and a stickler for detailed plans, getting lost and having to ask for directions or having a day that does not go as scheduled has always terrified me. It’s been a crazy week, trying to figure my way around the capital while not knowing how to say anything save for “Désolé, je ne parle pas français.” (Sorry, I don’t speak French). If not for the helpful Citymapper phone app that vibrates when my bus stop or train station nears, Paris could have turned into my Bermuda Triangle at many a moment. But at the end of this day, taking the wrong route leads to a pleasant discovery.
From the station, I take a bus to the graveyard I’ve been longing to visit, the Cimetière du Père Lachaise. The introvert in me loves exploring cemeteries, because of the moments of solemn tranquility that they offer. They’re one of the few places you can be absolutely alone with your thoughts and memories, with just silence for company. From the atomic bomb memorial in Hiroshima, where I saw the lighting of the memorial lamp, to the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC where I was lucky to witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony — each one was a special experience. Paris’ largest cemetery is also the site of three World War I memorials, and the final resting place of several celebrities. I only learnt about it a month prior to my first vacation alone, when a colleague told me how she hunted it down in pursuit of Jim Morrison’s grave. An avid bibliophile, I had also wanted to pay a visit to the tomb of Oscar Wilde, and so I brave the rains to head to this landmark. My Parisian friend was bewildered, unable to understand why anyone would want to visit a graveyard when there are countless other, ‘better’ sites; why, despite having failed to see the tomb a day before, I wanted to try my luck again (I had found the gates shut at 5:45 p.m. after a long day of museum hopping). Of course, I did many of the things people usually come to Paris for — I relished a cup of hot chocolate at the highest level of the Eiffel Tower, stood atop the Arc de Triomphe, viewed the gorgeous skyline of the city and the Eiffel Tower by night, and yes, I also took in the grand, regal architecture of the Palais Garnier and the charming environs of the Musée d’Orsay — the old train station converted into an art museum. But despite living out my Parisian dreams, I felt that there was something missing. And on the train that morning, a part of me wondered what was pulling me to this cemetery when there were still several art galleries and cafes left on my list — would a sighting of Wilde’s tomb really be worth all the extra time and effort? Or was there something else that compelled me to trek so far out, a second time?
Heaving a sigh of relief as I find the massive green gates wide open on this rainy morning, I step inside and am greeted by a maze of several hundred tombs of all shapes and sizes. A large sign tells me that the numbered graves are assigned to different zones, and there is a map with a key to help visitors find the ornate burial sites of famous personalities. From the French playwright Honoré de Balzac and Polish composer Frédéric François Chopin, to the creator of homeopathy Christian Hahnemann and Wilde, there are over 50 notable names that lie here. As luck would have it, I’ve entered through the wrong gate — the author that I am in search of lies on the opposite end of this 110-acre yard. I check my app again, only to realise that I had taken the wrong train and ended up at the wrong station — the correct one was a stone’s throw away from the gate that visitors are recommended to enter. Sighing at my stupidity, I decide that I’m too close to my goal to turn back, and grudgingly trudge up the winding pathways, some with steep climbs. A 30-minute stroll and many wrong turns later, I’m at grave number 83 in the 89th section — that of the creator of Dorian Gray, of The Nightingale and the Rose, whose works I fell in love with at a young age, inspiring my decision to become a writer. Wilde’s gravestone, with a sphinx-like winged figure sculpted on one side and a four-line verse from the author’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol on another, is the only one that’s within a glass enclosure — to maintain the sanctity of the monument, it had to be protected from the touch of visiting tourists. I spend a few moments here to pay my respects to one of my favourite wordsmiths, as the sun that has evaded me so far finally shines its rays upon the several-foot-high tombstone.
As I walk towards the exit gate, another plaque nearby catches my eye. A familiar winged angel is engraved on a tombstone, and above it is the vessel that houses the holy flame — the same one that I see on every visit to my local fire temple back home in Mumbai. I read ‘Kaikhushroo A. Ghaswalla’. A Parsi tomb in a corner of a Parisian graveyard! As a fairly religious person and a practising Zoroastrian, I’m always delighted to find people, objects or locales on my travels that remind me of my dying religion, as they bring a comforting sense of familiarity. I smile and click a photo to send to my mother — Parsi Zoroastrians may be on the brink of extinction, but I have found one (dead as he may be) in a location least expected. And four graves further, I spot the words, Humata, Hukta, Huvarashta — good thoughts, good words, good deeds…. The three teachings of my faith that have been instilled in me since my childhood are written in white on a large headstone, with ‘Famille R D Tata’ inscribed in gold lettering on the central grave, a bouquet of wilting white flowers lying on top. My ancestors are buried a foot from where I’m standing, and I didn’t know it until today. The names of all three members buried here — including well-known industrialist JRD Tata — are inscribed in English and Gujarati, along with the dates of their birth and death according to both the Gregorian and traditional Parsi calendars. I try to mouth the text on the graves as best as my limited Gujarati-reading skills allow me to, making a mental note to tell my family that I have found some relatives far from home. I am surprised that JRD Tata’s name wasn’t on the list of the famous locals I found at the entrance; I guess in Paris, where he took his last breath, he was just a regular citizen.
A frail old lady feeding the birds at a nearby tomb observes me — and though the language barrier prevents us from having a conversation, the gentle smile on her face tells me she’s glad to see a tourist who’s not ogling a celebrity’s grave for a change. A few moments pass in quiet contemplation — I have discovered the ‘missing’ part of my Parisian break. I feel closer to family simply by chancing upon the remains of those people whose stories I’ve grown up hearing. “Yes, I’ve heard they were all buried in Paris but I never knew exactly where,” my dad tells me when I message him about my great discovery. And now we did, thanks to my entering the Père Lachaise cemetery through the wrong gate. On the train back, I google my great-great-grand-uncles and aunts, wondering why — as the family historian and storyteller, as my mother refers to me — I hadn’t ever done so before.
I now know what pushed me to venture back after a failed 45-minute journey the day before. Wilde was but one reason. It was the universe leading me to a lesson — that in a far corner of the world it is possible to find and build a bond with some person, object or moment that makes you feel right at home, completing your journey. That’s what makes every travel experience count, what makes it all worth it. I now have a connection with Paris that few other tourists can claim. It is mine, and mine alone. As Wilde teaches us, ‘Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations’. Always.