An immigrant hardly makes it into the mainstream of a foreign country. A feeling of marginalisation suffocates him. This issue has assumed greater relevance as we observe refugees, settlers and expatriates seeking asylum in countries other than their own. In this context, the study of the life of the last French man of Chandannagar, Clovis Albert Galopin, has proved to be significant.
Born and brought up in this erstwhile French colony, Clovis had little knowledge in history to trace the origin of his ancestors in France. In the year 1730, when Dupleix became the Governor General of Chandannagar, a group of young police officers was sent from France to help Dupleix in local administration.
In all probability, Rover Galopin landed up in Chandannagar as a young member of this team. Since then the Galopins were hardly in touch with their homeland.
When the residents of Chandannagar voted in favour of a merger with India in the plebiscite of 1949, Clovis’ parents looked bewildered.
The debacle in the referendum signalled an exodus of the French people from this colony. But the Galopins did not have a home to return to. As their friends and relatives were heading back home, they seemed to be the only ones left behind.
Inquisitive playmates added to the feeling of insecurity and confusion that gripped the 15-year-old Clovis. He was unceremoniously dropped from the school and club football team.
Embarrassed, Clovis went into his shell as in school and the playground, he was targeted for his French roots. It was the gospel for the exiled people in the Book of Jeremiah recounted by the Father of the local church that encouraged Clovis to settle down and work for the welfare of his adopted homeland. This piece of wisdom proved a turning point in his life.
The other family members led a cloistered life. While they retained the mask of superiority, Clovis was humble. He worked with his hands and reached out to all in the community around him. His range of interest in different areas of human activities made him popular.
It was football that broke the barrier between him and the Bengali boys of his age group. Goals he scored in the local football matches breached the differences between religion and nationality.
He slowly found access to the mainstream.
If the clock of a friend’s house stopped ticking or the latch of the door was creaking, and the lock of the gate was not clicking, Clovis invariably received a call. He developed proficiency in tailoring, carpentry and masonry helping neighbours sort out their problems in such activities.
He had the artistic sense of a French man to sculpt religious and secular pieces using thermocol. Such activities simply meant wider acceptance for Clovis.
The Lagan Jute Mill, where he worked, had an Irish Engineer called William Looney. Clovis nurtured his skill as a machine man under the stewardship of Looney. For his innovative engineering skill and common sense, Clovis was known as Viswakarma at his workplace.
The elders of the locality spotted his talent in clay modelling and encouraged him to make idols of Hindu gods and goddesses. In 1968, the people of his locality started celebrating the most popular festival of Chandannagar–Jagadhatri Puja–with the idol of the Hindu goddess prepared by Clovis, a Christian.
No one found anything anomalous in worshipping an idol made by a Christian in 1968.
The man who regularly attended church never hesitated in seeking blessings from the priests of Hindu temples.
When he dangled the Cross and rosary in his hand, we were drawn towards his ring finger. A ring fitted with a small red coral stone unmistakably reveals his faith in Hindu Vedic Astrology.
This quaint juxtaposition showed his harmonious Indo-French identity.
At Christmas, Clovis baked cakes and biscuits for his Hindu and Christian friends. His residence at Padripara would be overflowing with friends on the night of 25 December. It turned into a meeting place for people belonging to diverse cultures and religions. Guests were treated with sumptuous dishes cooked by the couple.
But with the death of his wife Manju Agnes Galopin, 41 years after a happy conjugal life, the kitchen, which was the hub of so much activity looked deserted.
He lived on food brought in by a maidservant in a tiffin box from his son’s flat.
The lonely man spent the day either trying to work out the puzzle of the Rubik’s Cube, listening to the radio or tuning the TV to full volume in the afternoons when he was all by himself.
During his last few years, Clovis would fall back upon his memory as and when the opportunity arose. Even at the age of 83, his memory did not falter. He could spin yarn after yarn in all its detail.
Once, there was a fire in the town. As the fire engine was out of order, the local French administrator frantically rang the higher authority at Puducherry. He sought permission from France to borrow the fire engine from the British administration at Bhadreswar which is hardly at a distance of 5 km. The phone kept ringing from Chandannagar to Puducherry, Puducherry to France and from France to the British administration. Meanwhile, the area was burnt to ashes.
Clovis realised on that fateful day that it was impossible to run the colony from France. Even then, the boy was crushed as the result of the referendum was declared in the late afternoon. A pall of gloom descended on the Galopin household amidst the frequent shouts of joy all over the town. Clovis seemed to have not recovered from the trauma so long after the incident.
With a mist in his eyes, the unsung hero of our small town pressed the memory button to recount how he had passed that sleepless night, weeping disconsolately. Clovis that we met was born on that tumultuous night.
Here are some more images from Clovis’ life:
(Written by Subrata Roy Chowdhury and Edited by Shruti Singhal)
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