The world ain't flat

The Senate House, Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

The flight from Bangalore was full.

The meals had been served and the lights had been switched off and only one light shone, a reading light, upon a book erect on a lofty globe of a belly: The World is Flat. Something about Bangalore had so moved the supine man to buy the book and hopefully he wasn’t investing the whole night into reading the unraveling of an untruth. Such a nice line for a title for a book. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know its supporting arguments, and for that reason I live with my visualization of the world as an undulating uneven one, covered in dunes, some tall and some inconsequential, and Bangalore is at the feet of some mid-size dunes down whose slopes opportunities have flowed for two decades. Lately there is fear that these dunes might have begun to shift.

Later, in Paris, in the Luxembourg Gardens, I thought of the world again, while walking among white statues of royal women from long ago. The color of some (like Anne de Beaujeu, Regent de France, 1460–1522) is well preserved, whereas others (like Anne D’ Autriche, Reine de France, 1601–1666) have gathered grime. For a very long time, in that place, there have been no royals left to burnish the images of longer-dead royals. But the palace in the gardens is in fine trim in the hands of the republic, in its function as a Senate House, into whose precincts the cars of the government enter from the Rue de Vaugirard.

The government car was sleek and black and when it appeared a shrill quivering whistle froze the thin crowd waiting for the traffic lights to change before the entrance to the Senate House. After an almost imperceptible pause the car glided through the portal into the Senate compound, going through under the arch which proclaimed the French ideals they burn in school into brains everywhere: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. The whistle was no more than the doctor’s injection to the arm: it took only a moment, and it didn’t pain at all—see? The tall young woman didn’t pause looking into her beau’s face while they waited for the car to pass, so athletic her legs in black tights, so virile the man in just-as-tight jeans. Behind that couple, two little girls shuffled with the energy of children and their frocks bobbed about them, one frock orange, the other yellow, both light and transparent and layered like wings. Their parents debated something in French and took no notice of the girls or the world.

This above is an experience on a mid-morning during late-June in Paris. What would have been the thoughts of government men in the higher floors of the Senate House, while regarding those royal women made of stone, and people strolling in the gardens, people playing tennis, a man teaching tennis to a woman on a court littered with yellow tennis balls, and a short Japanese man in an olive-green macintosh training two Frenchmen in the martial arts? And children on this weekday, out on a picnic, asking people for directions who didn't speak French and were there for the first time?

Nandan Nilekani has something to do with that title of Thomas Friedman’s book. The line got created in a conversation between the men, I remember reading somewhere. Last night Nilekani was in seat 2C on Airbus 321, Flight IT 205, Delhi to Bangalore. S.M. Krishna was in seat 5D, right behind me. Upon landing, rising with the others who had risen with the usual haste, Nilekani turned and smiled to Krishna. When the doors opened and everyone moved on, Krishna stayed seated. The car for Krishna was waiting at a door right below, to get him out through a VIP exit somewhere.

Near the Hebbal flyover Nilekani passed by in a yellow car. It was a taxi, a Toyota Camry, which is a higher-end car for a taxi in Bangalore, but still a taxi, not a state car fitted with a beacon which a man in a post deemed equal to a union minister’s could commandeer. I asked my driver not to compete with that car. Nilekani was doing the right graces, and I wished to respect him for it—even if it meant for me to lie low in a world he is beating to flatten.