As France flirts with political Armageddon, my mind returns to the gentleman with whom I shared a flight in 1996. I was returning from India on an Air France flight bound for Paris. He was sitting to my right, an unshaven, tousle-haired man in his thirties who smoked incessantly and refused all food, drinking only coffee.
I asked him where he was from and he said Corsica. The Corsicans, he explained, were “the most dangerous people in the world,” and he showed me the tiny knives tattooed on his shoulder. I can’t be sure, but I believe each represented someone he had killed. I asked him if he had enjoyed his time in India and he said, “I hate it.” He was “too sensitive,” he explained: the poverty hurt his feelings. I asked if he had liked the food, at least, and he replied, “French food is the best in the world.” When I suggested this was a matter of opinion, he banged his fist on the pullout tray and said: “NO. IT IS KNOWN.”
As we flew over Europe, he explained that he had the HIV virus, and sadness overtook his features. I put my hand on his before realizing that he was not the sort of man with whom one could do this—he had a tattoo of a dagger on his wrist, too. After I’d offered my condolences, he fixed me with his eyes and said, “Do not think this will not happen to you. It will. It will happen to you.”
We made an unscheduled stop in Frankfurt because of a problem with the aircraft’s fuel tank. They put on a Tom Cruise movie, Mission: Impossible, and gave us more food, which he again refused to eat. I had wanted to see Mission: Impossible for some time and was delighted. He was not. When the movie stopped prematurely and the captain announced the problem was fixed and we could take off, he began to celebrate, throwing his headphones to the floor and shouting, “Fuck this fucking movie!”
Some minutes later he leaned over and explained he was carrying a large amount of hashish in his belly, wrapped in cellophane—this had been his reason for traveling to India—and that he didn’t know how long he could go on without using the bathroom. I sympathized. “I also have some heroin,” he said. “Oh,” I replied, “and where are you keeping that?” He looked about him furtively before whispering, “Ass.”
When we landed at Charles de Gaulle, I wished him well and, at the baggage claim, stood as far away from him as I possibly could, trembling slightly in case the airport police should arrive and arrest us both. He seemed to understand and did not so much as look at me while we waited for our luggage. I waited until he had gone before leaving the airport, his shoulders hunched, his brow furrowed. We had established between us a rare if troubling intimacy on that flight, and I think of him often. If ever I find myself on the losing end of an argument, my last recourse is to thump the table and say “IT IS KNOWN” in that manner of that angry, desperate, sorrowful Corsican.
As Sunday’s election nears, I wish to say this. Monsieur, if you are still with us, I am afraid you may be on the verge of making a terrible mistake fueled by your desire to prove the supremacy of French cuisine to Indians everywhere. I urge you not to, and with this in mind, I would like to offer you the following bargain. If, on Sunday, you should feel moved to photograph your ballot paper, proving you did not vote for Mme. Le Pen, I will have a T-shirt made with the following words printed boldly on the front and wear it every Sunday for the rest of my life: IT IS A KNOWN FACT THAT FRENCH FOOD IS THE BEST IN THE WORLD AND SUPERIOR TO INDIAN FOOD IN EVERY RESPECT.
Vive la résistance.
Rajeev Balasubramanyam is the author of In Beautiful Disguises, The Dreamer, and Starstruck, and the winner of the Clarissa Luard Prize for the best British writer under thirty-five in 2004. He writes regularly for VICE, the New Statesman, the London Review of Books, and others, and his short fiction has featured most recently in McSweeney’s, and the Missouri Review, who published the opening of his latest novel, Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss.