One really cannot imagine France’s capital city without its most celebrated landmark – la tour Eiffel – the grand old lady of Paris. She was built by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 Universal Exhibition which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.
Bonsoir has, during its long journey through Sri Lankan television, encountered a lot of situations – both “forgettable” and unforgettable. I really don’t know how to classify this one.
We once read in the papers that the Bandaranayake College, Gampaha was hosting a week-long exhibition in celebration of one of its anniversaries. The pièce-de-résistance was apparently a six-foot tall working model of the Eiffel Tower.
This piece of news fired our imagination. We quickly called the College Office and spoke to the Teacher-in-Charge. I said that we wanted to first do a quick turn-around familiarisation visit to check the location, sun, shadows etc and then return the day after, to do the real shoot and interviews etc. This was agreed.
They very kindly told me to come on such and such date “at 9 a.m. sharp”. I said okay. Sticklers to time, Chintha and I rushed to Gampaha the following morning, dressed the way we were, in our usual office clothes. We never wore ties to work. Never!
To my horror as we neared the school gates, I saw a “welcoming party” waiting to greet us. The fact that we were chauffeur-driven in a French Embassy diplomatic number-plated Peugeot made it worse. They were very impressed. The “welcome” was greater. We cringed. Our embarrassment was worse. Vincent knew what was happening and willfully added to our agony. He screeched to a halt in style, leapt out like in the movies and opened our doors as though we were local royalty.
We sheepishly crept out and almost pleadingly told them that all we wanted to do was to check the location and return the following day to do the recording. They would not hear of it. They insisted that they were honoured to have us as their special guests, more so because we were “putting their boys and the Eiffel Kuluna on television”. This was their way of paying back gratitude, and in advance, none of which I ever wanted or dreamt of.
And so we were compelled to join the procession of VIPs consisting of school officials and a motley array of local politicians etc. We followed the drummers and dancers to the main function area. We sat on stage. I reluctantly lit one of the corner wicks of the lower level of the gaily decorated six foot oil lamp. We listened intently to the innumerable speeches. Oh yes it was a v-e-r-y-l-o-n-g morning indeed. As soon as the ribbon was cut, we fled to the Eiffel Tower.
Ah that’s another story. This was an amazing creation and a work of art. I mean the Gampaha Eiffel Tower. Mind you, this was the pre-internet era and the students only had access to books and magazines for reference. They had done a great job.
There we were again the next day, this time with the bilingual Komi Mendis joining us. The interviews were to be in Sinhala. I dared not and thus ceded to her.
The queues were miles long on the main road outside. This was a major exhibition that year and attracted thousands of students from the Colombo and Gampaha districts.
The students carefully explained to Komi how they meticulously worked on this project – how they sourced all the raw materials together – how they spent days and nights constructing it – and the joy they got when its lights started blinking and its elevators began going up and down.
I have had two memorable experiences at the Eiffel Tower. The first was in the late 80s when I abandoned the elevators and climbed the 700+ steps right up to the second level. It was the cheaper option too.
Quite unlike whooshing up in a couple of minutes in the elevators of the North, East, and West pillars, the stairs give one the pleasure of climbing up at one’s own pace.
I loved experiencing the changing angles, shadows, when what was a foreground recedes into the background, leaving a vast chasm of imagination in between.
Years later, there I was at the second level with my children, Rahul and Anarkali, diligently explaining to them all about the Eiffel Tower, when suddenly one of its European visitors walked up to me and very patronisingly said: “Bonjour. Where did you learn your English?”
I was taken aback. “Why do you ask?” I asked him. “The three of you speak it so well”, he replied.
I put on my best British accent and said: “Oh you see, we’re from Sri Lanka…Ceylon you know…a former British colony…and we do speak English the way the English do…thank you.”
Rahul and Nangi looked at me aghast. I winked at them. They had never heard this accent in me. The poor man disappeared. I didn’t know whether to feel flattered or insulted.
“I ought to be jealous of the tower. It is more famous than I am.”
– Gustave Eiffel