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One Saturday evening in 1989, as I was aimlessly strolling through the Latin Quarter in Paris, I found myself in front of a building which made me pause. It was La Sorbonne. I was a student and new to the city. Till then I had not found the time to do the touristy stuff.

But that weekend I was determined to make up for lost time. I did not have the money to experience Paris from the vantage point of a corner table in an elegant bistro, perhaps in the Latin Quarter, sipping a glass of wine, nor was there any devilishly charming Frenchman around, with time on his hands, and the inclination to be my guide.

So I did the second best thing. I walked around the neighbourhoods which caught my fancy. Late evening, quite by chance, I had landed at the doorstep of Sorbonne — among the Western world’s most famous institutions of learning, founded in the 13th century. I desperately wanted to go inside, take a look. But it was late in the evening, a weekend, and the gate was locked. I must have been standing there for quite a while, lost in reverie, when I heard someone say something. It was an elderly, moustachioed guard staring at me quizzically. I mumbled that I was an Indian visitor, weary with walking, but overwhelmed by my physical proximity to this ancient university so rich in heritage. I also spoke a little about India, about Nalanda, and Francophile Bengalis.

The man laughed, sensing my struggle to match my limited French vocabulary with soaring thoughts. He asked me to come back on a weekday for a tour of the institution.

My weekdays were packed with classroom activities and I did not know when I would have the time again, I told him. The guard gave me a piercing look, and then, when I was least expecting it, a smile lit up his face. The key came out of the pocket, the doors of the Sorbonne were flung open, and I stepped inside.

As a proud Frenchman, his conscience did not permit him to turn away a foreign visitor who was so interested in the institution, the old man said.

Once inside, he turned raconteur. As we crossed the cobbled courtyard where students have gathered for centuries, and peeked into the muralled lecture halls, the labyrinth of classrooms and walked past the church of the Sorbonne, where French statesman Cardinal Richlieu, who renovated Sorbonne, lay buried, the pages of history came alive.

The memory of that evening in Paris some 20 years ago came hurtling back as I watched images of the fire that engulfed Stephen Court, a 150-year-old heritage building in Kolkata, my home-town, and read about the trail of death and destruction that followed. Some years ago another devastating fire struck another heritage building on the same street.

The guard at Sorbonne was no historian. But he had a sense of history and a profound respect for his heritage which contrasts starkly with the state of affairs in most Indian cities.

We are surrounded by historical buildings but have no sense of history. Although heritage is among India’s most valuable assets, key to its soft power, there is little evidence to show that we value it in our everyday life. If we really valued our heritage, we would not let heritage buildings meet the fate of Stephen Court and so many others across the country, which are being destroyed through sustained neglect and a stunning indifference to illegalities perpetrated by builders, brokers and their political masters.

Heritage has staged a comeback as the buzzword of the day. The Central government has announced tax incentives for new hotels coming up near World Heritage sites. In Delhi, the city where I live, the Archaeological Survey of India and the tourism ministry are reportedly working hard at turning the capital into a world-class heritage tourism hub in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games — around 50 monuments are going in for a grand makeover, museums are being refurbished, more heritage walks and heritage trails are being planned.

All this is splendid news if it materialises in time.

But without the involvement of ordinary people and communities there will not be that sense of history that the Sorbonne guard showed, nor will ordinary tourists have the experience that I had.

There are excellent examples of how heritage can be harnessed in the work of agencies like the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Dastkar or the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. But such initiatives have to be replicated more widely.

Heritage needs to be preserved because doing so is an end in itself. Heritage is also a key economic driver. Talking about heritage in neighbourhoods where there is hunger is more challenging than discussing it against the backdrop of leafy boulevards. But that does not mean it is not worth trying, or impossible.

To develop a sense of history among those who don’t see its link with their lives, we have to start with the way we learn history, view history, and live with history. We read about dates and battles in far-away places in our history text books but don’t know our local history.

We don’t see our heritage buildings as an extension of ourselves. We deface their walls, mutilate them through illegal constructions or destroy them through neglect. If we saw our heritage as an integral part of ourselves, we would do more to preserve it because we would not want to lose a part of us.

If history is taught not as a dry catalogue of facts, but as a subject which lives and breathes amidst us, the attitude will change. Slowly but surely. If we educate our children that heritage is a public good which can add value to their lives, economically, socially and culturally, if we train and involve local people in preserving heritage sites in their backyards, conservation will become a popular cause. Perhaps then we will not need labels like “heritage walk”. A walk through most of Delhi, and many Indian cities, will automatically be a heritage trail.

– Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at



3 thoughts on “Sorbonne and Stephen Court

  1. The thoughts and their expressions are wonderful. Perhaps you may think of translating this into action, by starting a group that studies local history in your neighbourhood. I was recently in Pakistan, and one resident of Islamabad after another told me what they loved most about Delhi — the fact that ancient monuments have been kept standing alongside the modern contraptions of the city. But as those of us who live in Delhi know, most of these monuments are in a sad state of neglect. How about doing something for them, maybe in coordination with INTACH or some such organisation?

    As I sat in a Manila hotel room and watched Stephen Court go up in flames on BBC, my first thought was — how much more could the city of my birth, childhood and adolescenece take? I remember walking down Park Street (no, I will not call it by any other name, despite my deep respect for Mother Teresa) on those afternoons from St Xavier’s school to the bus stop and looking longingly at all the pastries in Flury’s. In all these years I have lived in Delhi, I made absolutely sure that I went to Flury’s at least once whenever I went to Cal. Now, once the rubble of Stephen Court is cleared, will Flury’s survive? I haven’t been following all the stories on that, but personally, if Flury’s dies, a little bit of me will die with it too.

  2. Mansoor Mitha
    to patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com
    date Sun, Apr 4, 2010 at 1:43 AM
    mailed-by hotmail.com

    Namaskar, Ms. Chatterjee. Congratulations on your well thought-out article. I wish more scholarly people will follow your lead.
    I am a Canadian citizen, born in Kenya (Africa) of Indian descent. I visited India on two occasions 2003 and 2004 for health reason as well as pleasure. I visited Bombay, Bangalore, Delhi, Jaipur, Udaipur and other smaller cities, and I too was dismayed by the state of neglect and utter indifference of both national and international Heritage Monuments. A proud nation with over 5000 years of history deserves better than a blind imitation of western style architecture.
    It is cultured people like yourself who, through, their incisive insights and writings must keep up the pressures on the powers that be to take concrete actions. Good Luck.

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