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Mourning for Notre Dame Cathedral – Aparajita Sen from France

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Aparajita Sen has been living in France for more than three decades now. She now lives in Normandy and works for the French Government

I sit watching Notre Dame burn. The beautiful steeple toppled in front of my eyes, retaining its grace even in its final fall to the ground. The fire burns bright red, the dark smoke swirls in the Paris skyline changed forever, a gaping hole where the elegant steeple used to be, towering over the churches and buildings. The first place I visited after I arrived in Paris almost 35 years back, a very young girl who left her home and homeland for the very first time in her life, stepping into a foreign city, incredibly beautiful but alien all the same. I first visited the cathedral on a cold windy winter day. I shall never forget the awe as I stepped into the magnificent cathedral. 

And I went back again and again, in happiness and in pain, in celebration and in doubt. My son was born in the hospital just across the cathedral. I looked on the towers as I lay writhing in pain. I looked at them as I suckled my child. I lit candles there, I went to the midnight mass on Christmas Eves, went to the free concerts where music swelled right up to the tall arches and reverberated on the stone walls. 

Notre Dame knows my happy moments and my black moments. Its walls have listened to my story and calmed me down. The rose windows, reflected on the flagged stone on bright days, have given me hope and courage. The kind face of the Virgin Mary has urged me to go on in an alien, sometimes hostile environment.

Notre Dame does not belong to a country or is restricted to the people of a geographic boundary. It belongs to humanity. In spite of being a bastion of Catholicism holding incredible relics in its deep dark crypt, I have never felt any over the top religious fervor. Never. As I listened to the tear stained voice of the Archbishop of Paris on the radio saying ‘You enter the cathedral maybe as a tourist, but you come out a pilgrim’, I couldn’t agree more. I am not religious and never have been. But I do know that the incredible stone walls, the stained glass and rose windows, the candles that burn in the shrines, the hushed footsteps of tourists from all over the world, the incredibly beautiful strains from the majestic organ – all had a strong effect on me. 

Young and unsure of what the future held in store, missing home and the near and dear ones, I struck up this strange relationship with Notre Dame. It became my sanctuary, a spiritual one, as it was for Quasimodo all those centuries back. The bells that rang out in happiness and tragedy, telling the Parisians to take heart – as it did on the night of 13th November 2015, mourning its dead but ringing out in defiance.

Wood and stone. That’s all it is. Yet it is so much more. So so much more. I watched the twin towers topple real time on TV on 11th September 2001. It was a shock I have never felt before. Never to be forgotten. But what I feel today is sorrow. Deep dark sorrow that leaves a gaping hole in my soul as well.