Jeanne Koré Salvato

eedis.  That is the way to a fantasy life in ze France.  Did I basically lose you at hello?  First of all, what are beedis?  Where is the fantasy in a word I have never heard of, you might ask.

Well, let me explain. A Beedi is an Indian cigarette wrapped in a flavorful leaf.   This leaf I naively thought was a eucalyptus leaf.  Wrong.  The leaf is actually called tendu in Hindi. It comes from the coastal region of southeastern India.  Now you know at least one word in Hindi.  How is that for the start of a fantasy life?

Other words here:


Reader:  So you are saying you smoked cigarettes in France?  And there is something good about that?  Seriously?

Writer:  Yes.

Let me begin with a quote from a Sufi poet, Rumi: “I did a little meanness and it turned out right.”  So, the meanness is to the body.  But it is only research that tells you that.  I mean, a little brown beedi, wrapped in mint?  That is your experience. What harm could come from that?   It’s probably even good for you.  With the mint, I mean.

Reader:  Where in the world did you find a beedi?

Writer:  Let me set the scene.  You may remember that across the street from our house in Suresnes lived the four children of an Indian father and an American mother.  Pir Vilayat, the eldest son, was the head of the Sufi Order, one of the branches of the organization founded by his father.  Pir Vilayat had a sparkling wit and a lot of responsibility.  He was committed to carrying on his father’s legacy, which included a profound training in meditation. 


Pir Vilayat’s wife, Mary, was a great help to him in his work, but perhaps not in a way you might expect.  An Englishwoman, Mary was a devout Catholic. Her grandmother had been persecuted for being a Catholic in England, so it was a matter of great feeling for Mary to be a Catholic. As a young fiancée of Pir’s, Mary met one of Pir Vilayat’s Indian relatives, who was quite taken with her sparkle and self-confidence. 

Now Mary had a great sense of fun.  She was a marvelous cook, an excellent hostess, and a well-travelled person who had lived for some time in India.  She was also a painter and painted this portrait of our poet Rumi.

One day, our family was visiting, seated in her large and exquisite drawing room, drinking champagne.  “Somebody brought me some beedis,” she remarked.  “Have one, if you’d like.”  A tiny little brown thing with a fragrant leaf?  Sure.  Mary kept them in a drawer underneath a large statue of a painted art deco maiden. I can still see the maiden’s green pleated skirt.  So over time (and over champagne, because Mary loved champagne) I developed a taste for these beedis, still thinking they were maybe good for you (notice the maybe). 


Here’s where the magic begins.  I went to a delicious French dinner party hosted by my architect friend.  You can imagine how good it all was, with lots of courses and wine and looking out at the garden, candles flickering.  I was the only American among a French journalist, a veterinarian, a fonctionnaire (a French civil servant) among others. As we were finishing our coffee, I happened to remark to the Frenchman next to me.  “I wish I had a beedi.” He said,  “Oh, I have one for you.” He handed me a beedi and lit it for me. Can you imagine?  Serendipity appeared: that secret fantasy, perhaps from infancy, where we long to just speak our desires and see them fulfilled.  Magic!

Well, you haven’t seen anything yet.


One Saturday, after teaching fifth graders how to keep up their English at the American School of Paris, I was tired. It turns out that on that very day there was a fair on the school grounds. One of my teacher friends took me over to sample the wares at the wine booth.  Tired teachers; happy teachers. We tooled around after that, admiring the candles, the honey, the porcelain dolls that you could buy for a mere fortune. A parent, a hedge fund manager we encountered, confessed that he had been embarrassed recently at a fund raising in England.  His table could only offer a spontaneous $40,000 for the charity, compared to the $100,000 proposed by his neighbors at a nearby table. Ah, the trials of poverty.

My friend and I were about to head over to my house to make pumpkin pasta. (Why?) But I turned to her and said, “You know, I have a couple of beedis in the supply cupboard that I forgot.  Is it worth going back into the school?”  Not really.  But my friend had money squirreled away in her classroom, the fruits of one of our many charitable projects. It may have been the project to give malaria nets to children in Nigeria.  I was worried about the safety of my friend’s funds.  She thought they’d be fine in the classroom, but the beedis won out. I persuaded her that she should get her money, and I’d get the beedis. 

Do you know that our building was raided that very night?  All the money stashed in the teachers’ classrooms—stolen!  Except my friend’s money was safe with her.  Beedis saved the day!  There is a God.  Or, there is a devil. 

In summary, you can indulge yourself in the fantasy, not of being a multi-millionaire, but of being an Indian poor person who favors these so-called lower-class cigarettes.  Some of the hoity toity Indians will not be seen smoking a beedi in public.  But in private, certainly.


And your accoutrements in this fantasy would be champagne, which is always good.  And also Indian music which you can hear at the Institut du Monde Arabe.  You can pretend you are a bum, smoking these things, and really get into the skin of the tramps from Godot. I can imagine the tramps as immigrants without papers who are sans abris, meaning without shelter, the French word for the homeless.

Think of smoking a beedi as research. Until, that is, you do a little research of your own on the Internet to find out that the leaves do nothing, the tobacco is unfiltered, and in short, smoking is bad for you. Who knew?


The Wheel of Surya by Jamila Gavin is a story of young Sikh siblings who are caught up in the violent throes of partition during Indian independence.  The care and delicacy of the writing and the extended imagery make this story suitable for teens and those of us no longer in our teenage years.  People from India have enjoyed the fact that I can engage them on this history.  So often apparently, people have no idea what happened during Indian independence. And besides someone in the novel surely smokes a beedi or two.

PS  Don’t smoke!

Here’s your Indian music, eleven minutes of dhrupad, the oldest style of north Indian classical music. Meditative.

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