Back in 2014 / 2015 I was an unknown face at the embassy of India, and it was only very recently that I started to get invitations for their evenings. It is hard for me to recall all the details 5 years down the line, but I remember well that it all started at the centre hall. The centre hall is famous for socializing. Once the main event finishes at the smaller hall everyone comes out to the centre hall to share delicious pakoras and non-alcoholic drinks served by the boys of Baldev Singh or his brother. This socializing and pakoras are integral part of embassy evenings, so much so that on rare occasions when we do not see the pakoras at the end of an evening, we feel that the evening is not complete.
Abhinav Agarwal is one of those guys whom everyone likes, and was known among the Indians for his associative project Paris India connections, and for his powerful partner of the time, Rajeev Dhar. It was one of those pakora evenings, when Abhinav wanted me to meet a new officer of the embassy. I don't remember exactly, but it was around February 2015. The gentleman asked me a few questions on the Facebook group of IIF, after telling me that Abhinav has spoken to him about me, and he looked impressed knowing that we have over 9000 members. Yes, in those days, the group was smaller. He looked enthusiastic and he quickly invited me to his office. He was, the formidable Dhiraj Mukhia ji.
It was the beginning of a wonderful relationship. I was looking for approval and recognition from the Embassy for years of hard work done for our community, and the new BJP government of India had just started a new division for its foreign offices, the community affairs - and Dhiraj Mukhia ji was the first in charge of that division for France. The discussion went around the first visit of our Prime Minister, and he wanted me to play a role in this. The embassy of India was organizing a community event at the Carrousel du Louvre and it had about 2000 places in the main hall. Our first work was to promote the event to our community, and we discussed about the reach of IIF, the direct and extended circle.
After getting the green signal from Dhiraj ji, I made a Google form, and promoted this event to our community members. The next days went very busy. I was submerged by messages coming from our members asking me various questions. For me, that was the first time I was handling such a big pressure program. I left my professional life by the side, and invested full time to it. I made a post asking people to make it big. The post was impressive enough to catch attention of scroll.in's journalist Ingrid. She later contacted me asking if she can quote me in her article, and I delightedly accepted. Thus, why France is so excited about Narendra Modi was the first time I was being quoted by a third party. Everything was moving very fast.
People started to register in huge numbers. Every time I was having a look at the spreadsheet of Google form, we were getting 10 / 20 / 50 new registrations already. In the first four days itself we got 1300 registrations, and Dhiraj Ji was at the beginning sceptic about whether 2000 people will attend the event, started to think how to accommodate so many people. I was asked to close registration, as he had to accommodate members from other associations. Seeing such a huge response, embassy decided to rent a second room, adjacent to the first one, which could accommodate about 800 more people (if I remember the number exactly).
Those days were very stressful and filled with adrenaline. I was not having time to eat or even to shower. Constant messages from hundreds of people daily was making me go crazy. People were asking when they will get an invitation, what is the dress code, if kids can be there, etc.
While this was on from my side, Lokesh Sharma was busy sorting out the list of guests and was preparing the invitation cards. He was assisted by others, names which I forgot at this moment. I learned that he did a huge task going through hundreds and hundreds of names.
The day of Prime Minister's arrival was fast approaching, and Dhiraj ji asked if we could have volunteers from IIF who would help the evening. They were needing about 30 volunteers from us. I worked with our group, and selected names of volunteers with caution. The caution was important as it was the days when AAP of Delhi was getting very popular among community members here, and I did not want to let in an AAP supporters in my team of volunteers. The risk was high, these guys were crazy against BJP at that time and it was impossible to have any sane discussion with them on this subject. Did not want anyone in my team giving slogans against our Prime Minister at Louvre, especially because volunteers could go closer to the stage easily. Thus, I had to check individual members about whether the person is politically aligned, depth of his engagement, personality, etc before sending the list to the embassy for final approval.
A few days after Dhiraj ji called for a meeting at our Embassy, where I will meet for the first time a few association leaders, notably the Gujaratis. A few of us went from IIF at the meeting, and we discussed which association will give more volunteers. About 10 more volunteers from different other associations were promised.
A few evenings earlier all volunteers went to the Louvre to have a look at the place. Dhiraj ji explained who had to do what, and how we can manage things. The same evening we also met another very nice person from the embassy, a young gentleman called Manoj Kumar. We met many times later, throughout his tenure of Paris. A wonderful and very hard working individual. We also met a Gujarati dance group of young individuals, who wanted to perform during PM's function, but was unable to get a place as PM's schedule was already fixed. Later on, on the night of the event, this group managed their way to the stage, and a photo of them with the PM became a buzz.
I was still not able to work on my professional life, everything was kept at the side, and it was already a month. My financial situation was getting more and more tight. However, the adrenaline to be a part of our Prime Minister's visit was pushing me on my way. The full month, at times I was eating only once a day, and once I did not took shower for two days, the pressure was so much. Facing and managing queries of 1500 super excited registered members single handedly, and being in contact with the embassy constantly who was the main organizer, was a pressure too much to handle.
Dhiraj Ji rewarded me for my hard work, by including me in the list of some 50 people who went to the airport to welcome our Prime Minister. I felt like I was officially among the who's who of the Indian community of France. Later, I was again included in a smaller team that welcomed the Prime Minister at Louvre, in the night of the event, which was a more selective community, and we were only about 10 people there. Dhiraj Ji selected those 10 people uniquely based on who were working for the event, and some strategically important people.
The night of the Louvre was electric. My dream was coming true. Dhiraj Ji chose the second row of seats of the right column, for people of various associations who contributed for the event. Thus I could see Modi Ji from very near. I was shouting with joy. I still remember the feelings of those couple of hours. I was also proud of the fact that more than half of the hall was filled up with people from IIF. The confidence of that moment was so high that before the event when there was a discussion about a possible crowd management problem, I proposed myself to go to the stage & take the mic, telling that over 40% of the people present in the hall knew me personally, and I believed they will listen to me if the situation arises.
Later in the night, or probably the next day, while discussing with the group of volunteers, I realised that they were not as happy as me, and they were disappointed that they did not get the recognition they deserved for their hard work. Some of them did not get a place to sit. True that we could organise this better, but again, in any event especially if this is as big as this, it is very difficult to avoid smaller mistakes. Nevertheless, we can never forget what this team did. Those 30 something volunteers of IIF, along with one or two other members from other associations, verified the tickets, and IDs of 2500 people that night.
Here are those stars of IIF whose role were very important that night:
Sourav Choudhury is a social entrepreneur working for the cause of Indian community living in France, since 2003. He is founder of multiple projects: the largest social network of the Indian community of France, a French language school for english speaking expatriates, this website, and several other projects.