Monday, December 19, 2011

An Indo-French collaboration

Jude Mathew fell in love and married Frenchwoman Sofie Debieve. The couple run a social service organisation in Fort Kochi and dwell upon life in France and Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

In February, 1997, Jude Mathew met Sofie Debieve while working as an interpreter for the Alliance Francaise (AF) at Thiruvananthapuram. Sofie had come on the invitation of the AF Director, Jean Leturcq, to hold an exhibition of dried flowers. “It seemed as if Sofie was the person I was waiting for,” says Jude.

When Jude invited Sofie for a tea at a roadside shack, she got very excited. “It was my first direct experience of Indians and India,” she says. But no sparks flew between the couple. Soon, Sofie returned to France.

But, six months later, on the invitation of the AF, Jude went to France and eventually to La Rochelle, 500 kms from Paris, where Sofie stayed. They met and this time they fell in love. Jude stayed a couple of months before returning to Fort Kochi, his hometown. After a few months, Sofie came down and spent time with Jude. This went on, till they got married on July 9, 1999, at La Rochelle.

For the first seven years, the couple lived at La Rochelle, where Jude was the manager of a car park. And he was astonished to see French society at close quarters. “The family, which has been the unit of society for thousands of years, no longer exists,” he says. “There is a lack of relations between father, mother, brothers and sisters. People have become individualistic. The cultural festivals have become less. Things have changed because of modern life and the advances of technology.”

The spiritual emptiness is also troubling. “The churches are empty,” he says. “Religion has lost its importance. To fill their spiritual void, the French go to a psychiatrist. Or take sleeping and anti-depression pills like Prozac. For any emotional problem, they try to solve it by popping a pill. They might forget to take food, but they will not miss taking their medicines.”

And Jude is worried by the rising consumerism in Kerala and Indian society. “Once they start earning money, people want their own space, house, and car,” he says. “I can see that the people have no idea of the end result. You become alone and isolated, by following the consumerist way of the West.

Meanwhile, for Sofie, her immersion in Kerala culture has brought a lot of happiness. “Here, people live through the heart,” she says. “They are simple and caring. On the other hand, the French are very intellectual and tend to over-analyse. There is a lot of mental agitation and too much of thinking, thinking, thinking. There is very little emphasis on feelings. I learnt how to love only after I got married to Jude.”

For the past five years, they live six months of the year in Fort Kochi, and the other half in La Rochelle. Their son, Surya, 12, does his studies through the National Centre for Distance Education at a school in La Rochelle.

At Fort Kochi Jude runs a counselling centre, at their home, where he helps troubled people through advice, yoga, and meditation. Sofie runs a tailoring workshop where she gives training to poor women. They make bed sheets, pillow covers, purses, bags, and other accessories which they sell to foreigners. They also have a unit for the physically challenged where they make paper bags and envelopes, which are sent to France.

“We lead fulfilling lives,” says Sofie.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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