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Protagonist & swimming pool

The Life of Pee, in Paris

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DESERTED: Built in 1929, Piscine Molitor hosted the first ever bikini show in Paris. Now under construction, it will house a hotel, restaurants and a medical centre

The young protagonist of 'The Life of Pi' was named after a swimming pool in Paris. As the movie releases, TOI-Crest revisits its dilapidated but iconic premises.

One summer afternoon in 2011, I received a call from my friend, Regis Descott, a best-selling French writer of crime thrillers. He picked me up from a cafe at Trocadero. While rolling down the posh 16th district of Paris, he winked at me and said, 'you look terribly bored by the idea of visiting my new office, but believe me it is the best place in Paris. You are lucky because most of the best places in a city become famous once the magic of the place ends. '

Near the roundabout of Porte d'Auteil, he came to a screeching halt. It was the road along the Rolland Garros tennis stadium. On the other side was what looked like a gloomy abandoned auditorium. When Regis unlocked the tiny but heavy metal door of that premises, I had no idea what was there inside. Like Pandora's Box, it opened into a world of wonders. Regis just exclaimed, "Welcome to Piscine Molitor. " 

We stepped into a huge, dry abandoned swimming pool surrounded by multi-storied changing cabins and several stairs leading to innumerable labyrinths. There was graffiti everywhere. But that was just the beginning;I ran up and down, left and right, to explore the building and ended up either in corridors where graffiti artists were busy working on their crafts, or in grungy office spaces used by decidedly Parisian squatters. Or, also, in the workshop of artist Laurent Godard, or at a table seemingly in the middle of nowhere, placed there for the use of writer Regis Descott.

Eric and Mark, two other artists who operated from some hidden mezzanine in the complex, told me jokingly, "Other dignitaries who visited this space before you are Boris Vian in the thirties and Ang Lee a couple of weeks back. " The who's who of Paris apparently frequented this place and another famous visitor often mentioned was Jim Morrison, the American rock star. Clearly, like any near-mythical place, the Piscine Molitor is a storied pile, too.

Big shots visiting large swimming pools specially constructed for summer and winter use made sense, but I was curious to know what Ang Lee, the Taiwanese-American film director, had to do with Piscine Molitor. "He was here for the film of Life of Pi, " I was told.

In fact there's a direct link between Life of Pi and Piscine Molitor. "I was named after a swimming pool, " says Pi Patel, the novel's protagonist, whose full name is Piscine Molitor Patel. But since Piscine is also a homonym of pissing, he decides to change his name at Pondicherry's Petit Sêminaire, on the very first day of school, in the very first class.

So why was he named Piscine Molitor? In the story, Pi's maternal uncle studied in Paris in the early 1930s, and happened to be a keen swimmer who frequented every swimming pool in Paris. 'But no swimming in Mamaji's eyes matched the glory of the Piscine Molitor. It was the crowning aquatic glory of Paris, indeed, of the entire civilised world. '

'It was a pool the gods would have delighted to swim in. Molitor had the best competitive swimming club in Paris. There were two pools, an indoor and an outdoor... The water was so clean and clear you could have used it to make your morning coffee. Wooden changing cabins, blue and white, surrounded the pool on two floors. You could look down and see everyone and everything. '

Built in 1929, Piscine Molitor was quite the hub in Paris. From haute couture to - the then scandalous - first bikini-show ever, the Molitor has much to commend it to popular history. But time passed it by. In 1989 the Piscine Molitor was formally closed to the public, while a series of plans for the site were routinely proposed and discarded. The Molitor became a hidden rendezvous for graffiti artists, squatters, painters and the like.

Interestingly, the main entrance into the place moved to either its roof or the broken windows that festooned its sides. This was before Eric and Marc requested the new leaseholder, a big construction company, to hand them the keys of the Molitor, for 'creative and artistic use'.

Now, 81 years after it was built, hundreds of youth in this city are currently lamenting the loss of a great midnight party zone. Over the last few years, the Molitor's cabin galleries would often be found lit up by thousand watt spotlights as young Parisian crowds would sway with gay abandon to the beats of local DJs.

But the party ended last year when construction began at the site. A new avatar of the venerable Piscine Molitor will be unveiled soon. It will house a hotel, restaurants and a medical centre. Paris continues its ceaseless reinvention. And like the young Pi Patel discovering new horizons and quickly learning to navigate the oceans, those with fond memories of the old Molitor must also learn to navigate the oceans of our memory, braving time's relentless onward march.

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