Dusk falls early in Paris, as autumn slides gently into winter, bringing with it a blanket of mist and a cluster of dense cloud. An icy wind sweeps in, moving ominously through the denuded trees and whistling through the paper-thin walls of the French Academy.
“Call me Laila,” she says to the class of 20-odd students.
Almost on cue the lights in the building come on and the radiator sputters. The room turns warmer, taking the edge off the cold vibes she is receiving from this class of foreigners. She pauses to take a long breath.
The other students watch her silently.
The professor steps into the awkward moment and says gently. “Je m’appelle, Laila. That’s how you would say it in French. I call myself Laila Golmes.”
She repeats the unfamiliar words slowly.
“So, what do you do, Laila?” he asks.
Her mind suddenly goes blank. What was she supposed to say to this bunch of motley students who had joined this class to better their prospects, find great jobs and build a life, unlike a complete nutjob Francophile like her?
“I used to be a writer for a magazine called India Couture in Hyderabad, India.”
“I notice, you use the phrase ‘used to be’? So, what do you now?”
“I am a blogger, writer, Instagrammer, influencer.”
“Now that’s a job description that sounds like Greek to me -- another language, eh?” laughs the professor, and the class joins in because it is the polite thing to do.
“Why are you learning French?” he urges her on as he scans his list of students and ticks off her name.
For a moment, she wonders if she should impress him with all the French fashion icons that she had thought of on the Air France flight from Hyderabad to Paris last week.
The pilot had already announced the descent but she had to be jolted awake by the flight attendant as she had been lost in reverie, trying to mentally list all things French that she loved in alphabetical order.
She had started with Auguste Escoffier, Balmain, Cézanne, Dior, Éluard, Flaubert, Gauguin, Hermes, and had been planning to go up to Zola (Émile), when the flight attendant had interrupted and helped her put her seat in an upright position to get ready for landing.
As the sole content writer, blogger, and social media-in-charge employee of celebrity designer Sudhir Somnath, Laila’s job was to write about fashion trends around the world and highlight the seasonal fashion lines created by her boss. He was a generous employer but even then, it had taken her three long years to save up for this trip to France and take a Parisian holiday on a shoe-string budget.
“I want to learn more about the culture of this great country,” she says finally, but the professor is not impressed. “Merci, Laila. You can sit down. Next student, please.”
As she sits down, she catches sight of herself in the window facing the light. Her luxurious hair sprung with new highlights (her last splurge before going officially near broke last month) looks good for once but her scarf and polka-dotted dress that looked oh-so-French this morning suddenly looks shabby and pretentious. Why hadn’t she worn an Indian salwar suit instead?
A light rain has begun, that looks suspiciously like snow, but it is too late to worry about how one gets home during inclement weather in this city.
The institute, fairly new by Parisian standards, is situated in a little alley, just off a tree-lined avenue close to the Boulevard Lisbonne, nestled in the heart of the 8th arrondissement. It is a small place, hardly imposing, though the American receptionist with her faux French accent does act hoity toity. The rooms are large and draughty, and the heaters do not work well at all.
She would not have made this institute her first choice, if it hadn’t been highly recommended by Anya Rodrigues, her childhood friend who lived in Rue St. Germaine and with whom she was staying for the next one month.
“The only way to enjoy this city for a month is to learn the language. I suggest you join that institute that I told you about,” Anya had said that Friday before racing out of the door for her job at the embassy where she was an interpreter.
The professor is still only half way down his list. Considering that there are just a few students in this class, Laila cannot imagine what the delay is. Settling deeper into her seat, she slips back into the past again.
Last week, her mother had sounded quite horrified on the phone when she heard that Laila was about to blow up an entire year’s savings for a holiday in Paris. She had launched into a rant instantly. “Why don’t you spend your money and time on a matrimonial website instead and find a suitable husband instead?” she asked. “Why are you going to France? Your cousin Anushka met a billionaire doctor on a Shaadi Plus Plus. He lives in Seattle and they got married a month ago and are deliriously happy now....”
She had gone on and on, and Laila had switched off midway. To begin with, she was not sure her mother had even got the name right, there was no Shaadi Plus Plus. Two: her mother had no clue if this Anushka was happy at all or whether she was even related to them. Three: if Anushka’s husband was a doctor, how had he become a billionaire so young?
Her mother’s stories were – as always -- a lot of hot air.
She had never approved of any of her daughter’s jobs, her taste in clothes, or her bohemian lifestyle. And of course, she had never approved of her any of her boyfriends. Especially Aman Arora.
As usual, her mother always brought up Aman Arora next, though that story was history now. She would remind Laila that she, Leelavati Golmes, professor of English, St. Xavier’s College, Mapusa, had always disapproved of that useless boy. That she had warned Laila that Aman Arora was up to no good. That if Laila’s late father, Jose Golmes, had been around, he would have skinned Aman Arora alive before allowing him to waste his daughter’s time and life.
Maybe her mother is justified about being so angry.
Aman is now engaged to Aditi Sarkar, the only daughter of shipping magnate Sudip Sarkar. She is the girl with the Angelina Jolie lips, Jennifer Aniston hair, and aristocratic nose, who is a permanent fixture on Page 3 of every tabloid in New Delhi.
If she were to look back, Laila cannot imagine why she had imagined Aman Arora was in her league. They may have been in the same class at school in Mumbai and later college mates in the same university, but Aman was always destined to be heir of the Bakshi Arora Group, a luxury goods conglomerate that was one of the largest family owned companies in the world.
Laila had Aman had dated for two whole years, before Bakshi Arora got wind of their romance and put an end to it immediately. He cancelled all of Aman’s credit cards and threatened to cut him off from the family if Aman did not leave Mumbai at once and come back to Delhi to continue his studies in politics and business management. Bakshi wanted his only son to enter politics, helm his business, and become one of the most powerful men in the country
If that had not been bad enough, Aman’s reaction to his father’s threats, had been worse. He had broken up with Laila without any explanations, other than some inane reasons like, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ … “I cannot let my father down as his hopes are pinned on me, his only son.” And just like that, when mid-term break arrived, Aman was gone.
Laila had nursed her disbelief and broken heart for a whole year, but she had continued her studies nonetheless and graduated with a degree in journalism and fine arts. Her first job with India Couture had been exciting but the company folded in two years, after which she could not find another job. She freelanced for a few magazines for some time, while doing a course in digital Marketing and social media.
It was only when her personal fashion blogs, her tweets, and YouTube fashion vlogs became mildly famous that she became an influencer, with over 10,000 followers. Several fashion brands began to engage with her to promote their products, but it was celebrity designer Sudhir Somnath who hired her as soon he heard about her. It had been a calm life ever since; no boyfriends, no distractions, no romances. Just work and lots of it.
If anyone were to ask to Laila why she had spent months planning and saving for a month-long holiday in France, she would answer that question with a question. Where do you begin to pinpoint the exact moment when you begin to love all things French? It began with her art and literature studies in university, but her foray into the world of fashion during her years in India Couture had heightened that adoration. Over the years, she had lived on a steady diet of French authors, studied the work of the Impressionists – Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas and Bazille - and sighed at the altar of Yves Saint Laurent, Gaultier and Chanel, all of which she could never afford.
Now, at long last, she is in France. She will finally be able to walk endlessly in the Luxembourg Gardens, dream under the Arc de Triomphe, sail on the Bateaux Mouches, and tuck into plates of escargot by the Eiffel Tower, instead of reading about all these experiences in a book.
“Mademoiselle Laila, can you close that door beside you? The cold air is coming in rather strongly. But let me say that in French for you, Laila. Fermez la porte, s'il vous plaît,’ he smiles as he writes the sentence on his white board.
The students are still introducing themselves, she realises, as she awakens from her reverie and gets up to shut the creaky door.
The next student on the professor’s list is Abdul Karim, a software engineer, 30, who has just been posted to Paris this year, followed by Annalise Roberto, a housewife from Spain who wants to watch French TV shows and understand them (hasn’t she heard of English sub-titles?), and 16-year-old Angela Sebastian, a student who wants to pass her French A levels.
As she looks out of the window, the rain is now falling in sheets in the deepening dusk. Now that she has decided to make a new language the focal point of her holiday, it is going to be the complete French experience, after all!
She remembers an expression she had read in many French books, and writes it down on top of the first page of her notebook.
“Qui n’avance pas, recule.” She jots down the translation too, in her beautiful penmanship. “If you don’t move forward, you will slip back, ever so slowly, but surely.”