My association with France began with a French exchange programme in 2004. I was vegetarian, I barely spoke French, I had never heard the French accent, I was to live with a French family for three weeks and I was to attend French school in that time. And because I was 17, I was not scared, I was excited.
I remember the first day vividly. I remember all the attempts everyone made at making conversation. We talked about the world wars. We talked about food. We talked about India. We talked about France. I understood about five per cent of the conversation.
And then, one thing led to another, and my sister and I started talking about the Ramayana. In English, it’s a beautiful, complex story that I enjoy telling. In French especially back then, I was comfortable only with present tense. That’s all very well for regular story-telling, but if you forget that one little episode, you’re stuck. How do you talk about something you’ve forgotten in present tense, when the future is already here? And then, of course, were words like ‘sadhu’, Lakshmanrekha’, ‘rakshasa’. Forget about all those, I did not know the word for ‘monkey’ in French. What a wonderful evening! I’m not being sarcastic – I actually think that began our real attempt at communication. The moment you let go of language and start acting, that’s one barrier crossed. You’re less self-conscious, less afraid of making a mistake, less afraid of not understanding.
So here’s what I learned: when in a foreign country, feeling awkward about the huge barrier of language that has to be crossed, try telling the story of the Ramayan. (The Mahabharat may be going a little too far.) Once everyone begins to laugh, everything will be okay.