It is now second nature to me. It is a second home. There is comfort in its lilt and its cadence. And charm. Rigour and beauty.

It did not begin like that. When I chose French as my third language back in school, all I was doing was running away from bad marks and years of being at the bottom of the class. I thought I had a better chance with a brand new language and a brand new teacher. Perhaps I would do well. Find romance at 13? Make my mother happy, maybe?

But when our teacher walked in that first day, there was no romance. We did exercises – with our minds and our tongues. We learned which letters to pronounce. And which to drop. We laughed in derision – “Why do they have them there if they are not going to pronounce them?” Slowly though, we abandoned all those hard consonants that English had force-fed us and produced t’s and d’s that sounded like soft homemade butter. Our throats, only used to gross expectoration, now summoned up sounds of beauty.

Those exercises I spoke of earlier? Like the well-toned body of a dancer or an athlete, they made our minds supple as we reached out across seas and continents, and stretched ourselves in great effort to speak a glorious language. And as the years progressed, so did our vocabulary, our understanding. Without realising it, romance happened. We had opened a window onto a beautiful new world. Just as one does a new neighbour, we welcomed a new culture.

Across time, space

I tried it out endlessly on family and friends. I spoke it to myself and befriended dictionaries. Words and where they came from fascinated me, and I found in these recent acquisitions, gems or genes of history, of invaders and conquerors. William of Normandy had carried his language across the Channel and left it to grow and flourish in a corner of a foreign field. And now, a thousand years later, I suddenly caught glimpses of that blend in the English I spoke, only because I was learning French. Ouf, this crisscrossing across time and space was enchanting.

I grew to love the language, its poetry, its humour, its people and their pronunciations. Travelling in a train or walking down the road, I turned (and still do) like the proverbial sunflower towards light, when I heard the language of Molière in my city. Baudelaire, Hugo, Ronsard, Delacroix, Bizet, Rodin, Mme. de Sévigné, Voltaire, they all came to stay. And with them, their thoughts, what they stood for, and sometimes fought for. They brought in their wake a new fragrance.

In many ways, they brought me up.

Close connections

But strange things happen in love – the more I studied French, the more I began to look at the languages around me. There were so many connections, echoes.

Anglabhoomi in Sanskrit? Ah, the French call it Angleterre – England, my dear Watson.

Grammar? The possessive adjectives in Hindi are exactly like those in French, ignore English, I tell my students.

The redundant ne? But we have it in Hindi too (mujhe dar hai ke tum kahin gir na jao).

Similarities and differences

Let me confess: in my family, we have a thing for languages. My grandfather taught Portuguese. He loved Camoës even as he fought for independence in his beloved Goa. My father had a passion for poetry and was hard to rein in once he started reciting Gray’s Elegy. Same problem with Keshavsut’s Tutari, 20 stanzas which he knew by heart. My mother was a Jagannath Sunkersett scholar in Sanskrit.

All of them rejoiced when French came into the family. Both my sisters and I studied it and loved it.

When we left home, my mother often told us that the spine of a book with Balzac or Camus written on it, consoled her – our friends were there, even when we had gone. Did she never feel that we should have persevered with Marathi – a language in which she writes her short stories? Would she perhaps have liked one of us to pursue Sanskrit and try and emulate her?

I don’t know. What I do know is that she felt richer getting to know this new world, while she introduced us to parts of our holy texts and delightful proverbs and also, the beautiful poetry of Maharashtra. In so doing, she taught us a lot more besides.

Vive la différence

Didn’t I say that strange things happen in love? Learning French also taught me to appreciate and accept differences, to celebrate them even, this coming together of different skeins.

It taught me to transcend artificially drawn, narrow borders and rejoice in all that this world has to offer. Otherwise, how would “the cultures of all the lands [have] blown about my house as freely as possible”? – as Gandhi yearned for, even as he “refuse[d] to be blown off my feet by any”.

Had we not opened that window, we would have shut the door on so much wealth. And had we not opened that window, I would never have been me.