All Dilliwalas have one thing in common in their DNA: the ability to wait. Nothing can be more emblematic of this stoic steadfastness than the phenomenon of queuing. Long and often deceptively intertwined series of heads eagerly await the few seconds’ interlude with a bureaucrat, a clerk or even a public urinal. But learning French? Isn’t that the last thing in the world that you expect people in this city to queue up for?
My reason for courting the language of romance is quite clear: to understand French movies better and to be able to read Camus in the original. One dreary morning, badly hungover from the cinema overdose (did anyone say Robert Bresson?) of the weekend, I head to the nearest Alliance Française to sign up for a class. I’m looking forward to some light conversation with a charming mademoiselle behind the reception; instead, I encounter hordes of people, old and young, filling up forms with great gusto, all with a common aim—to enrol in a French language course.
Pooja from Badarpur is one of the aspiring French speakers. Besides studying at Delhi University, she works full-time at a call centre. I express my scepticism at her ability to juggle these commitments. “Oh! but I’m going to quit my job soon,” she says. Sitting next to her is an old acquaintance from college. Her reasons for joining the course are quite pragmatic. She has still not passed a paper in French, from the first year of college.
The flustered lady in front of me in the queue is running an errand for her daughter. “Many students haven’t been able to get admission and want to do something useful for the time being. These days, the cut-offs are so high,” she explains. Both of us watch the spectacle of a mad scramble and a two-hour wait for something as alien as a Manet in a mandi. Surely, this desperate rush is not for the love of the language, or for its soft, hr-oman-ti-que syllables. And surely, it is not an outcome of great Francophile tendencies within the larger Indian populace, or an intellectual admiration for liberté, égalité and fraternité. I look at another dimension of French culture in search of an answer: its cuisine.
7.30pm: Cafe de Paris in N-Block market, Greater Kailash 1—the Capital’s first stand-alone French restaurant (so claim the owners). I take a seat by the big glass window. I am the only customer, the seats staring emptily at the wooden planks on the ceiling. On the stereo, a lonely high-pitched male voice perhaps yearning for its beloved—in French. Maybe it’s just a lean day. But surely, a restaurant ought to have more than one patron at this time of the evening on a Saturday night.
Two couples walk in, almost simultaneously. As I’m browsing the menu through the duck leg confit and the Chicken Coq au vin, I keep an eager ear out for my fellow diners’ conversations, particularly the couple right in front of me. I call for a chicken liver pâté with green peppercorn served with toast, and regular water. The couple ask for the wine list and tell the waiter they’ll call him for help when they get round to ordering the food. The woman peers eagerly into the wine menu, studiously reading the letters in the candlelight. I’m curious: Are they going to go for the 1999 Riesling or the 2004 Bordeaux, or maybe if it’s a special anniversary date, a Moët & Chandon? Some serious consultation follows. The man gestures to the waiter, the waiter arrives, his face suddenly visible in the glow of the candle, the man speaks, and I strain my ear to make out the syllables. “Kingfisher,” he adds, “get it in the bottle only.”
As the man is guzzling his second bottle, a bunch of perky youngsters enter the restaurant. They walk up to the bar counter, have a look at the menu, look around disenchanted, and walk off.
In the meantime, the liver pâté arrives, looking fabulous on the plate: four triangular pieces decked with pickles and sliced olives, with a generous helping of fresh, crispy lettuce in the centre. It tastes equally good. The couple is meanwhile trying to chart their gastronomic itinerary for the evening. The woman wonders whether grilled vegetables with br-ai (Brie) is a good idea. They summon the waiter.
Dainty meats such as roasted quails and duck breasts line the menu. But our couple give all this a pass, and instead opt for the risotto. Meanwhile, the Italian restaurant from the same stable, on the other side of the wall, is buzzing with activity. As I walk past, I cast a look inside. The youngsters are there, thoroughly enjoying their meal, and the restaurant is virtually overflowing. The Allies may have won the war, but as far as the Battle of New Delhi is concerned, Italy is the overwhelming favourite.
The final nail in the coffin arrives with the food. It’s a giant pepper mill summoned by the woman who finds the food a little too bland—with a response so depressing she could easily be charged with abetting the suicide of the chef. As the waiter rotates the knob of the mill above her plate, the French singer bemoans her lonely existence. So does the restaurant, with only three tables occupied till late in the evening.