Category Archives: French

When I was studying French in Marseilles, I had to write what they call “redactions.” I decided to translate some jokes that I knew. These little redactions were a big hit in the classroom. I hope you enjoy them too.

Languages

Before leaving India in the late eighties, I could speak a bit of Hindi as my third language. English was the second language, and Malayalam my mother tongue. I wasn’t fluent in Hindi by any stretch of imagination, but I could speak it well enough to get rid of a door-to-door salesman, for instance.

This is exactly what my father (a confirmed Hindi-phobe) asked me to do during one of my visits home when a persistent, Hindi-speaking sari salesman was hovering over our front porch. By that time, I had spent over six years in the US (and considered my English very good) and a couple of years in France (enough to know that “very good English” was no big deal). So to get rid of the sari-wala, I started to talk to him in Hindi, and the strangest thing happened — it was all French that was coming out. Not my mother tongue, not my second or third language, but French! In short, there was very confused sari salesman roaming the streets that day.

True, there is some similarity between Hindi and French, for instance, in the sounds of interrogative words, and the silly masculine-feminine genders of neutral objects. But I don’t think that was what was causing the outpouring of Frenchness. It felt as though French had replaced Hindi in my brain. Whatever brain cells of mine that were wired up to speak Hindi (badly, I might add) were being rewired a la franciaise! Some strange resource allocation mechanism was recycling my brain cells without my knowledge or consent. I think this French invasion in my brain continued unabated and assimilated a chunk of my English cells as well. The end result was that my English got all messed up, and my French never got good enough. I do feel a bit sorry for my confused brain cells. Karma, I guess — I shouldn’t have confused the sari salesman.

Though spoken in jest, I think what I said is true — the languages that you speak occupy distinct sections of your brain. A friend of mine is a French-American girl from the graduate years. She has no discernable accent in her Americanese. Once she visited me in France, and I found that whenever she used an English word while speaking French, she had a distinct French accent. It was as though the English words came out of the French section of her brain.

Of course, languages can be a tool in the hands of the creative. My officemate in France was a smart English chap who steadfastly refused to learn any French at all, and actively resisted any signs of French assimilation. He never uttered a French word if he could help it. But then, one summer, two English interns showed up. My officemate was asked to mentor them. When these two girls came to our office to meet him, this guy suddenly turned bilingual and started saying something like, “Ce qu’on fait ici.. Oh, sorry, I forgot that you didn’t speak French!”

Am I Pretentious?

I was chatting with an old friend of mine, and he told me that he never felt inclined to read anything I wrote. Naturally, I was a little miffed. I mean, I pour my heart and soul into my books, columns and these posts here, and people don’t even feel inclined to read it? Why would that be? My friend, helpful as always, explained that it was because I sounded pretentious. My first reaction, of course, was to get offended and say all kinds of nasty things about him. But one has to learn to make use of criticism. After all, if I sound pretentious to somebody, there is no use pointing out that I am not really pretentious because what I sound like and look like and feel like is really what I am to that somebody. That is one of the underlying themes of my first book. Well, not quite, but close enough.

Why do I sound pretentious? And what does that even mean? Those are the questions that I shall analyze today. You see, I take these things very seriously.

A few years ago, during my research years here in Singapore, I met this professor from the US. He was originally from China and had gone to the states as a graduate student. Typically, such first generation Chinese emigrants don’t speak very good English. But this guy spoke extremely well. To my untrained ears, he sounded pretty much identical to an American and I was impressed. Later on, I was sharing my admiration with a Chinese colleague of mine. He wasn’t impressed at all, and said, “This guy is a phoney, he shouldn’t try to sound like an American, he should be speaking like a Chinese who learned English.” I was baffled and asked him, “If I learn Chinese, should I try to sound like you, or try to hang on to my natural accent?” He said that was totally different — one is about being pretentious, the other is about being a good student of a foreign tongue.

When you call someone pretentious, what you are saying is this, “I know what you are. Based on my knowledge, you should be saying and doing certain things, in a certain way. But you are saying or doing something else to impress me or others, pretending to be somebody better or more sophisticated than you really are.”

The implicit assumption behind this accusation is that you know the person. But it is very difficult to know people. Even those who are very close to you. Even yourself. There is only so far you can see within yourself that your knowledge even of yourself is always going to be incomplete. When it comes to casual friends, the chasm between what you think you know and what is really the case could be staggering.

In my case, I think my friend found my writing style a bit pompous perhaps. For example, I usually write “perhaps” instead of “may be.” When I speak, I say “may be” like everybody else. Besides, when it comes to speaking, I’m a stuttering, stammering mess with no voice projection or modulation to save my life. But my writing skills are good enough to land me book commissions and column requests. So, was my friend assuming that I shouldn’t be writing well, based on what he knew about how I spoke? Perhaps. I mean, may be.

However, (I really should start saying “but” instead of “however”) there are a couple of things wrong with that assumption. Everyone of us is a complex collage of multiple personas happily cohabiting in one human body. Kindness and cruelty, nobility and pettiness, humility and pompousness, generous actions and base desires can all co-exist in one person and shine through under the right circumstances. So can my weak articulation and impressive (albeit slightly pretentious) prose.

More importantly, people change over time. About fifteen years ago, I spoke fluent French. So if I preferred conversing with a French friend in his tongue, was I being pretentious given that I couldn’t do it five years before that time? Ok, in that case I really was, but a few years before that, I didn’t speak English either. People change. Their skills change. Their abilities change. Their affinities and interests change. You cannot size up a person at any one point in time and assume that any deviation from your measure is a sign of pretentiousness.

In short, my friend was an ass to have called me pretentious. There, I said it. I have to admit — it felt good.

Speak Your Language

The French are famous for their fierce attachment to their language. I got a taste of this attachment long time ago when I was in France. I had been there for a couple of years, and my French skills were passable. I was working as a research engineer for CNRS, a coveted “fonctionnaire” position, and was assigned to this lab called CPPM next to the insanely beautiful callanques on the Mediterranean. Then this new colleague of ours joined CPPM, from Imperial College. He was Greek, and, being new to France, had very little French in him. I took this as a god-given opportunity to show off my French connection and decided to take him under my wing.

One of the first things he wanted to do was to buy a car. I suggested a used Peugeot 307, which I thought was a swanky car. But this guy, being a EU scholar, was a lot richer than I had imagined. He decided to buy a brand-new Renault Megane. So I took him to one of the dealers in Marseille (on Blvd Michelet, if memory serves). The salesman, a natty little French dude with ingratiating manners, welcomed us eagerly. The Greek friend of mine spoke to me in English, and I did my best to convey the gist to the French dude. The whole transaction probably took about 15 minutes or so, and the Greek friend decided buy the car. After the deal was all done, and as we were about to leave, the Frenchman says, “So, where are you guys from, and how come you speak in English?” in flawless English. Well, if not flawless, much more serviceable than my French was at that point. We chatted for a few minutes in English, and I asked him why he didn’t let it on that he spoke English. It could’ve save me a world of bother. He said it was best to do business in French. For him, certainly, I thought to myself.

Thinking about it a bit more, I realized that it is always best to do business in whatever language that you are most comfortable in, especially if the nature of the transaction is confrontational. Otherwise, you are yielding an undue advantage to your adversary. So, next time you are in Paris, and that cabbie wants 45 euros for a trip when the meter reads 25, switch to English and berrate him before settling the issue. It softens the target, at the very least.

Accents

Indians pronounce the word “poem” as poyem. Today, my daughter wrote one for her friend’s birthday and she told me about her “poyem”. So I corrected her and asked her to say it as po-em, despite the fact that I also say it the Indian way during my unguarded moments. That got me thinking — why do we say it that way? I guess it is because certain diphthongs are unnatural in Indian languages. “OE” is not a natural thing to say, so we invent a consonant in between.

The French also do this. I had this funny conversation with a French colleague of mine at Geneva airport long time ago during my CERN days. Waiting at the airport lounge, we were making small talk. The conversation turned to food, as French conversations often do (although we were speaking in English at that time). My colleague made a strange statement, “I hate chicken.” I expressed my surprise told her that I was rather fond of white meat. She said, “Non, non, I hate chicken for lunch.” I found it even stranger. Was it okay for dinner then? Poultry improved its appeal after sunset? She clarified further, “Non, non, non. I hate chicken for lunch today.”

I said to myself, “Relax, you can solve this mystery. You are a smart fellow, CERN scientist and whatnot,” and set to work. Sure enough, a couple of minutes of deep thinking revealed the truth behind the French conundrum. She had chicken for lunch that day. The “IA” as in “I ate” is not a natural diphthong for the French, and they insert an H in between, which is totally strange because the French never say H (or the last fourteen letters of any given word, for that matter.) H is a particularly shunned sound — they refuse to say it even when they are asked to. The best they can do is to aspirate it as in the textbook example of “les haricots”. But when they shouldn’t say it, they do it with surprising alacrity. I guess alacrity is something we all readily find when it comes to things that we shouldn’t be doing.

Belle Piece

Here is a French joke that is funny only in French. I present it here as a puzzle to my English-speaking readers.

This colonel in the French army was in the restroom. As he was midway through the business of relieving his bladder, he becomes aware of this tall general standing next to him, and realizes that it is none other than Charles De Gaulle. Now, what do you do when you find yourself a sort of captive audience next to your big boss for a couple of minutes? Well, you have to make smalltalk. So this colonel rakes his brain for a suitable subject. Noticing that the restroom is a classy tip-top joint, he ventures:

“Belle piece!” (“Nice room!”)

CDG’s ice-cold tone indicates to him the enormity of the professional error he has just committed:

“Regardez devant vous.” (“Don’t peek!”)

Luddite Thoughts

For all its pretentiousness, French cuisine is pretty amazing. Sure, I’m no degustation connoisseur, but the French really know how to eat well. It is little wonder that the finest restaurants in the world are mostly French. The most pivotal aspect of a French dish usually is its delicate sauce, along with choice cuts, and, of course, inspired presentation (AKA huge plates and minuscule servings). The chefs, those artists in their tall white hats, show off their talent primarily in the subtleties of the sauce, for which knowledgeable patrons happily hand over large sums of money in those establishments, half of which are called “Cafe de Paris” or have the word “petit” in their names.

Seriously, sauce is king (to use Bollywood lingo) in French cuisine, so I found it shocking when I saw this on BBC that more and more French chefs were resorting to factory-manufactured sauces. Even the slices of boiled eggs garnishing their overpriced salads come in a cylindrical form wrapped in plastic. How could this be? How could they use mass-produced garbage and pretend to be serving up the finest gastronomical experiences?

Sure, we can see corporate and personal greed driving the policies to cut corners and use the cheapest of ingredients. But there is a small technology success story here. A few years ago, I read in the newspaper that they found fake chicken eggs in some Chinese supermarkets. They were “fresh” eggs, with shells, yolks, whites and everything. You could even make omelets with them. Imagine that — a real chicken egg probably costs only a few cents to produce. But someone could set up a manufacturing process that could churn out fake eggs cheaper than that. You have to admire the ingenuity involved — unless, of course, you have to eat those eggs.

The trouble with our times is that this unpalatable ingenuity is all pervasive. It is the norm, not the exception. We see it in tainted paints on toys, harmful garbage processed into fast food (or even fine-dining, apparently), poison in baby food, imaginative fine-print on financial papers and “EULAs”, substandard components and shoddy workmanship in critical machinery — on every facet of our modern life. Given such a backdrop, how do we know that the “organic” produce, though we pay four times as much for it, is any different from the normal produce? To put it all down to the faceless corporate greed, as most of us tend to do, is a bit simplistic. Going one step further to see our own collective greed in the corporate behavior (as I proudly did a couple of times) is also perhaps trivial. What are corporates these days, if not collections of people like you and me?

There is something deeper and more troubling in all this. I have some disjointed thoughts, and will try to write it up in an ongoing series. I suspect these thoughts of mine are going to sound similar to the luddite ones un-popularized by the infamous Unabomber. His idea was that our normal animalistic instincts of the hunter-gatherer kind are being stifled by the modern societies we have developed into. And, in his view, this unwelcome transformation and the consequent tension and stress can be countered only by an anarchical destruction of the propagators of our so-called development — namely, universities and other technology generators. Hence the bombing of innocent professors and such.

Clearly, I don’t agree with this luddite ideology, for if I did, I would have to first bomb myself! I’m nursing a far less destructive line of thought. Our technological advances and their unintended backlashes, with ever-increasing frequency and amplitude, remind me of something that fascinated my geeky mind — the phase transition between structured (laminar) and chaotic (turbulent) states in physical systems (when flow rates cross a certain threshold, for instance). Are we approaching such a threshold of phase transition in our social systems and societal structures? In my moody luddite moments, I feel certain that we are.

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Sophistication

Sophistication is a French invention. The French are masters when it comes to nurturing, and more importantly, selling sophistication. Think of some expensive (and therefore classy) brands. Chances are that more than half of the ones that spring to mind would be French. And the other half would be distinctly French sounding wannabes. This world domination in sophistication is impressive for a small country of the size and population of Thailand.

How do you take a handbag manufactured in Indonesia, slap on a name that only a handful of its buyers can pronounce, and sell it for a profit margin of 1000%? You do it by championing sophistication; by being an icon that others can only aspire to be, but never ever attain. You know, kind of like perfection. No wonder Descartes said something that sounded suspiciously like, “I think in French, therefore I am!” (Or was it, “I think, therefore I am French”?)

I am amazed by the way the French manage to have the rest of the world eat things that smell and taste like feet. And I stand in awe of the French when the world eagerly parts with their hard earned dough to gobble up such monstrosities as fattened duck liver, fermented dairy produce, pig intestines filled with blood, snails, veal entrails and whatnot.

The French manage this feat, not by explaining the benefits and selling points of these, ahem…, products, but by a perfecting a supremely sophisticated display of incredulity at anyone who doesn’t know their value. In other words, not by advertising the products, but by embarrassing you. Although the French are not known for their physical stature, they do an admirable job of looking down on you when needed.

I got a taste of this sophistication recently. I confessed to a friend of mine that I never could develop a taste for caviar — that quintessential icon of French sophistication. My friend looked askance at me and told me that I must have eaten it wrong. She then explained to me the right way of eating it. It must have been my fault; how could anybody not like fish eggs? And she would know; she is a classy SIA girl.

This incident reminded me of another time when I said to another friend (clearly not as classy as this SIA girl) that I didn’t quite care fore Pink Floyd. He gasped and told me never to say anything like that to anybody; one always loved Pink Floyd.

I should admit that I have had my flirtations with bouts of sophistication. My most satisfying moments of sophistication came when I managed to somehow work a French word or expression into my conversation or writing. In a recent column, I managed to slip in “tête-à-tête,” although the unsophisticated printer threw away the accents. Accents add a flourish to the level of sophistication because they confuse the heck out of the reader.

The sneaking suspicion that the French may have been pulling a fast one on us crept up on me when I read something that Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) wrote. He wondered what this ISO 9000 fad was all about. Those who secure the ISO certification proudly flaunt it, while everybody else seems to covet it. But does anyone know what the heck it is? Adams conjectured that it was probably a practical joke a bunch of inebriated youngsters devised in a bar. “ISO” sounded very much like “Iz zat ma beer?” in some eastern European language, he says.

Could this sophistication fad also be a practical joke? A French conspiracy? If it is, hats off to the French!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Francophobe. Some of my best friends are French. It is not their fault if others want to imitate them, follow their gastronomical habits and attempt (usually in vain) to speak their tongue. I do it too — I swear in French whenever I miss an easy shot in badminton. After all, why waste an opportunity to sound sophisticated, n’est-ce pas?

A French Eulogy

[This is going to be my last post of a personal kind, I promise. This French eulogy was an email from my friend Stephane, talking about my father who was quite fond of him.

Stephane, a published writer and a true artist, puts his feelings in beautiful and kind words. Some day I will translate them and append the English version as well. It is hard to do so right now, but the difficulty is not all linguistic.]

Manoj,

Nous sommes très tristes d’apprendre le départ de ton père. Il était pour nous aussi un père, un modèle de gentillesse, d’intégrité et de générosité. Sa discrétion, sa capacité à s’adapter à toutes les choses bizarres de notre époque, son sens de l’humour et surtout son sens des responsabilités sont des enseignements que nous garderons de lui et que nous espérons transmettre à notre enfant.

Nous avons beaucoup aimé le texte que tu as écrit sur ton blog. La perte de quelqu’un de si proche nous renvoie aux mêmes questions de l’existence. Qu’est-ce que la conscience? Comment évolue-t elle avant la naissance et après la mort? Combien y a t-il de consciences possibles dans l’univers? La multiplicité de la conscience totale, la faculté d’éveil de chaque conscience, la faculté d’incarnation d’une simple conscience dans le vivant, végétal, animal ou humain… Tout ceci est surement une illusion, mais aussi un mystère que les mots de notre langage ne font qu’effleurer et survoler. De cette illusion reste la tristesse, profonde et bien “réelle”. Ce que tu as écrit sur la tristesse me fait penser à un poète (ou un bouddhiste?) qui évoquait l’espoir et le désespoir comme d’une frontière symétrique à dépasser afin d’atteindre le principe créateur des deux oppositions. Ce principe, il l’a nommé l’inespoir, un mot étrange qui n’existe pas car il contient deux opposés à la fois. Ainsi, je pense souvent à ce mot quand je regarde les étoiles la nuit, ou quand je regarde ma fille en train de dormir paisiblement. Je trouve notre univers d’une beauté totale, évidente, inexprimable. Puis je réalise que tout est éphémère, ma fille, ceux que j’aime, moi, et même les galaxies. Pire, je réalise que cet univers, c’est une scène de sacrifice où “tout mange”, puis “est mangé”, des plus petits atomes aux plus grandes galaxies. À ce moment, je trouve l’univers très cruel. À la fin, il me manque un mot, un mot qui pourrait exprimer à la fois la beauté et la cruauté de l’univers. Ce mot n’existe pas mais en Inde, j’ai appris qu’on définissait ce qui est divin par ceci : “là où les contraires coexistent”. Encore une fois, l’Inde, terre divine, me guide dans mes pensées. Est-ce que c’est vraiment un début de réponse? Je pense que ton père y répond par son sourire bienveillant.

Nous pensons beaucoup à vous. Nous vous embrassons tous très fort.

Stéphane (Vassanty et Suhasini)

PS: It was difficult for me to reply in English. Sorry… If this letter is too complex to read or to translate in English, just tell me. I’ll do my best to translate it!

Manoj Thulasidas a écrit :
Bonjour, mon cher ami!

How are you? Hope we can meet again some time soon.

I have bad news. My father passed away a week ago. I am in India taking care of the last rites of passage. Will be heading back to Singapore soon.

During these sad days, I had occasion to think and talk about you many times. Do you remember my father’s photo that you took about ten years ago during Anita’s rice feeding ceremony? It was that photo that we used for newspaper announcements and other places (like my sad blog entry). You captured the quiet dignity we so admired and respected in him. He himself had chosen that photo for these purposes. Merci, mon ami.

- grosses bises,
- Kavita, me and the little ones.

La logique

[The last of my French redactions to be blogged, this one wasn't such a hit with the class. They expected a joke, but what they got was, well, this. It was written the day after I watched an air show on TV where the French were proudly showcasing their fighter technology.]

[In English first]

Science is based on logic. And logic is based on our experiences — what we learn during our life. But, because our experiences are incomplete, our logic can be wrong. And our science can lead us to our demise. When I watched the fighter planes on TV, I started thinking about the energy and effort we spend on trying to kill ourselves. It seems to me that our logic here had to be wrong.

A few months ago, I read a short story (by O.V. Vijayan, as a matter of fact) about a chicken who found itself in a cage. Everyday, by noon, the little window of the cage would open, a man’s hand would appear and give the chicken something to eat. It went on for 99 days. And the chicken concluded:

“Noon, hand, food — good!”

On the hundredth day, by noon, the hand appeared again. The chicken, all happy and full of gratitude, waited for something to eat. But this time, the hand caught it by the neck and strangled it. Because of realities beyond its experience, the chicken became dinner on that day. I hope we human beings can avoid such eventualities.

Les sciences sont basées sur la logique. Et la logique se base sur les expériences – ce que nous apprenons dans notre vie. Mais, comme nos expériences ne sont pas toujours completes, notre logique peut avoir tort. Et nos sciences peuvent nous diriger vers notre destruction. Lorsque je regardais les avions de combat à la télé, ils m’ont fait penser à l’énergie et aux efforts que nous gaspillons en essayant de nous tuer. Il me paraît que la
logique ici doit avoir tort.

J’ai lu une petite histoire d’une poule il y a quelques mois. Elle s’est trouvée dans une cage, un homme l’y avait mise. Chaque jour, vers midi, la petite fenêtre de la cage s’ouvrait, une main se montrait avec de quoi manger pour la poule. Ça s’est passé comme ça pendant quatre-vingt-dix-neuf jours. Et la poule a pensé:

“Aha, midi, main, manger – bien!”

Le centième jour est arrivé. Le midi, la main s’est montrée. La poule, toute heureuse et pleine de gratitude, attendait de quoi manger. Mais, cette fois, la main l’a prise par le cou et l’a étranglée. A cause des réalités au-delà de ses expériences, la poule est devenue le diner ce jour-là. J’espère que nous pourrons éviter les éventualités de cette sorte.

La chienne

[Another of my French "redactions," this piece is a translation of a joke, which perhaps didn't translate too well. I was told that the French version was in poor taste. Now, reading it again, I feel that the English version doesn't fare much better. You be the judge!]

[In English first]

Once, an American was in England. In a public bus, he saw an English lady sitting with her little dog, occupying two seats. The bus was crowded and many passengers were standing. The smart American, inspired, asked the lady very nicely: “Ma’am, if we put your poodle on your lap, one of us standing could sit. Much appreciated.”

To his surprise, the lady didn’t pay any attention to him. A little miffed, he repeated his request. The lady ignored him with a disdainful look. Americans are men of action, and don’t waste words (where guns and bombs would suffice, as we know). Embarrassed, and being quite American, he picked up the dog and threw it out the window and sat down in its place.

An English gentleman across the aisle was watching the whole exchange. He tut-tutted disapprovingly and said, “You Americans! Whatever you do, you do it wrong. You drive on the wrong side of the street. You hold your fork in the wrong hand. Wrong habits, wrong clothes, wrong manners! Now see what you have done!”

The American was on the defensive. “I didn’t do anything wrong. It was her fault, and you know it.”

The English gent explained, “Yes my dear fellow, but you threw the wrong bitch out the window!”

Une fois, un Américain alla en Angleterre. Dans un bus de transport en commun, il aperçut une Anglaise et son petit chien assis, occupant deux sièges. Il y avait du monde dans le bus et des personnes qui se tenaient debout. L’Américain, étant malin, eut une bonne idée. Il demanda à l’Anglaise très poliment,
“Madame, si vous mettiez votre chien sur vos genoux, une des personnes debout pourrait s’asseoir.

À son grand étonnement, l’Anglaise ne tint aucun compte de sa demande. Gênè, il répéta sa demande. L’Anglaise le regarda avec dédain et resta toujours désagréable. Les américains ne perdent pas de mots, ils sont des hommes d’action. Embarrassé et étant assez américain, il prit le chien, le jeta dehors du bus et s’assit.

Il y avait un Anglais en face qui remarqua tout ce qui se passait. Il dit,
“Les Américains! Quoique vous fassiez, vous le faites mal! Dans la rue, vous conduisez du mauvais côté. Au diner, vous prenez la fourchette avec la mauvause main. Mauvaises habitudes, mauvaises coutumes, mauvaise morale! Et maintenant, regardez ce que vous avez fait.”

L’Américain était sur la défensive,
“Et qu’est-ce que j’ai fait? C’était sa faute, et vous le savez!”

L’Anglais lui répondit,
“Oui, oui. Mais vous avez jeté la mauvaise chienne du bus!”