Like every other piece of furniture in this second floor flat, the round table in the living room belongs to the landlord. Its top, made of glass, is four feet in diameter. The center of this top is placed on a thick wooden cylinder which splits into three baroque legs touching the floor like closed fists. The tabletop is covered with a pink circular cloth. The tablecloth is whitened here and there with a faint random haze of flour; a few purple spots can also be seen on it. This is all spillage from the breakfast.

At breakfast they ate:
– Two out of the four pomegranates they purchased last evening from the fruit market and which were peeled shoddily by him in the morning, with little help from a short blunt Italian knife. The seeds of one fruit were redder than the other and he let her have most of these. The burst and squeeze of these seeds is the source of the purple spots.
– Three slices each of the rye bread she purchased last weekend from Le Pain Quotidien and which she froze immediately after coming home. The crust of the bread is covered with white flour which sheds itself on the table-cloth whenever they eat.
– Some homemade butter from milk bought every day from a nearby milk-seller, who charges a hefty premium for purity. She likes making butter and has done so ever since he taught her how, almost three years back. But she is not very good at keeping a watch at boiling milk. She has spilled it on more than twenty occasions.
– Conserves–apricot, papaya-ginger and gooseberry–which they bought from FabIndia two weeks back. This morning, he used a different spread for each of his bread slices whereas she stuck to the gooseberry conserve for all her slices. On the table cloth, there is one little smudge of orange, most likely an errant from the gooseberry conserve.

The tablecloth is theirs, one of the two circular ones that they had bought from FabIndia two years ago. It is 100% cotton, with a diminutive design: a hand-worked pattern of four parallel lines, same color as the fabric. The other tablecloth is blue. It is stored–folded thrice to form a circle segment with a forty-five degree central angle and then given another fold along the length–inside the top shelf of the wooden cupboard in the second bedroom. They never use that bedroom. Once, in the previous summer, they had let it to an acquaintance for three months. The man, working in the same consulting company as her, at a higher, more travel-prone position, hardly ever stayed in the flat, but paid his half of the rent in cash. This made them happy. But this man never paid the electricity bill despite using the air conditioner for the entire duration of his short stays in the flat. This made them unhappy, but only slightly. He didn’t want to ask the man for the electricity money because it wasn’t much and already the man was giving them enough. She wanted the man to pay. In the end, she managed to make the man pay.

As of now they are seated across the table from one another. She is wearing all-black Nike running clothes, without the shoes though, and looking intently into the screen of her large Lenovo laptop. She is wearing sports-wear because everything else she usually dons at home is currently inside the washing machine. The machine’s sinusoidal hum is reaching them intermittently, at each of its crests, mixed with a little shudder that is created when the oscillating machine strikes against the wall behind it.

Her top has an inch-wide strap at each shoulder. The straps cross each other on the back and meet the rest of the fabric just below the shoulder blades. This arrangement heightens the perception of muscularity. Although he has not seen her from behind today, he has always found the Nike wear incredibly sexy on her. This is part of the reason why she has chosen to wear it now instead of one of his loose T-shirts.

She is working on the eighty-seventh slide of a presentation which will be used in a Strategy Workshop for a client in Delhi. She has to travel to Delhi tomorrow morning to continue the same work. The client, a gigantic energy company, is looking for a renewed focus in their renewable energy segment. Acquiring smaller, more agile companies is not ruled out and will most likely be the recommendation. The exact question on her mind currently is the font-size for a text box which includes the three salient features of the strategy of one such potential acquisition target.

Her lips are pouted in concentration. Her blond hair is slightly rumpled on the left side because she has a habit of itching there when she is thinking. Some strands of her hair have risen to form distinct, fragile arches. The down on her left cheek is glowing in the morning sunlight that enters the room from the large window on her left side. Just below the window is the power socket to which a corded plug from her laptop is attached. The laptop has a terrible battery; it needs to be powered all the time. It irritates her a lot.

He is sitting exactly opposite her, closer to the wall with his back to it. In front of him, on the table, lie a large dictionary and several A4 size papers strewn in ample disorder. The front jacket of the dictionary says: “Harrap’s Shorter English to French | French to English Dictionary”. He finds the ‘Shorter’ in the title funny because the dictionary is massive; it is difficult for him to hold it in one hand.


Most A4 pages are printouts he took from his office yesterday. He works in an insurance company and the work allows him many free hours. He is in the habit of taking many printouts–of short stories, novel chapters, poems etc. Some of the A4 pages he printed yesterday have tables with two columns in each of which there is some text printed. The left column has French text:

Nous étions à l’Étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d’un nouveau habillé en bourgeois et d’un garçon de classe qui portait un grand pupitre.

and the right column has its translation in English:
We were in class when the head-master entered, followed by a new fellow dressed in common clothes and a school servant carrying a large desk.

On the blank side of some print-outs are his hand-written notes, a sample of which reads thus:

étions = IMPERFECT { être = to be}
j’ étais
tu étais
il était
nous étions
vous étiez
ils étaient

His is a top-to-bottom approach to the language. He had been toying with this idea of learning French in this manner for a long time. Four days back the impulse struck, and he copied the French and English versions of the first chapter of Madame Bovary from and placed them side by side in a word document. Thereafter, he classified all newly encountered words as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and phrases, to the best of his ability, and put them in another document. After reading each paragraph twice in French and then gathering its meaning from the English text, he is now trying to absorb each word in its entirety using either its dictionary listing or the information from the grammar section of the dictionary. Obviously, verbs are aplenty, and also the most cumbersome to get at. He first identifies the tense in which he encounters the verbs and then lists down all the variations within that tense–obviously, the variations depend on the change in the subject. There has been progress with verbs, too. Out of repetition the first part–tense identification–has now become almost automatic. He is also guessing, with an almost 90% accuracy now, all the various forms of the verb in the identified tense.

On the table there lies, just below his right hand, a fresh piece of paper on which he has made another set of notes. Some words have been italicized in his own hand, which makes his hand-writing appear childish and without control:

– Madame Bovary is in the IMPERFECT tense with some usage of the PAST HISTORIC.
– There is something called the SUBJECTIVE tense in French. It does not exist in English. The most obvious way to spot it is to look for the verb form that has a hat above its vowel.
– Avoir, faire, falloir, mettre, venir are critical verbs. One needs to remember all their forms.

In the last four days, his persistence has led to some fascination about being able to read large novels in French all by himself. His aim is to finish Madame Bovary first. He believes that he will not have to depend on the dictionary after he has trudged through the first hundred or so pages in this assiduous fashion. He will be able to scorch through the rest of the text then, he thinks, with a mastery of the imperfect and the past historic tenses. His confidence about his learning abilities is high, although somewhere within his mind the possibility of losing interest way before mid-way and thus rendering the project–like the many many other projects of his life–ineffective, has taken root. But he also knows that this is him, this person who takes on a herculean task, with an indelible hope in his own doggedness and the longevity of life.

What gives him joy is playing with the new language. He has jumbled, over the last couple of days, some of the new words he has learnt into new phrases and sentences. Often his phrases seek rhyme at the cost of meaning. At other times he just follows the permutations that his heart provides readily. What comes out in any case is interesting and funny.
Some of his creations are also typed on the back of one of the A4 pages. Below each of these lines are written, in English, their meanings. These meanings are written in a hand-writing different from his. Compared to his sharp edged alphabets, this handwriting has shorter, rounder forms–with a lot of space given to the twirls of the l’s and the circles of the short r’s; but with hurried m’s and n’s which merge with the next alphabet almost a bit too soon. This is her handwriting.

d’un coup de coude, et le casquette de loutre, tomba tomba tomba!
A nudge, and the otter cap, fell fell fell!

cependant c’est pendant
However it was during

le ciel parle en demi-voix, pendant la nuit, garnis par douleur.
The sky talks in whispers during the night, garnished with sadness.

Paris, sans la Seine, à peine, existe.
Paris, without the Seine, hardly exists.

peur par le toupet de cochon
frightened by the cheek of pigs

She first saw these last night, when he challenged her to get at the meanings of his French creations. She did get to the meanings, but precisely because she was closer to the meanings than he could be, she couldn’t help but marvel at their innocent inventiveness. She found the last one incredibly funny. It is something, she said, that no one French can ever come up with, for it is so absurd to be scared of the bravery of pigs. And why pigs, suddenly, out of the blue? He told her that all the words in his dabbling are from the first chapter of Madame Bovary. At this, she remarked that his was an extraordinary attempt. The Paris and Seine one was the most poetic, according to her. It cannot be known whether the added tenderness in their time in bed last night can be attributed to these silly things or not.

Currently, he is wearing a green T-shirt, faded out of repeated washings, with a little square badge roughly four inches by four inches, printed on the left side. The badge says “Rock Bali” in letters that, owing to their size, seem intent to blast out from the rectangle. On the reverse side is a larger rectangle which covers almost all of the back side. The picture printed there is beautiful in its own way. On its left corner stands a dark green jeep with a surf-board on top of it; everywhere else there are blue waves running in various directions; the waves have each a stroke of white in them. On the top of the picture, inside the rectangle, are written the words “Surfer’s Haven” in a light green font which is most likely Calibri.

He is not a surfer; he doesn’t even know how to swim. He bought the T shirt out of a vague inspiration arising from his enchantment with the blue waters of Bali, and a definite liking for the green color of the fabric. They had visited Bali together, about nine months back.


At this moment, he is tenderly moving his palm over the many papers in front of him, as if caressing his work, as if proud of the tinge of mental fatigue, and thinking of just how much he loves her, how perhaps his learning French is his way to belong even more to her. It will help him to understand her better. But can he really learn French like this? This question exists, but does not sting at this moment. It is a mellow question. Because somewhere in the back of his mind, a grey amorphous swamp has taken over. This swamp may be a feeling, or a realization, or the kind of epiphany that one experiences in the most banal of moments, moments in which nothing extraordinary happens, moments which can be called ‘coagulated’ perhaps, moments which are loaded with the present, moments which point to benign histories, moments which point to futures devoid of destinations. The grey swamp in his head, its smooth inebriation, is a product of living through one of the happiest moments of life.







Photo by Caterina Appia