Second Language

Second Language

Sapna sips her café au lait on the patio of the Alliance Française de Bangalore. The styrofoam cup squeaks between her fingers, the beverage is more tepid milk than anything else, but her attention is diverted by the song playing on the music system, its lyrics barely discernible above the drone of autorickshaws from Thimmaiah Road. “Un grand bonheur qui prend sa place,” Edith Piaf sings in that strange, stern voice. “Les ennuis, les chagrins s’effacent.

Sapna makes her best attempt at translation. “Grand bonheur–great happiness,” she says aloud. “Les ennuis, les chagrins–boredoms, sorrows.”

On the other side of the white plastic table for two her classmate Maya lights a cigarette. “You pick up languages so fast,” she says. “You’ve got to apply for that scholarship.”

Sapna watches the cigarette fumes unspool into elongated figures. Leaping and somersaulting they rise before her and disintegrate into a haze. “My parents won’t allow me,” she says.

“How can they say no once you win?”

Sapna blushes at such flattery. She adjusts the collar of her new white shirt, the one she had to beg her mother to buy for her at the retail shop on Sampige Road, along with the black jeans, a size too small, whose waistband is now pinching her stomach. The blouse will flutter in the breeze as she strolls down the Rue de la Cité and past Notre Dame Cathedral, as the pigeons rise into the air all around, as she speaks in effortless French to Parisians who smile at her the way Madame Broussard, her teacher, smiles each time Sapna answers a question correctly.

She takes another sip from the styrofoam cup and bites into the croissant she purchased earlier from the Alliance bakery. The layers flake and melt against her palate, filling her mouth with their buttery, slightly sour flavor. The first time she tasted a croissant, a week earlier, she was surprised to find that despite its glazed surface it wasn’t sweet, and, unlike a samosa, did not contain any filling. So subtle, yet so rich! Just like the French language with its strange musical sounds, its elusive similarity to English.

“Tu n’as pas faim?” she asks Maya, pointing at the remains of the croissant on the greasy paper napkin.

“C’est stale,” Maya says with a laugh. “This is why you need to go to Paris.”

Maya is eighteen, a year older than Sapna, and is attending classes to “brush up” her French in preparation to apply abroad, to England, for a degree in history of art, a specialization that Sapna didn’t even know existed. Her own parents enrolled her in weekend lessons at the Alliance because a friend of her father’s, a software engineer, had advised that she would stand a better chance of getting a job at a multinational firm if she could put a European language on her resumé. It went without saying that French was no more than an extracurricular activity, never meant to distract from her core subjects: physics, maths, chemistry, and computer science.

“Why won’t your parents let you go?” Maya asks.

“They’re strict.”

“They’ve never been to Paris?”

“They’ve never gone abroad.”

“So, they’re worried about you traveling alone.”

“I haven’t yet asked them.”

“You should. Show them how much you want to go.”

Sapna imagines that in Maya’s world, unlike her own, asking for things is a sure way of getting them. The Kapurs live in a penthouse apartment in Emerald Enclave, a brand new complex in Lower Palace Orchards. Sapna took an autorickshaw there the previous week because it was halfway to the Alliance and Maya had offered to give her a ride to class. When the door to the apartment opened, she was blinded by the light that came streaming through the grill-free windows. Muslin drapes fluttered; marble floors blazed. Potted palms and crotons extended their elaborate leaves against the spotless walls. Her own home was by comparison a cave, with its chipped yellow walls and its dusty purple curtains stitched from a synthetic material her mother bought in bulk from Chikpet, along with the cheap lace doilies she draped over side tables and the television to protect them from dust.

Into this dazzling room Sapna had stepped before bending dutifully to remove her sandals, even though she noticed that Maya and her mother kept theirs on. Mrs. Kapur was dressed in dark cotton slacks and an orange silk kurta tailored perfectly to her tall frame. She looped an arm around her daughter as if they were girlfriends. “Maya tells me you’re a star in French,” she said while Sapna, struggling to undo her sandal straps, tottered on one foot by the doormat. “You should definitely go to Paris if you have the chance – it will change your life forever.”

Sapna pictured her own mother: her short, square figure that Sapna had inherited, the spreading patches of sweat in the underarms of her ill-fitting polyester blouses, and her hurried, heavy footsteps. Mrs. Kapur, by contrast, seemed almost to levitate above the marble floor.

Once the sandals were finally off, Sapna followed Mrs. Kapur into the living room, where her gaze was immediately drawn to a large painting of a star-studded sky arching above a cobblestone street.

“You’ll have to go to the Musée d’Orsay to see the original,” said Mrs. Kapur. “That’s one of my favorites. You have good taste.”

These last words made Sapna blush. She wished that she could stay longer in Mrs. Kapur’s glamorous presence. On her way out, when she turned to say goodbye, she was horrified to see the trail of greasy footprints her bare feet had left on the iridescent tiles. She considered asking for a wet rag to wipe away her tracks, but Mrs. Kapur was already grasping her hand, smiling and telling her to come again.

“You know,” Maya says now as they prepare to leave the patio, “if your parents are worried about your safety in Paris, tell them to speak to my mom. She let me backpack across Europe when I was fifteen; she’ll reassure them that you’ll be fine.”

“But she hardly knows me,” Sapna says, hoping fervently that a servant had cleaned off her footprints before Mrs. Kapur had a chance to see them.

“She knows how brilliant you are at French. If it weren’t for you, I’d be failing the damn course.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Sapna says generously. It is true that she lets Maya copy from her homework now and then but it doesn’t matter: Maya isn’t competing with her, and Sapna enjoys the classes too much to care. When she puckers her lips to imitate Madame Broussard’s pronunciation she feels a jerk in her stomach, as if a thread that binds her to a distant place is daring her to follow its tug. She tries to imagine her parents meeting Mrs. Kapur. Although they disapprove of Emerald Enclave and other such luxury complexes that are replacing the city’s old trees and bungalows, Mrs. Kapur has an air of dignity that Sapna suspects will impress her parents. You should definitely let her go to Paris, Mrs. Kapur will tell them in her serene voice. Believe me, she’ll be fine. She’s an intelligent, independent girl.

Outside the Alliance stands Maya’s chauffeur-driven car, a sleek white Lancer with tinted windows. “I’m serious,” Maya says as she climbs into the back seat. “Tomorrow’s Sunday. Mum will be around all day. Bring your parents any time.”

Sapna waits until the Lancer has turned the corner before making her way to her own vehicle, a battered algae-colored scooter that her father drives to work during the week. Still holding the remains of her croissant in one hand, for she has been taught never to waste food, she kickstarts the scooter and maneuvers it down Ramanamaharishi Road, staying close by the curb as the passing autorickshaws and buses shower her with exhaust. In Paris she will weave effortlessly through traffic, like the tousled Frenchman in the video Madame Broussard showed in class speeding his blue Vespa through the Quartier Latin with a baguette sticking out of his backpack. Bienvenue à Paris, il fait beau, il y a du soleil! An electric tower rises behind Mekhri Circle, its girders crisscrossing almost as elegantly as the Eiffel’s. Inspired, she presses down on the accelerator. The engine rumbles reluctantly; the world around her begins to blur as she gathers speed.

At the corner of her narrow street, she takes the turn without slowing down, leaning boldly into the curve. A vegetable vendor and his cart fill the space before her. She swerves right. The vendor yelps and swings his cart left. There is a brief scrape of metal against wood, followed by the tinkle of broken glass from the scooter’s headlamp. A pile of yams cascade to the ground. Sapna glimpses a pothole approaching her front wheel. She brakes, skids, and topples over.


The sun winks at her through the leaves of an overhanging rain tree. She’s sitting on the soft earth by the storm drain. The vendor is gathering his yams and shouting. She gets to her feet. The smashed headlamp of the fallen scooter glares up at her. In the middle of the road a crow eyes her mockingly as it digs its beak into her half-eaten croissant.

“Where was your head?” the vendor demands as he shuffles after his remaining wares. “In the clouds?”

Sapna mutters her apologies. She hoists the scooter upright and pushes it all the way to her house. Once there, she sits on the cracked front steps and covers her face with her hands. Such a fool she is! She sees the French pigeons descending on her, pecking at her ankles and her torn, dusty shirt as she stumbles through the Tuilleries, as all the Parisians in their immaculate suits gather around and point their manicured fingers at her. Ooh la la! Quelle horreur!



“That vendor should have given you one tight slap,” Mrs. Rao says that evening. She drops a steaming chapatti on Sapna’s plate and marches back to the stove, her rubber slippers slapping against the floor. “You’re lucky you didn’t break any bones.”

“Sorry, Amma,” Sapna says for the third time.

Mr. Rao shakes his head as he serves himself more cauliflower curry. “We’re spending too much on you these days, Sapna. College, new clothes…I can’t afford a new scooter if this one stops running. From now on you can take the bus to French classes.”

Sapna watches the chapatti collapse on her plate.

“Why aren’t you eating? Cheer up now, no use sulking.”

“I want to apply to this program in France. It’s a month-long stay in Paris. The fees are high but I can get a scholarship that will pay for everything.

“Paris,” her father repeats.

Mrs. Rao lifts another chapatti off the flame with her bare fingers. “I see. And when are you planning this trip to Paris, Miss Dreamer?”

“Didn’t you hear me? If I win the scholarship you won’t have to pay for anything. Not even the plane ticket.”

Mrs. Rao shoves a hot frying pan into the sink, where it smokes and sizzles. “She can’t even drive a scooter properly, and now she wants to go to Paris by herself. These French classes were a mistake. She’s getting more and more demanding, acting like French of all things is a number one priority. It’s not even a second language.”

Sapna remains silent and forces herself to eat. She has only one remaining chance and it demands that she be bold. “Oh, by the way,” she says calmly, “my friend Maya Kapur and her mother invited you for tea at their house tomorrow afternoon.”


“Mrs. Kapur.”

“Kapur is a Punjabi name. They must be one of those new rich families.”

“Yes, but I met her, and she’s very nice.”

“Why is she interested in us, I wonder?”

It is difficult to tell lies with a straight face. Sapna tries her best to keep her voice steady. “I don’t know, Amma. But it would be rude to refuse, wouldn’t it?


At night she sleeps fitfully. She dreams of a café with a bright red awning by the Seine. She is sitting by the window, watching the bouquinistes across the street. Accordion music fills the air. She feels a deep sense of contentment. This is for sure where she belongs. Then she catches sight of a waiter standing nearby. His mouth twitches at the sight of her. Rattled, she spills her coffee and watches it soak through her white shirt. The waiter has a long, sharp nose, like a crow’s beak. His gaze is hostile, jeering. Silly Indian girl, it seems to say.


The following afternoon Mrs. Rao insists on making a batch of coconut burfi to take to Mrs. Kapur. “Why is she being so generous to us?” she wonders aloud as she stirs the thick, bubbling concoction on the stove. “Calling us for tea without ever having met us? What will she expect from us after this? That we will invite them for dinner?”

“I doubt it,” Sapna says nervously.

During the autorickshaw ride from Kaverinagar to Lower Palace Orchards, she sits between her parents and plays with the hem of her salwar kameez. She had wanted to wear jeans, but her mother wrinkled her nose at the suggestion, and to keep her happy, at least until the subject of Paris was brought up again, Sapna gave in. The rough green chiffon of the kameez scratches her skin, and she feels the sweat collecting in her armpits.

Maya meets them at the door. She is holding a cordless phone to one ear. For a moment she frowns at Sapna as if she doesn’t recognize her. Then she lets out a squeal. “You’ve brought your parents – how sweet! Come in, come in.” She swings the door wide open. “I’ll go see if mum’s awake,” she says as Mr. and Mrs. Rao bend to remove their shoes.

“Her mother is sleeping?” whispers Mrs. Rao, stepping barefoot onto the immaculate floor. “Did we come too early or what?”

“Keep your shoes on,” Sapna mutters, realizing even as she speaks that her parents will not understand such a directive. She catches a whiff of the burfi’s sugary odor and wishes her mother had left the box behind – the rich smell is out of place here in this airy room with the exquisite curtains and framed European paintings. Panic seizes Sapna as it occurs to her that Mrs. Kapur might not be as welcoming as before, that she might be annoyed with Sapna and her parents for disturbing her nap.

A low voice reverberates somewhere above them, followed by the pad of moccasins on the spiral staircase. Mrs. Kapur emerges, this time in faded sweatpants and an even more faded t-shirt, her red-streaked hair spilling down her back. “Hello, Sapna,” she says. “Ça va bien?”

“Oui,” Sapna says, trying to hide her shock at how undignified Mrs. Kapur looks in shapeless clothes and unkempt hair. “Aunty, these are my parents.”

“Won’t you come sit down?”

Sapna feels her parents’ inquiring gazes aimed at the back of her head as she follows Mrs. Kapur to the seating area, which, Mrs. Rao will be sure to notice, bears no signs of tea or snacks. Mrs. Kapur folds herself into one of the leather-backed armchairs. Sapna claims the cane stool opposite, leaving the sofa in between for her parents. Mrs. Rao sits down slowly, holding the tiffin box with both hands.

“So,” Mrs. Kapur says, “what can I do for you?”

Sapna glances at her parents. Mr. Rao clears his throat. Mrs. Rao stands up and offers the tiffin box to Mrs. Kapur. “Just some sweets I made at home,” she says.

“How kind of you,” Mrs. Kapur says, accepting the steel box. “You needn’t have taken such trouble. Now tell me, how can I help you? Maya mentioned you had some questions for me.”

“Questions?” repeats Mr. Rao.

Mrs. Kapur looks at Sapna. “About Paris, yes?”

All three adults are now staring at her. She could be in Paris in this instant, at the café with the red awning, trying to tell the waiter what she wants: Un café, s’il vous plait. Except that for some reason she is shouting the words, and the waiter, as if he still can’t hear her, is speaking at the same time, his beak of a nose hovering close by her face.

Sapna inhales and pushes the vision out of her head. She has to do her best to make Mrs. Kapur understand. “Aunty,” she says, “I was hoping…I am hoping to go…to Paris.”

“That’s wonderful. And your parents support your plans, yes?”

“No. They–” The French waiter’s eyes bore into her the way her parents and Mrs. Kapur are seeing through her now. But she keeps speaking. “Can you tell my parents, Aunty, that I’ll be fine going to Paris alone? That it will be a good experience for me? I’ve tried telling them and it didn’t work. Please?” Sapna’s voice trails into a whisper. She sees the waiter turn on his heel, leaving her to bury her face in her white serviette while the Parisian customers avert their eyes. “What are you saying?” she hears her mother ask. “What the hell do you think you’re saying?”

Mr. Rao stands up. “I’m very sorry,” he says to Mrs. Kapur. “There has been a misunderstanding. My daughter told us that you were expecting us, but obviously we are intruding. Sorry to have disturbed you. Come, Sapna.”

From the floor above comes the sound of laughter – Maya is still on the phone, oblivious to her plight. Mrs. Kapur unwinds her long legs. “I can’t tell your parents how to raise you,” she says kindly.

Sapna stands up, her head bowed. Below the weight of shame in her stomach, something stirs. She feels her body turning towards the door. She steps over the doormat without waiting for her mother and father, who have to stop to put their shoes back on. At the landing she pauses for her eyes to adjust to the dim stairwell. Instead she sees before her the glittering waters of the Seine. The waiter returns with a spotless porcelain cup, which he places before her with a smile as Edith Piaf sings lustily in the background and drowns out all other voices.

Sapna starts to run down the steps, her dupatta streaming behind her as her parents shout to her to stop.


Image: Gustave Caillebotte [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons