For as far back as I can remember, my father, Achyut Damodar Bhogle, was a teacher of French at Osmania University.
He started his career at Osmania University as a Lecturer of Chemistry, but always seemed to have a greater love for foreign languages: German, Russian and French. Especially French.
It wasn’t easy to learn a foreign language in the India of the 1950s. There were some books that you could read, and there was the radio; my grandmother recalled how my father would struggle to tune to some shortwave radio station and listen to French news, plays or songs.
But to gain any real ability or expertise in the language, you had to actually go to that foreign country. I’m not sure how my father found his way to Paris in 1956; I’m guessing that he got some sort of a scholarship from the French Embassy because there was no way the family could afford it.
From all accounts my father returned from France completely in love with the country: its language, culture and people. He also returned with a full trunk of French books; possible because travel was by ship those days. There were books on literature and poetry (Albert Camus, Louis Aragon), history and politics (Pierre Mendès France, Charles de Gaulle), chemistry (Marie and Pierre Curie) and many more on leftist ideology, and I have no doubt that he read most of these books avidly and voraciously.
My father would go again to France around 1960, this time to Grenoble, to prepare a thesis on the phonetics of the French language in comparison with Indian languages. I believe he enjoyed this work even more because it involved more experimental work and fiddling around with sounds and tapes.
Osmania University had, during that time (1957-69), an exceptionally capable Vice Chancellor, D S Reddy. Reddy was keen to grow departments of foreign languages at the University. So, when my father returned, Reddy encouraged him to join the newly established Department of French as a Reader. Still in his mid-30s, this opened a wonderful new door for my father. In the early years, the Department was headed by French nationals (S Chouraqui, Mme C C Mookherjee and G Liotier), but after 1970 or so, my father headed the Department till his retirement in 1987.
Did my father enjoy being a French teacher? I believe yes, and I also believe that he was an exceptionally inspiring mentor. But I’m also sure that he soon got bored of teaching the same course. In Osmania University (and indeed most Indian universities) those days, you could study French either as a ‘second language’ in an under-graduate course, or by studying for the junior or senior diploma in French. This wasn’t particularly challenging: it simply meant teaching the 65 lessons in the first volume of Mauger Bleu year after year … and still not being required to teach the subjonctif tense which appeared only in the second volume!
My father therefore looked for other outlets to satisfy his creative passion. He wrote a popular fortnightly column in the top local newspaper on university reforms and the state of Indian education. He was the Secretary of a film society for many years and managed to bring in some classical French films by François Truffaut (Jules et Jim) and Jean-Luc Godard (A Bout de Souffle)
What was it like to be children of a French teacher? Well, the preferred exclamation at home was “oh là là!” and the favourite song was “alouette, gentille alouette”. Sometimes we overheard telephonic conversations in French, and I recall listening to a musical enunciation of sentences often ending with a “n’est-ce-pas?”
And, of course, we had to learn French! It wasn’t possible to have the Bhogle surname and not know French. All three of us, his children, went through the French rigmarole, and, later, all his grandchildren too!
Learning French with my father was hard work. Every exercise after every chapter of Mauger Bleu had to be completed, and if we made a mistake it had to be completely redone. It was essential to know if the accents leaned to the left or the right, the past participle of every verb had to be memorized, and the relative positions of the noun and adjective in a sentence were vitally important if all was to be right with the world.
And then we had to read French books aloud: Le Petit Prince was good fun, Voltaire’s Candide was harder, but the hardest was a very long treatise on le matérialisme dialectique.
Looking back, I realize that the method of teaching French in my father’s time prepared you wonderfully to become a good French reader or writer, but left you woefully unprepared for oral communication in French. We were ready for French words, but defeated by French sounds; it was scary when the ears encountered a torrent of rapidly spoken French.
In today’s world everything is so different. So many people now speak delicious French and in accents that, in the past, you were only likely to hear as you walked past 54 Boulevard Raspail in Paris’s sixth arrondissement. But I wonder how many understand or appreciate that certain quelque chose that truly characterises France and the French.
I’d like to believe that my father endeavoured all his life to convey that true essence of French tradition, heritage and civilization. It is nearly 11 years since he passed away, but I admire him – and feel proud of him – because he tried so hard to tell everyone, certainly in Hyderabad, what France was and what the French could be.