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Summer 2008: I was seized by a sudden fascination to read The Three Musketeers in French. My logic was that a book must be read in the language it was written in to be fully enjoyed. Acting on this impulse and knowing no French, I enrolled in a summer course in French language at the National University of Modern Languages. Many questioned my actions. Nonetheless, I walked into Room 103 on 1st June with an optimistic skip to my stride and a mind open to all things French.

What first captured my attention when I glanced around the class was not the lack of an air conditioner or the huge poster of the Eiffel Tower; it was the populace scattered within the class.
Room 103 was a nut tin of vibrant snakes. There were people of all shapes and sizes. There were bulky business men in suites and tiny aunties with handbags twice their size. There were affable old uncles with wrinkles as remnants of many smiles and archetypal teens with baggy cargos and twisted mouths. Over the course of the month, as I struggled with my verbs and tenses, I got to know these individuals beyond their physical appearances. They all proved to be bundles of wisdom and prepared me for the even more diverse world outside Room 103.

Having done my O’levels from a private girl’s school, I was used to taking classes with twenty other girls, wearing the same uniform and sharing the same background. Back then, the prospect of reciting ‘Les Jours de la Semaine’ next to a grandfather of five was ludicrous and a bit daunting. But Mr Gulraiz turned out to be my constant companion for the five weeks of the course. In addition to being a competent French-speaker, he was an excellent authority on managing unruly children. He taught me to be grateful for my five impish siblings and to be a fitting elder sister to them. Next to him sat Madam Rana, an English Literature professor, who candidly admitted to taking the course to awe her students with her superior French skills. Her bluntness surprised me and she taught me never to hesitate to speak my mind or to be intimidated by images. She was also a brilliant, new contender in my ‘Jane Austen versus Charlotte Bronte’ debate. The genial housewives, who had enrolled in this ‘useless’ class to escape their rowdy brats, taught that education is the key to a prosperous life and to always wash the whites first. Fatima, a haughty princess from Japan, taught me that self-esteem is precious to everyone and that it is never wise to call fellow countrymen ‘smelly natives’.

My most memorable encounter was with Rachel, a fine arts student at a private collage and my platonic soul mate. Before this I never had the fortune to get to know a person from another faith. To me Rachel was a red bouncy ball in a sea of black ones. I had a gazillion questions to be answered and a million myths to be debunked. Rachel was a patient being, and every morning, after our customary ‘Bonjours’ she would stroll with me in the sweltering corridors and talk. She told me how she celebrated Easter and how she longed for a White Christmas. The difference in our religion was far from a hindrance; instead it opened up more waters for us to navigate as we both strove to fill to early French-free hours.

Despite being as different as black and white, when these wonderfully unique people heard of my mission to read the gripping French novel, they appointed themselves as my chaperones. They banished the doubts and fears that were creeping into my mind. They scoured over dictionnaire anglais-francais with me. They helped me get over my troubles with ‘r’. They gave me hope and confidence that only kind strangers can instil. On 22nd July 2008, I, Mishal Fatima, successfully finished The Three Musketeers in French, an accomplishment I’ll always be ridiculously proud of.





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