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12 May 2008

How To Take A French Leave

Alliance Française, pull up your socks
Surajit Dasgupta

This article was written three years ago, more as a diary entry that was not intended to be published. It remained tucked, saved in my e-mail account all these years. Today I'm forced to tell the story to all, for I have just been through a horrendous week-long experience of total lack of professionalism by the second seniormost teacher of the institute discussed here. The curricula of the institute have changed lately, rendering the facts related to the courses obsolete. However, the spirit of the teachers, as I heard from the students at the institute's canteen this afternoon, remains unchanged — incorrigibly laidback.

Here is what happened last week. Readers who have been through my blog-post, “Don’t Dare Show Your Versatility in Public,” are already aware of the backgrounder to this. A teacher at AFD was entrusted with the task of translating our company’s product brochure by 2 May, with the deadline extendable maximum up to 4 May. When she pleaded being too occupied, we agreed to accepting it on 6 May. When it did not arrive by the 9th, anxious, I rang her up. She expressed surprise on receiving the call and said that she had e-mailed to my boss the translated document on the 7th already. My boss, not being computer savvy, allowed me to scan his entire inbox but the desired mail was nowhere to be found.

It is possible that one makes a mistake while keying in an e-mail address, notwithstanding the fact that the lady being spoken of is well versed with software applications; all she had to do was click on the “Reply” button against the mail my boss had sent her. If she didn’t, that’s still not a mistake of the order that should merit a harsh article. What followed, however, was inexplicably dodgy. The lady, my erstwhile French teacher, would just not receive any call from us thereafter. Curiously though, she would answer almost all of my SMSs, pleading either that she was “not carrying the ‘mobile’” or that she was rushing to honour one of her numerous appointments of the day. That our job, for which she would be paid as much as she had demanded, was equally professionally important did not occur to her.

In the morning of 12 May, it was a question of saving my reputation in the organization I work for. I could not have forwarded any of ‘madam’’s innumerable excuses — that the internet connection at her home had been defunct last weekend or that she had other appointments to keep or that she was busy conducting exams or that she is deemed very important by the French Embassy, which has been keeping her on her toes… My boss, I thought, must have assumed by then that I had been bluffing to him all the while and that I had not given the document to anyone for translation (maybe because I had once offered to translate it).

I had to go to another agency’s office in the Lodi Road Area to fetch the Mandarin translation, which had been completed by long ago. I hadn’t gone over to fetch it for I thought, so far away from Gurgaon, I should make not more than one trip; more so because Lodi Estate (where Alliance Française is located) is a stone’s throw from Lodi Road. On the way, waiting to clear the Toll Plaza at 10:35 am before driving at 100 kmph on the Gurgaon Expressway, I shot the French translator an SMS, “Have you sent the translation?” Quick came the reply: “No. exam going on… will SMS you once sent. Director is co-examiner and glaring at me (sic) because am sending SMS.” This was after the whole evening of 11 May went with her not attending to any of my frantic calls and an SMS reaching me early in the morning, saying: “Was away in Bangalore on an interpretation assignment, a sudden development for Embassy and Alliance… will send from Alliance by 10:30 (am) after exam supervision. My Internet at home is still down.”

After that, all my calls on the way to Lodi Road went unanswered. After collecting the Mandarin document from there, I went to AFD where the receptionist said that ‘madam’ had left the Alliance’s premises at 9:30 am. Further in my wild-goose chase, I rushed to Vasant Kunj where ‘madam’ lives, trying to contact her on phone all the while. When she did not attend to any of my calls — if you dismember a mobile phone without switching it off first, all callers keep getting the "unreachable" message even after the phone is reassembled and switched on again — I rang her MTNL number.

After several rings, the landline phone was picked up by her son who claimed his mother had rushed out to a cyber cafe to do my work as the net at her home was dysfunctional. I was at the Vasant Kunj D Block market then, hardly 200 m from her house. Not convinced, I rushed to her house to hear the same thing again when the son opened the door about 10 minutes after I rang the doorbell. This, even as I found his mother's car parked outside her house. The woman being my teacher once, I couldn't charge her son saying his mother was a liar. If that's too harsh a statement, I'm ready to mellow it down thus: What I am sure of is that of all her SMS's and my last verbal conversation with her on 7 May, at least one was a lie, to cover which she was at loss of words, due to which she was not attending my calls. This whole affair has caused me a terrible loss of face in the office. Before the document arrived from 'P...", it was thought I was bluffing. That charge has now been withdrawn. But a complaint remains: It was professionally a wrong judgement for me to have given the work to an "unreliable person". It's a pity that a woman whose French is envied by the French is found, professionally, an unreliable person.

The account above cannot be in public interest. But the one below certainly is. The aforementioned narration is to expose the material of which AFD’s teachers are made. For sure, the assignment the French teacher had was not sourced through AFD, but it is natural to presume that her lack of work ethic is a habit she acquired for being a member of a powerful lobby of senior teachers at the institute against whom Directors sent from France for extremely brief tenures cannot take any action.

Part II
From my yahoo account with slight modifications:
Dasgupta Surajit
suparcoeur@yahoo.fr a écrit:
Date: Tue, 5 Apr 2005 19:10:36 +0200 (CEST)
De: Dasgupta Surajit
Objet: 5/4/2005. for CAMPUS: the state of affairs of Alliance Française de Delhi.
À: Surajit Dasgupta

Institution of lethargy

Alliance Française de Delhi is the only institute in this city of millions whose French learning courses are recognised the world over, as it is a division of the French state that promotes the country’s language and culture. Alliance Française retains its place in the collective psyche of education enthusiasts the world over as “The Place to Learn French”. In effect thus, the institute has become an institution. Mostly due to a late adolescent craze of making a style statement by being able to utter a few expressions in French, and little for serious academic pursuit, aspirants from as far as Azadpur and Shahdara flock in large numbers to the institute’s Lodi Road centre.

Aantels of the world, unite! Go to AFD if you feel exalted in the milieu of half-baked intellectuals, not if you intend a serious academic pursuit of the French language. A photo exhibition, "Paris A Love Affair", by Amit Mehra, an artist who was part of the artist-in-residence 2006 programme, at Alliance Française de Delhi. Seen in this photograph are Pavan K Varma, DG, ICCR (below-centre). M Varadarajan, President of AF Delhi (in white on the right), Philippe Martinet, French Cultural Counsellor (extreme left), and all the directors of the 12 Alliances spread across India

The measure of the learners’ zeal can be gotten from the fact that many students living in the above extreme corners of Delhi have to wake up at 5 am to be able to attend the 7:30 am class.

This zeal is, however, never matched by an earnest participation by the teachers in the curriculum. The first session has recently been moved from 7:30 am to 8 am; yet, few teachers make it to the respective classes in time. Students, waiting haplessly for the teacher, curse themselves for having chosen AFD to learn French.

But the lack of punctuality is only the tip of the iceberg. Every now and then a teacher says, “J’arrive!” (I’ll be right back), goes to the staff room either to discuss with her colleagues the answer to a question asked by a student, or just to indulge in some nonsensical chitchat. She arrives with a few minutes left of the scheduled two hours, sporting an ear-to-ear smile, as if suggesting: “I’ve done one big favour to you all (by re-emerging from thin air!)”

The worst happened in 2003. Many of the newly recruited teachers were either not well versed with the language they are supposed to teach, or they are all hands and legs in matters of public speech and communication. Perhaps the sheer look of about 20 students staring at her takes the life out of the girl who has just graduated from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). She may just have been one of those starry-eyed children, like most of the students, who had once thought French was ‘fun’.

A routine kind of example from my first semester class of February-May 2003 will demonstrate this. A 20-something girl, a few months into her MPhil course at JNU, was my teacher. She taught: The translation for ‘in’ before a country is ‘en’ if the country is of feminine gender; and ‘au’ if it’s masculine. “What is ‘in Iraq’ in French?” I had asked. “À l’Iraq,” was her reply (“en Iraq” is the right answer). Another day, she goofed up with the rule that in certain cases, past participle agrees in number and gender with the subject. One day she would falter, the next day she would apologise.

Soon she would start calling me “monsieur” (sir) though I had lost all respect for her to accord her a “mademoiselle” (miss). Eventually, the inevitable happened as she asked me out of sheer exasperation, “Why has a student like you come for a beginners’ course?” My reason was to strengthen my base in the language I then knew a little.

This brings me to the context of the source of AFD’s teachers: JNU. Why JNU? It has a lot to do with the pedagogy of the sourcing institute being somewhat similar. Sources in AFD say that graduates from the Delhi University invariably have a terrible indigenous accent while they speak in French; sometimes they cannot speak a sentence despite their supposedly remarkable written skills. This makes one deduce that to the management of AFD, the apparent oratory of JNU graduates must be preferable to the potential writing skills of DU alumni. That was about the standard of AFD’s young recruits.

As for those boasting of “20 years’ experience”, they, too, have done little justice to their profession. Some time in 1983, a JNU graduate — as per the opinions of most alumni, JNU’s standards were much higher then — took the job of a teacher at AFD. Between two and five years of her joining, several “like-minded” teachers, more or less of the same age group, joined her. In due course, they got married to men quite established in their respective fields of work and also in society. So far, so good.

What bugged me was when I became quite friendly with some of the senior AFD teachers, I found a few of them nurture a never-ebbing hatred for the male species. They are, of course, entitled to their opinion, prejudiced or otherwise. The bothersome aspect was that, with the flimsiest of excuses, they would force most classes to deviate from any given topic being discussed to an inconsequential debate on men-versus-women, only to hear the girl students cheerlead the mêlée, watch the boys grin and bear it (as it used to be in the “Purushkshetra” show of Kiron Kher some nine years ago), and overhear the senior women students whisper, “It’s her personal life speaking again. Tch… tch… tch… !”

Whether the men in the lives of these man-haters might have been horrendous, I wouldn’t know. I do not intend to stoop to comment on their personal lives either. But the husbands of these women are for sure responsible for their women’s lacklustre involvement in teaching, if at least indirectly. With the men bringing home enough to fend for all, these women must have lost the urge to prove what they appear hell-bent on proving: “We are nothing less than men!” This, in fact, is the sad scenario in almost all schools in India — women teachers who joined the profession either to support their families with ‘extra’ income or for ‘pocket money’. Interestingly, the least punctual of all AFD teachers, also the translator in this story, is a single mother, bearing the responsibility of raising two adolescent sons. So, has the French socialist policy of tolerance for employees spoilt her professionalism?

Back to the past, shortly after they became mothers, the AFD teachers had requested the institute’s authority to let them have a crèche running alongside the pedagogical institute under the pretext of avoiding the familial distraction of the newborns’ concerns. Mercifully, that request was turned down. But the authority’s refusal could not save the institute from turning into a hangout.

The previous dispensation led by Mr Jean-Pierre Bricman was not a favourite of the old teaching folk though he bore with all nuisance of the said coterie. The new director, Mr Gérard Saby, must have designed an ingenious ploy. Early this year, suddenly the old brigade appeared in a frenetic rush to look for new jobs. Ms Florence Cédiey, the pedagogical director, offered such schedules and terms of work to them that even the most gentile of teachers would have quit.

They complain they are offered a pittance: Rs. 160 per hour. But in which other institute could these old-timers get the luxury of not having to discuss Victor Hugo and Voltaire, but speculate why Aamir Khan’s marriage didn’t work out, or whether Shahrukh Khan is bisexual? Every individual has a right to her personal space. This ‘space’ here may refer to these women’s taste. While that is nothing to complain about, imposing it virtually as a subject of discussion on a class that has gathered for academics cannot be accepted. In 2004-05, students used to pay Rs 4,500 for various courses. Now, they have to dole out Rs 6,500 for the same. Is it to keep abreast with Bollywood’s gossips?

When this writer was a student of AFD, there was hardly ever a two-hour session held with two hours of teaching. A 7:30 am class seldom started before 8:00 am. At about 9 am, the teacher would announce “une petite pause” (a short break) for a snacks interval. That petite pause would become a grande (big) pause as a sandwich and a tea or coffee couldn’t be finished in five minutes, especially when an 84-millimetre cigarette is added to it. And then, there were those half-an-hours unaccounted for when the teacher disappeared to ask her friend which of the four choices of a given multiple-choice question was the most appropriate one; but would return with the information that Salman Khan’s latest girlfriend, too, had fled!

As a teacher of mathematics, having come across numerous Indian students who score marvellously in exams despite defunct left halves of their brains, I seriously doubt the “20 years’” claim to fame, too. Let’s consider how past papers are discussed at the AFD. I, in 2003-04, tried the same papers that a student of session, say, 1998-99 had tried. During the semester-graduating examinations, thousands of photocopies of the exam papers are still made, which suffice as the practice exercises for years on end (I think even when my grandchildren visit these classes, if at all, half a century later; the exercises will remain the same). A month after the exams are over, mark sheets of all candidates along with the set of all correct answers come from nowhere other than Paris.

Now, when an AFD teacher suggests that a certain option in a multiple-choice question is “the right answer”, how do we know whether it is she or a French national based in Paris who thinks so?

In India, students poor at maths sometimes manage to score well because here we never come across a problem for the first time inside the exam hall; all questions are sourced from various books. Similarly at AFD, teachers know the answers perhaps because they have known them by rote for 10 or more years. If not, then why is almost 50 per cent of what is taught by the Indian teachers till the sixth semester, marked wrong by the French faculty of the seventh and the eighth semesters?

In lessons on business management, they say, “How many hours you put in is not important; what you put in those hours is.” Since grapevines surrounding the big Khans of Bollywood have been the ‘inputs’, the result of students is, at the least, better than expected.

I could know these teachers to such an extent because it was through friendship, and not journalism, that I learnt of their misdemeanours. To expose the extent of disservice they are doing to the future of learners and the profession of teaching, I had to write this article. For my friendship with them, I have not revealed their names.

The writer is a mathematician and linguist, now a corporate communicator and has been a journalist, a teacher and marketing manager (in reverse chronological order) in his previous vocations


Anonymous said...

Well, the lady in question has been working in this "unprofessional" way from donkey's years. Internet has been "down" since several years too... and all the other excuses that you can think of. She has been coming late to class for ages...

But frankly, nobody, not the clients who pay through their noses for the delayed translation nor the students seem to really pursue the issue. I wonder which is worse? acceptance of continued unprofessional attitude or continued unprofessional attitude in the face of this acceptance...

Anyway, as you said this is just one issue. The lady in question (everyone recognises though names are not mentioned) is not the worst of the worries that dog this institution. The lack of professionalism in Alliance also translates into a total lack of will to move ahead in life. Move to learn something, a zeal to do better what one is doing or has been doing for the past 20 years. And this feeling usually accompanies the idea that they have reached the top and that they have nothing to learn. One can only wonder what permits them to do so given that what they teach is a foreign language which they themselves hardly use with each other or with anybody else. Its clearly an image projected to muffle out any kind of opposition to the salarial advantages that have or wish to have.

It is indeed most unfortunate especially for the students who have to make do with teachers who insist that they push themselves to speak when they themselves couldn't be bothered to keep in touch with the latest realities of teaching methodologies or simply even use the language. They teach about "the art of writing" when they themselves spend days pondering over one letter. They denigrate the French way of writing just because they themselves are unable to bring elements of clarity, functionality and organisation (three important features, one would say, for any kind of writing) to their own work.

The point is that they are too afraid to show their weaknesses and thus refuse to make any move towards improvement.They also refuse to let anyone do so.

Well, those who accept the situation are probably equally to blame.

Anonymous said...


Je viens de découvrir par hasard cet article. Monsieur Dasgupta, je vous remercie pour cet article qui rétablit enfin la vérité sur certaines pratiques courantes à l'AFD de Delhi, raison pour laquelle on vous a sans doute dit à l'époque que j'avais attribué aux professeurs des horaires de cours et des conditions de travail horribles quand j'essayais simplement d'offrir aux étudiants des cours et un service à la hauteur des frais d'inscription qu'ils payaient...Je pense qu'hélas vous l'avez cru comme beaucoup, mais effectivement certaines personnes n'étaient pas à un mensonge prêt pour continuer de fonctionner selon leurs propres et uniques intérêts ...

Je vous prie d'agréer, Monsieur, l'expression de mes salutations distinguées,


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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.