For many years my brother and I have been obsessed with a scene from The 13th Warrior in which Antonio Banderas, playing an Arab poet, has to go live with a group of Vikings. In this montage, he sits at the Viking campfire night after night, unable to understand anything initially. Slowly comprehension grows like a patchwork quilt, until the thrilling night when he floors the Vikings by insulting them in Old Norse.
The thrill of the scene lies in his ability to deliver sick burns. But also in that his learning seems relatively effortless. Just a lot of flickering of beautiful Banderas eyes by firelight. Not the banging of head on desk that usually accompanies serious language learning. I learnt the Tamil alphabet but have since forgotten it. I learnt Kannada in school and frequently mix up the matras with Malayalam, Hindi and even the barely learnt Tamil. I did a few months of Spanish and French but can only speak them among strangers who will not judge me. I have been studying Hindi all my life and have more “Gender Trouble” than Judith Butler.
At least that’s the way it is for me. But not for some of my disgustingly savant friends, such as Asha, who learnt the Kannada alphabet in one bus ride from Jayanagar to Seshadripuram in Bengaluru. Or Vivek, who learnt the Bengali alphabet in a week of bus rides after a trek in Sikkim and West Bengal. Or Sneha, who went from not knowing one word of German one year to being qualified to take a teacher training course the next year. You know, it strikes me that instead of learning new languages, I should consider finding new friends (and also not letting them get on buses).
Cut to this weekend, when I was out of the house and away from my neighbourhood after a long stretch, feeling very cheerful. This made me want to play music very loudly in the car. After listening to Enjoy Enjaami three times (because how else can one enjoy anything), I decided to play Khaled’s Aicha. Khaled’s Didi was a global sensation in my childhood. In my school in Muscat, Oman, we all sang it with as much fervour as we sang Snow’s Informer—and with as little comprehension. Techno had just arrived in our midst and all dance competition numbers involved moving with sternness and animal passion to 2 Unlimited’s Tribal Dance.
The two reigning jokes about music that season were that no one knew the words of Informer and that Meatloaf had scammed the whole world with I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) because no one knew what “that” was but we all pretended to (there was a third one when one student in class IX watched an interview of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on TV and the great man said “Radhe Radhe touched my soul”. All of us philistine, barbaric teenagers of Indian School, Darsait went around for two weeks saying “Radhe Radhe touched my soul” apropos of nothing.)
It was truly not a great time for music but it was a great time for enthusiasm, so I remember every playlist from that time in detail. Or so I thought. Then this weekend I started playing Aicha and I was shell-shocked. Suddenly I could understand what Khaled was singing after the Aicha, Aicha bits that we had all sung soulfully back then. “Aicha, Aicha, ecoutez moi?” Was he not singing in Arabic? Was he...was he...singing in French? I was finally having a 13th Warrior moment—an effortless surge of language—only I was on a flyover in Bengaluru. I immediately texted everyone I knew from that life. The results? I was again convinced that what I needed was better friends. Apparently, my friends didn’t know French back then but they all knew Aicha was French.
Betrayed, I messaged my friend Brinda, around whose family I am always reminded of the opening line of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Luck Of The Bodkins. “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.” Like Monty Bodkin, I too am ashamed but I never worked up the courage to speak French in Brinda’s Francophone household, not even when I was doing 20 hours of it a week, a couple of years ago.
But in this moment of shock I needed to ask Brinda if I was truly alone. Her reply was a cool balm to my lacerations. Back in the days when Aicha was new, she spoke no French and now, playing it for the first time in decades, she exclaimed, “The whole thing is in French!” Ah, the relief of company. Meanwhile, other dastardly friends were sending me texts about the Algerian underground scene and the Raï music genre of Oran where Khaled first became a sensation. All acting like extra-informed informers. Raï means opinion, one of them told me. Oh, same as Hindi? I asked. My informer looked confused. I don’t know, she said. I did. I could have been less self-congratulatory. I should have been. I would do anything for love but I won’t do that.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released in August.