Commissioner's little-known Parisian love affair: Meet Madame and Monsieur Padsalgikar

Updated: Dec 07, 2016, 15:24 IST | Benita Fernando |

Over a year of living a la Française in Paris, a Master's degree each in French, breaking into the language when things must be kept confidential - here's Dattaray Padsalgikar and wife Aditee's best-kept secret

Aditee and Dattatray Padsalgikar. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Aditee and Dattatray Padsalgikar. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

It is nearly sunset when we meet IPS officer Dattatray Padsalgikar and his wife, Aditee, at their Malabar Hill residence. We are late by half-an-hour, after having cursed the traffic snarl at Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) - an inevitable outcome of the Coldplay gig. But the commissioner of the Mumbai Police is empathetic. "If you blame it on the traffic, I understand," he smiles, explaining how he has just returned from BKC himself. His two mobile phones buzz non-stop, and, between patiently attending to them, he offers us une demitasse de café —French for a small cup of coffee.

The commissioner's love for all things French was revisited when, earlier this month, he was invited to address the 36th convention of the Indian Association of Teachers of French. At the convention, he evoked one of his favourite 19th century poets, Charles Baudelaire, who composed the memorable verses of Les Fleur du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). "I first visited Baudelaire's tomb in the cemetery of Montparnasse, Paris, on August 31, 1992. Turned out that he had died on that very day, 125 years ago. I thought it was a great coincidence," says Padsalgikar.

The 40th commissioner of the force, Padsalgikar is a postgraduate in French from Fergusson College, Pune. It is where he met Aditee, his classmate who also graduated in MA French. Both admit that between the sciences and the humanities, the latter won. "Maths and chemistry were definitely not something I was interested in. Besides, my introduction to French happened very early because of my mother," says Aditee. Lata Nadgauda, her mother, had done a part-time course in French over the course of four years and was a founder-member of the Alliance Française in Pune. Padsalgikar calls their decision courageous as both hailed from families where the studious went on to become doctors and engineers.

Their college days were spent with French cinema, screened at their department, the National Film Archive of India and at Film and Television Institute of India. "Moreover, my mother was a member of an organisation that arranged French visitors to India. Families in Pune, such as ours, hosted these visitors and my family made friends with them ever since I was in the eighth standard or so," says Aditee. At college, a visiting professor from France had records of the latest French songs; Aditee, Padsalgikar and their classmates would then borrow these to listen to the latest that was popular in France.

The commissioner feels that times have changed when it comes to learning French, or any foreign language. He plays BFM TV — a French news and weather channel — on his smartphone and says, "We didn't have access to all this technology back then."

"Learning French is different from speaking French. Our first opportunity to speak the language the way the natives did came in 1992," says Aditee. That was the year when Padsalgikar, on deputation with the Home Ministry in New Delhi, was offered a chance to study at the International Institute of Public Administration, which came under the French Prime Minister's office. Having played a vital role in his civil services exam, his flair for French helped him understand public administration and the technological advances of that time. "It also served as an introduction in to some of their most senior officials and the French police system which is well-divided and spread out. Policing in the rural areas was done by the Gendarmerie, earlier under their Ministry of Defence, although today it is a bit different" he says.

Aditee also managed to join him for the latter part of his term in Paris and enrolled herself for two courses at the Sorbonne. It meant living à la française — the way the French do it. Then in their early 30s, they visited cafés that feminist Simone de Beauvoir and her partner, the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre had frequented — Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore. Visits to museums and absorbing art right from the 19th century to the moderns was part of their time there. "At the Musée de l'Orangerie, you must sit and gaze at Monet's Water Lilies, which are arranged on a parabolic wall," the police chief recommends, seated below a range of Gond art sourced from Maharashtra that hangs on a wall at the home.

"We remembered every lesson, chapter wise, from Mauger Bleu, the textbook we had studied back in Pune. There was one about visitors from Canada coming to Paris for the first time and walking around the Champs de Elysees. Our Paris visit was straight out of Mauger Bleu," says Aditee. While the cultural immersion came alive well beyond the limitations of the textbook, the two things Aditee refrained from trying out escargot and grenouille — snails and frog legs, the staple diets commonly described in French textbooks. "We lived like students again in a hostel in those days, free from the baggage and designations from back home," she says.

Once back in India, Aditee turned to teaching French at the Alliance Française in Pune and Mumbai and then at Mumbai university. The couple's interest in French has passed on to their children, Ashwin and Shruti. "My grandson has been taught the Alouette song and is able to point to his head and nose as the lyrics tell you to in French," says Aditee. She jokes that French comes handy for the family when they want to keep things confidential.

As we wind up for the evening, we ask what the commissioner and his wife, now in their late 50s, thought of the Eiffel Tower on their first visit to the City of Love. Aditee smiles shyly ("We were an old married couple by then") but Padsalgikar says, "Do you know the best use the tower was put to?" Aditee remarks, "Superman?" alluding to the film. And then, an enthusiastic Padsalgikar draws our attention to the military past of the monument of romance, "In World War I, it was a tower to transmit important messages."

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