Mission Delhi – Gauri Mohan Gupta, Sushant Lok
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Many book-loving Delhi homes have Shakespeare, Tagore, Tolstoy and Ghalib. French author Marcel Proust is more difficult to spot, though his novel is counted among the greatest works in literature. There’s a reason to that rarity. À la recherche du temps perdu—In Search of Lost Time in the English translation—consist of seven fat volumes full of twisty dense super-long sentences.
In these times of mobile phone distraction, who can exercise sustained concentration over several months of such demanding work?
Even so, there must be a few folks in the city who have read the entire Proust (not counting the current French ambassador, who indeed has — he has already been featured in these pages). Actually, reading the first volume alone is considered a feat, for it is like an overture whose themes resonate across the volumes.
Here’s a woman in the Delhi region, who grew up in Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, and has completed the first volume, in the original French — no less.
“It took me three months to read Du côté de chez Swann,” says Gauri Mohan Gupta on a WhatsApp video chat, from her small first-floor studio apartment in Gurgaon’s Sushant Lok where she lives alone. A data analytics professional in a multinational, Ms Gupta is referring to the first volume’s title. She finished it despite her “10 hours daily of work-from-home, plus I do all the cleaning and cooking in the house.” And then there was not only the novel’s universally acknowledged difficulties, but also the fact that she was reading it in a language she started learning only in her adulthood.
Proust’s style can be difficult to understand, she admits, “so sometimes I would revisit paragraphs to make sense of them.”
In her early 30s, Ms Gupta’s daily life is intimately involved with the French language. She started learning it in her hometown. Later, her jobs in the corporate corridors of Bengaluru and Gurugram obliged her to engage with French colleagues and clients. She also lived in France for two years as an “English Assistant” in a school in Nantes.
Ms Gupta’s initiation to Proust took place late last year. A one-page extract of his novel was part of her academic project. “I’m doing an online C1 course (equivalent to Masters) in French from the Alliance Française in Chandigarh, and I ended up reading the whole volume out of interest.”
Was Proust fun?
“I enjoyed the love story of Swann and Odette, and also the parts on the society’s snobbery.”
Ms Gupta personally knows of nobody who has read Proust. She sees it as a major accomplishment, especially as she read the formidable first volume in the language it was originally written in. “French has always been an escape from my mundane life. To immerse myself in it and the worlds it contains helped me come out of my shell, and taught me the importance of individualism, of taking a pause and reflecting and probing…”
An ambitious woman, she plans to carry on to the other six volumes. “My former teacher, who is now back in France, has promised to send me all the Proust books.”
Bonne chance, Madame !
[This is the 398th portrait of Mission Delhi project]