A Surprise Diwali Gift: The Highest Civilian Award, Chevalier dans l’Ordre

By Renu Rakesh, Womens Feature Service

As director of Alliance Francaise Jaipur, Dr Asha Pande receives regular communications from the French Embassy in India. So when a couriered envelope arrived recently at her Jaipur residence from Delhi she was in no hurry to open it, busy as she was with Diwali festivities. It was only a day after it had arrived that she found the time to look at her mail. Inside the envelope was a surprise Diwali gift: The highest civilian award of France, Chevalier dans l’Ordre National de la Legion d’honneur (Knight of the National Order of Legion of Honour).

A letter from the French Ambassador, Jerome Bonnafont, announced that on September 28, 2009, French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had signed the decree nominating her for the honour. The announcement has lobbed her into an exclusive club of Indians who have received this honour: Satyajit Ray, Pt Ravi Shankar, R.K. Pachauri and Amitabh Bachchan.

The first Indian woman to receive the honour, Dr Pande heads the Department of Dramatics at Rajasthan University (RU) and is the founder director of the university’s Master in European Studies programme. She also heads RU’s Centre for French and Francophone Studies. Dr Pande has been honoured for promoting French at school and college levels in Rajasthan. In 1982, when she started her career, there were no institutions teaching the language at the school level, and there was no degree course in colleges either. Today, the number of students learning French in Rajasthan at different levels is an impressive 7,000.

The award, she says, is recognition of her 27 years of dedicated service to promoting French here. Her love affair, as she likes to call it, with the language started in 1971 when she passed higher secondary in Pune and shifted to Delhi to be with her eldest brother, the late M.P. Pande. As she had missed the deadline for admission into any of Delhi University’s undergraduate courses that year, she had no option but to wait for the next session. “My brother, who had a doctorate degree in Russian and was an assistant professor of the language at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), suggested I join French in JNU. That year the university had started a five-year integrated post-graduate course in French language, literature and civilisation. The course had an exit option after a year. So I decided to heed my brother’s suggestion,” recalls the 55-year-old professor.

But she was soon hooked. “I was speaking fluent French by the time I had completed a year and my teachers wanted me to finish the five-year course. They just wouldn’t allow me to quit. And, most importantly, I had already fallen in love with French,” says Dr Pande.

As luck would have it, three years through the course, she got a fully-funded scholarship to go to Paris for three months. It was a University Grants Commission (UGC) fellowship to Sorbonne University, Paris. Remembering her first experiences in the West, she says, “I was only 19 and it took my parents some time to decide if they would let me go abroad. We were a group of six students, mostly girls, who boarded the Air India flight to Paris. It was a new experience: First air travel, first trip abroad, and first journey alone. When we got down in Paris, we saw walking escalators and were scared to even step on them. In Paris, it was like being in a dream world. There was no language problem but a huge culture shock. I found myself in the midst of officious and cold French speakers and was extremely insecure. But, as I now tell my students, beyond fear lies liberation.”

When she returned to India, the country was hosting its first-ever International Film Festival. The organisers were scouting for French interpreters. “One evening I had an organiser at my doorstep in Godavari hostel. I was loath to take up the assignment: Exams had just been announced. But when the organiser said, ‘Beta, yeh desh ki izzat ka sawal hai (the country’s prestige is at stake)’ I couldn’t say no.”

This was the turning pointing of her life. The event made her a celebrity, as she rubbed shoulders with the who’s who of the Indian film industry and the bureaucracy. At evening parties during the festival she would be the centre of attention. “Everyone knew I was a student. Everyone loved me. But I was in a haze: I studied all night, wrote exams in the morning, and worked all day. I also met the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at one such party at Rashtrapati Bhawan. She shook hands with me and spoke in French,” recalls the professor, fondly.

She got a UGC merit scholarship for pursuing doctoral studies at the Sorbonne in 1976 after completing her Masters in French but she could not pursue it as she had got married to the 1973-batch IAS officer, Ashok Pande, who is currently Rajasthan’s election commissioner. Post marriage, she took a career break from 1977 to 1981 to bring up her two sons, Siddharth and Gautam.

In 1981, when she decided to get back to work, she had a lucrative offer of Rs 1,500 (US$1=Rs 46.8) a month from Air France, which was opening its Jaipur office. But her husband motivated her to take up teaching instead. Consequently, she joined Jaipur’s Maheshwari Public School for a monthly package of Rs 700. A year later, for the first time, French became a Board subject in the state. That year Dr Pande also founded the Indo-French Cultural Society for promoting academic and cultural relations between France, the Francophone countries and India. She also began a French club in her school where students were motivated to listen to French songs and watch films besides learning the language.

In 1987, Rajasthan University offered her an assistant professor’s post. Seventeen years later, in 2004, she started the Masters and PhD courses in French, taking French learning to an even higher level. Dr Pande is proud of the fact that because of her efforts there are more than 25 institutions teaching French at school level and 10 at the college level in the state. This year there have been six research scholars working in French. She has also been instrumental in developing university level cooperation with many French universities for student and faculty exchange programmes.

Dr Pande just wishes her mother were there to share her joy with her. “I was born the ninth child and the fourth daughter to my parents. Neighbours said nasty things to my mother for giving birth to yet another girl, but she was brave. She would often say: ‘One day, this girl will prove to be the best.’ If she were alive, she would be so happy for me.”

Empowering girls has become something of a mission for her. Dr Pande now runs the Vimukti School for girls from below-poverty-line families, offering them free transport, food, books and uniforms. She began with 20 girls and now has 250 students on its rolls.

She believes that the French honour that has come her way will encourage women who aspire to achieve greater things in life. For her it’s like the popular song that goes: ‘There’s no limit to reach for the sky/ No valley too deep/ No mountain too high…’

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