JE t'aime (I love you)," says a lissome desert lad for the umpteenth time and thrusts his palm forward for a tip. Indulge him, and a flock of his urchin friends follow you for the rest of your sojourn in the citadel town of Jaisalmer. All of them squealing terms of endearment in the Gallic tongue.
There are more surprises in the clamour that emanates from this vivacious town in the heart of the Thar desert. These days, the native Bhopa melodies are sung to French lyrics. Frenzied folk artistes sing Frere Jacques to the accompaniment of the stringed ravanhatta in the shadow of the awesome Golden Fort.
A few yards away, in a congested bylane, Prem Chauhan's bookstore offers an array of French bestsellers. "But most of my profits come from the sale of the Dictionaire Larousse Francaise-Anglais," Chauhan announces. He is quick to talk about the smart investment he has made in bringing out a cheap guidebook on Jaisalmer in French.
Though it finds no mention in Chauhan's guidebook, a small video-rental in Jaisalmer could well be a Francophile's delight. The lanky video-shop owner is known to peddle Francisi porn to an "interested" party. Gauging the right person is imperative in his business, the owner says cautiously. "After all, French blue films are not like French wine that is sold quite openly in our shops. My profits would soar if only I could advertise in French," he says wistfully, pointing at the banners in French plastered outside shops spilling over with colourful wares.
For tourists who may by now be convinced that they have stumbled upon a lost French colony amid the sand dunes of the Great Indian Desert, the Jaisalmeris have a smart quip: "Jaisalmer is undergoing a French revolution." Hardly surprising, considering over 7,000 French tourists visited the city last year. The second-highest group of foreign tourists was of German origin, recording a relatively modest 3,904.
But why are foreign tourists, and most of all the French, making a beeline for this desert town? "We love to come to Jaisalmer," says Claire Liaubet, a tourist. "The French mind perceives Jaisalmer as a dreamland of sand dunes and colours where one can stay in palaces and ride camels." Her companion, Gerard Lagrenee, claims the recent publication of a Hindi-made-easy series in French by Assimil, a French publishing house, has enhanced the interest in India. "The guidebook has given French adventure-seekers the confidence to explore India on their own," he observes.
Of course, with a little help from the Jaisalmeris. Says old Suman Bhati smoothening his Rajput moustache : "We earn so much from the French tourist, the least we can do is to please the atithi narayan by learning to speak his language."
The local youth have been quick to realise this. And have taken to the French tongue like a duck to water. Many tout their services as guides, conversing comfortably in French though none of them has taken formal lessons. "Francisi bring money and money can be a very motivating teacher," is 20-year-old Vikram Joshi's simple logic. Joshi who failed his class VII examination three times, says he cannot speak English properly. "But I can speak French fluently—I picked it up here."
It is, perhaps, the visiting Gaul who is the most bewildered by the French ambience of Jaisalmer. A befuddled Jacques Raffin barely manages a polite smile as the steward murmurs merci for a tip in the lobby of Hotel Narayan Niwas where he is staying. "I thought I was going to a faraway land," says Raffin, "where I would have to use sign language to communicate." Not that he's complaining. Raffin is pleasantly surprised at the Franc efforts of the Jaisalmeris to lure the lucre in.