Would Auroville, the “utopian” town outside Pondicherry that over the years has attracted many foreign and Indian spiritual seekers, be where it was if not for French colonialism? No, argues historian Jessica Namakkal in Unsettling Utopia The Making and Unmaking of French India, and it is important to understand why.

“Auroville is not a French space per se, but that it came into existence through French colonial institutions. The reason it appears as a postcolonial and not a colonial space is because of the success France has had in depicting French India as a space of positive influence,” Namakkal writes. “In and near Pondicherry, the Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville serve as examples of how liberal discourse rooted in multiculturalism, spirituality, equality, and utopianism has displaced local Tamil populations from both land and history, time and space.”

In Unsettling Utopia, Namakkal – who is an assistant professor of the practice in international comparative studies, gender, sexuality, and feminist studies; and history at Duke University – examines the complex nature of Pondicherry (now known as Puducherry) as a “minor” colony, that was often defined in contrast to the much larger space of British India next to it, and what that has meant for its inhabitants.

I spoke to Namakkal about “minor” histories, the complicated identities of post-colonised subjects, what she calls “settler utopianism” and the need to decolonise history.

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Tell us a little bit about your academic background and how you came to write this book.
I went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, in the history department. And I started out broadly interested in histories of Empire, and as is the norm, veered towards the British Empire. It was actually a historian who’s at Minnesota, Patricia Lorcin, who convinced me that maybe the French imperial world was worth looking at and that there were a lot of unexplored areas.

In terms of French histories, people have been studying the empire for less time. In the French public imagination, there has been less public engagement with the empire outside of a celebration of it. That’s changed over the last 20-30 years. But still, there’s a real focus on North Africa, and to some extent West Africa.

It was really interesting to me that there were these areas on the margins that had not been looked at very much. I also worked with Ajay Skaria, who is an Indian historian. Working with both of them on this, I was really compelled, not just because of my personal relationship to India – my father is from India – but just because the historiography was really interesting. I really loved reading Indian history, and thought what was going on in Indian history was really interesting.

Putting those together was challenging. When there aren’t a lot of people working on the area you’re working on, you get the benefit of discovery – uncovering documents that people haven’t really written about – but also it’s hard to have a community of peers.

But it really shaped the project, to help me think about what it means to tell a history that isn’t very well known, and to make that appealing to as many people as possible.

If we could take a step back and get a larger sense of your arc and how you ended up in history…
I had always been interested in history – I tell my students I’m a really nosy person who just deeply wants to know people’s business – so getting to look into people’s pasts has always spoken to me.

Unlike other academic disciplines, we all have some sense of personal history, so it seems like something everyone can access. And that appeals to me. It is a way of storytelling that forces you to think about how people have thought at a different time in the world. And that’s really compelling to me too, for all of us to get out of our own world views and imagine a time when people didn’t think the way you do now.

I actually went to undergraduate school at the University of Southern California for film. While there, I wanted to make documentary films, so I went to this visual anthropology programme. I was doing this anthropology class, and it was… so colonial. From the early stuff, it was so horribly offensive. White anthropologists never learning languages, becoming “native”, doing things that today people would say, “it’s not right”.

That pushed me towards history. I had always been interested in colonialism, because of my own background, so I decided I wanted to go to graduate school to study it, though I had to work other jobs before I got to do that.

Jessica Namakkal, author of 'Unsettling Utopia The Making and Unmaking of French India'

Would you characterise your training or your “area” in history in any particular way?

After years of debating this, I think it’s global history. It’s a field that’s been emerging for a while. History has been very boxed in by periodisation and by geography. I don’t think that’s wrong, but I don’t think you can do the history of French India from one or the other vantage point – French history or South Asian history.

I think there are subjects and areas that need a global approach where you are really able to look at the way people move throughout the world and at institutions that aren’t defined – and I put Auroville in this category – by a nation-state.

You’ve written wonderfully about growing up mixed-race in the Midwest US. I wondered if people just assumed you were from Pondicherry or French-Indian as you were doing research from the book.
My mother grew up in Nebraska, in the Midwest. But her father’s family did come from France. So I’m not “French Indian”, but my mother really identified as having French heritage. It’s a funny story, though, because much later in life we found their passports and they were actually Italian passports – it is another one of those border stories, because in the Alps, you were not really French or Italian.

In the US, I’m quite racially ambiguous to most people. Everyone thinks I’m Latina. But in India, I tell people about my Tamil family – there wasn’t a lot of assumption, but people like hearing about it.

When I go to France for research, if people see me as South Asian, they will ask if I’m Tamil. That definitely does not happen in the US. So that says something about the South Asian presence in France…

If you had to distil for the reader, what are you setting out to do with this book?
My big aim in this book is to complicate the story of post-colonial India, in a way that is meant to help people understand that history is very messy. At an individual and community level, people have a lot of anxiety about not fitting into categories. You definitely see this with Pondicherians who get looked down upon by a lot of groups.

There’s this idea of a normative post-colonial Indian subject. And everything outside of that is either bad or a curious thing. But you’re not fully something. Problematically, what decolonisation, as a bureaucratic event, tells you is that something has ended. But it hasn’t.

I hope I show in the book that these families are intertwined with Frenchness, that culture gets mixed into it. When you even have [former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal] Nehru saying “French India will remain the window on French culture”, a famous line he said about Pondicherry at the end of French rule, you know that there are all these complicated identities.

I wanted to say that this should be talked about and even celebrated, in a way that understands the history of it. That’s on the Indian side of things.

Map of former French-Indian territories, from 'Unsettling Utopia The Making and Unmaking of French India'

Also I wanted to show how colonialism has not ended. There are histories of Pondicherry. Most of them are French. There are a few English language ones too. But rarely is the Ashram taken very seriously. The Ashram, and Auroville, are there for a reason. I’m not even saying perhaps it’s a good or a bad reason. But the reason should be talked about and taken seriously.

This speaks to questions about the circulation of tourists, how we remember sites of the colonial pasts, and the narrative of French Empire – where they think of themselves as “good” colonisers in India. They do this in some other places too, but especially in India, because India is such a big deal. India is huge, the world’s largest democracy, and having a good relationship with India is really important for France. So they like to say, you shouldn’t even call it colonialism, what we were doing in India.

Between understanding why the Ashram is there and engaging with what role these spiritual institutions played in politics, I think we get back to the focus on decolonising.

You talk of this work as being one of “minor” history. What do you mean by that?
The question of the minor for me was thinking through what it meant to be working in an area that is dismissed most of the time. My goal as a global historian is to say we don’t really need the borders of nation-states to tell us where history is.

After 1947, you had even [“Mahatma” Mohandas] Gandhi saying to these people [in Pondicherry], “Hold on, don’t do anything, just respect the French right now.” And you have France on the other side saying the same thing. You have these people who aren’t really being listened to by either state. And the British found this place to be a horrible backwater, that was just a headache to them.

The people of Pondicherry are not stateless. They are within state territories. But they basically have no agency. None of the people in power is listening to them. So what does it mean to look at this minor space that has been dismissed, even when you have this intense division of territory that truly affects people’s lives?

The picture on the cover of the book is a village in Pondicherry, where there’s a stone border down the middle, and police officer’s standing there. And that photo is from a murder scene, where they are trying to figure out on which side this man was murdered.

Within the major, the nationalist narrative is overpowering. It seems absurd to say that, because it feels like people know to question nationalism. Yet we have more nationalism than ever before. People in the US, people in France, people in India…

I want to poke at that, and point to all these other things that have happened, and ask – how does this fit into your nationalist narrative? If you say this is minor because, let’s say, only a million people are involved, which in terms of the population of India is small, I say we have an opportunity to make our understanding of what the nation-state is that much more complicated.

The book portrays how the minor helps define the major too. France uses Pondicherry to define itself in opposition to the British rule. Gandhi also uses the French as a counter to the British...
Yes. If you think about it, one of the reasons people go to Pondicherry today is because it’s on the beach. And you can get drinks. And it’s fun. It’s a good vacation spot. But the industry there is also focused on making people feel good about a colonial past.

They say, “look at how interesting these French-Tamil buildings are”. Maybe they are, but should that make you feel good? It doesn’t just happen here. It’s also true in New Orleans in the US, or Saigon. The monuments and boulevards and cemeteries all are turned into nostalgia for empire.

And I think this really seeps into the Indian public. It’s this space that doesn’t have to be related to Partition, or riots. Because for many it’s this “cute little place, and look, they were so nice when it ended, and we have croissants here…”

I don’t like that. It glosses over a truly troubled history.

One of the things the book draws out is the identity crisis that affects former subjects of empire, as Ian Sanjay Patel drew out in his book that we featured recently. In the 1950s and 1960s, it’s a fraught question of who is French-Indian. It’s about picking loyalties, but also the French deciding who is a “good” French Indian, and also Pondicherians worried about losing their individuality in the sea of Indians…
Before 1954, before France agrees to leave, what really happens is that people are trying to figure out where they would fit in the best. People have a lot of levels of “minor”. From being low-caste to being Tamil… Everyone in the South feels a little bit minor in this new India, with the coming Hindi language programmes.

Against this, there is the utopianness of France. If you’re in Pondicherry, you’ve had a French education, you’ve read French literature and you’ve read French history. In their colonial education, they really emphasise that everyone in the empire was French. They start their textbooks with “our ancestors, the Gauls…” this famous line. And they also recite the name of the colonies – that’s why everybody in France knows Pondicherry.

Which is why it’s surprising to those that go to France, that people there don’t think they are French. This happens to Frantz Fanon! But their educational propaganda was very effective in the colonies. People really had a sense of French-ness. People are not aware how racialised France actually is until they get to the metropole.

And so we get to the Aurobindo Ashram and Mira Alfassa, the Mother. You point out at multiple times that many see the Ashram as the most French part of Pondicherry. And you also say that the leaders of India and France saw “the celibate relationship between Aurobindo and the Mother was a sign of what future friendship between nations and states should look like”, instead of looking at the mixed-race French-Indians who lived in that space…
What I mean by that is that states really liked their partnership. They were celebrated and they are still being celebrated for it. What I’m suggesting is that their partnership did not threaten the social order. I have another article about a mixed-race family, but the point is, these families get erased from the story because they are not good models for what the post-colonial Indian family should look like.

It is about making this ascetic spiritualism, this celibate spiritualism an element of post-colonial identity. Of course we can look at Gandhi, and others through this lens too. These people that we celebrate, they all had wives and children, but you never hear about them. They get celebrated as individuals.

The other reason I make this claim about how important the celibacy is – there’s a footnote in the book about this – is that it’s been really controversial for anyone to suggest otherwise. People get really upset about it. I don’t care that much to be honest, but it’s clear that people are really, really interested in this relationship. It speaks to this idea that is being constructed. Spiritualism values purity. I think this purity – and I don’t say this in the book but this is my underlying feeling – is part of what a “clean” post-colonial nationalism looks like.

And in India – there’s nothing “clean” about it. I’m not talking about the roads. I mean, everybody is involved in so many different identity formations. This need to keep things pure in terms of caste, in terms of gender identity, in terms of community all come about through colonial institutions that are then hyper-amplified by nationalism.

So [Aurobindo and Alfassa] are symbolic of what that looks like. Because they’re both devoted to their place of origin.

Aurobindo grew up in an Anglophile family. He only spoke English. He went to a convent school. He didn’t learn Bengali until he came back from studying in Cambridge. He did all of that, and then he decides that he should learn Indian languages and go fight for independence. So there’s devotion there.

The Mother said that she was spiritually Indian. That she belongs on this land, because the land is spiritual. But she also says, I am French, because this is what my body is. The Mother’s family actually were Sephardic Jews from Turkey and Egypt, but she was completely committed to her French identity.

A postcard from Auroville

You introduce the ideas of “spiritual utopianism” and “settler utopianism” to explain both the Ashram and later Auroville. What do you broadly mean by these terms?
Settler utopianism is meant to indicate the sense that people who have a utopian vision are given the leeway to do things that others couldn’t do. People tend to excuse certain behaviours when there is a spiritual reason for it. So, maybe it’s not good to take away somebody’s land. But they had this vision, of a town built for everyone, that was supposed to be equal, and that was going to be for the greater good… right?

And that is literally what colonialism was. Everyone thought they were going to make a better society. Especially the settler colonies, like the United States and Canada. India is obviously not a settler colony. I’m not trying to claim in any sense that it is. What I’m arguing is something different – the people who are coming to Auroville are often coming from the places that were settler colonies. A lot of Australians, people from North America. Even if they weren’t colonial citizens. The Mother is, on the face of it, anti-colonial. But she practised these settler colonial activities, under the guise of spiritual enlightenment.

And this is nothing new. This is the story of the French Republic, particularly If you look at histories of Haiti, for example. I haven’t looked at spiritual settlements in other parts of India, but I’m sure there are similarities there, where you have wandering Westerners who have been completely immersed in these orientalist fantasies of the spiritual lives in India.

Spiritual utopianism and settler utopianism, the terms are meant to ask people to think about how someone who has a utopian vision is dispossessing and displacing indigenous people at the same time. To this very day Auroville’s promotional material are full of words like “frontier” and “pioneer”, all of these things that come straight from the United States experience of settlement. And it’s glorified, as if you’re doing it for the greater good.

You quote from a bit of Auroville promotional material that says people can be freed from the “slavery of the past” where, you claim, the term “refers not the actual history of enslavement, but instead to people who felt enslaved by the history of imperialism. Given the population demographics of Auroville’s first five or so years, it is clear that this call appealed not to the formerly colonised, but to those who came from the imperial centre, who actually desired to be free of their own complicity in the very recent colonial past.”
People are used to thinking that any spiritual mission, looking for enlightenment or a higher attainment of the mind, has got to be good. But we all live in a world where we’re connected to each other.

This speaks to the “minor” question. You can call Auroville minor. But they’re all connected to these other things. These early settlers [of Auroville] – they call themselves settlers, I don’t even have to use scare quotes – you have interviews with them in which they say, “We were idealistic, we wanted to learn Tamil, we were going to do the labour ourselves. But actually you could hire these Ammas for almost nothing. And the language was too difficult. So, I decided my lifelong dream was to bake bread, so I went and started the Auroville bakery.” The local Tamil women – and men, but a lot of women – do the labour.

The question is how can that [history] not be connected to the colonial world? This is why that “end of empire” break is problematic. Because, most of these spiritual spots were anti-colonial. So what does that mean to them? It meant that the Indian people got independence. But if you’re French Indian, the sovereignty of the state is not giving you any independence. You don’t know where to go – do I stay here, do I go to France? You’re sort of being thrown around the world, and jumbled, because you’ve been a colonised subject.

But for these people from abroad that are coming to Auroville, to them India is independent. And their presence there can be seen to be anti-colonial. Meanwhile, they are cycling around and complaining about the local people calling them “white woman” and things like that. My response is just: Are you kidding me?

You end the book saying that it is a “direct response to this tendency by historians, academic and popular, to want to understand decolonisation as a completed event that took place in very specific times and places, a narrative that has overlooked the impossible messiness of colonial rule.” What does decolonising history mean to you?

There are a lot of different ways to approach this. Just the fact that the conversation is starting is really important.

To go back to my origin story as a historian, after realising that anthropology is so colonial – obviously history is too. So what does it take to think through a different way of understanding things? There are a lot of approaches. You spoke to Manan Asif Ahmed, who makes excellent points about learning languages and looking at the medieval period, which is very much part of the project.

History is still a pretty conservative discipline. Certain pockets of it are not – like oral history and public history, gender and sexuality history, sometimes. But there’s this sense that archival documents are where history happens. Traditionally, if you’re interviewing people, that’s anthropology. You’re not doing history. So what do you do when there aren’t written records? Can you not tell the historical story any more?

My book is mostly archival records. That is just a function of my placement in the field and what I had to do, but ways to get out of that are by engaging the present. To say, Auroville is there. Let’s look back and see what was happening and to understand your own positionality in relationship to what has happened.

Is this book doing what I wanted to do in terms of that? I think it’s a start at it. There’s a lot of things that adhere to the traditional form of a historical monograph, that use the functions of colonial categories. So is it enough to question that? I don’t know. But I hope that the conversation gets started.

For me decolonising history has to do with getting non-academic historians involved in the conversation. It’s so important to bring together what we might call a personal history with how we understand the larger narrative. Because people are often rendered powerless by the fact that they don’t have a connection to the big narrative.

To be able to open that up and say, your experiences matter, your point of view matters, and let’s find a way to talk about it is a way to get out of the rule of experts. Certain stories have already been told. We already know about Partition. Indian history really in the North. So putting a little wrench in those gears is my humble contribution.

Are there misconceptions about either French-India or Auroville that you find yourself having to correct all the time?
There’s a lot of discussion about Auroville right now because of Akash Kapur’s book. So I’ve engaged with that. But there was a Buzzfeed documentary a few years ago about Auroville. And it’s just shocking to me how overwhelmingly positive people are. I’m not even trying to be a killjoy.

I just think people should say, what is this place? What is its history? I find myself right now having to really explain the history of this space, which is really complicated. Auroville isn’t in Pondicherry, and it’s not on French-Indian land. But it wouldn’t be there if the French hadn’t been in India.

You have to scan out a bit to see that. This narrative of a spiritual town built on universal ideals is so overwhelming that people want to hear that. I find myself having to be the person that says, ‘stop where you are and look at what the history here is.’

Are there areas of research, or tools of history, that you wish more scholars or students would pursue?
There’s a lot to do in French India. Especially in the post-1962 period. I hope people start to question the post-colonial narrative. Throughout South Asia, not just India, and everywhere. There is an important distinction in the way people that work in settle colonial history and colonial history operate. They’re different spaces, and sometimes they overlap, but there are reasons why there are different approaches to them. I don’t think those are wrong.

But I do think we should think about the continuation of settler colonialism. And that it’s not an all-encompassing thing. You see it on a minor level happening in places. It’s important to call it out, and to engage with indigenous thinkers who have been a part of this, who do the work on it, and see what their perspective – which might be a non-traditional perspective – is.

Don’t say – “India wasn’t a settler colony, I’m not going to engage with that when I think about it.” Because some of the most important work is happening in indigenous studies and settle colonial studies. To be able to go outside of your prescribed area and see what other lens you can look through to understand the situation… that’s important.

The nice thing about history is that everyone can write a history book. Everyone should write a history book. We can look at things a thousand different ways, and all of them would be interesting to talk about, whether you agree with them or not. I definitely don’t think there’s a definitive understanding of anything.

Are you going to continue working on French India?
I’m doing two different projects. One is about decolonising cults, where I’m talking about these other spiritual settlement spaces both in India and the US started by South Asian spiritual leaders, to understand mobility and migration and what the appeal is to non-Indians.

And I’m working on a personal history, with more of a focus on family and ethnicity and race-mixing.

Recommendations for those interested in French-India, ‘minor’ histories and beyond?

  • Ari Gautier, a Pondicherry novelist whose work is mostly in French, but whose novel, The Thinnai, has just been translated into English.
  • Pankaj Rishi Kumar, a filmmaker whose documentary, Two Flags, is about French Indians voting in the French elections and their quest for citizenship.
  • Danna Agmon’s Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India
  • An essay titled, “What is a Minor Literature”, by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.
  • Natasha Pairaudeau, Mobile Citizens: French Indians in Indochina, 1858-1954