From Ari Gautier

“Express trains”, “Trains of hell”, “Night trains”, “Trains and landscapes”, “Trains of happiness”, “Trains of memory”, and finally “Trains and phantasmagoria”. Alongside the poets and novelists who gave it its letters of nobility (Verhaeren, Cendras, Valery Larbaud, Marinetti...), there are pages on trains by Zola, Valéry, Apollinaire, Jacques Roubaud, Proust, Paul Morand, Desnos, Walt Whitman, Svevo, François Bon...

The break-in of the train as a “pure sign, open to all times, all images and all senses” (Roland Barthes) is part of a symbolic network where it represents escape and travel or refers to a path of life, to reverie. Promise of freedom on the one hand, in the service of genocide and deportation on the other, the train is embodied in experiences that range from jubilation to tragedy. The train is movement and statis at the same time. Time is suspended...

And it is in this state of suspension that I find the suspensional Ananya Jahanara Kabir, in a train suspended in time.

From Ananya Jahanara Kabir

The following conversation took place between us on a train between Paris and Strasbourg on the 21st of September 2022; exactly 18 months after we were meant to have travelled from Strasbourg to Paris in March 2021. After two years of virtual conversations on and about thinnais, imprisoned in separate boxes, we were speaking to each other side by side, on this train. As always, I am the one who takes notes in my blue “thinnai kreyol notebook”, but this is the first time that Ari can see me write.

Ananya Jahanara Kabir (AJK): Le Thinnai has been around for three years, and the English translation has finally been published. What does this development mean to you?

Ari Gautier (AG): The book was written for a French readership in order for them to know the history of Pondicherry. To counter the selective memory of the French, and to remind the French of historical facts – of why we are French – to counter their surprise when they realise, ‘on parle français en Inde?!’ (they speak French in India?) The entire book is about the French presence in India and its effect on society – on language, customs and habits.

At the same time, there is complete ignorance in India towards the history of this French enclave. People go there for beach, booze and the idea of French cuisine – but know nothing about the people. So the translated version reveals this forgotten but living identity to a larger audience.

AJK: Although, admittedly, it does so by participating in the hegemony of the English language.

AG: Since French is not a common language in India, the English becomes important. If you translate it into Tamil, it remains in a regional circuit.

AJK: The English translation is quite a different book, however. Blake Smith omitted a number of details, because, as you explained to me, he wanted to focus the story on the relationship between the French Caribbean and Pondicherry via the figure of Gilbert Thaata.

AG: Yes, the excision of about twenty percent of the book by Blake Smith has changed a lot. It’s ultimately two different books. But I took that gamble.

AJK: One of the stories Blake’s translation leaves out is that which concerns the character Jean-Pierre Nagalingam going to Bombay. Removing this story from the translation takes away the connection between Pondicherry and other places on the coasts of peninsular India, a connection that you and I theorise as a “littoral” vector. But it does sharpen the other vector of connection we also work on, the “transoceanic”, that connects Pondicherry to far-flung places across the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and even Pacific worlds. Because in the end, your storytelling reminds us that Pondicherry has long been suspended in a web of connections – the littoral, and the transoceanic.

AG: Yes even my first novel Carnet secret de Lakshmi connects these two coastlines of India. Ultimately I want to show how Pondicherry connects and is connected to the littoral and the transoceanic. It’s not a small island.

AJK: But Pondicherry is not an island!

AG: No, but it behaves like an island. As you yourself have shown through your theorising of coastal enclaves, Pondicherry has this island-like structure.

AJK: indeed, whether island or island-like, it is this enclosed structure which behaves like a pressure cooker for the cultural process we call creolisation. And this process gives Pondicherry its unique character. Let’s talk a little bit about how your new collection of short stories, Nocturne Pondichéry, gives us further glimpses into this uniqueness.

AG: You could say that there’s a thinnai connection between The Thinnai and Nocturne Pondichéry. Eighty percent of the stories feature a thinnai. But more than that there’s a psychosocial connection. The short stories are about the impact of history on the characters I create.

AJK: So tell us about the journey you make – from Carnet secret de Lakshmi – an allegorical tale about Pondicherry, told through a cast of animals, to Le thinnai/ The Thinnai, a historical novel about Pondicherry told through a child narrator, and finally to the short stories collected in Nocturne Pondichéry, which are psychosocial explorations set in the contemporary period. What’s the movement arc these works trace?

AG: In Lakshmi, all the characters have elements of me in them. But those elements are fragmented, disguised, and reassembled. My next novel, Le thinnai, is clearly autobiographical. I got the courage to bring the personal dimension to the public, undisguised. In Nocturne Pondichéry, the short stories trace the psychosocial dislocations of the Franco-Pondicherrian community, which I know well because I belong to it. I feel a maturity has arrived in me, which enables me to move from myself to the community.

AJK: With Nocturne Pondichéry you have also moved from novels to the short story. Why this shift? Is a collection of short stories the best way to represent Pondicherry – as a mosaic?

AG: The short story has always been for me a transitional form. I have been working on these short stories for a long time, while in between novels. The first short story in Nocturne Pondichéry was written in fact as a transposition. I transposed a shocking story I had read, about prostitution in Kerala, to Pondicherry. It struck me as an appropriate way to talk about Pondicherry’s sordid side. Another collection is also building up – it’s about the streets of Pondicherry, and how each street has a bit of history attached to it that reveals so much about the caste and class divisions that shape this space.

AJK: And now you are writing a new novel too; not just a novel, but a “saga”. Pondichéry: Une saga kreyole. Tell us about it.

AG: Yes, this novel is a saga, because I need a way to think about three hundred years of the French in India and their relationship with various maritime communities, especially Muslim maritime communities such as the Maraikkars. And I also wanted the novel to depict Pondicherry’s independence struggle through political wrangling. Moreover, because its protagonist is gay, I will also bring a new kind of narration through that identity.

AJK: And all this material will be channelled through the concept of creoleness?

AG: Yes. After I met you, the idea of the novel changed. I was thinking at that time of my novel as “Pondichéry: Une saga famille”: a family saga. This family was formed through transoceanic connections. But after we met and started working together, I realised that this family also enables the process of creolisation. You brought creolisation into my writing, and it made me reorganise everything. The creole element is of course already there in Le/The Thinnai, but it will be elaborated on more, and in a more conscious way, in Pondichéry: une saga kreyole.

But can I ask you a question now? What would you say is the difference between postcolonial English Literature and postcolonial French Literature, since you’ve read all my work in French?

AJK: Thanks for the question! One thing that drew me to you as a writer was my realisation that you and I, products of two different yet intersecting colonial histories, had very similar feelings of love and affection and ownership for English and French, the languages which we relate to as our mother tongues. I grew up with English as much as Bengali as my first languages because my father’s family is extremely Anglophone. And you have a similar dual relationship with French and Tamil. I understand what it is to love and feel for a language that has been imposed on our ancestors by the colonising apparatus.

Our ancestors made the languages their own, even as we continue to do so. In that sense, writing postcolonially, whether in French or in English, reveals similar complicated emotions on the part of the writers towards the language in question. The difference though, is that postcolonial French writing from India sheds light on to an entangled and complex colonial history, an inter-imperial history, that connects you and me as much as it separates us. And that’s a complexity that postcolonial Anglophone writing doesn’t usually deal with. And a related difference is the relationship of Indian writing in each of these languages, to the market. Where is the market for your books?

AG: Between the selective memory of the French and their colonial policy of cultural assimilation, and the amnesia of postcolonial India, there is indeed very little space. But the market is, I believe, opening up now. The Thinnai in English translation will, I hope, confirm the value of the small aperture.

AJK: Absolutely, the reviews and reception of the book are already pointing towards an eager new readership. But what made Hachette India go to the book? We know how difficult it is to place a so-called “unknown” writer in a new market.

AG: I believe it is their interest in alternative writings that we don’t see in the mainstream.

AJK: It’s a great investment they made. Because everyone wins, in a way. The mainstream itself can get reconfigured. This, too, is how creolisation impacts on culture.

AG: What is most “alternative” about The Thinnai is that it is a book about everything and nothing. In your long critical essay on the book, you have noted how it is a book that goes everywhere without going anywhere. Everyone is imprisoned on the thinnai while the storytelling goes on. And it’s also a book without a protagonist.

AJK: In fact, it’s a book which avoids the romance plot. The romance plot plays straight into assimilation. A meets B, falls in love, they marry and live happily ever after (or not). This story becomes the only way to narrate cultural encounter.

AG: I find it boring and tiring to stay there.

AJK: Indeed, there must be other ways to talk about how cultures encounter each other, grapple with each other, generate negotiations, compromises, and innovations. That’s the story of creolisation, and it’s also the process through which Le thinnai creolises the novel as a genre which was born in Europe at the height of colonialism. Pondicherry has creolised more than the French language; with your novel, it has produced an Indic creole response to the French narration of the everyday, which has come to us through the grand traditions of Rabelais, Zola, and Flaubert.

AG: That’s exactly the point, Rabelais, Zola, Victor Hugo, are my colonial masters’ references. How and where and when do I enter the narrative? Positioning myself, existing, narrating are the fundamental elements which are important in other to tell my stories and my History. Appropriation is my motto.

AJK: And creolisation, the result. Look, we have reached Strasbourg. May many more journeys await us!

Ananya Jahanara Kabir is Professor of English Literature, King’s College London, who works on creolisation as historical process and cultural theory. In May 2020, she co-founded with Ari Gautier the online cultural platform le thinnai Kreyol, which promotes their vision of multicultural, plural, and creolised India.

Ari Gautier is a writer and poet, whose most recent works, The Thinnai (the English translation of his second novel, Le thinnai) and the short story collection, Nocturne Pondichéry, were both published in the summer of 2021. In May 2020, he co-founded with Ananya Jahanara Kabir the online cultural platform le thinnai Kreyol, which promotes their vision of multicultural, plural, and creolised India.