Ari Gautier’s novel The Thinnai was published in May in Norwegian translation. Even though he lives in Norway, Pondicherry is his muse. The writer and poet has written two novels, a collection of short stories and an anthology of poetry in French, drawing on inspiration from his childhood neighbourhood. We met in Oslo at Melahuset, where Gautier arranges literary and musical events for a cultural institution named Horisont.

When asked about writing fiction about Pondicherry, Gautier said, “When I started to write, to be honest I did not know what to write about. It would have been easy, because I moved to Norway, to write about my immigrant experience. I was living in a totally different country, neither India nor France, a new country. I could write about how I coped with a new country at the age of 40. But I didn’t want to talk about myself.” He added, “I started looking for Indian French authors, Tamil French authors, and I found that they were almost non-existent. There was only one article about K Madavane, but that came later. It was very strange that there were no Indian French authors. Only one lady from Bengal, Toru Dutt, who wrote in the 18th century.” Excerpts from the conversation:

Surely there have been more Indo-French writers than K Madavane, how about André Beteille?
There are a lot of Pondicherrians who have written scientific books , non-fiction, about medicine, law, but fiction, no. Novelists, almost non-existent. There was a guy called Karavalan St Jean, who wrote poems against colonialism, but he did not get published. So I thought it was very interesting, writing about Pondicherry as a local author, through the indigenous perspective. Then it became a drug, I got addicted, I can’t write about anything else except Pondicherry.

For three hundred years all the novels were written by French people. All the colonial novels, exotica, the imagery of the white people, the white gaze on brown bodies. I wanted to move away from that narrative. I wanted to bring something new, something fresh through the Franco-Pondicherrian perspective.

Also how I see or how I read history. Historical books about Pondicherry were written by the French, very few were written by Indians. In recent times more and more Indians are writing about the French presence in India, and they are mostly Anglophone. When you compare both, you can see there is a difference. On one side there is a glorification or legitimisation of the colonial system, while the new historians are criticising the colonial system. The French, what they did very intelligently, they always portrayed themselves as good colonisers compared to the British, who were more violent. Civilisation, mission, the fine language, the fine cuisine, and non-violence. But what people miss there is the psychological violence which was inflicted on the Tamil people or the Indians. So that’s how I started to write about Pondicherry.

You’ve written about Pondicherry in your books, but you have recently also taken up the Madagascan aspect of your life.
Even though I discovered Madagascar late in my life, at the age of 40, I was not really prepared for that because I don’t have any emotional connection to Madagascar. I was born there, but I left when I was three months old, so I don’t feel directly connected. Even though my mother was Madagascan, I lost her when I was four years old.

Didn’t you have grandparents, aunts, and uncles?
They are there, I discovered them at the age of 40 when I moved to Norway. I left France in 1998, so I was just roaming around. After one year of vagabondage, I ended up in Pondicherry, and then stayed for eight years, and then I moved here to Oslo. And one day my brother called me and said, You are back in Europe. I want to go to Madagascar, do you want to come with me to find our roots? I said I don’t believe in all this finding of roots, I am going for vacation. He said fine, so I went there, and we found the family that was lost to us for 40 years, we found them in four hours. Just with one photograph.

Even though I have been there two or three times, I don’t feel any emotional connection to the country. Historically, yes, I am very interested in the history of Madagascar, especially the colonial history of Madagascar and how violent it was. Then one day I decided to write about Madagascar because I am very interested in, what I call, colonial complicity.

My father was sent to Indochina in the French army to fight the Vietnamese people. He was sent to Algeria to fight the Algerians. He was sent to Madagascar to fight the Malagasy. But he himself was a colonised subject. How you use a colonial subject to fight another colonial subject. It is the perversity of the colonial system and I call it colonial complicity. What my father must have thought at a young age. Was he conscious that he was going to kill his colonised brothers? Or did he think, Chalo, I am going to save my motherland which is France? Which, of course, was not his motherland or country.

I am interested in the narrative that finds out how to situate a colonial subject who goes to fight his brothers and sisters in other colonised countries. That is how I entered Madagascar. While I was doing research I found that Madagascar was separated millions of years back from Palakkad in India, and it’s called the Palakkad gap in Kerala. How do you connect these two things?

Have you written about this?
I wrote a short story for a magazine. A Malagasy poet asked me to write a story for his book project, but since the book project was delayed, he directed me to another magazine which was published in Belgium. It is called “The Separation”.

It is the most absurd story of – you know how much I like spirits and subaltern gods – so how spirits from Madagascar come to India to find a spirit they lost millions of years back. But in between in that story there is a story of colonial complicity, where my father goes to Madagascar and gets married to a Malagasy woman, who is my mother. Other than that biographical aspect, there is nothing there that is autobiographical. I am just imagining what my father would have said to my grandfather on my mother’s side when he got married to her. So I invented a dialogue, where the Malagasy father of my mother says I will not give my daughter to a guy who has come to kill my brothers and sisters. And then my father answers him saying that I am not conscious about that. It is an interesting narrative, where you imagine what these people will have thought about the colonial system. So that’s how Madagascar entered me, and now that I am more familiar with Madagascar, I am writing more and more.

What about your next book project, what is that going to be about?
I am working on two projects. When I write a big novel, it is nice to write some short stories in between. The novel I am writing is a big, big saga about a family, that covers the 300 year old history of Pondicherry. From the time the Europeans came to Pondicherry till today. I call it shifting identities, because they are Tamil, they become French they become Franco-Tamil, they become French, and they become Indian...and how all these identities keep on shifting over 300 years. What makes it interesting is that they travel round the world, because of the French colonial empire, from Africa to the Pacific Islands, to the Indian Ocean.

It’s a transoceanic novel where this family will move to all these different countries and bring back culture to Pondicherry. I need lots of historical material and it is going to take four to five years to finish this novel. I started last year but I have been a bit lazy because I published my third book, Nocturne Pondicherry. At the same time, parallel to this book, I am writing a book about the streets of Pondicherry because I am interested in architecture and urbanisation.

You’ve been to Pondicherry, you know the black town and the white town. What is this canal separating the two and why that ghettoisation? Why was each and every street of Pondicherry, the entire urbanisation of the city made according to caste and class? So each caste had their own streets. Interestingly, before the arrival of the Europeans, a Dalit couldn’t walk on a Velar street. Colonial urbanisation not only created a kind of justice, where everyone could walk on the streets, but it also brought different layers of ghettoisation, white and black. Where before there was a kind of apartheid happening between the brown people, now the colonial system brought different layers of apartheid, saying you brown people on one side, we white people on the other side. I am trying to explain all these social structures, why this street is called this, why is it named after that person. I bring back the memory of those streets.

But looking at this from a Dalit perspective, in French literature you had the negritude movement, but in Dalit literature there has not been much of a French presence. Do you think there will be other Dalits writing in French?
This is a very complex story in history. The pariahs, I am talking mainly about Pondicherry, not the entire Tamil Nadu, the pariahs of Pondicherry were, of course, neglected and put down the social scale, and so when the European came – just take the example of my family – in 1765, one of my ancestors converted to Catholicism. For him, it was a way to escape from the violence of the caste system.

He became Catholic, that didn’t make him a better person in society. But for him just escaping the caste system was good. And then in 1881, after the abolition of slavery, the French decided they would try out a new democratic, more just way of doing things, so Pondicherry and Salve in Senegal and also I think somewhere in Algeria, were the three places they decided they want to try out this system where they would give the opportunity or choice to the indigenous subject to become French citizens. It was introduced in 1789 but it wouldn’t be till 1881 that people started to use it. So in 1881, one of my ancestors said this is an opportunity for me to move away from the caste system, I am Catholic but still a pariah. In those days, even if you became a Catholic, inside the church there was segregation. There was a wall which was built. He decided okay, I will become French. So that is how he became French. By becoming French, he had the citizenship, but that didn’t give him better opportunities because it takes a long time, right? But who has taken advantage of this system? It’s me and my father.

That is why I am here now. My ancestors didn’t have that choice. It took several generations to move up the social – what is the word in English? Ladder? Ladder, yeah, exactly. That is what I am trying to explain, to say in my third novel. All these shifting identities. The Dalit or the pariah thing, even now, people, the Franco-Pondicherrian, who have gone from being a Hindu pariah to Catholic and then moved to become French, they will never go out openly and say I am a pariah. Because it is still something they are very ashamed of. I have never been ashamed. I openly say it. Thank God, my writing gave me that opportunity. I can’t go out in the street and say I am pariah, nobody will!

I think my writing allows me that outburst, to say I am pariah, I am proud to be pariah. Slowly Dalit consciousness has come to me. But then I also realised I am African as well, through my mother. My mother’s family is mostly from Malagasy people. Ethnically they are part Indonesian and part African, But if you look at a picture of my great great grandfather, he is from the Bantu tribe. So that negritude, as Aimé Césaire says, comes to me. Then I put these two things together, I coined a word called négrodalitalité, and I wrote a cycle of poems on that. People say the n-word is a bad word. It is a bad word in the Anglophone world. In the Francophone world, because Aimé Césaire proudly brandished that négritude, and I am Francophone, so I brand it very proudly. My négritude and my dalitalité.

As Dalit writers, we are trying to create solidarity. Paranjit has started so many different projects. The publishing house Neelam is one of them. They publish only Dalit authors. The Thinnai is coming out in Norwegian. It is getting translated into Tamil now and I only want to publish at Neelam. I decided that. To me it makes a big, big difference symbolically to publish at Neelam.

You have a Norwegian book release this month. Le Thinnai has been translated from French by Synnøve Sundby, you published a cycle of poems in Norwegian recently, and Le Thinnai is also being translated into Tamil. When I met you in India in 2002, you were teaching Norwegian students in Pondicherry, had acted in a film on Subrahmanya Bharati, and were a Bharatanatyam dancer. When you were young, would your 20 year-old self have imagined you would come to Norway to write about Pondicherry? What did you think you were going to do with your life?
When I was a kid, I used to write a daily diary. I was about five or six years old, I said I want to become a cowboy. Not bad for an Indian to become a cowboy. It was a sense of freedom, you know, take a horse and just travel around, and that is where my nomadic aspect comes from, I like the nomadic life.

One of my main characters I love to write about is Korovan, who doesn’t have a house, he has a nomadic house upon his head. So when I was 20, then it was a complex situation, because you know I moved from Pondicherry when I was 16. I wanted to become a dancer, but my father said no, I must not, there is no Hijra in the family. We are a martial family, we are Kshatriyas. Suddenly we became Kshatriyas from pariahs, because you went to fight in the French army. Shifting identities is very interesting. From being a Hindu pariah, you became a Catholic pariah, and from Catholic pariah you become a French citizen and from French citizen, because you went to fight in the French army, you became a Kshatriya. He said there is no Hijra in the kshatriya family, we are martial people.

But you learned Bharatanatyam.
Yeah yeah, but my father didn’t know. I was sneaking out. Thank God, at that time my father was in France. He just moved to France for a couple of years, he was tired of Pondicherry, so I was living in my aunt’s house and she did not have control over me. I would sneak out and learn dancing. When he came back, I told him one morning, “Papa, I am done with schools.” I told him why I wanted to become a dancer. He said fine, pack your stuff, go to France, you will learn your dance there. Let’s see how you dance your Bharatanatyam there.

And of course when I came to France, the family were not interested in art and culture, they were not interested in artistic things because it does not put bread on the table. They said no, no man, you have no education. You stopped going to school when you were 16. What do you want to do, do you want to study? I said no, I do not want to study. I want to dance.

So they packed me off to the army. Become like your father, do 15 years of military service and go back to India, you want to dance then, do whatever you want. That is how I landed in the army. I stayed there for two years and found out this was not the life for me. I did not want to spend my life being in the military. So I left the army when I was 20. And I was lost. No education, no work, no qualification. What do you do? You survive. At the age of 20 I did not know what to do. I was just surviving.

How long did it take for you to get your bearings?
When you met me in India 21 years ago, I was still trying to find myself. I left the army and did odd jobs, and finally I worked at the airport, which at the time was a prestigious job, working at the airport wearing a tie and all that. For a guy who has almost no education, I was quite successful, but then existentialism hit me. I said man, you can’t live like this. so I packed my stuff and I left. It was only when I came here at the age of 40, after meeting Irene…if there is one person I need to give credit for what I am now, it is my wife. People make mistakes, I made mistakes, she has stood by me until now. That’s why I say, without her, I am nothing.