The Indian novel in English is a significant presence on the global literary scene. Its success, however, casts into the shade the many Indian authors who use world languages other than English to address people and subjects usually ignored by English-language literature. A number of Indian writers from Pondicherry, Réunion, Mauritius and Western Europe, for example, have published dazzling fiction in French. But where are they in our minds?
K Madavane, born in Pondicherry in 1946, is one of the leading figures of this group. A professor emeritus of French literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Madavane began his career by studying the work of Eugene Ionesco, a Paris-based Romanian playwright who wrote chiefly in French. Madavane is also a theatrical director, noted for staging classic French plays, and with performances in English, Hindi and other languages across the world to his credit. His own plays, which include a remarkable retelling of the Mahabharata, are performed from India to North America.
But his fiction, such as the haunting collection of short stories, To Die in Benares (Mourir à Bénarès, 2004), is unobtainable in English and difficult to find even in the French-speaking world. This is a pity, because his stories, in which a lucid prose style passes from bittersweet reverie to grim humour or a devastating twist of fate, offer an unrivalled perspective on a forgotten corner of Indian history.
A Paper Boat on the Ganges
France’s colonial legacy in Pondicherry appears in Madavane’s fiction sometimes in a melancholic backward glance, sometimes in a painful spasm of memory. The story “A Paper Boat on the Ganges,” finds a narrator – who, like Madavane, grew up in Pondicherry during the final years of French rule – in an unexpected encounter with a former classmate. They recall their schooldays in the twilight period between 1947 and 1954.
India had won its independence from Britain, but Pondicherry was still in the grip of a French empire facing rebellions in Southeast Asia, Madagascar and North Africa. Its South Asian colonies were hardly quieter.
In Mahé, the French administration was briefly ejected by local rebels, supported by anti-colonial forces in the Republic of India. But France, humiliated by its defeat to Germany in World War Two and desperate to preserve its imperial prestige, hung on at all costs. It was only after another humiliating debacle, this time at the hands of Vietnamese forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, that the French government abandoned its Asian empire, including Pondicherry.
For the two schoolboys of Madavane’s short story, however, Pondicherry in the early 1950s was a quiet corner of France, not a battlefield in a global conflict. India was another country in their eyes. Educated in French, they had been trained to think of themselves as citizens of a faraway French homeland.
Their walks to and from school were shadowed by statues of national heroes like Joan of Arc and Joseph-François Dupleix. The statues still stand in Pondicherry’s old “white town” today, now joined by a monument to Gandhi. Dupleix, who as governor of French India in the 1740s, tried to conquer for France the kind of South Asian empire that Robert Clive would seize a generation later, makes for strange company with the great prophet of non-violent anti-colonial resistance. And Joan of Arc, who was herself a prophet of violent struggle against British imperialism, faces the Catholic basilica, hands folded in prayer.
Musing on the disappearance of his youth, of his French identity, and of the world in which an Indian boy could thrill to the exploits of Dupleix and St Joan, Madavane’s narrator asks: “What are they doing now, those proud builders of empires we once were?”
A Sacred Cow in Varanasi
Madavane can conjure the nostalgia of a lost colonial world, weaving together the passing of French ambitions on the Subcontinent with the disappointment of a character’s childhood dreams. Yet he can also satirise the pretension and foolishness of the former coloniser. In the short story “A Sacred Cow in Varanasi”, the narrator is once again a former subject of the French empire, making his way through a post-independence India where his erstwhile Frenchness makes for an ironic, awkward heritage.
He is charged with acting as a tour guide to the vain and imperious wife of a French diplomat (she is the “sacred cow” of the title). She constantly belittles her French staff and insists on an “authentic” Indian experience from a local guide. When the narrator arrives, she is surprised to find that he speaks fluent French, and offers him a condescending compliment. He acidly responds: “Madam, it’s no accomplishment. I’m one the products of your old colonies. I’m from Pondicherry. My ancestors, too, were blond-haired Celts.”
Here the narrator plays on a famous phrase of French schoolbooks, which used to begin their story of France’s national origins with the opening line, “Our ancestors the Celts...”. Even in France’s South American, African and Asian colonies, generations of schoolchildren read about “their” blond-haired, blue-eyed European ancestors. Like the narrator of “A Paper Boat on the Ganges,” the narrator of “A Sacred Cow in Varanasi” had learned as a child to identify himself with legendary figures of France’s national mythology.
The former seems lost in nostalgia, unable to find his bearings as an adult in post-colonial India and still shadowed by the ghosts of a vanished empire. The latter, however, claims the Celts as his own in order to make a claim to equality, and indeed kinship, with the spoiled French tourist. This kinship is both sardonic and nostalgic, absurd and evocative. In a flash, his reply reveals that between past and present, between empire and nation, between the myths that weave our identities and the accidents of history that unravel them, there is a vertiginous space of anxiety, irony, and wonder.