The year 2020... I should have and could have won it all, because it was the year of every success. A writer’s dream: to be recognised. For a year now, when I had learnt that success was going to knock on my door, I had been ready for it. I had prepared myself to wear the laurels of glory and parade through literary salons around the world.
But in that month of March, everything fell apart. All of last year, it felt strange to talk about a year when it hadn’t yet passed: but for me, unfortunately, it already seemed over. This abrupt end surprised me in my sleep while I was busy dreaming of success and adulation. I woke up in the middle of a nightmare. The Paris Book Fair was cancelled. Gone were the book signing sessions and the opportunity to meet new publishers for my next books. Gone were my travels and speeches. Gone were the days of recognition.
The hours that followed were filled with more bad news.
My two literary events in Strasbourg were cancelled due to the spread of the virus in the most affected region of France. Another even more important event was cancelled by the time the sun rose next dawn. A dozen eminent academics from King’s College London and French institutions had been about to gather, to discover my writings, discover and dissect my works at the prestigious EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences), Paris. But anyone travelling outside national borders would be quarantined on return. My dreams were quarantined.
So, another shuttered window for Francophone Indian literature... A phenomenon still unknown in the linked worlds of literature and publishing. Why and how do Indians write in French? The French presence and culture in India is almost unknown or forgotten in the world. Even the French don’t remember it anymore. And yet, some Indians write in French…
Pondicherry: an islet lost in the Indian peninsula that for decades was long forgotten in the memory of the colonial labyrinth. Asleep for a long time, this small town has suddenly woken up in the modern era, when the Indian middle class, caught in consumerist frenzy, rushes to discover a French art de vivre. The colonial vestiges have become a tourist market that attracts thousands of Indians and foreigners who want to experience the
“Pondicherry way of life”.
The souvenir market, sniffing out this bargain, doubles its ingenuity to satisfy these tourists who leave with suitcases full of trinkets from Auroville, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and the Manakula Vinayagar temple.
But no local literary memories to take away. When I visit a country, the most important thing for me is to read and buy local literature produced by the locals. This allows me to better understand the customs and habits of the country through the eyes of a native, which is more interesting than a foreign version.
For an area as small as Pondicherry, one thing that is surprising is the availability of so many different writers and literature. Very few cities in India can boast of selling books in French, English, Spanish, German, Italian, and various Indian languages.
This is because of its cosmopolitan character, and thanks, too, to the French presence, to Auroville, where people of more than twenty different nationalities live, and the Ashram, which represents the whole of India. This city is a real godsend for any tourist in search of reading if they are interested in reading. But, at the very moment one rejoices in this abundance of literature, one is challenged by an anomaly.
Where are the Francophone Pondicherrian writers?
Bewildering, isn’t it? As unlikely as it may seem, there are very few Pondicherry writers who write in French. How can we explain that this city, which was the seat of the French presence in India for more than three centuries, has hardly produced any local literature in French? It is difficult to understand how and why this Franco-Pondicherrian community, which has been French for three centuries, is unable to tell its story and produce Francophone literature. To understand this, we must look at the French presence and the impact it has had on this community and the local population.
Long before the French settled in Pondicherry, local literature was known in the region through writers such as Veeraraghava Kavi in the 15th century, Adi Madura Kavi who had formed a group of 64 writers and poets under King Thirumalarayan in the 16th century, and other eminent writers. According to historian Nilakanta Sastri, popular education then existed only in temples and monasteries. It consisted of recitations and teaching of mythological and religious texts. The village of Thirubuvanai, with its ancient temple and paadasalai with 260 students and 12 teachers is a wonderful illustration of this system.
At the same time, local merchants, well versed in local and foreign trade, were fluent in Portuguese, Arabic, Tamil and Telugu. In addition, there were interpreters or ”dubash” who were in the service of the wealthier merchants. As a result, education was not a priority for the people of Pondicherry until this responsibility fell on the shoulders of the missionaries.
In the beginning, schools were only run by various religious institutions. Concerned with social justice, they democratised education in a country plagued by the caste system where low castes had no access to education. During this period, many Pondicherrians began writing. Most of the books written and published were academic and religious works.
Great intellectuals were born who wrote extensively. Vaidiyalingam Pillai wrote about the legend of Pondicherry, Gnanou Diagou translated the Thirukkural into French and produced extensive works on Tamil literature as well as books on justice. Savarirayalu Naicker, the first founder of education for girls, wrote many books on the political situation and society in Pondicherry in the 19th century. Thus, Pondicherrian literature in French and Tamil reached its peak at this period. But it equally rapidly experienced a disastrous decline.
The Third Republic, declared in France in 1870, unfurled its civilising mission to assimilate and alienate the peoples that France had conquered. The “Roman national” was created through the prism of magic potion drinkers who obtain supernatural powers. Endowed with this magical power, France was set to transform Africans, Indians, Arabs, Malagasy, Kanaks, Maoris and Indochinese into children of the Gauls.
By erasing history from their memories, France also made sure to clip the wings of their imagination, especially those of the Pondicherrians who lost all sense of identity.
As misfortune never comes alone, the act of renunciation aggravated an already complicated situation. The colonial subject, by becoming a citizen of the nation, became an object to be exploited.
Since the French invasion of Indochina, educational establishments such as the Colonial College became a factory to manufacture mercenaries of the Republic who went to the four corners of the world to administer other colonies. The perverse colonial system had produced a caste of sub-colonists whose sole purpose was to work in the French administration. Climbing the heights of the administrative system and finding a secure life became the ultimate goal of the Franco-Pondicherrians, who lost all creativity in the process.
A whole community, for three centuries, has been living in the service of the state without any history, identity and having lost all artistic and creative sense. Literature in all this? Almost non-existent. What do you want to write when you don’t have your own history? What do you want to tell future generations when your imagination stops at the gates of some insignificant administrative office? What memories to evoke, when they are buried with military medals in the Pondicherry cemeteries? Death for the fatherland. The memory of Pondicherry dead for France!
But it so happened that in this literary desert, some Pondicherrian bedouins managed to find an oasis. The former Judge David Annoussamy, the former Professor Madanakalyani, Venkata Subha Naiyakar, and Professor Krishnamurthy, the author K.Madhavan– – all write very good works in French; without, however, allowing us to speak of an Indian Francophone literary tradition. Where, for example, is the food, music, and dance of Pondicherry in their writings? Besides which, apart from a tiny literary circle, their names are mostly unknown to a vast public.
Confined because of the pandemic, my dreams of making visible Indian Francophone literature through my presence at literary events shattered, I set about writing my third novel.
At the start of the pandemic, it was called, Pondicherry: A Family Saga: the story of a family for three and a half centuries, from the arrival of Europeans on this clod of earth to the present day.
As I struggled to write this novel without the ability to travel to access various archives and began to despair, a two-fold glimmer of hope appeared. First, I co-founded a cultural platform with Ananya Kabir, that took the central idea of my second novel, Le thinnai, and disseminated it to the world via her research interests in “Creole Indias”.
While this platform disseminates creole histories and cultures of India, not only Pondicherry, it brings visibility to Pondicherry’s unique culture and linguistic heritage. In keeping with this evolution, my novel in progress has changed its title to Pondicherry: A Kreyol Saga.
Secondly, the noted French publishing house that will publish my own collection of short stories asked me to edit an anthology of short stories written by Indians. I immediately launched an appeal on Facebook. And a miracle happened. People who used to see me at literary events and others who had heard of me started sending me their short stories. Within two weeks, I had received works from thirteen amateur writers.
All is not lost. Indian Francophone literature does exist. It took a year of recurrent lockdowns for the imagination that has been buried for centuries to take flight.
Translated from the French by Ananya Jahanara Kabir.
Ari Gautier is a Franco-Pondicherrian writer of historical fiction, resident in Oslo. Together with Ananya Jahanara Kabir, he has co-founded the cultural platform le thinnai kreyol.