#DesiBooks10QA: Ari Gautier on going beyond the tourist brochures into Pondicherry’s rich past

About the author:

Born in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Ari Gautier is a French writer and poet of Indo-Malagasy origin. Dedicated to giving Pondicherry its rightful place on the French literary map, he’s committed to increasing Indian-francophone literature’s visibility in the world. Carnet Secret de Lakshmi and The Thinnai are his first two works on the history of the city where he spent his childhood. His most recent book is Nocturne Pondichéry, a collection of short stories on postcolonial Pondicherry. In May 2020, Gautier co-founded, with Ananya Jahanara Kabir, the cultural platform Le Thinnai Kreyol (more about this platform here.) He currently lives in Oslo, Norway.

About the book:

If there was anything our neighbors envied us, it was our thinnais.

The working-class district of Kurusukuppam is not the Pondicherry of tourist brochures. Here, residents are a bewildering mix of Creoles, colonial war veterans, proud communists, and French citizens who have never left India’s shores. It is a place of everyday tragedies, melodramatic occurrences and stubborn, absurd hope.

But life in Kurusukuppam is upturned by the arrival of a curious tramp, Gilbert Thaata—a wizened Frenchman who has clearly seen hard times. Settling down on the narrator’s verandah, his thinnai, Gilbert Thaata begins to earn his keep by recounting the tale of the rise and fall of his family’s fortunes as the custodians of a mysterious diamond, the Stone of Sita. The fanciful story that unfolds is one that stretches across centuries and encompasses the history of France’s colonial legacy in India. As entranced as they are by the raconteur, his listeners cannot help but ask: just who is this old man and how did he fall on such misfortune?

Masterfully translated from the French original by Blake Smith, Ari Gautier’s The Thinnai offers a panoramic view of Pondicherry’s past, the whimsical eccentricities of its present, and shines a light on the quirks of history that come to define us.

Ari Gautier’s The Thinnai offers a panoramic view of Pondicherry’s past, the whimsical eccentricities of its present, and shines a light on the quirks of history that come to define us. #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks

1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry has strongly influenced me. His focus on the culture and identity of his Parsi community convinced me of the importance of writing about one´s own people. Social and cultural nostalgia is a defining aspect of his literary works. As an Indian Parsi and and an immigrant in Canada, he sees himself as a symbol of double displacement and this sense of displacement is a recurrent theme too. My situation is very much similar. So his books have had a big impact on me and inspired me to become a writer to tell the stories of the Franco-Pondicherrian community. This particular book made me appreciate our complex relationships with the political and cultural histories of the nation we leave behind.

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

Jessica Namakkal’s Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India. I have been following Jessica’s work for sometime now. Her essays and dissertations are vey much in connection with my novels on French India and Pondicherry. And they are big sources of information that I use in my fiction. Her latest book is definitely have an impact on my ongoing novel Pondichéry, Une Saga Kreyole. Her deep knowledge and fine analysis of the period of Pondicherry´s independence has been greatly helpful.

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” This quote is what made me become a novelist to write about the under-explored Franco-Indian community. I would like to read more books from other French enclaves in India.

“[Rohinton Mistry’s] focus on the culture and identity of his Parsi community convinced me of the importance of writing about one´s own people.” ~Ari Gautier on the writer who’s most influenced him #DesiBooks10QA .@desibooks

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

I am currently reading Indra Sinha´s Animal’s People. It’s a startling novel with a bawdy, layered narrative voice, seasoned with a mix of French and Hindi. I’m enjoying the multilinguistic aspect of the narration.

5. The desi book that you believe is most under-appreciated and why.

Passions of the Tongue by Sumathi Ramaswamy. It is one of the best books I have read on linguistic and cultural nationalism in Tamil Nadu. The book analyzes how Tamil is imagined as a divine language which leads to adulation, worship,and obedience. It is a pity that the book is only known in the academic world. Reading it could shed more light on the love that Tamils have for their language, which is a source of exasperation for people who do not know the historical facts and details.

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Write what you want to read.

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

The pandemic was the biggest setback for two of my novels translated into English. The Thinnai got delayed and Lakshmi´s Secret Diary is still struggling to get a publisher. So it was important for me to finish my latest book and get it published by the reputable French publishing house, L´Harmattan. Nocturne Pondichéry is my latest book. It is a collection of seven short stories which depict the complex postcolonial Pondicherrian society; lives shaped by centuries of colonization and a complex Indian culture. Through these stories, I am trying to demystify the reality of Pondicherry and give the town a human face to counter the popular brand image portrayed to attract tourists.

#WritingTip from Ari Gautier: “Write what you want to read.” #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

This latest book, Nocturne Pondichéry, means a lot to me because, for me and for my readers, it gives a sense of establishment and continuity. It also gives me a sense of confidence and satisfaction that what I have to say matters.

That said, literary success is difficult for various reasons. Many of my Franco-Indian colleagues have not been able to publish more than one novel. One of the biggest challenges for all of us Franco-Indian writers is visibility. Even if there are more and more of us who take up the pen, the Franco-Indian writing community is completely invisible, inside and outside France. Language and the lack of promotion, be it on social media or traditional media platforms, are the biggest hurdles. The other significant issue is that they do not have access to major publishers. Most of them end up with small publishing houses that do not have the resources to promote them as much as needed. International reach is another challenge. For this, one has to get translated into English to get to a wider audience. Finding a translator or an English publishing house interested in your book is a Herculean task. There are two reasons for this. Of course, the literary quality of the novel and the story both matter. But we also need more creativity and professionalism across the Franco-Indian writing community. The growing interest in academia for Franco-Indian literature and the French presence in India does not, unfortunately, reach the general public.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

As an individual, I do not like the group phenomenon. Having said that, I tried to contact other French-Indian writers to create a community. This is to give us more weight to weigh in the balance and to make us, as a whole, more visible. But, unfortunately, none of them responded. Suspicion, lack of interest, and personal ambition could be some of the reasons. But this will not discourage me. With L’Harmattan ready to open its doors to Franco-Indian literature, I am sure I will finally be able to motivate them and create this community. I wanted to create this community to make the history of colonization in India better known. France is immersed in its legendary selective amnesia. Lost India is an old slap in the face—by writers like me that France prefers to ignore—that wakes them up from time to time. In India, it is time to change the general perception that the country was colonized only by the British. Whether it was the British, the French, or the Dutch who colonized India does not matter much. But the culture that resulted from these different encounters is very important. This helps to combat the hegemonic narrative that is festering in India.

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

The main takeaway from all my books is that writing our own stories and history is essential for a community. For three centuries, people have been writing about us. It is high time that we take our literary destiny into our own hands!

“The main takeaway from [my novels] is that writing our own stories and history is essential for a community. For three centuries, people have been writing about us.” ~Ari Gautier #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks

Ari Gautier’s The Thinnai is out now. More on his website.

You might also enjoy these features: