In India recently for the Bonjour India Festival, French author Olivier Germain-Thomas tells Ziya Us Salam why he likes coming back to India.
He is an old father. “Like most French men,” he says, in self-deprecating humour. He listens more than he speaks. “Like all gentlemen,” he adds. He reads much more than he writes. Again, like most wise men would love us to do. And he loves India like few others. He “soaks it in”. He has been soaking it in since 1960s when he first set foot in India.
Welcome to the gentle world of Olivier Germain-Thomas, a writer, publisher and producer, who was in India recently for Bonjour India: Festival of France. The author of Temptation of India, Come Back to Benares, and On the Road to Buddha, perks up when one talks of “Journey Through the Heart of the Subcontinent”. His eyes light up and his voice rises a little above a whisper. Otherwise, he is calm, content. Just like the Seine, on the bank of which he shares his thoughts about India.
With some 20 books under his belt, Olivier says, “I have been attracted by India's philosophy. I have been to North India some 30-odd times and to South around 14 times.” He, however, refuses to judge India by its stereotypes. India is often cited as a land of abiding spirituality by foreign authors.
Does it surprise him? “It's natural to look in other cultures for what intrigues us the most, for what we lack the most and can enrich us. The West, overcome by materialism, craves for spirituality. India offers answers that can provide us with a fresh boost. It's in this regard that I question the great texts and get nearer to the practices they propose, without renouncing my Christian roots.”
Indian writers, particularly those writing in Indian languages, seem to derive greater inspiration from Indian figures and motifs. As a French writer, does Olivier find it as a source of enrichment too? “Of course, I know India is a great country that is opening up to modernity after the big sleep of colonisation. No writer, even revolutionary, is able to uproot his native culture, consciously or not. Indian writers naturally draw their inspiration from traditional patterns. Though, a real creator is not a parrot. He is a new man, transformed by metamorphosis.”
In Indian life, as indeed in literature, sacred and profane often merge together, as in the case of devadasis. Has Olivier found such an equivalent elsewhere? “I believe that Devadasi is specific to India, although we may find equivalents in the Tantric rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. The wedding of the sacred and the secular is universal. It can be found, for example, in Christian feasts (Christmas, Easter), and obviously in Japanese Shintô dances, tea ceremony and ikebana floral art. In India I realised that sacred and the secular merge when I went to Madurai. All these experiences affect my novel, help me shape my characters.”
Tradition and modernity
Then he brings into conversation our much respected painter S. H. Reza, who has made France his home for many years. “Initially, he did not find much recognition in France. Then, at the age of 50 or a bit later, he realised he could be inspired by bindu, kundli, mandala, tantricism. Then he surpassed the divide between tradition and modernity. Interacting with him and many other Indian artists and writers, I understood the Indian cycle of time, Karma. In the West we tend to separate body and mind. That reflects in the art and literary works. In India body and mind are not separated. That reflects in Indian arts. India represents a wider consciousness.”
Indian way of life is often equated with the Hindu way of life by many foreign writers. How has Olivier been able to keep the different strands of our culture in his writing? “Of course India is not only Hindu. There are the Buddhist, Jain, Muslim, Sikh legacies. As far as I'm concerned, I got in touch with Indian culture through Buddhism and devoted a book to the painter Reza, a Muslim. During my next trip, I'd like to discover Indian Sufism.”
Finally, are translations a God-send for foreign writers like Olivier considering more Indian writers will be able to access the works in English now and writers too will be able to understand Indian writing in languages other English? Are translations the next bridge in nation building? “The major issue is to develop the growing number of contemporary Indian translations from other languages than English such as Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Bengali, Malayalam. They allow the reading of an unrecognised India, closer to popular reality. I am hoping for more translations. That is the easiest way to find more readers. I am ambitious.” Well, old age and ambition may not be the best of mates, but isn't India supposed to be a timeless land?