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Passage to France

U.R. Ananthamurthy

"GANESHA ... help us," says Jean-Claude Perrier, raising his hands and then looking towards the ceiling.

People around glance at him and smile.

A Frenchman taken in by the sights and sounds of India?

Yes, to an extent, but to be more precise, the 45-year-old journalist was on a mission to India recently, "to meet both intellectuals and a cross-section of society".

Perrier is from La Figaro and apart from writing for its literary supplement, also contributes material for the magazine Livres-Hebdo. He has produced 10 titles, three novels, a biography and three essays and is in charge of publishing at the Flammarion. Being interested in culture and music, he has brought out a pocket book on French rap.

"The operation we have embarked on in India will trigger off information about and enable access to the French people not only about Indian authors but also publishing and journalism."

His colleague on this visit, Attachée de presse Evelyn Prawidlo, and Sriram, their guide in Chennai and President, the Alliance Francaise, Madras, nod in agreement.

"This is a programme co-sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, to make Indian literature known in France. We visit certain cities and identify candidates and material. At the end of the year, at a function organised by the Belles Estrangeres in Paris, 20 Indian writers will be honoured. We have been to Delhi and Kolkata, then Chennai, a brief stopover at Pondicherry and finally Mumbai.

"The perception of India abroad is still the exotic, stereotypical land — large, snake-tiger-and-elephant-infested ... ," Perrier trails off, breaking out into French with Mr. Sriram. " ... Yes, Ravi Shankar, Gandhi ... it is a popular holiday destination ... very few people have an idea about the depth of India, its complexity and richness, and human resources."

He then brings in the personal experience. "India is a very energetic country. This is my fourth visit. The first was 20 years ago, when I was here on a 15-day tour. By now, I have a definite liking for South India, as life here is more in tune with that in southern Europe. I felt North India was more aggressive. Pondicherry, of course, is a sentimental favourite. I'm happy to be back as the cities are reflecting change. Professionally too, the diversity of writers and the complexity of contemporary writing is encouraging. Frankly, it may be complex to give a round up of all this to the French reading public, but we hope to be able to do that. We have had a range of experiences, short but interesting."

Has India sparked off literary interest, is the first question.

Prawidlo answers. "From 1985, the French Government has been turning the spotlight on foreign culture. Till 1998, two countries shared the honours. It was then revised to just one, and 2002 is India's turn. The focus will also be on publications in Indian languages with their French translations.

The criteria?

"One of them is that they are important but not well-known in France ... that rules out Rushdie, Naipaul and Arundhati Roy. It also includes writers who live outside the country. So, those selected are U.R. Ananthamurthy, Anita Rau Badami, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Bama, Anushka Ravishankar, Pulak Biswas, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Kamala Das, Esther David, Mahasweta Devi, Kishore Shantabhai Kale, Mukul Kesavan, Mukundan, C. Narayana Reddy, Alka Saraogi, Akhil Sharma, Shashi Tharoor, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Udayan Vajpeyi and Nirmal Verma."

Perrier adds that Rajesh Sharma, who was with the French Embassy, New Delhi, and now teaching in Paris, played a role in compiling the list.

How did they go about establishing contact with the writers?

Upamanyu Chatterjee

In every city they have touched, there have been local contacts. Apart from this, the embassy or the local Alliance Francaise has helped in their meetings with about 50 people.

Their impressions?

Perrier and Prawidlo dwelt on Chennai, where, there was an interesting contrast between writer Ashokamitran and the publishing house Tara. "On the one hand it was profound, spiritual and reflective (Ashokamitran), and on the other, it was people rooted in your culture but who have given it a modern direction (Tara). It sums up the new India."

Prawidlo has strong impressions of Mahasweta Devi too. "At first she was reserved, and found it a bit disturbing as to why we were there. She then warmed up and declared that she didn't want to go to France as she was old. She didn't want to talk about her novels and asserted that she wanted to be with the poor and do something for them. She thought taking a `luxurious trip' was out of tune with what she was doing.

"And I liked what she has last published — Chotti Munda and his Arrow."

"While in France," says Perrier, "Mahasweta said she wants to visit Rouen, the place of Joan of Arc, because of the impact she had on her when she was young."

"... Upamanyu was nice and helpful ... with a sense of humour," they both add.

What are the works they have read?

Says Prawidlo, "Not everything. English August, Sangati (translated by Josyane Root and to be published by the editions of the Paddle in November 2002) and some of the works of Mukundan, Mahasweta, Mukul Kesavan and Nirmal Verma."

Finally, about the 15-day programme in France in November.

"There is a segment of the French reading public that is looking for different literature. There will be public readings organised in conjunction with bookshops, libraries, school establishments and religious organisations, and the publishing of extracts from the writers' works in the media," says Perrier, expressing the hope that he will be back next year for a symposium and the Calcutta Book Fair.


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