The subtitle of Danna Agmon’s book tells you exactly what you’ll find inside the covers: commerce, conversion and scandal in French India. But it doesn’t tell you what an engaging read it is.
When we talk of colonialism, most of us tend to talk only about the British Empire and forget that other European nations too had colonised countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas. France, which was a late entrant, gave England a run for its money in India and was finally defeated around the mid-18th century. But it still hung on to certain centres like Puducherry, Mahe, Karikal, Yanam and Chandernagore.
Agmon’s book is centred in Puducherry and uses a single case — The Nayiniyappa Affair, as it was known — to put French rule under the microscope. Nayiniyappa was Puducherry’s chief commercial broker and perhaps the French East India Company’s most important employee.
Nayiniyappa came to Puducherry in the 1670s as a 20-year-old merchant and, by the time of his imprisonment in 1717, had risen to a position of great power and wealth. Though he died in prison in 1719, he was posthumously exonerated the next year and his son Guruvappa travelled to France to be feted and honoured. He returned as Chevalier Charles Phillippe Luis Guruvappa with royal backing in the form of his godfather, Phillippe de Orleans, the regent of France, and was appointed to his father’s position.
The people involved in this case came from different groups: French officials in Puducherry and Europe; missionaries of the Catholic orders; Nayiniyappa’s family and friends; and traders of the French East India Company and trading associations in France.
Agmon divides the book into three parts and uses a non-linear narrative, representing the same facts from different perspectives. In the first, she examines how the French administrators, traders and missionaries came to rely on local merchants and the relationships between the three. Family dynamics also had a role to play in the Nayiniyappa affair and Agmon looks not just at Nayiniappa’s family but also how many others took on starring roles in this case.
The second looks at the French administration in Puducherry and goes into details of the case: the investigation, the appeals and reopening of the case. This part also examines in great detail the contentious questions of language and religion and the role of the Jesuits.
The last portion covers what followed from Nayiniyappa’s conviction and how his name was exonerated after his death. After Guruvappa’s death, his cousin Ananda Ranga Pillai was appointed to the post.
Agmon uses the archives of the French East India Company, letters, court and notary records, and personal diaries to show ‘how Nayiniyappa’s role in the imperial project in Pondichérry shaped his life and in turn shaped the politics of the colony.’
A Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion and Scandal in French India ; Danna Agmon, Speaking Tiger, ₹950.