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Diamond and rust: Geeta Doctor reviews Ari Gautier’s ‘The Thinnai’

Sitting rooms: A Tamil village as recreated in DakshinaChitra Museum near Chennai.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Ideally one should be sitting on a chaise longue, cheroot in hand, beside a marble-topped rosewood table with a tall glass of pink lemonade, to listen to the seductive tales of Ari Gautier. Somewhere in the background, you might even notice a copy of Life of Pi, which also starts in Puducherry, the former French town that remained aggressively Francophone in a distinctly Tamil landscape.

I am reminded of a time in the early 1980s when an interim Chief Minister I was interviewing suddenly got up from

Diamond and rust: Geeta Doctor reviews Ari Gautier’s ‘The Thinnai’

his chair and said, “Come, I want to show you something special. It is so French!” Taking me past his private quarters, his bedroom and his startled wife, he threw open the bathroom door, and pointing to the object next to the toilet seat, exclaimed, “Bidet — imported from France!” “Bonjour bidet!” I said and we both laughed. In those days, Chief Ministers were secure enough to be able to laugh.

It’s what I would describe as an Ari Gautier moment. His characters live in a small hamlet called Kurusukuppam at the edge of what was once known as the White Town. Central to the architecture of the dwellings is an open platform at the entrance to each house, the thinnai, which is a semi-public space, where people gather for small talk and gossip.

Reclaiming histories

The thinnai is Gautier’s stage. Le Thinnai Kreyol, the public initiative he runs with Ananya Jahanara Kabir, is meant to be a “multicultural online platform” celebrating the life born of India’s long contact with Europe. It’s where those who have been tossed about by currents of colonial dislocation — most often wars, migration as slave labour for New World plantations, or financial ventures lured by the fabled wealth of the East — meet to reclaim their histories.

Gilbert Thatha, an old man who had landed up in Kurusukuppam one Bastille Day clutching a bundle of stories, stretches out on the thinnai of the narrator, who is himself trapped in the history of the colonial enterprise. Gilbert is accompanied by Little Gilbert, a young boy he claims to have rescued from a railway platform.

Is it Gautier himself who returns to Kurususkuppam? Is Kurususkuppam a fictionalised Puducherry? We know from the author’s bio that Gautier was born in Madagascar, spent many years in both India and France, and now resides in Norway. He is a latter-day Sindbad who has sailed many seas and come to port. He’s a listener as well as a malicious raconteur, at least in some of the stories.

Constantly reinvented

His visit to city market is as enticing as the freshly-caught fish being sold by the lascivious fishwives or the Creole cuisine of the feisty cook, Lourdes. But when Gautier as Gilbert Thatha combines the story of the French diamond merchant Tavernier with that of a Golconda diamond named ‘The Stone of Sita’ and ponders the latter’s impact on world affairs, he goes too far. One begins to despair at this stage.

His most damaging critique is of the North Indians, read the ‘Ashramites’, and the hippies with their drugs lurking in the sidelines waiting to be re-birthed in the City of Dawn, Auroville. These are the ‘spiritual colonisers’, as some have called them, appropriating the Creole heritage left by the French.

It’s interesting to compare Gautier’s evocation of Puducherry in the latter half of the 20th century with M. Mukundan’s novel, On the Banks of the Mayyazhi, translated from Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty. On the Banks is set in tiny Mahé, also a former French colony, in the years before Independence.

Puducherry, now a Union Territory, has undergone so many transformations from its time as the last habitat of the French in India that it is constantly in a state of being re-invented. Questions that find their way almost unbidden into the text are those one could ask of the blue-eyed straggler, Gilbert Thatha, too: ‘For whom?’, ‘By whom?’ And one can ask the same questions of the glorious amalgam that is India.

The Thinnai; Ari Gautier, trs Blake Smith, Hachette India, ₹399

The Chennai-based writer is a critic and cultural commentator.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 8:00:08 PM |

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