Kurusukuppam isn’t the Pondicherry of travel brochures. It’s a working-class neighborhood. Residents here are an atypical blend of Creoles, colonial war veterans, proud communists, and France’s first citizens. There are tragedies every day, melodramatic events, and absurdly stubborn hope.
Kurusukuppam is upended by the arrival of a curious tramp, Gilbert Thaata, a wizened Frenchman who has seen hard times. On his verandah, the narrator’s thinnai, Gilbert Thaata, begins to tell the tale of his family’s fortunes as custodians of a mysterious diamond, the Stone of Sita. A fanciful story begins those spans centuries and encompasses India’s history as a colonial protectorate of France. Yet, despite the raconteur’s enchantment, his listeners can’t help but ask – just who is this old man, and how did he fall into such misfortune?
If you are wondering who the narrator here is, it is Blake Smith for French and Ari Gautier for India from The Thinnai.
‘The Thinnai’ by Ari Gautier is a masterful translation from the French original by Blake Smith, offering a panoramic look at Pondicherry’s past, the quirky eccentricities of its present, and the quirks of history that make us unique.
Ari Gautier spent many years living between India and France after being born in Madagascar. Besides writing, he lives in Norway, where he is actively involved in Oslo’s artistic and cultural milieu.
Blake Smith has written history books on France and translating, Pondicherrian author K Madavane and Canadian poet Evariste Parny. Unfortunately, the Balcony Stories could push away a chance to talk to Ari Gautier, and below are the excerpts…
I like your name. What does Ari Gautier mean?
Ari Gautier is the shortest version of Arivajagane Gautier, which is my real name. Arivajagane is an old Dravidian name that means” One who is intelligent and handsome” (LOL). As I narrate in my Novel, my father was very much involved in the Dravidian movement at an early age and spoused the Dravidian ideology of Tamilness. Even though we were French, my father insisted on giving me a Tamil name. It was a way for him to maintain his ethnicity and culture of origin. Gautier comes from the Germanic words “waldan” and “hari,” which mean respectively “to govern” and “army.” It is the French variant of the German name Walter. Ubiquitous in the 9th century, this name was mainly attributed to prelates, knights, and other administrators of Roman Gaul. This name was given or chosen (not sure of the genealogy) when my great grandfather changed his status from colonial subject to become a French citizen in 1882. This episode is in my Novel.
You like history, don’t you?
I have been fascinated by history since my early childhood. The facts of the past have a great fascination in me. Especially when history is hidden, despoiled, distorted, or not taught in educational institutions. Even living in this particular Franco-Indian environment seemed normal to me. I was curious to know how it happened. But neither my school, which is a French institution nor my parents gave me a satisfactory answer. Pondicherry was a French trading post was the answer without any details…
Why did you want to write?
For a very long time, I have tried several disciplines, modes of expression to express myself. It was a long way to get to writing. I needed time, maturity, and a great understanding of history to be able to write. In addition, I have always loved literature and had started scribbling as a child. I have not persevered in these disciplines because of boredom sometimes, of financial constraints other times… Or simply that I am lazy.
Why the stress on Puducherry?
This is in line with my previous answer. I wanted to write about the demons of this historical past that haunted me. Colonialism, colonization, contact zone, double culture, several identities… What does all this mean? How to explain and tell history through fiction to the world without being too scientific and academic. And the history of Pondicherry is still unknown to the world. So writing about Pondicherry is my way of taking ownership of my account and giving a new indigenous perspective.
What exactly is Thinnai?
A Thinnai is a traditional architectural element of traditional Tamil houses. It is a raised platform overlooking the street attached to the house façade. A sloped roof shades it. Surrounded by wooden or cement pillars, this type of verandah is the ideal place to observe the world. The occupants of the house use itThus, it to sit and chat and the neighbors. It also serves as a shelter for passers-by for a short while on their way to their destination. Thus, it can be a place of refuge as well as a friendly space.
What do you have to say about the hypocrisy of society?
The “hypocrite” is etymologically in Greek, the actor of theater, the one who plays a role in front of a warned public. This staging, we all carry it out daily. The first of these “benign hypocrisies” is good manners, civility, propriety. Politeness is not a lie, but the respect of a convention that allows an understanding that smoothes the friction and builds a barrier between you and the other. It is not a separation but the creation of a private space that allows for exchange. There is a fundamental opposition between the chaos of the world and the order that is essential for social cohabitation. This is a protection, a varnish that smoothes the relations between humans. It makes it possible to make society. This is for the philosophical part to understand what hypocrisy is. But when we are confronted with this phenomenon in everyday life at the social and societal level, this same hypocrisy becomes unbearable and intolerable. This is for the philosophical part to understand what hypocrisy is. But when we are confronted with this phenomenon in everyday life at the social and societal level, this same hypocrisy becomes unbearable and intolerable. And hypocrisy must be fought when it leads to psychological and physical violence. I have already denounced this hypocrisy in my first Novel Carnet secret de Lakshmi in a satirical way.
Do you believe in the role of destiny?
I also deal with this subject in the same book, which is a Rabelaisian philosophical fable. Fate, destiny, choices in life… Are the mere instruments, or are we the decision-makers? The answers are multiple and are given through the three characters of this book. Lakshmi, the temple elephant, Tripod Dog Baba, the three and a half-legged dog who wants to be a guru, and Alphonse, the mystical flying fish, give their answer according to their life experiences.
“When we happen to succeed in something we wanted, something we worked hard for, we attribute this success to our hard work, perseverance, and self-confidence. But when we fail, that same result is due to fate, to fatality, and it is synonymous with defeat. In the end, fate serves to make us feel less guilty in case of failure. Fate does exist. It is simply the meeting of the unconscious and the circumstances that produce this extraordinary thing, between planned and what happens. Fate is neutral; it is neither positive nor negative. Everyone interprets it in their way”. This is an excerpt from “Carnet secret de Lakshmi.”
How has been the response to your latest Novel?
The Thinnai is my first translated and published work. But my first Novel is Lakshmi’s Secret Notebook. It is translated but not yet published. I have just published my latest work Nocturne Pondichéry which is a collection of short stories. The Thinnai is my first book to be published in English. It is very well received in India and elsewhere. One of the primary reasons is that for more than a year, we have been building an online cultural project called Le Thinnai Kreyole.
This project started in collaboration with Professor Ananya Jahanara Kabirwho teaches daily, training at Kings College London has been very successful in academic and cultural circles. Therefore, this book was highly anticipated among the public. And I receive daily messages of congratulations and appreciation.
Are you working on your next?
Yes, I am, working on a novel called Pondichéry, une saga Kreyole and another collection of short stories called Les rues de Pondichery. The first one is a saga of a Pondicherry family from the arrival of the first Europeans to the present day. The collection of short stories is about the streets of Pondicherry and their stories. I am also working on an anthology of short stories written by Indian writers in French. My goal is to make Francophone-Indian literature known and to make it emerge. Thus, to take our literary destiny into our hands.
Do you plan to return to Pondicherry anytime?
Return means, go and live there? That I do not know. I say it, and I repeat it. I am a vagabond. I never know where I am going or how I am going. But I am always on the road…