Noses have a peculiar life. It serves more than an olfactory purpose. A symbol of personal beauty and social respectability/identity/ranking, even in cultures such as our own, where a woman’s long, sleek nose increases marriage viability, for instance, or going against the grain, like marrying outside one’s caste/faith may amount to naak katwa dena (loss of honour). In Nikolai Gogol’s eponymous short story, it is its own person, with a mind of its own, and a higher military ranking than the person it belongs to. “Distinguished by the length of his nose”, Hafen Slawkenbergius is “a great authority on the subject of noses” in Tristram Shandy. In Franco-Rwandan rapper Gaël Faye’s 2016 debut novel Petit pays (translated into English as Small Country in 2018, and made into a film this year), however, it isn’t fiction, but a historical reality, and, thus, hits home harder. A marker of identity – between the belligerent Hutus and Tutsis during the ’90s Burundian civil war and the neighbouring Rwandan genocide.
In the novel, a 10-year-old Gaby (Gabriel) asks his French father: “The war between Tutsis and Hutus…is it because they don’t have the same land?” The latter replies, “No, they have the same country.” And it continues: “So…they don’t have the same language? No, they speak the same language. So, they don’t have the same God? No, they have the same God. So, why are they at war? Because they don’t have the same nose.” The father explains, “in Burundi…like in Rwanda, there are three different ethnic groups”, the “short with wide noses” Hutu who form the biggest group, the cattle-owning, “tall and skinny with long noses” Tutsi – “you can never tell what’s going on inside their heads”, and the inconsequential handful of Twa pygmies.
The novel – not autobiographical, since only the life of Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King merits an autobiography, Faye had said in an interview – borrows from Faye’s life. He was aged 13, in 1995, when his family fled the civil war, leaving behind the idyllic, carefree childhood, innocence, simpler times in the paradise of Bujumbura, in Burundi, and growing up in exile in Paris, as the radio, etc., kept them abreast of the nightmarish, unbridled human violence unfolding in their native land. Western classical music would signify a coup d’état taking place. Sinking in the maelstrom, the personal is political – “You must choose. French or Tutsi? Tutsi or French?” In the novel, cracks between the parents ensue, they don’t see “their children as being the same colour” but “half-black, half-white”.
Petit pays, which became a runway hit when it released, selling 700,000 copies (though Faye had only hoped for 500, he had said in an interview after the Jaipur Literature Festival he attended in January this year), won the 2016 Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. Writing the “bestseller” (around the same time as the Charlie Hebdo shooting) was like writing a long poem, the author had said. The book was born from his very popular song Petit pays from the 2013 album Pili Pili sur un croissant au beurre. His evocative lyrics and songwriting, especially the song L’ennui des après-midi sans fin (The boredom of afternoon without end), apparently, led an independent French editor to look out for Faye.
After having been translated in more than 40 languages, a Hindi translation, Mera Khoya Watan: Ek Upanyaas (Tara Press) by Brigadier Kamal Nayan Pandit, will be released on November 26, along with the premiere of the French film – Small Country: An African Childhood (with English subtitles) – adapted by director Éric Barbier. The online launch and screening, organised by the Embassy of France/French Institute with the Alliance Française network, will be followed by a discussion with Faye and director Sudhir Mishra.
While the translator’s earlier works include K Vijay Kumar’s Veerappan: Chasing the Brigand (Dakshin Ka Mansingh), and Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation as the yet-to-be-released Yaadon Ke Bikhre Moti, the 111-minute film, shot between Kigali and Paris, and released this February, is Barbier’s sixth, who keeps the focus on the familial and intimate, seeing the macrocosm with the micro lens.
From Satyajit Ray to Sudhir Mishra, the French treasure Indian films/actors/filmmakers of a certain make much more than Indians do. A decade ago, Mishra, who’d directed his critically-acclaimed Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi (2005) with France’s Joel Farges and Elise Jalladeau, was felicitated with the Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He’d recounted in a 2010 Hindustan Times article that in 1994, when the French government celebrated 100 years of cinema, it screened Mishra’s National Award-winning film Dharavi (1992) among the top 100. He rued, “Cinema is an art form there while a money-making business here.”
So, when three-time National Award-winner Mishra praises a film, he means business. Speaking about the cinematic adaptation of Faye’s novel, ahead of the discussion, Mishra says, in a YouTube video, how the “magnificent film” presents “the context in which the young children are placed and how their childhood gets transformed. How a cross-cultural marriage between the coloniser (Belgium) and the colonised, between a European (French) and a native woman (Rwandan Tutsi), falls apart under the pressures of the country falling apart”. And the children’s “inability to comprehend why they are being pushed away” from their combusting “paradise”. Bypassing “the cliché” it seamlessly ties in “multiple perspectives of a newly-liberated country (Rwanda) and the dissension in the country which were simmering, people rejecting all that isn’t similar to them, and how the lust for greed and power uses the pretext of smallest of differences to tear apart a country.”
To watch the film (free) and attend the launch and discussion, at 6.30 pm (in India) and 2 pm (in France), on Thursday, November 26, register at https://ifindia.in/petit-pays-registration/
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