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Unseen, rarely read but still present: The persistence of French writing by Indians

French has been a South Asian language since the 17th century, when agents of the French East India Company and French travellers arrived in India.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi |
Updated: September 4, 2021 6:41:26 pm
french writing, ari gautier, pondicherry, french in india, k madavane, m mukundan, shumona sinha, french literature, french, french language, french india, france news, india news, books news, books, french books, Indian ExpressFrench writing by Indians is not only small in number but also largely invisible on account of lack of a significant readership. (Amazon.in)

In the late 19th century, inhabitants of the French colonies in India were given a life altering choice by the colonisers. The policy of ‘renunciation’ as it was called allowed Indians to obtain French citizenship, provided they agreed to renounce their ‘caste and customs’ and submit to the French civil code.

“Being from a lower caste, they found in this process, an ideal opportunity to fight against the rigidity of the caste system and get access to education and work in the French administration,” 56-year-old Ari Gautier recalls why his ancestors, living in the French colony of Pondicherry, chose to take up French citizenship then. Consequently, Frenchness became a part of Gautier’s ancestry, his identity and his way of living. It was the language in which he was brought up both at home and at school in Pondicherry.

Gautier is part of a miniscule group of authors from India who write in French. A Franco-Tamilian writer based in Oslo, Gautier has written two novels since 2015- Carnet Secret de Lakshmi and Le Thinnai, both set in Pondicherry where he grew up and both deeply reflective of the social complexities and the French past of the region. His latest work, a collection of short stories, ‘Nocturne Pondichery’, focuses on the darker side of Pondicherry, challenging the romanticised tourist destination it has become today.

“Did you know that Pondicherry has one of the highest suicide rates in India?” he asks, as he goes on to explain that the stories in his new book are themed upon social complexities of the region like ‘alcoholism’, ‘prostitution’, ‘domestic abuse’, and ‘drug abuse’. “But I also want to remind readers of the French presence in the history of Pondicherry, that is intimately tied up with its contemporary society”.

English writing from Indian authors is both a vast and an extremely successful product of the 200 years of British colonial rule. French writing by Indians, on the contrary, is not only small in number but also largely invisible on account of lack of a significant readership.

But as historian Blake Smith notes in his 2019 article, French has been a South Asian language since the 17th century, when agents of the French East India Company and French travellers arrived in India. In the ensuing three centuries, the French had a tenuous colonial presence in India with their capital at Pondicherry. “This colonial empire included populations speaking many South Asian languages, including Tamil, Malayalam, and Telugu, but its official language was French. For many inhabitants of the French colonies in South Asia, French became a second and even a first language—and for some, a language of literary expression,” writes Smith in his article, ‘Translingualism in Francophone writing from South Asia’.

french writing, ari gautier, pondicherry, french in india, k madavane, m mukundan, shumona sinha, french literature, french, french language, french india, france news, india news, books news, books, french books, Indian Express Ari Gautier’s latest work, a collection of short stories, ‘Nocturne Pondichery’, focuses on the darker side of Pondicherry, challenging the romanticised tourist destination it has become today.

“I think in French. Writing in English does not come naturally to me,” says K Madavane, who has authored several plays, short stories and essays in French. Madavane, who was born in 1946 in Pondicherry under French rule, is currently working on a novel set in the time of his childhood years when the French colonies were undergoing a period of transition and an independence movement was raging across the region. He says that being part of the French empire in India, the sense of liberty he experienced is different from the British subjects in India. That difference in sensibility, he says, comes across in the writings of French authors from the subcontinent.

However, the first writings in French from India were in fact from areas like Bengal and Goa, which were not part of the French empire. Contemporary Indian Francophone literature like those produced by Gautier and Madavane is both new and unique in the sense that they are directly a product of the French empire.

The French in India

The French presence in India can only be understood in context of the different European powers that coexisted in India between the 17th and the 20th centuries including the Portuguese, the Dutch, and most importantly the British. After he arrived in India in 1741, Governor Francois Dupleix drew up an ambitious plan to build an empire in the subcontinent. The French ambitions, however, frequently clashed with British interests.

Following the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French presence in India had been reduced to just about five comptoirs or trading posts scattered around the edges of the subcontinent: Pondicherry, Mahe, Karikal, Yanaon and Chandernagore. Emperor of France Louis XV agreed to renounce any further plans of expansion and also promised to maintain the comptoirs without any fortifications or a standing army. As historian Jyoti Mohan notes in her book, “France had become a peripheral power in India… standing in the wings while the British occupied centre stage.”

french writing, ari gautier, pondicherry, french in india, k madavane, m mukundan, shumona sinha, french literature, french, french language, french india, france news, india news, books news, books, french books, Indian Express The French territories in India after 1815. (Wikimedia Commons)

The first French writings about India, written by the French indologists were clearly representative of this imperial complexity. “In the 19th century, the imperial rivalries between the French and the British played out in the colonial sphere and one of the ways in which France expressed it was by subtly showing how had they been ruling India, they would have been so much more enlightened, and that they would have ruled in the interests of the Indians while the British were simply being exploitative,” says Mohan in a video interview with Indianexpress.com.

French writing from Bengal and Goa: The language of culture and liberation

This was also the period when the first Indian Francophone writing emerged in India. The Indians who authored these works were not part of the French comptoirs, but were instead educated Bengalis or Goans. One of the first Indians to write in French was a young girl named Toru Dutt, daughter of a Bengali Christian family with links to the British bureaucracy. Between the age of 17 and 21 when she died, Dutt had authored both in French and English, novels, translations, poetry and essays.

french writing, ari gautier, pondicherry, french in india, k madavane, m mukundan, shumona sinha, french literature, french, french language, french india, france news, india news, books news, books, french books, Indian Express One of the first Indians to write in French was a young girl named Toru Dutt, daughter of a Bengali Christian family with links to the British bureaucracy. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dutt was taken to Europe at an early age by her parents and spent most of her early life shuttling between England and France. Smith writes that her choice of writing in French was motivated by her vision of the nation in 1789. Through her writings she expressed her “admiration for the Revolution and her identification with the France of the era.”

Her novel, ‘The Diary of Mademoiselle D’Anvers’ tells the tragic story of a young woman in an unhappy marriage and in love with a man considered unsuitable for her. Smith, in a 2017 article, suggests that French allowed Dutt a degree of literary freedom that would be very difficult in English. “A certain familiarity with French literature, and a certain understanding that French could be the vehicle for otherwise indecorous emotions, was part of the standard nineteenth-century British education for upper-class girls—and by extension, for assimilated Indian families like the Dutts,” he writes.

Then there were a number of writers from Portuguese Goa writing in French. “Here, at the center of Portugal’s empire in Asia, French was familiar to the educated elite of the colony, and it was sometimes used in texts meant for local consumption,” writes Smith.

Vijaya Rao, Professor of French and Francophone studies at JNU, explains that in the Portuguese colony of Goa, like in Portugal, some subjects like medicine and law were taught in French. “Moreover, in Goa, while the official language was Portuguese, the second language was French,” she says. “In the 19th century, French was considered the language of the elite and culture,” says Rao who has edited an anthology of Indian writings in French titled, Ecriture indienne d’expression française (2008).

Paulino Diaz, a poet and doctor who wrote under the pseudonym Priti Das, was editor of the Goan literary magazine Revista da India. A few of his works are in French or in the bilingual French and Portuguese. Rao explains that in his works, one comes across the theme of caste in India.

The Goa based Sahitya Academy Award winner Manohar Rai Sardesai wrote in Konkani, English and French. He was also taught French in the University of Bombay and the University of Goa. Rao says Sardesai had in an interview with her confessed that “because of his rebellious nature, he never wanted to pursue Portuguese, even though he had studied it”. Writing in the mid-20th century when Goa was under Portuguese rule, Sardesai found in French a language of liberty.

“The fact that French writing was emerging in colonial India from those parts of the subcontinent which are not even under French rule can be explained by the concept of inter-imperiality (developed by Laura Doyle) or even, I would call it, proto-inter-imperiality,” says Ananya Jahanara Kabir, professor of English Literature at King’s College, London. By this she refers to a period in colonial India when the different European empires had not yet established themselves in stone, but their people were coexisting in India more as trading companies, missionaries, travellers etc. “When the political situation is in flux, we have got to accept that culture will also be fluid. People are making cultural choices by experimenting and innovating with cultural expressions in a way that is very individualistic,” says Kabir, who along with Gautier co-founded the online platform on creole cultures in India, ‘Le Thinnai Kreyol’, and whose current research is on what she calls ‘Creole Indias’.

The absence of French literature from its colonies

Interestingly, even when French became the medium for a few writers in British and Portuguese territories in the 19th and 20th centuries, it remained largely absent in the French comptoirs of India. This is more of a paradox given the fact that the French provided the opportunity to the people they colonised to become French citizens, while in British India where the colonised remained as subjects, literature in English by Indians was produced a lot more frequently and with far greater ease.

“Perhaps something so deep-seated happened from the way Frenchness imposed itself onto the minds of people in French India that despite even citizenship their minds and imagination did not free themselves enough to produce literature,” says Kabir. This was very different from the way British subjects were formed and the kind of literary resources made available to them.

Rao says that in Goa the Portuguese established several publishing houses and consequently a large volume of literature in Portuguese was produced in India during the colonial period. “Somehow the French did not have such a policy in their territories in India,” she says.

“The civilising mission in the French empire did not come about before the 19th century,” says Jessica Namakkal who authored the book, ‘Unsettling Utopia: The making and unmaking of French India’ (2021). “And when this idea of educating the colonised came about, they just didn’t have enough territories in India.” This explains why a significant body of French literature was produced in North and West Africa which was colonised in the 19th century.

The French territories in fact were too small for large scale literary productions, and more often than not were surrounded extensively with British territories. Namakkal explains that a closer look at the French territories in India would reveal that the borders they shared with the British colonies were largely fractured and porous. “One could be living in French territory, but working in a British factory. Naturally there was no uniformity in who was speaking what language” she says.

Yet there were a few people writing in French from their colonies, even though they were largely a product of Shri Aurobindo Ghose’s spiritual endeavour in Pondicherry. In 1910, in his attempt to escape the British administration, he went into hiding in the French colony of Chandernagore and from there he moved to Pondicherry. “Ghose’s arrival in the French colony brought other Bengali intellectuals to the region, and the religious movement that he led inspired a certain amount of francophone literary production,” writes Smith. Ghose himself wrote in French, albeit not so frequently. Among his circle of other Francophone writers were Amita Sen and Nolini Kanta Gupta. There was also Ranajit Sarkar who did his doctoral research on Aurobindo’s poetics in France.

“The themes in the works of these writers were very much centred around spiritualism, particularly the brand of spiritualism promoted by Shri Aurobindo,” says Rao, adding that apart from French they were also writing in English and some of the Indian vernaculars. But it was not just spiritualism they wrote about.

For instance, Sarkar, she says, also wrote about political issues in his poems like the Bangladesh war of 1971. Before Sarkar passed away in 2011, he handed over a collection of about 200 unpublished French poems to Rao. She published a selection of his poems as an anthology a year later.

Unlike the freedom struggle against the British that produced a large volume of writing in English, there was hardly any such nationalist literature in French being produced in the French territories. The only exception to this was a Tamil activist and lawyer, Leon St. Jean, who later changed his name to Karavelane, perhaps as an act of defiance against the French. Smith, in an interview with Indianexpress.com, explains that Karavelane in the 1920s wrote several French poems “attacking the French empire and urging Indians to stand up against colonialism.”

The contemporary Francophone writers and a memory of French India

With writers like Madavane and Gautier, a new era of Francophone writing by Indians has emerged in recent years. “This is really a post colonial phenomenon and these writers are trying to preserve the memory of a time and culture that is fast fading,” says Mohan.

“Ari and Madavane both give us complex, and critical, visions of the French empire,” says Smith. Yet their dispositions are different. Madavane moved to New Delhi from Pondicherry in the 1960s and is currently Professor Emeritus of French Literature at JNU. One of his most popular plays, ou le Mahabharata des femmes  (Mahabharata for women) (1998) was conceived while he was on a teaching assignment at Montreal and has been widely staged in Hindi, English and other languages apart from French across the world. His anthology of short stories Mourir à Bénarès (To die in Benaras) (2004), was also a product of his participation at a literary meet in Canada. The stories in the collection all revolve around the theme of death and funerals. While a couple of stories in the collection are set in Benaras, giving the book its name, the rest are all set in Pondicherry. But all the stories share a common theme of the complexities of the French empire. “He has, for example, a brutal short story about the violence that Indian school children suffered during the French colonial regime — and a hilarious story about the arrogance of a French diplomat’s wife visiting India today,” says Smith.

“Madavane in his writings is positioning himself more as representative of Frenchness in India as a whole, rather than of the intensely local aspects of those Indian sites which used to be French colonial territories,” explains Kabir.

french writing, ari gautier, pondicherry, french in india, k madavane, m mukundan, shumona sinha, french literature, french, french language, french india, france news, india news, books news, books, french books, Indian Express K Madavane’s anthology of short stories Mourir à Bénarès (To die in Benaras) (2004), was also a product of his participation at a literary meet in Canada.

In contrast, Gautier’s works are deeply invested in Pondicherry. “His mission is to give prominence to certain stories and voices of Pondicherry that had not found articulation,” says Kabir. In particular he is interested in exploring the identity of the lower castes who had renounced their Indian customs and traditions to take on French citizenship.

While Gautier writes in French, his writing is replete with words in Tamil and Pondicherry creole.” This is evident in his ‘Le Thinnai’, the name of the novel combining the Tamil word for verandah, thinnai, with the French article ‘the’ in ‘Le’,” says Kabir. The novel is a vision of childhood in a working class fishermen’s neighbourhood in Pondicherry. “Both in its historical setting (a decade after the end of the French colonial presence) and in its geographical one (a neighborhood with few French speakers), the novel undercuts the hegemony of French language and French culture in this former center of French India,” writes Smith. “Most of the novel’s characters are Tamil speakers, and both their words and the language of the narrator are regularly interspersed with untranslated Tamil words and phrases.”

“In order to bring out the flavour of the neighbourhood, I was interested in focusing on the way its people speak. I could not have done that had the entire book been in French alone,” says Gautier. He adds that he also had a linguistic political objective in mind when he decided to use Tamil along with French in his writings. “Most Indian books that have hitherto been translated in French are by North Indian writers. Consequently, people are more used to coming across words in Hindi or Sanskrit. I wanted to give prominence to a South Indian language,” he says.

Yet another contemporary French writer, Shumona Sinha, was born in Kolkata in 1973 and fell in love with the French language as she learnt it in her early 20s. Currently, she stays in France and is published by one of the leading French publishing houses, Gallimard. Rao explains that her works address themes of immigration, exile, identity, and womanhood. “Her novel, ‘Apatride’ (2017) is a story of women in India and in France, and the common feeling of statelessness they share as women,” explains Rao. Her second novel, Assommons les pauvres! (2011) reflects on the crisis of identity faced by immigrants and refugees in France.

french writing, ari gautier, pondicherry, french in india, k madavane, m mukundan, shumona sinha, french literature, french, french language, french india, france news, india news, books news, books, french books, Indian Express Shumona Sinha’s works address themes of immigration, exile, identity, and womanhood. (Wikimedia Commons and Amazon.in)

When it comes to the memories of the French in India, there are a few other writers who have been dealing with the subject, but in either the vernaculars or in English. Even then, however, they say that some amount of French is retained in their writings by virtue of the unique history and culture of the regions they are representing.

For M. Mukundan, a Malayalam author from the erstwhile French colony of Mahe, French is a language he grew up listening and speaking along with his mother tongue. Mukundan is known to be a pioneer of modernity in Malayalam literature. His most popular novel that fetched him several awards, Mayyazhi Puzhayude Theerangalil (By the Shores of the Mayyazhi) (1974), is set in the period of the freedom struggle and the end of French rule in Mahe. In 2002, the novel was translated into French by the author Sophie Bastide-Foltz and published by the French publication house Actes Sud.

Mukundan has self-translated a few of his short stories to French as well. However, he prefers to write in Malayalam. “It is the language in which I dream,” he says. But the French language he says is extremely important to understand the history and culture of Mahe. “Traces of French rule can still be found here. Even today common people on the streets of Mahe speak in French and greet each other with bonjour monsieur.”

Arjun Rajendran’s recently published anthology of English poems, ‘One Man Two Executions’ (2020), is an ode to 18th century Pondicherry, inspired by the personal diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, the right hand man of Dupleix. While he primarily writes in English, his poetry is infused with French words and phrases in French, a language he learnt out of sheer interest. “If one were to talk about the 18th century historical epoch in Pondicherry, there are somethings that can absolutely not be translated in English,” he says.

Madavane and Gautier on the other hand are aware of the many challenges in finding publishers for literature in French. This they believe is because of a lack of French readership in India, and the limited interest in colonial India among readers in France. Madavane says that while he found it incredibly difficult to get a publisher for his plays and stories, it is also true that his work acquired wide recognition once they were translated into English. “Unless there is some sort of political motivation and organisation of events like literary fests and the like, it would be difficult for French literature from India to get the kind of visibility it deserves.” he says.

Despite the many challenges, the literary spirit of contemporary French writers has remained undeterred. They hope for a future when there is mainstream readership for this unique kind of writing, one that retains the memory a bygone era of cultural exchange between Indians and French and at the same time opens the door for a new approach to postcolonial Indian literature.

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