The narrator returns to his childhood home in one of Pondicherry’s poor northern suburbs, Kurusukuppam. As he notes how everything has changed in his old neighbourhood, the reader travels back in time when “ashramites, hippies and retired veterans of France’s colonial wars” inhabited the town. The prose consists of vivid descriptions of the locality, complete with its streets, neighbours, sights and sounds. Even though the narrator’s family had been French for generations, his father, a colonial soldier in the French army, was the first to go to France. After living in exile and fighting the enemies, he had returned home to Pondicherry.
On Bastille Day, a strange French beggar, Gilbert Thaata, arrives on the narrator’s shaded verandah, known traditionally as the thinnai. A refuge for poor, it was never an empty space, and often a neighbour or stranger sat there. It is here that the wandering storyteller takes shelter and begins recounting his family’s legend over many weeks. Struck by a curse, his family was the custodian of a mysterious diamond, the Stone of Sita, which disappeared during the French Revolution. The tale, filled with adventure and intrigue, spans across centuries, sprinkled as it is with several anecdotes about the history of France’s colonial legacy in India.
Along the way, the book shines a light on several aspects of life in Pondicherry during this era.
In 1968, when Auroville was created, the residents were horrified by the new influx of a generation of lost children living in a cloud of fantasies -- hippies meditating naked on beaches and drugged-up messiahs preaching peace on earth. "Hidden by ganja smoke and armed with chillums, Pondicherry's youth were leading their own revolution."
It was an "artificial paradise", where one could find Manali charas, grass from Idukki, Bombay Black, Calcutta opium, bhang from Orissa, Kodaikanal mushrooms and datura from the outskirts of town. Opposed to the ashram, the Communist Party resisted Sri Aurobindo's transformation into a spiritual idol and the Sanskritisation of the local linguistic heritage.
The book is beautifully translated from the French original by Blake Smith, a historian who specialises in the cultural exchange between France and India. In the Translator's Note at the beginning of the book, he writes that India's contributions to the French language are relatively unknown. Norway-based Ari Gautier has spent many years living in both India and France, and the book is an ode to his days in this country.
According to him, the thinnai is the real hero of the novel, as it is the soul of the house -- the part that opens to the neighbourhood, the city, the world and the past. The book also gives its readers a glimpse into Chettiar houses in Tamil Nadu that have large stone buildings with beautiful thinnais.
By: Ari Gautier
Translated By: Blake Smith
Publisher: Hachette India
Price: Rs 399