Book Title: The Thinnai
Author: Ari Gautier
THINNAI, which in Tamil means a shaded verandah, is the organic setting for Ari Gautier’s eponymous novel. It is from this thinnai of a house in a working class suburb of Pondicherry that an old tramp, Gilbert Thaata, recounts an engrossing tale of his family’s fortunes, spanning centuries. Veena Muthuraman’s ‘The Grand Anicut’, on the other hand, follows the adventures of Marcellus, a merchant prince from Rome, who comes to trade in Tamilakam, then flourishing under Chola rule. The two novels, save for the setting of southern India, may appear to have little in common. Yet, there is a not so tenuous thread of commonality: time travel, fanciful journeys, intertwining of histories and diverse characters.
Gautier’s French novel, masterfully recreated in English by Blake Smith, offers a chromatic view of Pondicherry. As Gautier navigates the reader through the city streets, capturing the many complexities of the Tamil, French and Creole communities and mapping its many histories, colonial and post-colonial, he unpacks a Pondicherry quite removed from the much headlined touristy one. Even a tiny detail about Kurusukuppam, where one sees a multitude of characters billowing out, is rich in cultural contours.
The story begins with the narrator returning to his house, and finding many visible changes in the neighbourhood. From the thinnai, a repository of memories, he recalls his childhood and parades a streetful of characters — Three-Balls Six-Faces, Emile Kozhukkattai-Head, Pascal Pig-Tail and many more with witty backstories to how they attained the nicknames.
Through Lourdes, the Creole maid, Gautier delves deep into the little known Creolised culture and cuisine, songs and dance. We get to know, for instance, that there are two types of Creoles. The descendants of the French colonists, who spoke pure French, were the High Creoles, who “disdained the Low for their Portuguese, English, Danish, Scottish or Dutch ancestry”. So while the High Creoles lived in quaint colonial houses in the White Town, the Low Creoles were pushed aside to fishing villages like Kurusukuppam, “ignored by Indians and despised by High Creoles”. Such nuggets throw light on the complicated politics and crises of identities, and the co-existence of colonial legacies and local subcultures in a post-colonial Pondicherry.
The novel moves back and forth, alluding to the French soldiers who served in the Second World War, the Bastille Day celebrations, the secession of 1962, the swarming of the ashramites, hippie culture, drugs and so on till it pauses at the thinnai again, where the wizened Frenchman Gilbert Thaata begins to render his story. It’s a tragic family saga, tied to a stolen mysterious diamond, the Stone of Sita. Are the stories by wayside travellers, resting at the thinnai after a weary journey, real or a figment of their febrile imagination? There are no answers here.
Muthuraman attempts a similar recasting of history, on a rather ambitious scale, in her novel ‘The Grand Anicut’. The period is first CE, a golden age in Tamilakam, under the Chola ruler Karikalan. Karikalan has kept at bay the Pandyas, Cheras and the Satkarnis from the north, and is expending his energy on infrastructural projects, most notably a dam along the Cauvery, or the grand anicut.
It is around this time that a Roman ship carrying the trader Marcellus and his crew arrive at the Chola capital of Puhar. Marcellus has ostensibly come to trade in spices, gems and circus animals, but in reality carries a missive from his father for a mysterious person. It is a mission fraught with danger and one that will take him across Tamilakam, encountering powerful merchants and priests, street hawkers and innkeepers, spies and bandits. As the arduous inland journey takes him right up to the king’s pet project, the grand anicut, Marcellus finds himself sucked in the complex politics and palace intrigues of the land. As if on loop, he keeps getting abducted, imprisoned and freed. And during these misadventures, he encounters many characters, deceptive, intriguing and interesting, like himself.
There is Zhang, the evangelising Buddhist monk and dependable partner; Vallavan, friend and foe at intermittent intervals; Angavai, bandit queen and heroine of an unlikely and rather undeveloped love story; and more importantly, Kuzhali, Vallavan’s older sister and the widowed daughter of a merchant from Puhar. Interestingly, the reader also gets acquainted with Kuzhali’s younger sister Kannaki, who is betrothed to Kovalan. But Kannaki’s story is meant for another day, and another epic where she will be canonised as a tragic heroine.
Muthuraman’s literary influences are quite patent. Marcellus’ journey predates that of another hero of another epic, Vandiyathevan of Kalki’s perennially popular novel, ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, and subject of a forthcoming multi-starrer. Muthuraman has acknowledged that this Tamil cult classic was an obvious inspiration for her book. But she admits that she was less interested in kings and wars and more invested in the people and the cultures they interacted with.
In that sense, both Muthuraman and Gautier deserve applause for bringing to life little-known pasts and the interconnected destinies of people and nations. Both books seem to dispel any unitary, hegemonic understanding of India’s history.