The Thinnai by Ari Gautier. Translated from French to English by Blake Smith.
A million stars and more for this book please!
Reading The Thinnai brought back fond memories of my gallivanting about in Madagascar, Mauritius and the Reunion 2 years ago. I am a lover of island life. The islanders sense of music and rhythm is indeed captivating. Passionately composed songs highlighting their lives and livelihoods set to a handsome tune and groovy beats. A greater sense of peace and joy despite the odds stacked against them. The creole community suffer most at the hands of a religiously fanatic government in Mauritius. The creole music, the Baila music and the Mauritian Sega dance resonating in the grand Indian Ocean is paradisiacal. How I miss them all.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit I haven’t visited Pondichèry, a significant Francophone. After reading The Thinnai, I’ve made up my mind to witness firsthand the sensual treat Pondichery has to offer while it stands through the test of time. This book has made me even curious to go on a discovery journey to Pondicherry.
Pondicherry was a former French colony and an existing French speaking state in the Tamil country. The Pondichery creole is an ensemble of French, Portuguese and Tamil, spoken with a Tamil sounding diction. A melange of cultures, textiles, food, languages. I’ve to tell you I love any type of Creole. I am fascinated with its charming wordplay. Beyond its multilingualism, it serves to be a reminder of resistance against slavery.
Thinnai in the Tamil tongue means a verandah. More of raised platforms flanking the entrance of the house, supported by teak round pillars, that provides a shelter for anyone passing by to stop, rest, have one or two idle chatters or tête-à-tête and then continue their journey. The principle of a Thinnai is deeply ingrained into the Tamil cultural heritage, the first being ‘Virunthombal’ – Hospitality.
Ari Gautier wittily tells his story from a Thinnai where his story’s characters meet. He creates a neighbourhood out of Kurusukuppam and the heart of this was the Thinnai , a relic that stood through the test of time and war and the idealistic premise for his story to come alive. The whimsical characters in the story through their eccentricities, tell the cruel oppression of the caste system which even discriminated the Creole community with high and low classes. The high Creoles were direct descendants of the French colonists and lived in affluent colonial houses while the low creoles who had a mixed pedigree / shared ancestry with the Scottish, Danish, Portuguese, English and Dutch, shunned away from the main towns and lived in ghettoised slums and fishing villages.
The uprising against the French monarchy in France reverberated in Pondichery too when the subjects were under the French rule. There was chaos and divided loyalties because one side were the Tamil rebels led by VVS Aiyar and Vanchinathan were working their independence movement to oust the European Imperialists in Tamilnadu. While on the other hand, the caste-oppressed creole communities identified themselves with the French, became French citizens, converted to Catholicism and were ready to leave their motherland for France. Fate was cruel when the French handed over Pondichery to the Indian government. In turn displacing the French subjects on Indian soil and denied passage for those who filed papers to go to France.
‘And that’s why there’s no French flag flying here?’ the old man asked my father, who had sunk into his memories. ‘In a way, yes. I never was much for patriotism. I don’t feel the need to show my love for a country. My friends can feel it; they can put up a French flag in front of their houses, or the French and Indian flags together. I respect them. Personally, I don’t feel it. I don’t feel any pride either. The flag is just what the government uses to wrap corpses.’– The Thinnai by Ari Gautier
There was a treacherous group of Tamils exploiting the crisis by bending over backwards to serve their colonial masters by selling Tamils as slaves to French colonies. Many unsuspecting Indians were sold as slaves to other French colonies like Guadeloupe in the Caribbeans to work the sugarcane plantations for their French masters.
A political satire had its mark in this story in the form of Monsier Michel and Manickam Anna pitting against each other just the way their ideals clashed: Capitalism vs Communism. Cameos of Marx, Lenin and Stalin were caricatured as ‘Mop head, The Baldy and The Moustache’ 😆
The spiritual invasion in Pondicherry threw a spanner into the Catholic missionaries’ propaganda and the caste hegemony. The ashram of Aurobindo was erected. Along with it came the procession of the spiritually woke folks – hippies. A variety of psychedelic narcotics were peddled in Pondicherry to enable the cult following.
You’d meet quirly characters with peculiar names. Three-balls Six faces : I figured the Arumugam part, a little while later discovered the reason. The Tamil word spoken in parlance for Three Balls made me chuckle. Moment of revelation for me 😂
The creole gastronomy mentioned in the story was droolworthy: Baffade prepared with generous spices, fruits and nuts, Hyderabadi briyani from the Nizams, Nawayath Muslim’s Bhatkali briyani, Piitasattaykarichi / dingdings.
The sightscapes, soundscapes were sensual treats. Even made my nose twitch when reading on the fish market stalls run by fiesty creole women, the palate tingling spice bazaars, meat butchers, the noisy haggling with the sellers and even beef selected by connoisseurs.
My favourite character was Lourdes, a curmudgeon at times. I loved her clever rejoinders in creole to the men who enjoyed winding her up.
Then came along the white old man Gilbert thatha with his sidekick to this Thinnai. He made it its pit stop, mainly to relish in the tantalizing aroma from Lourdes’s cooking of Creole dishes. He made himself comfortable in the Thinnai. Found himself a target audience for his war stories who was the house owner, a former French soldier. So long as he kept his listeners entertained, he knew he could ensure his flow of Bagpiper’s whisky, cheroot and Lourdes’s hot scrumptious meals. For a seasoned streetwise man and always on the move, survival tactics had to be very clever. The Thinnai and all that it provided him with was luxury. So he waited it out cleverly.
Like an illusionist trick he conjured up a tall tale of the Sita’s curse. In it he interlaced his personal life anecdotes from birth to Pondichery. He built up the climax to The Sita’s curse in calculated moves after making sure his audience had already fallen hook, line, and sinker. He sold his irresistible story so well. It was a true art. So atmospheric and moving.
I’m still reeling from the effects of the story. Such is the ingenuity of Ari Gautier. A scintillating, panoramic mise-en-abyme.
Ari Gautier is a phenomenal storyteller. He is a rare gem in the literary world. He’s ability to arouse the reader’s senses and his talent to weave the stories with history together are a force to reckon with. I hope Le Thinnai/ The Thinnai receives the international readership and that his art of story telling travels across the oceans. I mean it from the depths of my heart. I am lucky to have read The Thinnai originally written in French by Ari Gautier. Translated to English by Blake Smith.
What a brilliant translation! Given the dynamics of the story, this is no easy feat! Thank you Blake for making my world a lot richer and giving me the opportunity to read this beautiful story in English.
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