Originally published here
The Thinnai is a disappearing element of architecture that used to be an integral part of most traditional Tamil Nadu homes. It is an open space with a raised platform and pillars at the entrance where weary travelers could rest overnight or lay down their heavy loads and sit for a while. It was where a salesman would display his wares to the women of the house, or where someone could take a lazy afternoon nap. It was the space where old women sat all day, spending the last years of their lives, stopping random passers-by for a dose of gossip as they watched the world go by.
It is from such a Thinnai , in a fishing village somewhere beyond the yellow walls of Pondicherry’s White Town with its quaint gates with bougainvillea arches, that Ari Gautier weaves a fascinating tale that takes you on a journey across the world.
In just two hundred pages, starting from a small village in the north of France, the reader gets to cross the seas, make a stopover in The Maldives, travel the length and breadth of coastal India, venture into the diamond mines of Golconda, and cross the seas again to the sugarcane plantations in The Caribbean.
The Kurusukuppam hamlet is a melting pot of confused cultures, nationalities, and ideologies. No one even knows whether the place got its name from a fish or the Cross. Yet the village provides a window into the larger demographic and mindset of the former French colony.
Paulin, a French national, grew up idolizing Periyar and his principles before his inevitable disillusionment, but his brother who lives in the same house is Indian and a communist who considered Periyar as a ‘self-important fool’. Paulin’s childhood friend and fellow Periyarist, Kaatannan, holds a vengeful hatred for North Indians, the ashramites who took over Pondicherry by sidelining the locals and corrupting its youth with drugs and debauchery. However, Monsieur Michel welcomes the ashramites because they have made him rich enough to call himself an engineer rather than simply a maistri. And then there is Manickam Annan, the hardcore communist who sells the last of his wife’s jewelry to further the ideals of the bushy-bearded, the goateed, and the mustachioed men who adorn his office board.
Paulin, the lapsed Periyarist, dreams of a casteless society, but his biases show through in subtle and not so subtle ways. Lourdes, their maid from the ‘Low Creole’ community, is not allowed to speak her corrupted version of French for fear of her perverting theirs. But when it comes to Gilbert Thaata , the filthy vagabond who has blue eyes and fair skin, he fraternizes with him by sharing his whisky and French food just because he is white and speaks ‘real’ French. It is Lourdes who sees the old man as the useless freeloader he is and asks her master not to treat him like ‘The king of Vattalagundu’.
This is a community that celebrates Bastille Day without fully understanding why. But it is a day of celebration when rickshaw drivers get drunk and paint themselves in the colors of a country they have never known. The people here still honour and respect the white man, regardless of how filthy and poor he is because he is still the Durai, their overlord. The homes of some soldiers who fought in France’s wars display the French flag proudly, while the same flag is shunned in other homes as something to ‘wrap corpses in’. ‘ We were just colonial soldiers. France was never our country. What we had with it was just a quirk with history’
It is on one such Bastille day that the bedraggled old Gilbert Thaata , desperately in search of liquor, finds his way into Kurusukuppam. Settling himself on the Thinnai and freeloading on the endless supply of Bagpiper whisky, cigars, and French food he is provided, he does nothing all day. The only thing he does is to keep everyone enthralled with his incredible tale of Sita’s curse and how it struck his family in the seventeenth century and followed him to his fate that finally brought him to Pondicherry.
With the narrator returning to his village and wistfully looking at how it has changed over the years, the book seems to start out like yet another story that runs on childhood nostalgia. The villagers’ eccentricities and small back stories seem to come from an established template for such books: The village drunkard, an unapologetic polygamist, an idealistic communist, a greedy capitalist as his antithesis, a movie-crazy wastrel and a woman with loose morals — the works.
However, as the stories unfold, the personalities and their quirky names begin to stand out. For those who do not understand Tamil, unfortunately, the nicknames may not strike a chord as intended. The story behind Emile Kozhukattai Head’s name is part of the narrative but a non-native may not be able to picture what exactly a kozhukattai is. Similarly, Three-Balls Six-Faces might sound ridiculous enough to make one chuckle when it is read in English, but when translated into Tamil, the name takes on an altogether different level of hilarity. And then there is Asamandi Baiyacaca Sonal, a name that one may never figure out fully even after reading the incredulous story behind it.
The Thinnai has been translated by Blake Smith from the French original, Le Thinnai . For someone reading only the English version, it makes little difference since the setting of the book is neither French nor English. But with some terms, like calling it a Dalda box rather than a Dalda tin when insulting the woman from a certain community, or referring to the vessels used to carry water from the communal tap as jugs rather than pots, it did feel like there was a cultural disconnect between the translator and the subject. And the lack of the letter ‘h’ in most Tamil words like Thaata instead of Thaatha or Kaatannan instead of Kaathannan which alters the very meaning of some words when read in English is something only a Tamil speaker will understand
Though not a direct comparison, The Thinnai evokes a sense of comfortable familiarity with the works of M Mukundan whose stories are usually set in Mahe, Pondicherry’s counterpart on the west coast of India, with most characters having their nicknames prefixed to their given names and some of them going off to seek their fortunes in France and ending up fighting the Frenchman’s wars on African soil.
The Thinnai also opens up a whole new world of further reading and learning. Since the British have been our biggest foreign influence, the influence of other countries that invaded and ruled India over the centuries has mostly been overshadowed by them. It is enlightening to learn about how smaller communities that had origins with the French, Portuguese and Dutch, assimilated into Indian society, and who are now limited to a few isolated pockets across India.
Ari Gautier. Translated from the French original by Blake Smith
200 pages; Rs 340 (paperback)