I enjoy reading books where they are set and look forward to picking a riveting read relevant to my travels. It gives me a better insight into the country or region I am visiting. The sights, sounds and smells come alive and I am just not living vicariously through the experience, I am immersed in it.
A recent trip to India included a visit to Puducherry, a picturesque coastal town on the Coromandel Coast, formerly a French colony known as Pondicherry. When we think of colonial India, we automatically think of British rule. The British did have control over most of the subcontinent and were the most successful among the European colonizers. By contrast, French India comprised of only five geographically separate enclaves which, area wise, were the smallest of the possessions of European colonizers, but nevertheless left their own distinct legacy.
There are countless books written on the British Raj. I was looking specifically for a book set in Pondicherry which would give me a flavor of French colonial rule. My search took me to a book entitled A House in Pondicherry by Lee Langley. I had never heard of the author before but the summary of the book seemed to fit with what I was looking for. Lee Langley is a British author, born in Calcutta in the late thirties. She spent her childhood in India during the rule of the British. Later she moved to England and wrote a loose trilogy of novels set in India, A House in Pondicherry being the third in the series.
In the author statement, Langley writes:
Perhaps because I was born in India and spent my early childhood there, I grew up with a sense of loss, of being exiled from a place I loved. But for a writer, exile can be a sort of freedom: deprived of the comfort of belonging to one particular place or society, you can perhaps enter more easily the hearts and minds and skins of others.
Looking back over my books I see a preoccupation with outsiders – of enclaves of otherness within larger cultures. This sense of otherness, of not belonging, has always been there – sometimes without my realising it at the time – like a shadowy reef lying beneath the surface. The characters are often people who don’t fit in.
Oriane de l’Esprit, the French protagonist of A House in Pondicherry, named after a Proust heroine, experiences this same sense of alienation. The novel traces her story from childhood to old age. Her parents are the proprietors of the Grand Hotel de France in Pondicherry. Her mother is constantly inviting eligible French bachelors to dinner hoping to make a suitable match for her daughter and send her off to France, a country she has not visited. She grows old and inherits the hotel but never marries and never visits the mother country. Her only connection to it is through the letters she receives from her Pondicherry lycée friend, Marie-Hélène, who moved back to France.
Meanwhile she develops a friendship with a Brahmin man named Guruvappa The two have intellectual conversations on every subject from politics to French literature and work together on translating ancient Tamil poems into French. There are undercurrents of romantic tension but their feelings remain unexpressed. Despite his education, he is bound by tradition and has an arranged marriage with a woman of his caste. They continue their friendship through the decades with all the unresolved emotions lurking beneath the surface. Their relationship epitomizes Oriane’s own relationship with India. Guru, in spite of the close connection they share, cannot belong to her completely just as this country can never belong to her wholly even though she was born and brought up here. Indian but not Indian, French but not French, she is not fully part of either community.
Parallel to Oriane’s fictional story is the story of the establishment of the Aurobindo Ashram and the experimental township of Auroville, a place for men and women of all nations to live together in peace and harmony. Sri Aurobindo was a yogi, a philosopher and an Indian nationalist who founded the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry based on his yoga philosophy. He worked in collaboration with Mirra Alfassa, a French woman who came to be known as ‘The Mother’. Lang weaves in fiction with fact when she shows young Oriane deeply affected by Aurobindo’s trial in the courtroom at Alipore after he was arrested for treason. He had mystical and spiritual experiences in jail and on his release left politics for a spiritual life in Pondicherry at the same time that Oriane’s family undertook the journey by sea from Calcutta to Pondicherry.
Auroville is a big part of the story as years later Marie-Hélène’s grandson Raymond who is an architect, comes to Pondicherry to help build the utopian township. He impregnates a fellow European he meets in the ashram. She returns to England on discovering that she is pregnant. Meanwhile he rescues a local woman who intends to die with her child and takes them into his home. Outwardly he is of an amiable and easy going nature but years later when his daughter visits from Europe, she says: “The smile lit up his face, offering warmth, intimacy. But she saw now that the smile, like a trompe-l’oeil doorway painted on a stone wall, led nowhere.” There is a sadness, at times unbearable, that permeates through the novel. Here is a man who nobly offers his home and heart to a poor local woman and her child but treats his biological daughter who is seeing him for the first time with a casualness bordering on cruelty. There is also the wistfulness of thwarted love. Oriane has repeatedly spurned the advances of an Englishman and continues to yearn for the unattainable. Years later when Guru and she have a chance to be together, it is almost too late.
As the years pass by, the Grand Hotel de France becomes more and more dilapidated and loses its charm. Similarly Oriane grows old and frail. She has witnessed the French clashing with the British over Pondicherry, World Wars 1 and 2, the Indian Independence movement and eventually Pondicherry’s independence. Pondicherry itself undergoes as much growth and change as any character does in a changing India that eventually casts off the imperial yoke.
There are many minor characters introduced towards the end of the novel and they are not well fleshed out. The plot is not that well developed either. Yet, A House in Pondicherry is an interesting book as it explores colonialism and postcolonialism, sexism, racism, class, caste and privilege. British or French, substitute one colonizer for the other, the experience is the same. I found the book to be a lush and dreamy read that beautifully evokes a certain time in history. Besides, I was literally transported to the setting of the book. Being in Pondicherry and taking a walk on the Promenade and passing the sights mentioned in the book, definitely enhanced the reading experience for me.
Does reading give you wanderlust? Has a book ever taken you places? Or has a place made you reach for a particular book? If you could vacation in a place where a book is set, where would you go and what would you read?
I’ll end the blog post with a long passage from the book, which, in my opinion, powerfully encapsulates the colonial perception, often erroneous, of the exotic:
Between the settlements and the coconut groves lay the villagers’ cashew plantations, the trees shimmering in the sunlight, bushy as hawthorn and starred with pink and yellow blossom. Their scent drifted across the fields, warm, spicy, exotic. ‘ Anarcadium Occidentale’, Arjuna informed Judith when he came upon her admiring the cashew blossom for the first time. ‘ Pretty, but do not attempt to pick the nuts off the tree, or you will regret the action.’
She thought it must be some local custom. some taboo he was warning her off, but there was a simpler, more practical explanation: the shell of the fruit was hard; breaking it to reach the little kidney-shaped nut at the base, the village women got the juice on their hands, bitter black juice that burned like acid and went on burning. The cashew harvesters’ hands blistered and peeled, the skin shiny and horribly pink, like plastic gloves- or bright new scar tissue, which is what it was. Their hands were skinned, flayed by the cashew acid.
‘ Can nothing be done to avoid this?’Judith asked, horrified.
‘ Rubbing wood-ash over their hands would protect them, to an extent, but no one has the time, the fruit is waiting.’
And later, when she thought back to Auroville, that was what Judith remembered most sharply: the scent of cashew blossom was the smell of Auroville. It combined the sweetness of first sight with the burning bitterness of experience.
P.S. I just got a notification from WordPress that this is my 100th blog post!