Goubert avenue, Pondicherry. Photo: Shyamal / Wikimedia Commons.
Goubert avenue, Pondicherry. Photo: Shyamal / Wikimedia Commons.

Colonial continuities of the ‘good coloniser’

In ‘Unsettling Utopia’ Jessica Namakkal interrogates French occupation of India.

In Ari Gautier's Le Thinnai (The Thinnai), the tiny fishing village of Kurusukuppam, lying somewhere beyond Pondicherry's White Town, is portrayed as the proverbial 'melting pot' of cultures, identities, and ideologies. Paulin is a French national and colonial war veteran, while his brother is Indian and a communist. Paulin's childhood friend Kaatannan hates the ashramites from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for sidelining local Pondicherrians, but Monsieur Michel welcomes these "spiritual immigrants" because their presence is the source of his wealth. Paulin won't allow Lourdes, the domestic worker from the 'low creole' community, to speak her 'corrupted' French in front of the children but unreservedly welcomes the vagabond Gilbert Thaata into this home, presumably because he is white and speaks 'real' French. In Gautier's fictional account, this motley crew is a window into present-day Pondicherry – not the quaint, orderly, colonial remnant town of travel brochures, but one populated by creoles, colonial war veterans, communists and paper Frenchmen. Their hybrid identities bear the unmistakable stamp of three centuries of French colonialism and postcolonial encounters in the wake of Pondicherry's merger with India. Here, an anomaly of colonial inheritance finds two nationalities "rubbing uncomfortably against each other within the same family" as Gautier writes. The rarely-explored history and legacy of French colonialism in India that produced this 'anomaly' is the subject of Jessica Namakkal's 2021 book, Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India.

The author casts a critical lens at the decolonisation of the former French-Indian territories – Pondicherry (now Puducherry), Karaikal, Mahe, Yanam, and Chandernagor (or Chandannagar). Using Pondicherry as the primary site of her enquiry, Namakkal digs into what she calls "minor archives" to excavate the "minor histories" that are forgotten, sidelined, or distorted in nationalist accounts of India's anticolonial struggle. In recounting these histories, she throws into disarray the neat consensus of decolonisation as a "completed event", achieved with the withdrawal of the French imperial government and the merger of these territories with postcolonial India.

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