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The narrator returns to his childhood home in one of the poor northern suburbs of Pondicherry, Kurusukuppam. Seeing how much everything has changed in his old neighborhood, the reader travels back in time when “ashramites, hippies and retired veterans of the French colonial wars” lived in the city. The prose is made up of vivid descriptions of the locality, with its streets, neighbors, sights and sounds. Although the narrator’s family had been French for generations, his father, a colonial soldier in the French army, was the first to come to France. After living in exile and fighting enemies, he returned home to Pondicherry.
On Bastille Day, a strange French beggar, Gilbert Thaata, arrives on the narrator’s shaded veranda, traditionally known as the thin. Refuge for the poor, it was never an empty space, and often a neighbor or a stranger settled there. It is here that the wandering storyteller takes refuge and begins to tell the legend of his family for many weeks. Struck with a curse, his family was the custodian of a mysterious diamond, the Sita stone, which disappeared during the French Revolution. The story, filled with adventure and intrigue, spans the centuries, interspersed with several anecdotes on the history of France’s colonial heritage in India.
Along the way, the book sheds light on several aspects of life in Pondicherry at that time.
In 1968, when Auroville was founded, locals were horrified by the new influx of a generation of lost children living in a cloud of fantasies – hippies meditating naked on beaches and drugged messiahs preaching peace on Earth. “Hidden by the smoke of ganja and armed with chillums, the young people of Pondicherry were leading their own revolution.”
It was an “artificial paradise”, where one could find manali charas, Idukki weed, Bombay Black, Calcutta opium, Orissa bhang, Kodaikanal mushrooms and datura. from the outskirts of town. Opposed to the ashram, the Communist Party resisted Sri Aurobindo’s transformation into a spiritual idol and the Sanskritization of the local linguistic heritage.
The book is beautifully translated from the French original by Blake Smith, a historian specializing in cultural exchanges between France and India. In the translator’s note at the beginning of the book, he writes that India’s contributions to the French language are relatively unknown. Ari Gautier, based in Norway, lived for many years in India and France, and the book is an ode to his days in this country.
According to him, the thin is the real hero of the novel, because it is the soul of the house – the part that opens up to the neighborhood, the city, the world and the past. The book also gives its readers an overview of Chettiar houses in Tamil Nadu which have large stone buildings with beautiful thin.
By: Ari Gautier
Translated by: Blake Smith
Publisher: Hachette India
Price: Rs 399