Indo-French Dalit writer Ari Gautier’s latest book, a collection of seven stories, translated from the French original by Roopam Singh, shines light on the dark side of life in Pondicherry

In his latest book, Nocturne Pondicherry: Stories (Hachette India), Indo-French Dalit writer Ari Gautier, author of the acclaimed novel, The Thinnai (2021), shines light on the underbelly of post-colonial Pondicherry. The title is indicative of the dark side of life in the capital of the Union Territory of Puducherry in India. A collection of seven short stories, translated from the French original by Roopam Singh, it explores the intersection of personal stories and broader social challenges in post-colonial India through its vibrant narrative and richly drawn characters.

The stories bring to the fore the lives of several characters, each with their dreams, struggles, and secrets. Gautier’s brilliance as a storyteller lies in addressing issues such as cultural identity, social dynamics, and personal transformation of the characters. His characters are complex and fully realized, each embodying different aspects of Pondicherry’s cultural mosaic. The protagonist’s journey in each of these stories is particularly compelling, marked by moments of joy, sorrow, and profound realisation of the bleak side of living. The search for identity and a sense of belonging is a central theme in the stories, as reflected in the experiences of Viji, Arjuna, Lourdanadin, Ashwin, Kumar, Marguerite and Pattabhiram.

The mystery of night and darkness

For instance, consider the opening of the story of the last story in the collection, ‘The Postman, the Madman and the Drunk’: “Kousalya supraja Rama poorva sandhya pravarthathe… The first shlokas of Suprabhatamrang out from the Perumal Kovil. Eyes closed, Pattabhiram had waited in fear for the sacred chants. He so wanted that tiresome and sleepless night to come to an end. Disturbed by the barking of street dogs and the snoring of the vagabond sleeping on the neighbour’s thinnai, the old man had not slept a wink. He had prayed to all gods, especially to Kaal Bhairav to stop time. The dreaded day was finally dawning. In spite of the January morning chill, drops of sweat appeared on his back and on his forehead. He stood up, adjusted the sacred thread hanging on his torso and sat down on the mat. He took the thundu lying on his side and wiped himself without opening his eyes.”

Through such initial scenes, Gautier introduces his readers to a world where the physical locale and the characters’ inner lives are deeply intertwined, setting the stage for the intricate and poignant tales that unfold. Gautier frequently uses nighttime settings as a distinctive feature of the book. The setting and mood of the stories are undeniably “nocturne”. Night and darkness often symbolise mystery, the unknown or even fear. Gautier uses night and darkness as powerful tools in his art of storytelling evoking a wide range of emotions and themes. These tools dictate the pace and actions of his stories.

The most important activities and events in his stories are aligned with the night, transforming ordinary settings into something eerie: “The nocturnal face of Pondicherry is a secret meant only for lost souls….They come out only at night, cursed to kiss its hideous face. The deserted streets become the macabre stage where shadows produce their skeletal and ephemeral music. Footpaths look like graveyards from where Pondicherry emerges, taking off its veil to embrace the dark blanket of sins. Cadavers, homeless people, unfortunates indulge in dirty pleasure in the span of the night under an ethereal sky. Vagabonds, thugs, prostitutes, beggars, thieves, drug addicts get ready to seize power in the kingdom of debauchery.”

Gautier’s characters feel more isolated and vulnerable at night, leading to moments of self-discovery and/or revelation. The night serves as a plot device to foreshadow events, reveal subconscious fears and provide symbolic meanings. The most significant changes and turning points in the stories often occur at night, marking the transition from one phase to another. Gautier’s play with the effects of shadow and light is brilliant: “While everyone observed suspiciously, another silhouette appeared at the corner of the street from nowhere. Everyone was startled to see this unusual sight: the shadow was carrying a door on its back.” Thus, Gautier leverages the themes of light and darkness uniquely.

Motifs of time and journey

A good climax must heighten the impact of the narrative. Gautier’s climaxes serve as turning points where tensions peak and significant revelations occur. One of the defining qualities of his climaxes is their unpredictability, evoking strong emotions in the readers. His climaxes drive the narrative forward even as they deepen the reader’s connection to the story and its characters. And the resolutions that follow tie up loose ends and provide a sense of closure.

Consider the climax of the second story in the collection, “Mani Enna?”, a story about a homosexual lad: “[Arjuna] fainted as he felt the lathi enter his body… ‘Mani enna?’ (What time is it?)... ‘Mani enna?’ Standing on the rock, facing the ocean, Jacques uttered his pick-up line one last time. Like a broken and ephemeral pendulum, he swung his body into the emptiness.” (All the stories in the collection are replete with the motifs of time and journey).

Stories of the marginalised

Gautier does not shy away from depicting the harsh realities of the underbelly of Pondicherry as he sees it. Consequently, Nocturne Pondicherry delves deeply into the lesser-seen aspects of Pondicherry, bringing to light the complex underbelly of this unique town. Through his rich narrative and vivid character portrayals, the author explores the social, economic, and cultural nuances that define the lives of Pondicherry’s marginalised and often overlooked communities, including pariahs: “I trembled in horror the first time Malarvizhi touched me. I can’t remember how many times I washed myself to get rid of that shameful feeling sticking not only to my skin, but also to my soul. I was horrified and deeply disgusted by the touch of a pariah.”

Gautier’s stories provide a nuanced exploration of the cultural underbelly of Pondicherry. Through detailed and empathetic storytelling, he brings to life the complexities of socio-economic divides, cultural syncretism, marginalised communities, gender dynamics, and political underpinnings. His work is a valuable contribution to understanding the multifaceted identity of Pondicherry.

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