Deccan Chronicle

Book Review | Four love stories between France and India

Deccan Chronicle.| Sucheta Dasgupta

Published on: March 25, 2023 | Updated on: March 26, 2023
Cover photo of 'Like Barbarians in India' by Jean-Claude Perrier and translated by Sriparna Chatterjee. (Photo by arrangement)

Cover photo of 'Like Barbarians in India' by Jean-Claude Perrier and translated by Sriparna Chatterjee. (Photo by arrangement)

This spare volume of eight essays has five characters — Pierre Loti (1850-1953), André Malraux (1901-1976), Henri Michaux (1899-1984) and André Gide (1869-1951), but not to overlook the writer Jean-Claude Perrier himself — and is brought to us in translation by the scholar Sriparna Chatterjee. All are writers and Indophiles. With the exception of Gide who collaborated with Nehru and translated Tagore, each travelled India.

This is Perrier’s account of the experiences and the relationships they had in and with India. It is an attempt to decipher the dynamic between Frenchmen and Indians. Do the French have an idea of India? What is it and how has it changed over the past two centuries?

Pierre Loti is the pseudonym of naval officer and novelist Louis Marie-Julien Viaud, known for his exotic and curious (tall) tales which were only partly autobiographical. In the Tahitian language, Loti means a red flower. Loti had been to Istanbul and Polynesia and proceeded to Persia after his Indian adventure. The book informs us that Annie Besant’s theosophy had been "too bland (insipid)" for him.

Georges André Malraux was a French novelist, art theorist and minister of cultural affairs (1959-1969). He invented the anti-memoir wherein it is the other people in one’s life who are the protagonists and one tries to write dispassionately about them. Lawrence of Arabia was his ideal. He himself fought in the Second World War, was captured during the Battle of France in 1940 but escaped and joined the French Resistance. In 1971, at age 70, he volunteered to join the Indo-Pak war to free Bangladesh! Hat-tip to the late Mr Malraux.

Henri Michaux wrote A Barbarian in Asia, the inspiration behind this title. He wrote this volume after travelling India, China and Japan in 1930-31. In 1939, he was also in Brazil where he lived for two years. The Belgian-born Michaux was a highly original poet and visual artist. He was later associated with the Tachiste movement in the 1940s and 50s. His texts chronicle his psychedelic experiments with LSD and mescaline. They include Miserable Miracle and The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones. He is also known for his stories about Plume — "a peaceful man" — perhaps the most unenterprising hero in the history of literature, and his many misfortunes. In that sense, he is the antithesis of Malraux.

But perhaps the most interesting man of the quartet (pentet) is André Gide and not because he became a Nobel Laureate in 1947. Besides Tagore, he translated the works of Walt Whitman, Shakespeare and Rainer Maria Rilke into French. He was a friend of Oscar Wilde. He defended his homosexuality publicly in his work, Corydon, as early as 1924. And as a surrealist and a dream whisperer, he was among the first to intellectually repudiate communism for its authoritarian thought policing post his travels to Russia in 1936. Notably, Gide enjoyed a remarkably clear-eyed perspective on "The Temptation of the Orient". He found Loti’s romanticism rather excessive, Perrier posits. That’s probably because, aside from his personal brand of uncompromising rationalism, the idea of India, too, had evolved by Gide’s time. It is Perrier who, during the course of his searches, discovered another Indian translation by him, totally unknown and unpublished, the title: The Translation of Kabir Poems by R. Tagore.

The book also has passages on George Harrison, and Anoushka and Ravi Shankar, Rene Guenon, Rene Daumal, Maurice Barres, Kshitimohan Sen and Nehru. One wishes there to have been more dates. More info on the redoubtable Romain Rolland, dramatist, novelist and biographer of Ramakrishna and Gandhi, would no doubt have enriched the book which is a good resource for scholars of history, philosophy and French literature.

Like Barbarians in India

By Jean-Claude Perrier

Translated by Sriparna Chatterjee

Niyogi Books

pp. 151, Rs.450

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