Life is always hybrid if you grow up in Mauritius, and author Ananda Devi, who was born and raised on the east African island, knows this for a fact.
As a child, Devi spoke French, Creole and English, heard the rhythms of Bollywood Hindi and her mother’s Telugu, read a range of Western literature while soaking in rich oral accounts of Indian mythology, and all along, watched her parents dream of one day returning to India, a homeland they had never seen before.
Now 54, Devi’s novels, stories and poems – written in French and often centred on Indo-Mauritian protagonists – grapple directly with this cultural hybridity.
“I don’t belong to the generation that experienced the ‘myth of return’ to one’s mother country, but I was aware of the sheer complexity and multiplicity of my identity, and of the richness this diversity opened up,” said Devi, who now lives in France and visits Mauritius every year.
Author of more than 10 novels, poetry volumes and essays, Devi is in Mumbai to give three public lectures as part of the Alliance Francaise’s Francophonie Week, which begins on Monday to celebrate the cultures of French-speaking nations. (See box, The Talks.)
Although trained in anthropology from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Devi’s “inner voice” had decided early on that writing would always be the centre of her life. She wrote her first amateur novel at age 12, published her first book of short stories at 19 and as an ethnologist, wrote essays such as Telugu Ethnic Identity in Mauritius before plunging into a novel writing and translation.
Most of her novels — including the multiple award-winning Eve de ses Décombres, Indian Tango and Pagli, her only work available in English translation in India — are about characters struggling against a society that imprisons and forces them to behave in ways “contrary to self-knowledge”.
Pagli, for instance, is about an Indo-Mauritian woman in an extra-marital affair with a Creole fisherman whose identity is eventually dehumanised when she is locked in a chicken-coop. (See box, Her Books.)
“Characters like Pagli would like to absorb and merge our heritage into a larger expansion of mind and heart,” said Devi, whose novels attempt a realistic portrayal of Mauritian society, fractured and hostile due to cultural barriers.
In an ideal world, however, Devi believes cultural hybridity is the only means of understanding one another and encouraging creative growth. “Present-day conflicts around the world are clear indications that the other choice — fundamentalism and fanaticism — can only lead to catastrophes,” she said. Devi lists authors Toni Morrisson, JM Coetzee and Albert Cohen as her greatest literary inspirations, but particularly admires Arundhati Roy for her courageous choices. “I would like to have the courage to put myself in danger, since I know that writing won’t change the world – beliefs and actions based on these beliefs will,” said Devi.
In her Mumbai lectures, the author plans to introduce audiences to the journey of her female protagonists from one novel to another. “I will talk about how they gradually let go of their fears, of their silence, of their subservience to social and psychological mores, until they finally achieve a kind of freedom from themselves.”
Although Devi has been to India on several short trips before, this time she will step into Andhra Pradesh – the land of her ancestors — for the first time, when she speaks at a Hyderabad university. “Since the death of my parents I felt guilty about visiting Andhra, because I don’t speak Telugu,” she said. “But now I am going to face my fears and reach another milestone in my life.”