Review: Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India by Jessica Namakkal
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Pondicherry? For me, it is the word ‘ashram’. I struggle to recollect the sequence of events that led me to the samadhi ofSri Aurobindo and The Mother. However, an introduction to Aurobindo’s Savitri as part of the Indian Writing in English course during my college years in Mumbai did play a role. I visited the Ashram several times after I moved from Mumbai to Hyderabad for my university studies. An overnight train to Chennai, and a connecting bus ride to Pondicherry, used to take me far away from the exhausting drama of campus politics and hostel life in Hyderabad.
Reading Jessica Namakkal’s book Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India (2021) reminded me of those years, and gave me the language and context needed to make sense of the unease that I have often felt in Puducherry (the city was renamed in 2006). The separation between the Tamil and French parts of this coastal town is so starkly visible that it is hard not to think about how the legacy of French colonial rule must have contributed to this. The Ashram is located in the French part, and wondering about its complicity in colonization is unsettling.
Sri Aurobindo and The Mother were spiritual companions. The former was born in India, and educated in England. He fled to Pondicherry when it was under French colonial rule to escape British colonizers in India who wanted to imprison him. They considered him a political threat, which needed to be contained if not eliminated. The Mother was a French woman who came to India as Mirra Alfassa; Sri Aurobindo named her The Mother. She considered India to be her spiritual home but she was married to a French colonial administrator.
What did it mean for The Mother “to become Indian”? Namakkal points out that The Mother understood “Indian” as synonymous with “spiritualism and philosophy, based on a belief system attributed in this space and time to ancient Hindu writings.” She adds, “This India was Hindu, not Muslim or Sikh or Christian, and casteist. Her reading of India as a spiritual space is informed by Orientalist epistemologies, which she attributed to the land of India itself.”
Namakkal, who is Associate Professor of the Practice of International Comparative Studies at Duke University, unravels all the complexities and contradictions arising from this situation. Her arguments might trouble readers who are devoted to Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, and to the institutions that they have set up – including the ashram and Auroville – but it is worth noting that she is doing her job as a historian. She uses her academic training not to foment disharmony but to help us understand how things came to be the way they currently are.
Namakkal notes that the inhabitants of Ashram, which was established in 1926, “were a mixture of ethnicities, mostly Bengalis and Gujaratis from North India, with a small population of Europeans and Americans.” Few of them were Tamil. The Ashram promoted “the practice of French language and culture”. The Mother believed in “the value of ‘classical’ Western education” so Greek, Latin, and French texts were taught in the Ashram school.
The township of Auroville is separate from the Ashram. With its large population of European and American residents, it is not situated in Puducherry. It is located in Viluppuram on land that is officially in the state of Tamil Nadu. Namakkal writes, “Auroville is in many ways a thriving project today that continues to shine a positive light on the colonial memory of French rule in India, a space that invokes a relationship with the colonial past while also emerging as a global site for spiritual tourism, green capitalism, and settler utopianism.”
Readers who think of the British as bad colonizers and the French as good colonizers would benefit from reading Namakkal’s account of the chaos that ensued in Pondicherry when the French realized what the end of British rule in India would mean for France. While French colonial subjects in India who had never been to France before now had the option to move to France, it was easier said than done because of deeply embedded racism. Pondicherians who did migrate to France were made to feel unwelcome and not French enough.
Namakkal reflects on how her own identity contributes to the knowledge that she is constructing and disseminating through by writing this book. She states, “Decolonial history asks its authors to acknowledge their own position vis-á-vis their research, acknowledging institutional privileges alongside the conditions that led to their writing, in hopes that this will situate their scholarship in a world beyond the academy and yet linked to it.”
Her Indian immigrant father was born in the princely state of Hyderabad, and her white American mother – a former Catholic nun – was born in Nebraska in the United States to second-generation immigrants from France. The author was born in Minnesota in the US “on occupied Dakota land.” She writes, “My Indian family is Tamil and Brahmin, a designation that carries an immense amount of caste privilege in South Asia and throughout the diaspora.”
This kind of reflection is quite rare among European residents and visitors – at the ashram and at Auroville – who try to downplay how passport privilege and currency exchange rates, also racial identity, determine who gets to travel and whether they even need a visa. Namakkal’s book will also compel you to think about what it means to be a global citizen, how India continues to be exoticised in the West, and why Indian school history textbooks discuss the history of decolonization mainly as freedom from British rule and not French rule.
The author also draws attention to the importance of symbolic gestures to assert affiliations. Her description of and commentary on the founding of Auroville in 1968 gave me new insights into a place that I have visited, been intrigued by, and also felt disconnected from. Every time I have tried to ask questions about the absence of the local Tamil population as residents in Auroville – or their presence only as service providers engaged for manual labour – I have been brushed away. My curiosity may have seemed unkind or potentially disruptive.
Namakkal recalls that the ceremony to mark the founding of Auroville had children carrying “the dirt from 124 nations” and depositing it into a large container. Most of them were dressed in the “traditional costumes” of the countries that they were representing. The author writes, “The significance of removing soil from other nations and combining them into a giant vessel to rest at Auroville’s centre gives some indication that the architects of the ceremony understood how important land was to settlement, to covering the indigenous soil with the beginnings of a new history, to begin the process of the erasure of the native.”
The presence of the Ashram and Auroville have also enabled an ecosystem for other projects that carry vestiges of colonialism. In 2013, I was selected for an academic programme called the Kulturstudier Peace and Conflict Studies Scholarship in Pondicherry. It was run by an organization that had tied up with the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences to offer study abroad programmes for European, mostly Scandinavian, college students.
A few South Asians like myself had got scholarships. I was grateful and happy until I realized what I had signed up for – feeling like an outsider in my own country. Most of our professors, and my classmates, were white Europeans. Our classes took place in a resort that we travelled to by bus. It had a swimming pool and private beach. It was bizarre.
There were hammocks outside the classroom for students to rest when they took smoke breaks. The only Indians that these students interacted with other than their South Asian peers were people who were either serving food, cleaning their rooms, applying mehndi, teaching yoga or driving autorickshaws. Namakkal’s book helped me examine my own experiences anew in the context of Pondicherry’s colonial history. I heartily recommend this book to readers keen on understanding how the past continues into the present.
Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer who tweets @chintan_connect