Meet the author: “Content-wise, Indian fiction writers have
little to offer”
Sunday, August 10, 2003
RECIPIENT of this year’s Nachiketa Award for Excellence in Journalism, Francois Gautier is one of those rare writers who mince no words when it comes to telling the truth. Although French by birth, his knowledge of contemporary and historical Indian affairs gives him an unparalleled position among the major writers of non-fiction. He came to India when he was barely 19, an age, in his own words, when the mind has not yet settled into hard and frozen patterns. It was during his stint as a journalist that he discovered the real India while traversing its length and breadth. Unlike most foreign journalist who usually highlight the negative aspects of the Indian society, Francois Gautier talked about the positive aspects as well.
He has been lambasted by his critics for his rather unorthodox writings and applauded by his admirers for acquainting them with the rich legacy of India. His works, spanning over two decades, have been condensed into two books, Arise O India and A Western Journalist’s View on India, brought out by Har Anand Publishers. Not only is the content of his books unusually striking but their spontaneity and lyrical rhythm are also enthralling. The thorough research that has gone into his writings adds a compelling tone to his essays. Aditya Sharma met him for an interview. Excerpts:
When did you come to India for the first time and what was it that held you back ?
I visited India in 1969 with a friend of mine whose father was the last French Governor of Pondicherry. Although India was just another stopover in my journey around the world at that time, but it turned out to be the final destination for me. In Pondicherry I came to know about the Aurobindo Ashram where I got to learn a lot through Sri Aurobindo’s writings. Slowly I found myself so besotted with Indian culture and its pioneering philosophies on spiritualism that I decided to make this country my home.
What were your early experiences in the Aurobindo Ashram like?
When I first went there I discovered an entirely new approach of looking at life. It was as if I had sudden awakened from deep slumber. And later when I met Mother personally, I was left with an ethereal sensation of existence. Her gaze transfixed me and it didn’t take me long to realise that there was more to life than a wholehearted participation in the blind race for material gains.
At what stage of your life did writing begin to interest you?
Prior to coming to India I used to write for a national daily based in Paris. Thereafter after living for a few years in the ashram at Pondicherry, I resumed writing for various national and international papers but this time about Indian affairs.
Did freelancing for various newspapers pay enough for you to be able to support yourself?
It is rather difficult to make one’s ends meet merely through freelancing. The payments made by our various national dailies to such writers are rather nominal, no matter how well they write. I was, however, fortunate enough to write columns for various newspapers based in the West, which fetched me enough to keep myself going.
Some people say that your writings are political, while others feel that you also blend spiritualism into them. In what category would you place yourself as a columnist?
Both politics and spiritualism are inherent parts of our lives. There is actually no distinction between the two. In ancient India it was a rishi who advised the king on the political and other affairs of the country. I only try to combine relevant topics in my columns, be it politics, literature, spirituality, economics or any other subject of significance.
You are quite critical of Gandhi’s policies in your writings and also accuse him of precipitating the process of Partition.
Leaving aside his saintliness, I believe his extreme and somewhat rigid romanticism did enormous harm to India. Right from the beginning he adopted a policy of appeasement towards the Muslim fundamentalists in the hope of making them see light. It, however, never really worked. On the contrary, it led to further demands from them until finally they asked for the partition of the country. History has shown time and again that the policy of appeasement has never worked against bullies. Another classic example of this is Nehru’s policy of pacifism towards China. Did it ever work?
What does India need to do to make all-round development possible?
I believe for that our government needs to drastically revamp its systems.
Besides non-fiction, do you also plan to write a novel or short stories?
I have just finished a novel in French. It is at present with a prominent publisher in France awaiting publication at the earliest. I hope to provide its English translation within a year or so.
Is the story autobiographical?
If the French title is translated into English it will read The Last Caravan to India. It is the story of a Westerner who comes to India and of his impressions of Indian life. It is not strictly autobiographical, although I have, like all novelists, liberally drawn material from my own experiences.
What do you think about the many Indian fiction writers winning laurels outside the country?
Its nice to see Indian fiction writers making their presence feel in international circles. Judging from their style and command over the language, they are evidently quite talented, but content-wise, I think they have little to offer. Most of them end up in catering to western tastes. Unfortunately, many of them have drawn a very dismal and backward picture of India in their stories, which is exactly what the West likes to read.
Besides reading and writing, what other interests occupy you?
I am quite interested in sports and play basketball and go swimming. I also practice yoga regularly. Other than that I enjoy my teaching assignment in a school of journalism at Bangalore where I am a visiting faculty member.
You donated the entire Nachiketa prize money.
Yes I gave away the award money to FACT (Foundation Against Continuing Terrorism). Its an organisation which is genuinely involved in helping and highlighting the plight of the Kashmiri Pundits who have ironically become homeless in their own country.