Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Thinnai by Ari Gautier (Translated from the French original by Blake Smith)

I first came across the term Thinnai last year in a novel by a friend – it means a shaded verandah at the entrance to a home. I could not resist my temptation to read a novel named The Thinnai – was the verandah a lead character in the novel? I was not disappointed – the thinnai is indeed the lead prop where most of the action takes place.

The book is set in Kurusukuppam, a working class district in Pondicherry. The place has its fair share of all kinds of people – from a few who would appear to be eccentric, to upper class Franco-Indian soldiers who fought for the French in the World War, have now settled in this district, have Creole servants, still celebrate the King’s Day and the Bastille Day, are more French than possibly even the French, yet are Indians at heart and in their acts.

Into this potpourri of characters lands Gilbert Thaata, an old Frenchman, who comfortably settles himself in the thinnai of one such soldier. No one knows where he has come from. He finds a roof and food and good alcohol in this thinnai. He starts narrating a tale to his gracious host, and those who come to the thinnai – a tale of his ancestors, and how they came in possession of a precious stone, the Curse of Sita. His wrinkled experience understands the human psychology – this free life of relative luxury is his till he continues to spin his yarn.

Does he hand over this precious stone to his host when departing? Will there be another storyteller?

It was such a fine storytelling that I did not want the story to end. I also wished that I had learnt French to read the original version of the book too. I am certain that Blake Smith has captured all the nuances of the original.

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