Translating identities in Pondicherry


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THE small town of Pondicherry1 on the Coromandel coast, has long been a favourite destination for tourists because of its quiet locale, its cuisine and the imprint of its various colonial influences, most visibly the French. For most visitors, Pondicherry begins with names such as ‘Paradise Beach’ or ‘Rock Beach’ (names more popular on travel apps than among locals), a day of street shopping on Mission St, a lazy walk on the paved and pedestrian friendly Goubert Avenue, posing in front of the heritage of the French quarter of the city2 (tellingly named the ‘White Town’) or enjoying themselves in its quaint villas.

For the more spiritually inclined there is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its surrounding network of educational buildings, departments, stores and bookshops, in the hallmark muted colours of white and grey. Further away, there is the international township of Auroville, with its diverse communities, interests and experiments in fields ranging from education, food to architecture.

For the cultural enthusiast, a heritage walk allows a glimpse of the town’s history that saw the presence of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the colonial tussle for power between the British and the French. The latter established its headquarters in Pondicherry as early as 1673. Switching hands frequently in the ensuing Anglo-French wars, Pondicherry firmly returned to French hands only in 1816 and stayed until 1954. It was only in1962, however, that it was de jure ceded to the Indian Union.3 But few visitors who come to this cosmopolis of sorts, realise that the town in fact harbours many towns, many selves and many tongues. Depending on where you may be located, Pondicherry stands out starkly in contrast to its surrounding state of Tamil Nadu or may seamlessly blend into it. And yet, it may well be possible for two ‘insiders’ to grow up in culturally discrete pockets, with little to nothing in common.

This contradiction is visible, I argue, through various movements and slippages in the city’s topography, in the use of language in public space, in its predicaments of colonialism, ‘nation’ and citizenship, and its chequered history with French and Tamil. It must be said that these slippages understood as forms of translation, become a modality of seeing, of making sense of not only linguistic or textual transformations but also of spatial and cultural migrations, processes of narrativising the ‘self’, of aspirations and erasures, of identity-making and refashioning, of the multiplicity that necessarily undermines the more disciplined narrative of ‘city’ or ‘language’.


Even today, Pondicherry’s geography is marked in different ‘quarters’, the French and the Tamil, separated by a canal between them since the 17th century as the picture below shows. The French quarter, adjacent to the coastline, contains remnants of the colonial, administrative and cultural buildings such as the Trésor Public (which later became the French Institute), Bureau des Finances (which later became the French Consulate), the Secrétariat and the Lycée (known earlier as Le Collège Royal) among others enclosed within surrounding boulevards.4 Furthermore, Pondicherry embodies its colonial past in a way that many of its streets continue to retain their French names. These names are drawn as much from influential French governors, as from leading dubashes of the colonial times and from Tamil-French citizens who were soldiers or ‘soldats’ in the French army during the World Wars.

For example, Rue Dumas, Rue Labourdonnais or Rue François Martin are all named after the French administrators Pierre Benoît Dumas (1668-1745), La Bourdonnais (1699-1753) and François Martin (1634-1706) while Rue Pedro Canagaraya Mudaliar, Rue Ananda Ranga Pillai memorialise the famous dubashes. Another street, Rue Victor Simonel draws its name from a well known ‘soldat’ Roc Emmanuel Victor Simonel (1896-1917) whose family was among the ‘Renonçants’ or those who gave up their personal status as ‘natives’ and adopted French names and identity in order to be ruled by French law – another fascinating event that I delve into more detail later.5

Going back to the quarters, the Tamil quarter, which is significantly larger in size than the French, lies to the West and contains clear but porous demarcations of a Hindu quarter to the North, a Christian enclave at the centre, and a Muslim quarter to the South, each of which have their own unique architecture and places of worship. The Hindu quarter which houses a large majority of the Hindu population congregates largely around its temples and is dotted with traditional thinnai houses even as the streets in this area take on names from temples. Streets from the French quarter having names such as St Gilles or Rue Lally Tollendal metamorphose into Calve Subbraya Chetty6 St or Easwaran Koil7 St once they cross the canal over into the Hindu quarter.

On the other hand, the Christian enclave largely consists of a Catholic population and abounds in religious edifices, churches and primary and secondary schools both public and private such as the Petit Séminaire for boys and the Immaculate Conception for the girls. In spite of these demarcations, many of the town’s oldest monuments are scattered across quarters regardless of boundaries. For example, L’Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges, the fourth oldest church built in the mid-nineteenth century and the only one to offer mass in three languages – French, Tamil and English – and the ancient Hindu temple Manakula Vinayagar dedicated to Ganesha, both lie in the French quarter. The ancient Khutba Mosque dating back to the 1600s and offering prayers today in Arabic and Tamil, lies in the Muslim quarter and predates colonial occupation.


In such a complex cityscape, the city’s layout contains various layers of architectural writing and overwriting, shifting and moving in hyperlapse as it were, with subsequent waves of history even as quarters came to be drawn, monuments relocated, streets named and renamed and community identities refashioned. These layers of reconfigurations are as much a result of power and governmentality as they are of a certain cultural translation aligned with the changing meanings of spatiality and identity. On the other hand, the intertwined presence of French and Tamil courses through the different quarters, taking on the local colour and language through certain streets, lanes and by-lanes and telling a different story in others.


In spite of these prevailing demarcations, Pondicherry contains a highly heterogeneous population. It consists of various kinds of local or migrated Tamilians, Telegus, Malayalis, descendants of former French settlers, Tamil-French nationals, a sizable North Indian population settled around the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and a fairly motley Aurovillian population of various European nationalities among various others. Yet, as a recent biographer of the town writes: ‘In a town this small, […] looking Indian but holding a French passport; being fair-skinned but speaking fluent Tamil; using French funding to further Sanskrit scholarship; being interested in Pondicherry but not Auroville – all these choices affect a person’s Pondicherry-ness.’8

These cultural differences are especially important with regard to the language and identity of the historically unique and often unrecognised community of Tamil-French nationals who can be traced to the ‘renonçants’ mentioned earlier. The term ‘renonçant’ is used to mark those who gave up their native identities and took on French citizenship and it encompasses a process of translation that is as much about erasing certain social markers as it is about taking on new ones. At the same time the process of ‘giving up’ has, as in other instances of colonisation, hardly involved a smooth transition from one identity to the other as Rushdie’s term ‘translated men’ is often used to convey.


The history of the ‘renonçants’ is an interesting one. In 1881, the French civil code was instated as a new rule by which Indians could come under the French civil code if they renounced their personal status as natives. ‘Renonçer’ is a French word that roughly translates to ‘renounce’ in English but comes with very different cultural connotations. In becoming a ‘renonçant’ (renouncer), an individual gave up their caste and religion (Hindu/Muslim) and adopted a French ‘nom’ or family name that would be passed on to the following generations, as he/she now became a French national. The colonial government took this step with the intent of the assimilation of the low caste population in order to redress the inequality that was engendered in the caste system.

This assimilationist stance came after 1871 when the French colonies were given the right to vote, without distinction of caste or creed, and to choose administrative officials for local and town councils. As Weber writes: ‘It was thought in Paris that universal suffrage would emancipate Pariahs, by putting them on an equal footing with Brahmins.’9 The act of renunciation opened the door for new rights to Indians, such as the opportunity to work in public service, an area which was once exclusive to the French administration. Also, the ‘renonçants’ consisted of a mixed group of Catholic Indians, and a large segment of the low caste population, which readily chose to give up its caste for a better life. This decision was definitive and irrevocable for the renonçant himself as well as for his family and his descendants even though ‘renonçants’ and their families accounted for a small minority in Pondicherry.


In the end, the attempt of assimilating populations met with limited success as the upper caste Hindu population vehemently opposed this assimilation and that gave rise to a new wave of Anti-French sentiment.10 As a result, the ‘renonçants’ were not entirely integrated into the French population and continued to be slotted as ‘Indian’ in spite of their rights as French citizens. This event was to have special significance for the present and for the community of the Franco-Pondicherrian ‘Soldat’ families that came into being with a second assimilationist attempt by the French in 1962.

When the French colonisers officially ceded Pondicherry to the Indian Union in the 1950s, they decreed a six-month option period for Tamil locals to opt for French citizenship based on certain criteria which specified that transfer of nationality with option, applied specifically to French nationals born and resident in the territory of the Establishments. While many chose to remain loyal to the newly formed Indian nation, a significantly large number of people opted to take up French citizenship at the time, mainly the poor, low caste residents who had converted to Catholicism under the French.11 Ironically, even the earlier renonçants had to opt for citizenship a second time and those who failed, automatically lost their citizenship and gained Indian status.


At the time, when the French Army needed soldiers, the new converts with fresh passports took the employment opportunity and opted to go abroad for a better life. These soldiers or ‘soldats’ families came back to Pondicherry on retirement on hefty salaries and with French names that did not indicate caste. However, the criteria of birthplace in granting citizenship became an administrative loophole and ended up ‘creating the Pondichéry pitfall: a permanent overseas community which is ethnically, culturally, and historically rooted in the host nation but which nevertheless enjoys the legal status and economic benefits of full French citizenship.’12

Some of these benefits included incentives established by the government in France to encourage couples to have more children, a range of huge tax advantages and discounts on medicine. Under French law, marriage to a French citizen meant that the spouse and ensuing children could also easily become French citizens. A French citizenship was equally lucrative in the marriage market and for marriage brokers as marriage to a French citizen meant an easier passage to France, government perks, an affluent lifestyle and a lucrative job.13


Today, those who accepted French citizenship, and their descendants, are an affluent minority and consist of around 4600 people who also have the right to exercise franchise for elections in France and very avidly take part in French politics and administrative affairs.14 In a recent documentary on this community called ‘Two Flags’ by director Pankaj Rishi Kumar, a Tamil-French national can be heard saying the following words with the French National Anthem in the background: ‘India is my heart, I studied here. […] I joined the French Army and worked in it for 22 years. That is my second life and I’m working for my country. I have two countries. First country is France, second country is India.’15

This community of Tamil French nationals, of long distance citizens who are often bilingual and have strong ethnic and cultural ties in their everyday life but are French in all other practical aspects, is perhaps the antithesis to what Macaulay had in mind as the ‘comprador class’ in the case of British colonialism. Here the colonised experienced a different form of alienation which was not only cultural, but literally spatial and wherein the idea of the ‘national’ was voluntarily subverted.


While the fragmentation is quite obvious amongst this small population, Pondicherry offers to problematize monotone ideas of ‘nationalism’ and narratives of indigeneity and belonging. It also makes murky the prospect of a ‘national’ tied to a particular language as this community, while eagerly adopting the coloniser’s language as its own, can never fully desert the language of its ancestors. And yet this being in limbo also brings other consequences in local society and abroad as they become envied and coveted through marriage, votes and citizenship. On the other hand, the metropole French population continues to view this community grudgingly as the beneficiaries of a ‘defective colonisation’ which resulted in an expensive and long-drawn process of a badly made historical decision.

Having discussed topology, language and identity, let me now turn to another important aspect which is Pondicherry’s multilingualism. While the official languages of Pondicherry include French, Tamil and English with Telegu and Malayalam used in the case of Yanam and Mahe respectively, there are several others spoken on the ground. Pondicherry houses significant multilingualism for the small area that it occupies. The People’s Linguistic Survey of India estimates that apart from the languages of Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, the multilingualism in part has to do with French and a host of different European languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian and other Indo-Aryan languages such as Bengali, Odia, and Gujarati in the Aurovillian and the Ashram communities respectively. But the editors also admit that apart from these there are many non-scheduled languages that are not sufficiently recorded because of the small number of speakers which do not make it to the census requirements for minor languages.16

However, apart from the figures in surveys, Pondicherry also provides glimpses into a lived experience of multilingualism and makes it possible to ask different questions. While it is not enough to say that multilingualism merely means the co-presence of several languages, what is perhaps more interesting is to ask how do people turn ‘multilingual’ in a city of so many nationalities, identities, religions and cultures? How are certain languages used and how do they come to acquire social and cultural meaning depending on their usage and setting? How do different language-pair bilingualisms come to attain different codes and what do they tell us about their users?


The bilingualism of a North Indian raised in Pondicherry, learning functional Tamil and speaking it in the streets or in the market is very different from the bilingualism of a Tamil-French national or even of the bilingualism of a Tamil auto-driver who refuses to speak to Hindi tourists in Hindi in spite of knowing the language. They all speak for different desires of belonging and different experiences of ‘othering’. They also envision different narratives of ‘home’ and the outsider: the first in an attempt to navigate and to fit in, the second of simultaneous aspiration and alienation, and the third of a rejection based on language. These and other instances in the babel that is Pondicherry and perhaps a microcosm of India itself, show that ‘turning multilingual’ necessarily involves various forms of translation.


* Krupa Shah’s research covers the cultural history of Gujarat, literary and translation studies, and questions of multilingualism.


1. The Union Territory of Pondicherry consists of four discontinuous enclaves: Yanam (Andhra Pradesh), Mahe (Kerala), Karaikal and the capital town of Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu.

2. This article uses both ‘town’ and ‘city’ to describe Pondicherry as its hyphenated identity of town-city straddles both its old world charm and its modern identity as a ‘smart city’ in the making.

3. Animesh Rai, The Legacy of French Rule in India (1674-1954): An Investigation of a Process of Creolization. French Institute of Pondicherry, Pondicherry, 2008.

4. Claude Marius, ‘De Pondichéry à Puducherry (1947-2014)’, Revue Historique de Pondichéry, La Société Historique de Pondichéry, (n.d.). http://www.revuehis

5. PondyLive, ‘This Street was Named After a Tamil Officer Killed in WWI’, PondyLive: History and Heritage, 16 December 2017,

6. Calve Subbraya Chettiar was a well known philanthropist who belonged to a renowned merchant family. He is generally associated with the Calve College, an important landmark of the town built in 1886, which was opened for the education of local Hindu and Muslim children.

7. ‘Koil’ signifies ‘temple’ in Tamil.

8. Aditi Sriram, Beyond the Boulevards: A Short Biography of Pondicherry. (Kindle edition.) Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2019.

9. Jacques Weber, ‘Chanemougam, le roi de l’Inde française. Les Fondements Sociaux et Politiques d’un Pouvoir Absolu Sous la IIIe République’, in Revue française d’histoire d’outremer, tome 78, n 290, 1991, p. 58.

10. Ibid.

11. William F.S. Miles, ‘Defective Decolonization: The Pondichéry Legacy.’ Proceedings of the Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society, Vol. 16, JSTOR, 1992, pp. 142-153.

12. Ibid., p. 153.

13. Nicola Desouza, ‘From Pondi to Paris: Pondicherry’s Marriage Market’, Open Democracy, 14 April 2016, https://www.

14. S. Senthalir, ‘French Nationals Vote in Puducherry’, The Hindu: Cities, 24 April 2017,; Nandini Ramnath, ‘A Documentary Explores Dreams of France in Puducherry – and Nightmares of Belonging’, Scroll: The Reel, 19 January 2019,

15. Pankaj Rishi Kumar, ‘Two Flags’, director’s interview, Inside Lens, 18 September 2018,

16. L. Ramamoorthy and G. Ravisankar, People’s Linguistic Survey of India, Vol. XXIII, Part II: The Languages of Pondicherry, G.N. Devy (ed.). Orient Blackswan, Hyderabad, 2016, p. 2.