Mission Delhi – Annie Ernaux, Gali Kebabiyan
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Here she is, a few hours after travelling from Paris in an Air India flight, walking in Purani Dilli, between Matia Mahal and Jama Masjid, and in the more secretive galis around them. In casual white pants and blue top, her hair is loose, as it always is. She looks calm, easy-going, and only slightly amazed by her surroundings, even though she is so far away from her world — the little town of Yvetot, where she grew up in rural France, and the city of Cergy in the suburbs of Paris, where she lives. A world that she has chronicled for about 50 years in all its subtleties, and in the most intimate ways.
In A Man’s Place and Shame, she wrote about her childhood in a working-class milieu. In I Remain in Darkness, about her mother’s dementia. In A Girl’s Story, about her losing her virginity to a slightly older man, raising the question of consent a year before the #MeToo movement took off. In Simple Passion and The Young Man, about her affairs with younger men. In Happening, about getting an abortion in France before it was legal.
Last year, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and five months later Annie Ernaux is in the smoggy Indian capital. At 82, it is her first visit to India, as the headliner at the Delhi Book Fair, where France is the guest of honour.
“It’s such a mix of misery and of an extraordinary force of life here,” she says, looking around the Friday evening crowd outside the Jama Masjid. She takes out her Samsung mobile from her bag and clicks a scene from the street. Later, she evokes the French suburbs and the various miseries in various places, all of them linked by a common underlying factor—the problem of justice.
On her agreeing to appear in the The Delhi Walla pages, it was only natural to ask Ernaux to answer the Proust questionnaire. Novelist Marcel Proust is, after all, one of her main influences, and her ambition as a writer was never different from his: to make life and writing one. But the comparison has its limits. For while Proust belonged to a wealthy and sophisticated milieu, Ernaux’s parents owned a modest café and grocery store, and she never stopped writing from the perspective of the “dominated classes”, as she calls it. And where Proust’s headquarters were set in central Paris, Ernaux decided to settle in its suburbs, far from the bustle of the literary elite: in Cergy, the Gurugram of Paris if you like — except maybe, less cool.
But how can we, Indian readers, relate to a work that is seemingly so local, so personal, and so French? Asking this question is forgetting that reading a great writer is always reading oneself, and ignoring that Annie Ernaux never writes about herself as much as she uses her self as a starting point, making her own private life echo with those of others — this is most apparent in her masterpiece The Years, which chronicles her own life alongside the evolving society she lived in from World War II to the early 2000s. Thus, when she talks about the shame of not knowing how to pronounce a French word properly, because at home her parents spoke in their own dialect and accent, this is something we, with our desi English accent and regional dialects that are sometimes looked down upon, can understand. When she writes about being a woman in a male-dominated society, this can enlighten us on our own society. And when she shows that ways of living, talking, eating, even though they aren’t “proper,” are not to be despised, this is something we, with our multiplicity of languages and cultures, can relate to.
But now Annie Ernaux turns into Gali Kebabiyan, absorbed by the sight of two cats, navigating the lane like any Old Delhi wala, the weight of the Nobel sitting lightly on her shoulders.
[This is the 534th portrait of Mission Delhi project]