'My novel is a love letter to India'

Freelance journalist Pierre Freha fell in love with India on his first trip. French Sahib, is his exploration of identity, love and the universal need to connect, told through the heartrending story of Philippe and Dipu. The Guide gets the writer of French-Algerian descent to share his travel experiences in India, and to tell us how freethinking is similar to hypocrisy

How did you conceive the story?
I had returned from India and thought, 'Hmmm... I wish I could be there again.' But I had to stay in France. So I decided to write a story. First came the family tree, with part of the family in India, and the other in France I had the best of both worlds. It felt like paradise, the East and West together! I had the distance and, more than that, love for my characters and what they stand for.

Was the book an immediate fallout of your time in India?

Yes and no. It's not autobiographical. It's a fantasy that incorporates the myriad details and incidents that I observed during my travels in India.

How much time did you spend here, in India?
I backpacked my favourite way to travel on a few trips, never staying more than three months each time. The story is based in Chennai, where I only stayed a week in an amazing place called the Krishnamurti Foundation headquarters. I lived in Adyar. I couldn't help have my characters stay anywhere else in the book. It was fascinating to follow them through the streets (of Chennai). Luckily, I had a map when I returned home to Paris!

How accepting is French society, as compared to Indian society, of homosexuality, given that this is the central theme of the book?

Coming out seems to easier in India. Everyone in the family pretends not to notice! It's ostensibly a book about coming out, but the real subject of the book is Mrs Rao and the enduring role of the matriarch in India. The difference is civil partnership. Everything has changed here when the civil union - or pacs as we call it -was established. Not overnight, but almost. Spain's decision to legalise marriages between same-sex partners came as a shock in 2005. It took all of Europe by surprise. Little by little people have accepted it, but in France it's the only civil union that prevails, not marriage. Legalisation matters. As soon as something becomes legal, it becomes more difficult for people to reject or deny it. It doesn't imply that homophobia doesn't exist but, at least, that it's no longer encouraged by legislation!

What were some of the myths about India and Indians that were exploded in the course of your time here, and as you began to write the story?
My novel is a love letter to Indian society, which contains so many contradictions and is at once evolving and devolving. I tried to avoid the cliches, and it's never easy when you are a foreigner. But my angle is universal. I didn't feel there was any explosion. Everything mattered. I just ignored the myths that seemed irrelevant.
If you wrote a novel based in France, you could avoid the cliche of the French queueing up to buy a baguette, or you could choose instead to use it. After all, it's not untrue. I stayed at some friends' places and carefully looked around. It helped. The idea of the book was to add my own spices to the pot of India.

Having travelled and encountered a variety of cultures and people, where do you think India stands in terms of freethinking?
I'm a mix of cultures from birth, so nothing is more relevant to me than travel and cooperation with others; a novel can also serve such a purpose. At some point, the whole idea is to feel home everywhere, notice the differences, but not use them for judgment. Languages are already such a barrier. Just trying to see what unites us beyond the cultural gaps. Freethinking is everywhere and nowhere. Not more in France than in India or Senegal. Freethinking is just energy. When there is no energy, it's the sad path for extreme, intolerant positions. Freethinking is like hypocrisy, you can find it everywhere, and sometimes where it seems impossible to find. With less energy you have less real freethinking.

French Sahib by Pierre Freha; Roman Books; $24.95; (approx  Rs 1,290)
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