Thursday, September 08, 2016

A Mixed Set Of Experiences

Alice Gauny talks about her time in Kerala, after a four-year-stint, as director of the Alliance Francaise in Thiruvananthapuram 

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Alice Gauny would tell people that she is from France, many people would tell her about their own visit to Paris. “Then they will ask me how I am adjusting to life in Thiruvananthapuram,” says Alice, who has just returned to France after a four-year-stint as director of the Alliance Francaise.

They will also ask me if I came with my family. When I say I am not married, they look surprised," she says. "It is not common for a Malayali woman to remain unmarried. That's because Kerala is a traditional society, with a deep and meaningful culture. So I learned to adjust to it, in my own way.”

She also had to adjust to the lack of privacy. “People want to know everything about your life,” she says. “But they mean no harm. This is their way of showing friendliness. In France, we are individualistic. We protect our privacy. When Europeans meet, they will not ask personal questions. It takes a while before we do this.”

She also had to adjust to the Malayali and the Indian reluctance to say no directly. “When I ask them to do something, the immediate response is ‘yes, yes’,” says Alice. “But in the end, it is a no. Again, this happens because they are so keen to help, but are afraid to hurt you.”

Nevertheless, Alice enjoyed her stint at Thiruvananthapuram. “The city is green and calm,” she says. “The Kovalam beach is nearby. It is very peaceful. I had offered a position to a French girl, at our Kochi centre, but she was happy to stay on at Thiruvananthapuram.”

In fact, Alice did notice a distinctive difference between Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi. “There is a lot of energy in Kochi,” says Alice. “The people have more drive and ambition. On the cultural front, Kochi is more dynamic.”

As for the similarities between Malayalis and the French, Alice says, “Like in France, in Kerala, people are very oriented towards politics. They have an opinion and want to express it. And both peoples go on strike often. Many Malayalis have been inspired by great French writers like Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac. So there is a connection on the intellectual plane.”

And Alice, too, has a connection. When she goes to France and stays there for a few days, she suddenly realizes that she is missing India. “That is because India is full of life,” she says. “It appeals to the senses. There are many harsh things, but, at the same time, there are so many beautiful things, like music and culture. There is a potent energy in the country. It is a place where anything and everything is possible.”

She fears that Europe has become static. “France and Europe are looking too much towards the past,” says Alice. “The people are afraid of change and globalisation. There is a lack of confidence.”

Meanwhile, whenever she got a chance Alice travelled to other parts of India. So she went trekking in the Himalayas, enjoyed visiting the North-Eastern states of Sikkim and Assam, and spent time in Punjab, Gujarat Rajasthan, Goa, and Pondicherry.

As Alice looks back on her time in India, while enjoying a break in Paris, she is looking forward to coming to India again. “At this moment, I have not yet decided on my future course of action,” she says. “But India will always remain in my heart.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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