NEW DELHI: Jean-Claude Perrier is a journalist and author of several books, novels, biographies, essays and travel accounts. He was born in Paris in 1957, discovered India in 1981, fell in love with this country, which eventually influenced his writings, leading him to author several books with an Indian theme. In 2010, he received the prestigious French Academy Prize for the essay, “The Mysteries of Saint-Exupery”, which has been translated into Italian, German, Russian and Slovenian. Jean-Claude Perrier is the author of several books: André Malraux and the Temptation of India, Travels in French India, Barbarians in India, translated into English, Hindi, and Bengali. Excerpts from a chat with the author, who is visiting New Delhi for the World Book Fair:
Q: You started off as a journalist whose main job is to extricate information. How long did it take you to write your first novel, where you have to deal mainly with fiction? What mental process did you go through before writing your first novel?
A: It’s quite a long time ago when I wrote my first novel and I am still a journalist; I am still working very much in a weekly magazine in France. My first novel was in 1988. It was a historical novel. It was based on Roman history. It was about Elagabalus, who was a totally crazy Roman emperor (he trashed the traditions of conservative Roman politics) and another novel which was funny. I am not very novelist type. I tell everybody that I have no imagination, what interests me is reality. In the past or right now, there have been people and I try to find things in them. So it all circles around reality. Moreover, I think I cannot build global fiction without getting help from history or some serials.
Q: You have authored several books with an Indian theme. What leads you to write about India?
A: It is like a miracle (India). Around 42 years back, I came to India as a tourist for the first time. I was 24 years old. At the time, India for me was a huge shock as everything I saw was unexpected. I cannot say that I loved India immediately. Because you can imagine how India was back then (around 1981). It was more difficult than today to travel and to see things around. Though it was a shock, I knew that the experience would groom me into a better person and enhance my craft in writing. After I went back to France, I first started to write books about India in 2004-2005. It was a small book about the French old settlements (he named a few French settlements in French language). After that, I again wrote another book on India. I have tried my best to make French people understand India through my writings. I am very proud about one thing, that some of my books are translated in India. So it’s very nice to give back to India all that India gave to me as a subject as mysteries. I really love India, essentially the people here.
Q: What are the interesting regions in the country that you have travelled to?
A: I very much love South India. My favourite state is Tamil Nadu. I also love Kolkata and Rajasthan. I love diversity in these places, heritage, monuments, art of life, traditions and temples.
Q: What has been your best experience in India that has made the country so memorable for you?
A: When I met Ravi Shankar (sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar), he was marvellous, very simple, very amazing. He was a very close friend. Every time I came to Delhi, we would meet. And each time he came to Paris for concerts, we would meet. Sometimes in the morning, in Paris, I would hear his ragas and it would make me feel good.
Q: In “Barbarians in India”, each chapter details the impact or influence that India had on French writers Pierre Loti, Henri Michaux, André Malraux and André Gide individually. Tell us, how did India impact you?
A: I think with time, I am a little bit an Indian now, a small bit maybe. I try to be more calm and quiet. This place has brought tranquility in my life and increased my tolerance. This place makes me feel more humble.
Q: Who is your favourite Indian author and what are the most appealing things you find in his or her writings?
A: I like Salman Rushdie very much. He is a friend. And he is an Indian and not Anglo-American. I like Amitav Ghosh as well and many other interesting authors. I think Indian literature tries to reflect Indian reality, which are abundantly mixed with traditions and modernity, with its proportionate hand in modern problems and all other subjects. It also tries to embrace all the world. I think Indian writers have enormous imagination. They can imagine huge novels, novels from Salman Rushdie, for example, have many characters, many stories and many places. It’s world literature for me.