The author of ‘Unsettling Utopia The Making and Unmaking of French India’, on ‘spiritual utopianism’ and the need to re-examine colonial narratives.

Rohan Venkataramakrishnan Sep 11, 2021 · 08:30 am

Interview: Jessica Namakkal on what Auroville tells us about the ‘end of colonialism and empire’
The matrimandir at Auroville. | Anne Roberts/ Wikimedia Commons

Would Auroville, the “utopian” town outside Pondicherry that over the years has attracted many foreign and Indian spiritual seekers, be where it was if not for French colonialism? No, argues historian Jessica Namakkal in Unsettling Utopia The Making and Unmaking of French India, and it is important to understand why. 

“Auroville is not a French space per se, but that it came into existence through French colonial institutions. The reason it appears as a postcolonial and not a colonial space is because of the success France has had in depicting French India as a space of positive influence,” Namakkal writes. “In and near Pondicherry, the Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville serve as examples of how liberal discourse rooted in multiculturalism, spirituality, equality, and utopianism has displaced local Tamil populations from both land and history, time and space.” Advertisement

In Unsettling Utopia, Namakkal – who is an assistant professor of the practice in international comparative studies, gender, sexuality, and feminist studies; and history at Duke University – examines the complex nature of Pondicherry (now known as Puducherry) as a “minor” colony, that was often defined in contrast to the much larger space of British India next to it, and what that has meant for its inhabitants. 

I spoke to Namakkal about “minor” histories, the complicated identities of post-colonised subjects, what she calls “settler utopianism” and the need to decolonise history. 

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