Monday, August 11, 2008

A French connection

As we head towards Independence Day (August 15), it is worth thinking about what might have been, had the French not traded away Madras for Cape Breton (Nova Scotia, Canada) at the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. Under Bertrand Francois LaBourdonnais, the French had captured Fort St. George in 1746 and had razed sections of the 'Black Town' outside the Fort. But the French diplomats thought Cape Breton to be a more lucrative prize and returned Madras to the British. The French military did not share this view and for the next decade, there were many efforts to take back the Fort (including comte de Lally's shelling from Parry's Corner). It was not until de Lally was defeated by Sir Eyre Coote at the great plains of Vandavasi (the Battle of Wandiwash, as it is called) that the French gave up their plans for Madras and concentrated on Pondicherry and their other, smaller possessions in India.

Their interest in India continues in various forms, of which the most public is the Alliance Française, whose purpose is to spread French language and culture around the world. In Chennai, the Alliance Française of Madras was founded in 1953 and offers many services to achieve its purpose. One of the most efficient ways, the language courses, cover over 3000 students a year. The courses range from the 75-hour crash course to the 700-hour course that prepares you for the Diplôme de Langue examination. It's main centre, on College Road, not only houses the language classes, but also an amphitheatre, an auditorium, a small cafe, and a library / information centre.

If things had turned out differently 260 years ago, it probably would be the British Council that is housed in this quiet building, trying to teach English in a predominantly French speaking Chennai!


Eric said...

Very interesting! We - the French - all heard a bit about Madras, Pondicherry, etc. but we do not know the story really (I did not even know we traded Madras for Cape Breton - but now I know who La Bourdonnais (who has a big street in Paris!) is...

Some people told me also that there are still many remains of the French era - especially in the architecture - and that sometimes, you feel like you're walking down a street in France.

I don't know for sure as I have never been there - nor, unfortunately - in India.

I do intend to do so soon though.

Thank you for remind us of the Alliance Française, they do a lot to prevent the French language to rank into the dead language catagory!

LVISS said...

U might be interested to know that there are many people residing in Pondichery drawing French Govt pensions. Some Indians have names sounding like French names eg Murugesine. I had some persons working with me in my office.

Shantaram said...

>> Eric>> Thank you for coming by in response to my mail! Look forward to seeing you in India soon. More than Chennai, Pondicherry (about 160km away) still retains a French character - even the gendarmes wear kepis!

>> Ravindran>> That's right. Even when the name is typically Indian, the spelling gives it a French twist!