Recently, my co-interns and I decided to head up to Pondicherry for the weekend. During my time there I saw a community in the process of sorting out the complexities of postcolonial existence and determining its own cultural identity. My father emigrated from Guatemala so that I could be raised in the states. Despite being born and raised in the states, I have had constant exposure to Guatemalan culture. In Pondicherry, I immediately began to draw parallels and contrasts between its own search for a postcolonial identity and Guatemala’s process of developing a postcolonial identity. Granted, Guatemala gained its independence from Spain in 1821 so it is in a different stage of determining its cultural identity than Pondicherry is, who gained its independence from France in 1954. At its core though the two processes are the same; an effort to establish a cultural identity after being freed of one that has been developed by colonial rule. Seeing these similarities has been a lifeline that I’ve used to further embrace India’s culture.
One of the most striking similarities between Pondicherry and Guatemala was the preservation of colonial influences in architecture. Pondicherry is famed for its French architecture. You need only walk a few blocks to see that most buildings are heavily influenced by french style architecture. Antigua is one of the most well-known towns in Guatemala and was the former capital when under Spanish rule. All of the buildings that line the streets of Antigua were built in classic Spanish architectural style. Walking throughout Pondicherry and seeing some of the same dynamics that my Guatemalan culture plays into made the place seem more familiar.
Throughout the weekend I picked up on things that alluded to a postcolonial struggle in determining a community’s cultural identity. When Prithiv, our airbnb host, was driving us to the beach he started talking about how as time went on less and less people spoke French in the community. Not too long ago the average inhabitant of Pondicherry was proficient in French. However as time has passed less people have taken to learning it. Throughout the city all the street names are in French, and most major buildings have French names. Letting go of French as part of your cultural identity means treating the language that this community’s culture has developed upon for years as foreign.
Guatemala dealt with language of its colonizer a little differently. Although Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, the language of its colonizer Spain, throughout time the language’s vocabulary has been infused with words that have its roots in Mayan dialects. The Mayans were the original inhabitants of Guatemala. The word car in Spanish from Spain is coche, however in Guatemala the word is caro. I have come to take pride in the ways that Guatemala has taken to infusing influences from its original cultural identity into the Spanish language. Both inhabitants of Pondicherry and Guatemala chose to not let the language of their respective colonizers to thrive in its pure form, or at all.
The name of the place itself Pondicherry, reflects its postcolonial nature. The original name was it’s Tamil name Puducherry. When the French gained control of the area, it named the area Pondicherry. In 2006, the city had its name reverted to it’s original name. The direct translation of Puducherry in Tamil is “new town.” The name change symbolizes an effort to embrace the community’s original cultural identity. This is true on paper. However, a law written ten years ago cannot undo decades of colonial rule. As Prithiv told us of the hot spots to hit in the city he called the place “Pondi”. Throughout the weekend rickshaw drivers, street vendors, storefront workers all referred to the place as Pondicherry. Younger generations in Pondicherry have the opportunity to determine what this place will be colloquially referred as, another step in determining one’s postcolonial cultural identity.
As a child I remember asking my family about the origins of Guatemala’s name. I was told that although the consensus is that the name comes from some indigenous people’s dialect, its specific origins in terms of which indigenous language it came from is contested. The Spanish did not impose a new name upon Guatemala and a result the name itself did not play in part in forming a postcolonial cultural identity. It’s interesting to see how some communities must grapple with different aspects of a cultural identity in a postcolonial existence.
Pondicherry, and other areas liberated from colonial control are walking along this fine line between taking back an identity, and also acknowledging its colonial past. Though I spent very little time in Pondicherry, there were unmistakable parallels to the same experiences that Guatemalans face everyday. Drawing parallels between Indian culture and the Guatemalan culture that I embrace as my identity has allowed me to better grapple with other unfamiliarities I have with Indian culture.