The search for roots
Tina Gaudoin has edited magazines in New York and London, and is writing a book about her Anglo-Burmese heritage. Here she goes looking for clues and spiritual answers in India
Ever since I can remember I have been fitting together the pieces of my family jigsaw. In some cases, it’s taken decades to find a scattered fragment or to mend a broken piece of the puzzle.
My journey began around the age of five, in the playground of my Norfolk primary school, with an innocent question from a group of friends: “Why does your dad always have a suntan?” I went home and asked. The reply, admirably and evenly handled by my blonde half-American mother, still informs my view of race relations today.
In the intervening years I have set off on pilgrimages across the globe to make sense of my family story, to discover how my Burmese grandfather ended up raising his family in rural north Norfolk. To try to figure out what it meant for my father, and for me and for my siblings.
I embarked on the latest leg of this marathon quest last year in Pondicherry, a city perched somewhat precariously on the southeastern edge of the Indian coastline. First recorded as a Roman trading port, it was controlled from the 17th century onwards by the French, the Dutch, the English, and then the French (in that order), before being returned to India in 1956. My visit was a leap of faith.
According to Commonwealth records my relative, Anthony Gaudoin (an auctioneer), arrived in India from France with his sons Joseph and Charles in 1797 on the ship Royal Charlotte. In reality nobody knows exactly where they arrived in India, how they lived, why they ended up in Yangon. But as French immigrants, it’s likely that Pondi, as locals call it, would have played its part. If they didn’t actually live here, they must surely have visited?
Family history is only one part of my motivation for visiting this exquisite mix of lush vegetation, sea breezes and crumbling colonial buildings in the pretty French quarter, which exist cheek by jowl with the “new India” of coffee shops, mopeds and mobile phone kiosks. I confess that I have spent a good part of the last 20 years stumbling along the road less travelled. At the end of all this, I find myself fifty-ish, divorced-ish and with a dawning awareness that I might be holding my own spiritual roadmap upside down. Which brings me to Pondicherry, home to one of the world’s biggest and most established ashrams, Sri Aurobindo, and the alternative community of Auroville – located 15 minutes from the city – both of which I have long wanted to visit.
I confess that I have spent a good part of the last 20 years stumbling along the road less travelled
So did I find any answers in this, one of the gentlest, kindest of Indian towns I have ever visited? The answer is yes and no. It’s hard not to feel peaceful, contemplative and ultimately positive at the ashram. Seated in the courtyard, I watch tourists and seekers alike pay homage by filing silently through a white marble cloister strewn with flowers. Here are the tombs of both founders, Aurobindo Ghose and Frenchwoman Mirra Richard (later known as “the Mother”) – an example of the fusion of Gallic and Indian culture of which I too am a part.
Conversely at Auroville, also founded by Mirra Richard, a kind of panic invades my senses, making me realise that while I like the idea of casting myself away in a remote outpost and living “alternatively” for the rest of my life, it might just not be the resolution I’m seeking (and my children, siblings and dogs might have something to say about it, too).
Later in my trip I head to Chennai, a two-hour drive from Pondi, and visit St. Mary’s Church, the oldest British building in India. Here I discover that on the May 8, 1802, Charles Gaudoin married Miss Georgina Campbell. As the tropical rain beats down on the tin roof of the building next door and steam rises from the church gardens, I hope that as they began their journey together they felt what I was feeling at that moment – a very real sense of possibility, at the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
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Images: Corbis, Alamy