My Indian Friend - Guy Poitevin (1934-2004)

Thierry Paquot

[Version française]

It was in Pune, in Maharashtra, where he had been living since 1972, that Guy Poitevin breathed his last, before the doctors could diagnose the disease that caused his death. He was born in a family of peasants in Mayenne. Being a good student, the Church took charge of his education and he graduated in philosophy and theology (Paris and Rome) and as an ordained priest, he taught philosophy in a seminary in Western France. He visited India in 1967 and spent a month in Pune and the surrounding villages. On his return to France, he joined Langues'O (School of Oriental Languages) to study Sanskrit and in the following year, he took up Marathi. After several short visits, he finally settled down in Pune in 1972 and married Hema Rairkar, an economist and feminist belonging to a Brahmin family (her father is a doctor who works for the poor), and took Indian citizenship in 1979. He became the head of the Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences which he set up in 1980. His doctoral thesis entitled "Aspirations étudiantes, la logique du pauvre" (Students' Aspirations, the Logic of Poverty), written under the supervision of Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, was defended at EHESS (School of Social Sciences, University of Paris). The thesis already displayed the distinctive traits of the Poitevin Method – a subtle mix of field studies (based mainly on long conversations and surveys), an etymological analysis of the terms used, the interpretation of more or less modernised myths and a comparison with western culture. Guy Poitevin was not just an armchair Indologist – he could not bring himself to ignore the present-day India fraught with numerous contradictions and disparities. Nor was he a sociologist obsessed with reproducing what he has observed in the field because he was always keen to know more about the mythology hidden behind a particular attitude or action. He was no ordinary intellectual, all the more so because of his commitment to the cause of the untouchables. A renowned specialist in Dalit literature, he was not satisfied with merely talking about it; instead he made great efforts to make it known to the world at large. He translated a number of works by untouchables (Maharashtra. Paysans et intouchables de l'Inde occidentale [Maharashtra. Peasants and Untouchables of Western India], Preface by Gilles Lapouge, Lieu Commun, 1987; Parole de femmes intouchables [Untouchable Women Speak Up], Côté-femmes, 1991; Ma caste criminelle [My Criminal Caste], by Jayraj Rajput, L'Harmattan, 1996) or wrote introductions to them (Ma vie d'intouchable [My Life an an Intouchable] by Daya Pawar, La Découverte, 1990). Together with his wife, Hema Rairkar, he undertook the task of recording, elucidating and analysing the songs improvised by women in a traditional framework as they grind grain for the day's meals in the early morning. Almost 60,000 songs compiled and studied in this manner (Les chants de la meule [Grindmill Songs], éditions Kailash, 1997) form a valuable corpus on the popular oral culture of Maharashtra, the dreams and concerns of women who express their joys and sorrows through these songs, the notion of bhakti or devotion in Vedantic Hinduism, the manner in which modernity is perceived, accepted or opposed, the relations between couples and within the family in general. With support from various charitable institutions, he ran a village school for poor girls, trained rural leaders to protect villagers from the manipulations of politicians and other persons in power, helped women's groups in slums to fight against conjugal violence, etc. Was he a social worker? Yes, in a way. But he strictly followed the principle of depending on his own strength. He only saw the alienating aspect of developmental aid and believed that the best solution was the one found by the person facing the problem. No charity business for him! A militant certainly, but also a scholar as evidenced by his book Sortir de la sujétion (Freedom from Bondage) published by L'Harmattan (Paris) in 2001, which, unfortunately, went unnoticed in France. The book sums up his struggles and describes the rise of an oppressed people in Indian society through the stories of their lives that he studies in minute detail. It is a work that denounces and rectifies the simplistic sociological explanations found in many studies on castes in India, including that of Louis Dumont, but it highlights above all the uniqueness of the subject in modern India. He did not tire of hammering into the numerous visitors who came to see him in Pune the message that India is not all spirituality, non-violence, castes and yoga but materialism, violence and social inequities – a result of the unimaginable changes brought about by urbanisation and modernisation. What happens to the individual in this troubled society? What does he think of himself? Poitevin elucidates traditional texts with the same insight as Lévinas or Ricoeur and presents through his writings a striking and original view on modern India. Since there are few persons as eclectic as him, I was asked by the Charles-Léopold Mayer Foundation to meet him and Hema Rairkar with the idea of bringing out a book on their efforts to create awareness among the untouchables as well as their research on popular oral culture. Their modesty prevented me from taking up this project, but their warmth made us friends. Guy, my friend, my Indian friend.

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