Who wants to see places of French origin in India?
Welcome to Pondicherry (Puducherry), the small and humid French town which the French left to the Indians to domesticate. Though it is best to avoid seaside towns located any where near the Equator, I had to pay this town a visit as a traveller and resident and – voila – discovered that this part of India is rich in culture and history. I am not just talking about Pondy but Karaikal, Tranquebar, Kumbakonam, Chidamabaram, Thanjavur, Nagapattinam… all within a four hour radius.
Now let me surprise all of you who have not visited this place. The entire town does not look French. Only the original part of it does. And that small rectangle is limited to White Town which is between the sea and the canals which now line up the streets of Kassim Salai(Gingee Salai) and Ambour Salai. This section is the Frenchiest of Pondicherry for the casual visitor. Between the canals and MG Road is the Tamil quarter with its prominent Franco Tamil architecture and this includes Mission Street, Pondicherry’s toniest avenue.
The French influence is quite visible through both the Franco Tamil population and Francophiles themselves, the French commercial establishments, the French tourists and the street names.
These are the few things to notice here.
- Pondicherry calms your mind. Period.
- In no other town of India are there so many local women on BSA Ladybird bicycles.
- French speaking Indian guides are ubiquitous making the French tourists truly comfortable.
- Loved the Cluny School of Music on Suffren Street in White Town. Whenever I passed the school in the afternoon, there were piano notes or violin notes wafting through the air. I am told that the music teachers are mostly French senior citizens and would also recommend sitting on the pavement outside the school and listen to the students practice on any balmy afternoon.
- The French population here is not stagnant but actually growing though at a snail’s pace.
- I learnt to appreciate Auroville if not for anything but the forest that has been planted over the years and also the pretty women who dot the township. Still need to attend the meditation center and still need to feel Auroville’s soul.
Goubert market on Nehru street was fun to explore. The market is a smorgasbord of seafood like prawns, lobsters, fish, squid, sharks and the dank smell of the sea pervades this market. Bought crabs for an exorbitant price because my bargaining skills were bad and went on to make a crab curry dish. The dank smell of the sea
pervades this market. Bought crabs for an exorbitant price and went on to make a wonderful crab curry dish.
- Why is there no ban on plastic on the Promenade(Beach Road) and maybe even in White Town. Do the French have to teach us that?
- Why are there so many stray dogs? And who is going to pick up the dog poo after the owners desultorily take their dogs out for a stroll?
- Do you know that no one goes to Auro beach now. A house there got washed away and there is to much debris in the seawaters. So the adjacent Surya beach is what
everyone refers to as Auro beach? And it certainly is not a great beach.
- The moonrise on the Promenade is spectacular.
- Old furniture shops dot the ECR in Pondy and have sell humongous wooden pillars of sizable girth. Wonderful to buy a pair and keep them for your new home.
- Drove a car in White Town for a week and realised that I needed a bicycle. It’s the best way to explore this labyrinth town. Rent one from the shops on Mission Street.
- Avoid the tourist hotspots of Pondy. They are not worth it. Instead try to soak up the culture. Activities keep happening in the Alliance Francaise center, Auroville etc.
- Ossudu lake is nothing interesting though you can take a boat ride and see those pelicans.
- Paradise beach is a lovely sandbar on the southern side of town. One has to go to Chunnambar boat house from where you are taken to the beach. But that is not the only way to reach this beach.
- Some houses in White Town are exceptional in their architecture.
Most of them have the classic yellow and white or peach and white combination.
- What’s with the traffic police in Pondy?
If your vehicle is not a locally registered one and you are caught in a mishap not of your own creation, be prepared for some very partisan behaviour by the cops.
- Autos are exorbitant.
- So maybe some of the cafes. But the most comfortable place to relax and have a beer is LB2 Lounge on Labourdannais Street.
- Be prepared to hear people of Indian origin or Indians speaking in fluent French to each other while walking on the road or when buying vegetables. You begin to wonder if they know English at all.
- An early morning run on the Promenade is refreshing though your tees become so wet that you actually start feeling cold in the heat.
- French citizenship for the locals is not on offer. Thus the older generation Indians are French but not the new generation.
- Buy pottery in Pondicherry. It is of good quality and very eclectic. Ray Meeker of Golden Bridge Pottery had made it famous and other recognisable brands are Mantra and Mandala. Some are available at high prices in Kalki on Mission Street.
- The Sacred Heart Basilica opposite the Railway station has character. The stained glass and high gothic roofs are impressive to watch from inside. Sit at the door on the southern side where the draft of air makes your mind relax a bit and think about your loved ones.