Pondicherry calling

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United colours of Pondicherry. Where foreigners and Indians live in harmony. Where French architecture is as appealing as Indian. Where things appear dream-like. Where nothing appears to stress a tourist, the least being the weather. Even if it rains without warning, you don’t mind because of the humidity and the beach next door. It’s a place where you feel cut off from India and yet feel part of it. It’s this feeling of attachment and detachment that keeps you company long after you’ve left the shores of Pondicherry.

I stumbled upon this erstwhile French settlement quite by chance. When I visited Chennai on business, my journalist friend said, “Pondy is just two hours away. I can even book a sea-facing hotel room for you and get one of the journalists to double up as your guide.” These words egged me on to a road never travelled. And I went with the flow.

Now I have never been to France. But I am familiar with the territory because of the innumerable travel channels being beamed into my drawing room. What grabbed me first was Pondy’s size – it had only a 20 km radius. Which means, I could cycle my way to the heart and periphery of the city without developing a leg cramp. But ofcourse, when I rented the bicycle, I realised that the seat more befitted a lady than a gent. So I went back and changed it for a cycle that had a bigger, better seat. And I was on.

The first thing I noticed in Pondicherry (which was re-named to ‘Puducherry’ in 2006 and means ‘New village’) are the narrow, tiled perpendicular streets. So like Gay Paree. My journo guide explained that the city is divided into two sections, the French Quarter and the Indian quarter. I was staying at the French quarter. Which is why, I saw many streets still retaining their French names and French-style villas. The buildings are typically colonial style with long compounds and stately walls in yellows, reds and greens. The Indian (Tamil) quarter has houses with verandas, large doors and grills. Both the French and Indian-style houses are protected by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). If you were to demolish any of these heritage buildings, you need to take the permission from INTACH and ensure that the new house resembles the old world architecture. Since most people here don’t have money to burn, they stick to the old structure.

Pondy is said to have a network of all-weather metalled roads connecting every village in its territory. Now I was testimony to that. Quizzers will tell you that this union territory has a road length of 2552 km (road length for every 4.87 km radius), which is the highest in the country. The accessibility and comfortable infrastructure aside, it’s the cosmopolitan nature of the city that makes it all the more inviting. Where else have you seen Indians and foreigners converging at a park and dining out from the same restaurant in a non-trendy place? It is this feature that makes it so unique. You don’t feel like a foreigner and neither does the foreigner who is visiting the city for the first time. You feel a sense of bonhomie and this remained with me long after I had left Pondicherry.

This feeling is renewed when I drive my way to Auroville. The concept dazzled me. Where else in the world have you heard or found a place where you are known more as a human than as an Indian, American or French? Over here, your nationality is humanity. And human unity is the mantra being propagated at Auroville. It is a unique experiment in building a self-supporting city within a city that will eventually be home to 50,000 people from different nationalities of the world. Already, about 1,700 co-exist in this area that is insulated from rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.

Auroville is recognised as the first and only UNESCO-endorsed ongoing experiment in human unity. It intends to transform our consciousness and build a sustainable living model by taking care of your future cultural, environmental, social and spiritual needs. And how? Well, by having dedicated areas for ‘green’ industries (109 hectares), residential accommodation, cultural events and international seminars. What’s more, the city area with a radius of 1.25 km will be surrounded by a green belt of 1.25 km width. As a zone for organic farms, dairies, orchards, forests, and wildlife areas, this belt will act as a barrier against urban encroachment. Not just that. It will also provide a variety of habitats for wildlife, and serve as a source for food, timber and medicines, and as a place for recreation. Walking through Auroville is truly revealing. It stands as a shining example of successful transformation of a wasteland into a vibrant eco-system.

The video film at Auroville’s visitor’s gallery showcased a fascinating story. On 28th February 1968, some 5,000 people from 124 countries gathered near the banyan tree at the centre of Auroville. Every country’s representative brought with him some soil from his homeland, to be mixed in a white marble- clad, lotus-shaped urn, now sited at the focal point of the Amphitheatre. A symbolic gesture that has unity in diversity written all over it.

Next to this urn are the Matrimandir and its gardens that also serve as a groundwater recharge area. Inside this golden globe, still under construction, is a great empty hall, except for one vertical light ray striking a translucent crystal globe at its centre. It’s meant to be a 12-sided inner hall for concentrating on our sub-conscious and taking it to a new level of consciousness. When completed, the hall will be 24 metres in diameter, with 12 sides of white marble and a floor covered with a soft white carpet. Through an optical lens fitted into the roof, the sunlight will fall in a direct ray to strike the globe at its exact centre. When there is no sun, electric reflectors will send a ray – also a concentrated, not a diffused light – exactly on the centre of the crystal globe to provide an uninterrupted presence of the vertical ray. As their brochure puts it: “Matrimandir is a receptacle in which to receive the Supramental consciousness-force. The Truth-consciousness.” If all this goes over head, don’t worry. It went over mine, too. But I loved the concept, nevertheless.

Back from Auroville, I visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (where photography isn’t allowed) which plays host to a library that has books on meditation and integral living. On the way back to the guest house, my journalist-cum-guide suggested that if I marry someone living in Pondy, I could well become a citizen of France by default. I laughed at it but did take him on his other suggestion: to visit Paradise Island at the Chunnambar Boat Club the next day. And was I mighty pleased? Yes, ofcourse because I was facing Bay of Bengal’s crystal clear waters that I have seen in Thailand’s western beaches: Krabi, Phuket and Phi Phi. As soon as I enter after paying a nominal fee, I am ushered into a playground of sorts. There are swings and slides for children and even a treetop wooden house for good measure. And soon, I find myself right opposite the Bay of Bengal. We take a boat to the island and find the island virginal. There aren’t too many people crowding the place. There is cleanliness and adequate security personnel manning the area. You can sit underneath a wooden canopy, or you can play on the swings closer to the shore. Or you can watch children making sand castles. Or couples gossiping about everything under the sun. Sitting under the wooden canopy, I took time off to spend with myself, even while watching others in action. In this ‘alone time’, I felt one with the sea and felt much tranquillity watching the tides go from high to low.

On our way back, my friend had a good laugh at my expense by saying, “Since you don’t drink, you enjoy Pondy much less because over here, the taxes are the lowest and liquor comes cheap.” Back in the city, he said something else that made me wonder again. “People here are so lazy that they prefer to use a two-wheeler even if it is to travel less than half a kilometre.” And here I was, walking all around the Beach Road every other day.

This French quarter of the city also happens to be most frequented by visitors. After all, it directly faces the fabulous Bay of Bengal which looks slightly more forbidding than the sharp, rocky crevasses filled with garbage that mark the stone and sand filled man-made foreshore and ‘beach’. The foreshore is a wonderful public space which is always filled with locals at sunset and is lined with magnificent colonial hotel-mansions and restaurants. The first four or so streets running parallel to the beach are filled with French villas, old houses and grandiose European churches beyond which lies the canal (now dry like camphor) and further on the Indian quarter. The inner city is quiet, small, calm, and a combination of the two cultures present. Pondy is a place where French is more widely spoken than English. Where breakfast menus list Baguettes instead of Toast and restaurants don’t fill up until 9pm. And where coffee tastes less like boiled charcoal than usual and where the waiters look at you strangely when you order a spread of four different curry dishes instead of the chef’s specialty.

Though the botanical garden is in a neglected state, you would love to do one thing: take a ride in the toy train. Once, that’s done, I would urge you to venture into Bharathi Park off the Beach Road, particularly in the evening. It’s a fair-like atmosphere out here. Large wind chimes tied to trees make it a euphonious experience. There’s the colourful musical fountain that comes to life soon after sundown and lets you trip on Tamil film songs for a change. The park has both Indians and foreigners soaking in the ambience. You could lie on the grass and watch kids play – I watched an Indian slum kid playing with a foreign kid. They were sitting on either side of the see-saw. A perfect picture of co-existence and racial harmony. Another kid was dancing to the song being played at the musical fountain. While her father was encouraging her, the mother appeared to be embarrassed. The girl was joined by a boy her age. But she did a better job.

No wonder the French were not willing to leave this prized territory. Even when they left, they had some strings attached that are operational till this day. According to the Treaty of Cession signed by India and France on 28 May 1956, French will continue to remain the official language of Pondicherry. Pondicherry still has a large number of Tamil and a small number of non-Tamil residents with French passports. These are descendants of those who chose to remain French when the then ruling French Establishment presented the people of Puducherry with an option to either remain French or become Indians at the time of Puducherry’s transfer to India in 1954.

There are three things I missed seeing for lack of time: the Navagraha Temple which houses 15 ft high Navagrahas (structures carved out of stone), the Anglo-French textile mill and the fossil museum located on the city outskirts. But I will check them out the next time I visit Pondy, this time with my wife when I get married later this year.

FAST FACTS

WHERE TO STAY
You could stay at any of the guest houses and hotel rooms in the area. They charge anywhere between Rs 200 to Rs 1000 per day. The ones run by the Aurobindo ashram are cheaper, but you need to book well in advance. Nothing like knowing a local resident in the city who could do it for you.
SEASONS
Pondicherry is rain-and-shine throughout the year. Expect sudden showers anytime.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
The winter months of November, December, January and February. But for beach bums, anytime is a good time here.

(Published in Windows & Aisles, 2008)