Pondicherry has a strangely surreal feel to it.
It’s not as if India is short of places with a colonial past. Just about every hill station in the country, from Nainital to Ooty, has its clutch of old stone churches, its Mall Road and its little shops selling jams and marmalades. Many also have old cottages with fireplaces, shady verandahs and spooky stories of Raj-era ghosts. That, however, is where it invariably ends. The colonial past is just that: the past.
Pondicherry is a different kettle of fish altogether, somewhere between a hearty bouillabaisse and a spicy, coconut-scented meen kuzhambu. The town divides neatly up into the Tamil quarter and the French quarter: the latter so Gallic, it’s an unashamedly antipodean version of a sun-drenched seaside town somewhere in southern France. And the French air of Pondicherry isn’t restricted to a few old colonial churches–although there are plenty of those–or some shops selling French wines. No; it all goes much deeper than that.
Our first morning in Pondicherry, we wake to a breakfast of strong coffee, buttery brioches and mouthwatering croissants. The stewards have soft accents and roll their rs much better than I ever managed in three years of studying French. And the Pondicherry map we’re graciously given by the manager is a deluge of French names: Rue Dumas, Rue Mahe de Labourdonnais, Rue de la Marine, Rue Suffren, even a memorable Orleanpet.
A day’s wandering through the streets of the French Quarter, and we experience a distinct sense of déjà vu. The pale yellow and ochre houses, with their white trim and wrought iron window grills, look familiar. The Cluny Embroidery Centre on Rue Romain Rolland has a façade that curves delicately above a wooden gate with an antique knocker. The street names, stenciled in neat white letters on deep blue rectangles of metal, are nailed precisely at eye level at each street corner.
Surely we’ve seen all of this before?–in Paris, perhaps. The quiet streets, the bicycles outside the houses, the flowering trees along the pavements: all of it is straight out of the Mediterranean.
But we turn a corner, and suddenly we aren’t sure any more. Goubert Market, which sounds deliciously Gallic on the map, turns out to be firmly Tamil in flavour. It’s a covered market teeming with people who sell everything from fish and dried shrimp to coconuts, huge bunches of bananas, and vegetables that we don’t even attempt to identify.
Outside Goubert Market, a policeman is busy directing traffic. And unlike other police constables all across India, he’s not wearing a beret or a Gandhi topi. His uniform cap is a kepi, bright red and with a black peak. The last time I saw a policeman wearing a kepi, he was a Parisian gendarme.
Opposite the French consulate on Rue de la Marine, a coconut seller plies a brisk trade, handing out tender green coconuts to thirsty people like us. Further along, on Rue Dumas, a rickshaw-puller, bright calico lungi tucked up about his knees, sits on his haunches eating his lunch. His rickshaw, standing on the narrow lane beside him, is like any other you’d see in this country: shiny red seat, spindle-thin wheels, and vividly painted flowers on the aluminium backrest. Among the flowers, like on thousands of other rickshaws all across India, are painted the names of those whom the rickshaw-puller holds dear. His daughters, perhaps, since they are all female names. And what names: Bernadette is one I still remember.
In a city where rickshaw-pullers are related to women called Bernadette, we’re not really surprised when we notice an old family photograph at the hotel where we’re staying. The Hotel de L’Orient was once a villa owned by the Sinnas, a family of merchants. Opposite the hotel’s reception counter is a quaint black and white photograph of the family, dating from the early 1900’s. It’s a classic photograph: women draped in demure saris, moustachioed men wearing huge turbans. Very Indian–until we notice the names written below. There’s an Edouard here, a Thérèse there, other names straight out of 19th century France.
This completely unexpected mix of India and France is what really makes Pondicherry so appealing. The churches, for instance (and Pondicherry has many of them, all with mile-long French names) are a lively hybrid of architectural styles. The Eglise de Sacre Couer de Jesus, a somewhat startlingly vivid combination of white, deep green and scarlet, contains stained glass windows depicting much-loved French saints, Joan of Arc included. The terracotta tiles framing each window, however, are straight out of a south Indian brick kiln–and the Madonna near the altar wears a sari.
The Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges, a replica of the cathedral at Lourdes, is not quite so obvious a mélange of East and West. The pale lemon and peach exterior hides a sober interior covered in off-white plaster, worked into elegant floral patterns. The same plaster is used in the framed depictions of the Stations of the Cross, a series hung all around the church–and labelled only in French. The church, we learn, is more commonly known to the local Tamils as Kaps Kovil: the Church of the Capuchins, since the Capuchin monks were the original builders of this church.
A minute’s walk from Kaps Kovil, and we reach the seafront, a stretch of grey sand and black rocks. A circular white building labelled Douane (the French word for Customs) dominates the promenade, the Indian tricolour fluttering jauntily above it. Alongside is a low white lighthouse, and a short distance further, at the corner of Rue Mahe de Labourdonnais, is the World War I Memorial. Stark white columns flank the poignant life-size figure of a soldier, clad in a greatcoat and leaning on his rifle. The words above–Aux combattants des Indes Françaises morts pour la patrie, 1914-1918–are only in French. No English.
Which is perhaps the most telling statement there can be about Pondicherry. Unabashedly French, though with more than a hint of native colour.
(First published in Lounge, November 2007)