France and India Intersect at Pondicherry

Previously a French Colony, Pondicherry is laid out on a grid, running along the oceanside. There’s no beach and surprisingly for me it doesn’t seem to matter. Every morning and evening the promenade is filled with French, Hindu and Moslem all promenading in their appropriate attire – along with a smattering of western tourists. The old French quarter – the cobblestone streets, mustard yellow townhouses, with verandahs and shady tree lined streets – are reminiscent of New Orleans. A number of streets away from the coast, the more typical Indian section begins.

Tourists are predominantly Indian; with a small showing of Westerners, mostly French. The main draw is the Sri Aurobindo ashram and nearby Auroville which seems to have more appeal to our age than the younger generation. Sri Aurobindo was a yogi who was educated in England, returning to India became a nationalist and later exchanged politics for spirituality after a few years in prison. He came to Pondicherry in 1910 and was joined 4 years later by Mother, a Frenchwoman who became his spiritual collaborator and after his death, successor. Both Sri Aurobindo and Mother have a large following primarily in India and France.

We’re fortunate to get a room at a guest house managed by the Ashram, where there are strict rules of no drinking, smoking, a 10.30 pm curfew and quiet time between 9pm and 7am – all of which suits us well. Guests are predominantly Indian and preference is given to the followers of Aurobindo. Unusually peaceful, it is the hotel with the best location and the best price. It sits right beside the sea and the sound of the surf pounding the rocks drowns out traffic and other noises. Our room, named “Liberation” (next door to “Concentration”) is simple but clean with a window facing the ocean, and huge flowering bushes similar to bougainvillea outside the door. An artfully conceived garden includes a Japanese rock garden and statues of gods and goddesses are positioned among flowering bushes, with a large lawn for meditation, yoga and “mindful walking”.

The family interaction continues: Arvind’s cousin, Swami Nathan, and his wife arrive and show us the “vital points” of town, which include a fresh juice bar, excellent veg restaurant called Surguru, and some all important women’s clothing stores! Swami’s wife manages a Montessori school, while he commutes to Banagalore. He leaves every Friday night, returning on Sunday night – a ten hour bus ride each way. It’s exhausting to think about. Meeting us a few hours after he arrives on Saturday, he seems remarkably refreshed from his night on the bus. They entertain us for dinner in their home and we meet their two smart and highly excitable daughters, one still in school and the older studying postgraduate. She sings Carnatic music after the meal. Their English is limited but we manage to understand each other, with the exception of when Gerard and I talk among ourselves. When we did this in Chennai, Mrs Mahadevan accused us of speaking in “foreign tongues”. This reminded me of when we were first married and Gerard’s mother would make the same accusation! Some things don’t change.

After a few days we decide to visit a nearby temple town, Chidambaram. The rickshaw driver takes us the most convenient route to the bus station, i.e. driving for several minutes against the traffic on a one way street to avoid having to backtrack. It’s not the first time we’ve been subjected to this risky behavior in India. Waiting at the station in the early morning – enjoying the sun rise, the friendly chai wallah, the helpful young Indian girl who struggles to speak English – I feel a rush of love for India (aided by two strong cups of chai!) But when we finally cram on to the bus, the seats and aisle tightly packed with people and start the slow drive through the traffic congested streets, I’m brought down to earth by the flipside- India’s phenomenal and disruptive population growth. We are surprised at how large Pondicherry is – but it’s the same everywhere.

At the time of Independence in 1947, India represented one-fifth of the world’s population with 400 million. Today, the U.S. is 310 million, but India which covers one-third the space, has grown to one billion. The government encourages one child per family, and there is some compliance within the Hindu community; conversely Muslims believe they should have as many children as possible to spread Islam. In about 20 years, the Muslim population is expected to equal the Hindu population in India further straining communications between the two communities.

The bus to Chidambaram must be the most crowded we’ve yet experienced in India – fortunately we have seats. Whenever we stop, the interchange of outgoing and incoming passengers defies description. How can one exit or enter when there isn’t an inch of space to move? But in typical Indian fashion they manage. It’s a long two hours, but the temple complex makes the ride worthwhile. Magnificent steepled temples wouldn’t look out of place in Mayan Central America; in the dark interior, mysterious and complex ceremonies are being performed by monks, wearing only loincloths. But disappointingly photography is forbidden and the large dancing Shiva statue we hoped to see is out of bounds for non Hindus.

Back in Pondicherry in the evening, we finally get to an Internet café to post the blog and try to finalize our plans for a three day visit to remote temple towns. But on the way home, Gerard trips in the dark and badly hurts his foot. We’re afraid a bone is broken, and for a while all our plans are jeopardized. How can we proceed if he can’t walk? I am abruptly reminded that our lives are as fragile as sugar candy and you can’t depend on anything. The good times in India I was previously taking for granted, could so easily be disrupted. But miraculously in the morning, although his foot’s sore, he’s able to walk again. It’s not too swollen and we assume nothing is broken…and we continue on.

One thought on “France and India Intersect at Pondicherry

  1. Spent a very pleasant weekend traveling around Pondicherry and Auroville a few years back. You always manage to capture the essence of a place so well. Hope Gerard's foot is feeling better.


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