Intangible Heritage

Walking in Pondicherry — The Art of Le Flâneur (Part 1)


Time stops in Pon­di­cher­ry, today cal­led Pudu­cher­ry, or rather time expands to invi­te the tra­vel­ler to lay down her/his dus­ty bags, to clo­se the com­pu­ter and to kick back and enjoy doing nothing, abso­lu­te­ly nothing. The begin­ning of all real crea­ti­vi­ty. Peo­ple come to rest, to explo­re the town, to wri­te, to dream, to wan­der, to sit, to savour the moment. The poe­try of the pla­ce lies wai­ting to be dis­co­ve­red.

Nor­th of the Canal in the Tamil Town, all is hust­le & bust­le, traf­fic, noi­se, crowds, com­mer­ce, spraw­ling urban deve­lop­ment. In the heart of the old Fren­ch colo­nial “Whi­te Town” howe­ver, only the ear­ly mor­ning birds playing with the sin­ging squir­rels & the mid­day quar­rel­so­me crows can dis­turb the pea­ce and tran­qui­li­ty. Step out on to the bou­gain­vil­lea cove­red streets and you will find a delight­ful selec­tion of cafés, hid­den cour­tyards and roof­top hidea­ways. Afi­cio­na­dos tra­de per­so­nal favou­ri­te loca­tions for the best espres­so, the per­fect cap­puc­ci­no, the sin­ful pain au cho­co­lat. It is a most light-hear­ted deba­te in the spi­rit of Baudelaire’s “gent­le­man flâ­neur” and the jury will always be out on this sub­ject as new venues open as fast as old ones chan­ge or clo­se.

The archi­tec­tu­ral heri­ta­ge of Pon­di­cher­ry is divi­ded by the canal, Fren­ch colo­nial by the sea­front to the sou­th, and Tamil bran­ching out in all direc­tions to the nor­th of the canal. Both sides offer a mix­tu­re of cultu­ral sur­pri­ses and curio­si­ties for Susan Sonntag’s “voyeu­ris­tic strol­ler” who enjoys savou­ring the city as a “land­sca­pe of volup­tuous extre­mes”. Lady “flâ­neurs” have obvious­ly construc­ted their own tra­di­tions and also “wan­der aim­less­ly” with great pana­che the­se days.

For the ear­ly risers, step­ping out to see the dawn is always an adven­tu­re. Locals in Pon­dy enjoy exer­ci­sing by the sea­front on Gou­bert Ave­nue befo­re going to work and the poli­ce clo­se the who­le sea­front stret­ch of road to traf­fic bet­ween 6 PM and 7AM the next mor­ning, so the atmos­phe­re is char­min­gly ambu­la­to­ry.

If you start ear­ly enough, stroll up from Gou­bert Ave­nue into Tamil Town and cat­ch a piping hot cup of tea or cof­fee at one of the road­si­de stalls. The big cen­tral food mar­ket, Gou­bert Mar­ket or sim­ply “The Big Mar­ket”, will be busy with local far­mers deli­ve­ring their fre­sh pro­du­ce. Sou­th India is without a doubt the bread bas­ket of the sub-conti­nent. The array of fre­sh vege­ta­bles, herbs, fruit & spi­ces is a fine sen­so­ry expe­rien­ce. Of cour­se, the­re is a lot of noi­se so it is not just the eyes and nose that are being assai­led. If you want to expe­rien­ce total audi­to­ry may­hem, step into the fish mar­ket hall. Here the fish­wi­ves sip tea, gut fish and shout in no par­ti­cu­lar­ly dis­cer­na­ble order. By 8.30 a.m. the exci­te­ment seems to die down in direct pro­por­tion to the smell.

The­re is no more delight­ful pas­ti­me in Pon­dy than taking an ear­ly eve­ning pre-pran­dial stroll to some desi­gna­ted wate­ring hole whil­st dab­bling in a spot of his­to­ri­cal dilet­tan­tism. Road names pro­vi­de an acce­le­ra­ted cra­sh cour­se in Indian and colo­nial his­to­ry and an advan­ced test in orien­tee­ring.

In and around Pon­di­cher­ry ancient Dra­vi­dian, Mog­hul and Mus­lim dynas­ties have sur­vi­ved or suc­cum­bed to an impres­si­ve suc­ces­sion of tra­ders and inva­ders, ran­ging from the Greeks, Romans, Turks, Per­sians and Mon­gols to the Dut­ch, Dani­sh, Engli­sh and, most spec­ta­cu­lar­ly, to the Fren­ch.

Behind the inno­cuous-loo­king blue and green Pon­dy street signs lie cen­tu­ries of bloo­dy strug­gle, devious plot­ting, impe­rial greed and shrewd, dan­ge­rous or ins­pi­ring ven­tu­res whi­ch dic­ta­ted the lives of local fishing and agri­cul­tu­ral com­mu­ni­ties. Street names com­me­mo­ra­te men of the sword, men of the clo­th, tra­ders and impe­rial bri­gands, cour­tiers, com­mis­sio­ners, peti­tio­ners, func­tio­na­ries, sol­diers of for­tu­ne, poli­ti­cians, crooks, drea­mers, free­dom figh­ters, trai­tors, heroes and all the usual sus­pects bet­ween!
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