Allow me to tell you a story about a quaint idyllic town perched on the Coromandel Coast, which has captured the imagination of all and sundry, from India to Europe. Everyday, we continue to discover fantastical elements of the charm of Pondicherry and nowhere else is this sense of exotic fascination more beautifully captured than an excerpt from a book by one of the greatest storytellers of our time, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Prince Pondicherry wrote a letter to Mr Willy Wonka,’ said Grandpa Joe, ‘and asked him to come all the way to India and build him a colossal palace entirely out of chocolate.’
When it was all finished, Mr Wonka said to Prince Pondicherry, “I warn you, though, it won’t last very long, so you’d better start eating it right away.”
”Nonsense!” shouted the Prince. “I’m not going to eat my palace! I’m not even going to nibble the staircase or lick the walls! I’m going to live in it!”
It may be a slight stretch of my imagination, but I find subtle metaphors in this small story. The architectural ensemble in Pondicherry which has been carefully handcrafted by ancient Tamil kingdoms and a patchwork of European nations is falling prey modernisation’s wrecking ball and historical amnesia. The Tamil Town bears the brunt of it all to a large extent, with the number of listed heritage buildings following a downward spiral every year.
How do we turn the tide?
When do we stop staring at the deterioration of our cultural and material fabric, while it is being sacrificed at the altar of capitalistic trends and ethos?
The Government of Pondicherry released a General Order in 2015 to place 21 public buildings under the conservation and restoration programme. The Calve College on Mission Street and the Soucilabai School on Vysial Street have faced years of neglect and non-existent maintenance schemes. Only time will tell how much of the political jargon will be translated into on-ground action.
A glaring example of neglect and indecisiveness is the Pensionnat de Jeunes Filles, on Dumas Street, which is the only Government French High School for Girls, in India. Years of deliberation between interested parties, several draft proposals by public and private institutions and a pinch of nonchalance later, the school was finally shut down last year due to “structural inadequacies”.
Will we see the VOC school on Mission Street go down the same path?
The optimist in me never dies, though. Through the course of the several Heritage walks in Pondicherry over the last few months, I have tried to make others see the delicate strings of history which lend a veritable charm to this city like no other place in our country. It is most encouraging to see the glimmer in people’s eyes as we stroll along the sleepy streets, and even more so when they have been living here for several years. So, whether I am on a tour with tourists or local residents, as long as I can ignite their curiosity about their surroundings even if for a bit, I think I am doing my part.
Don’t let the palaces of Pondicherry melt away in the scorching sun of the coming days. The culture and heritage of Pondicherry is here to stay. Join our efforts by sending us your thoughts about what Pondicherry represents for each of you. Help us spread the good news.