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!
« To be continued »