Some corner of a foreign field that will be forever. . . . France ?
I’m feeling a bit out of my depth here, it must be admitted. I came down to Pondicherry last night on a bus with a driver who knew nothing but full throttle, recalls Bob Cranwell, so my arse and brain are almost entirely numb. Also 18 extra passengers crammed in the aisles, and I jest not, under some seats.
My friend Moïse (Moses) is building himself a house, in installments, which he’s been doing himself, or sometimes had the money for some builders to do it, for 7 years. At first a small coconut thatch house was built, and gradually a building of six bare rooms, of concrete arches and windows with glass was erected.
Moïse’s old mother and a niece live at the house, which is situated on a shady little plot in the south of Pondy, shaped a bit like the outline of Nepal, Moïse tells me, where he had lived for three years. He had gone to Kathmandu and ran a small French bookshop there, and sometimes did the same from a shikhara (canoe) on the lakes of Srinagar in Kashmir, too, before that place was dead for business. These years came very soon after the deaths of Moïse’s real (Indian) father, and of his adoptive French father, both of whom were close to Moïse, although Moïse himself liked his French ‘father’ most.
Moïse’s mother and niece present a rare spectacle, though many decades separate their ages, their mental agility remains identically minute, the sad result, it feels, of centuries of living the lives of virtual slaves as women. Neither woman leaves the house at all, although the girl says she want to learn typing in English and Tamil, – there are many ‘academies’ located above shops and behind garages which offer these life – enhancing skills. Offer, not promise, mind you. Even so, she has never seen much of the town, though the whole area is only about 2km across. I’m afraid Moïse thinks they are not intelligent enough to want to see, or know anything different, and plainly holds them in low regard.
I find this all a bit of a shock, as the Moïse I’ve known is an intelligent, personable and thoughtful individual who speaks fluent English, French, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi. I can get by in a number of languages myself, but I certainly feel it difficult to communicate at any sort of level here. Most of the time the women remain expressionless at my questions, or my attempts to explain myself and my presence here. In the meantime, Moïse is away, arranging a lunch for me with his friend “an interesting fellow, oh ! very clever, but he has only one (h)arm”.
Mother and niece simply pad about the house, rearranging dust, or just sit companionably in their part of the house. They don’t like the new, large, concrete floored and plastered building and much prefer the bare brick walls, dirt floor and coconut thatch roofed part. They don’t feel there’s any air in the new bit. A small fire of coconut husks smoulder in their stone-age hearth, smoking blackly up the wall corner to seep through the now slightly sticky leaves.
It’s certainly an odd experience in so many ways, to find the relatives of someone so cosmopolitan and soigné, so apparently – I hesitate to use the word – backward themselves. It is all so difficult to square from my own viewpoint. Still, I’m not here to judge. Moïse has spent a long time getting to this stage, even spending 7,000 Rupees just to raise the level of the house to avoid any flooding – a very large sum indeed as at present the average salary would be around Rs400 a month !
I went to eat in a small ‘French’ restaurant in the town, apparently bought and run by the son of a former governor with allegedly embezzled funds sent from Delhi to fund the former statelet. A French couple entered and ordered their Sunday lunch in French, getting a rough replica of what it might have been at home, but no wine. I contented myself with English, although there is a very strong Francophile element in the town, and my French might possibly have gone down well, but I had hesitated a little, feeling a reluctance to emphasize the old colonial status.
At this time, there exists a lot of graffiti in Tamil, French and English calling for an independent Pondicherry – signed by the Pondicherry Tigers, a local pressure group of youth wishing to associate themselves with the much more organised Tamil Tigers, who are currently causing considerable difficulty and anxiety for the Indian Army contingent now in Sri Lanka, a move which will ultimately see the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi the Indian leader, by a suicide bomber. The French themselves are still fairly well ensconced here, as the highest proportion of visitors to the town are French, but a growing number of upper class Indians have taken to the place that Nehru loved to visit for it’s tranquillity.
Tranquil, it remains, surely, in comparison to Madras, or more fairly, to any similar sized town which I have visited. There is a sense of order, somehow, possibly from the grid pattern of the town’s layout, contrasting strongly with winding paths and alleys around the perimeter of the town proper. I should say, since you might not know, that Pondy is a seaside resort, the port having been in existence for some considerable time, judging from the Greek and Roman ruins and coinage apparently found deep in coconut and tamarisk plantations south from Pondy.
To the north lies a more recent ‘attraction’, that of Auroville, a settlement founded by Sri Aurobindo, a now deceased guru, and his French successor, known simply as 'The Mother’. Look, I might as well say that I among the more sceptical people when it comes to organised religion or enlightenment, and this proved not to be an exception to my list of dubious enterprises (lightning bolt on the way, Bob).
The reception centre is in the town in a pleasant little island of gleaming whitewash and bougainvillea, somewhat reminiscent of a Riviera villa. The pathways are padded around barefoot, shoes have to be removed at the door, a mark of respect; (also slows down any sudden desire to get out). As you might expect in such a place, the majority of wall space is covered with photos of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother in various states of spiritual uplift.
Apparently the bodies of both lie in state in a small shrine around the corner. I’m afraid I can see little justification for the veneration, almost deification of human beings once they’re dead; this has become something of a cult for westerners, although they are by no means the most populous of visitors to the community. (And I re-write this on a day when Mother Theresa of Calcutta is being canonised ! Another faux pas, Bob !)
Most of the curious are in fact Indian, but then, guru idolising is a proliferate business in India anyway, with a host of genuine and fraudulent gurus appearing in, or disappearing from the newspapers daily. They are generally accorded a high degree of respect – in relation to their acolytes, I think, rather than as a result of their personal abilities.
Having said all the above on what might sound a relatively disparaging note, it must be admitted that Pondy can lay claim to being one of the most friendly and relaxed towns I have found in India; it is also most interesting to compare and contrast this tiny enclave of French influence, (the only other being Mahe on the West coast), with the former Portuguese colony of Goa, or more particularly with Madras, the long held bastion of the East India Company.
For preference I would still go for Goa, but there’s no doubting that Pondy is a real haven after the stentorian tenor of some British colonial architecture, and a welcome relief from the oppressive bureaucratisation that is Britain’s legacy to the subcontinent. Upon which, I have to add, they have assiduously expanded !
Catch yer later
Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant
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