A little bit of France in India

Hello all,
   Anjali and I decided to blow straight through Chennai, which we
figure we will return to, and on to Pondicherry.  The city was
officially renamed Puducherry, but even the official tourism guides
say “Pondicherry” in their bus tours.  Pondicherry is the largest city
in what was formerly the French colony also named Pondicherry.  It is
on the coast in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  A little bit
French, and a lot Indian.  Getting here took 24 hours of travel:  we
walked down a cliff from our Virupapuragadda cottage to the boat
launch to Hampi,  we were ferried across the water, we dragged luggage up a hundred steps to the streets above the river, we walked to an
autorickshaw, we took the auto to the Hospet railway station, we
waited a few hours for our train to Guntakal, at Guntakal we
transferred to an overnight train to Chennai, once there we caught a
city bus, to another city bus, which took us to the long distance bus
station, where we caught a bus to the Pondicherry bus station, where
we caught an autorickshaw to the Ram Guest House.  If this wasn’t
exhausting enough, we realized immediately that the only room
available with no windows to the outside was entirely unsuitable, so
we spent the rest of the day walking around Pondicherry in the blazing
heat looking for a place to stay for the rest of our visit.
   People say they love traveling, but I have decided that as much
as I love seeing new and different places, I don’t particularly love
to travel.  I don’t love being cramped and aching in tight quarters on
long journeys.  I don’t like not being able to stand up and move
around.  Traveling by train in India is not easy, as no one ever tells
you what stop you are at, and if you have a window seat, and it is not
night, and you are on the right side of the train, you might see a
station sign, but only sometimes is there English next to the dominant
Indian language of whatever area you are passing through.  You can set
your watch by when you think you are going to arrive, but trains are
notoriously delayed, and you may or may not arrive any time close to
when you are scheduled.  You may see a conductor once in eighteen
hours, and the staff on board may or may not know any English.  If
your destination is the final destination of the train, then you will
be OK, but if it is a stop along the way, you must be vigilant.  The
train may only stop for a few minutes, and you need to be at the door
waiting to exit with your luggage, because there will certainly be
many people trying to force their way on, and you may very well end up
trapped between them and the exit as you watch the train pull away
from the station.   Sound familiar?
   The “beach” in Pondicherry is a manufactured one: a little strip
of clay-like sand that gives way to a slope of huge imported black
boulders that stand against the surging waves.  The water near the
rocks is brown, but the sea looks beautiful shades of blue and green
in the distance.  People come to stroll.  No one comes to swim.  The
French Quarter in Pondicherry consists of the nearly empty streets
near the beachfront.  Noticeably clean, these streets exude a quiet,
quaint, relaxed feel, unlike anywhere else in India.    The houses are
painted in tranquil pastels, and the walls are overrun by flowering
bougainvilleas.  The rest of the city is as chaotic, noisy, dirty, and
overstimulating as any Indian metropolis.  Street after street is
given over to streetside sales vendors, and endless bazaars.  The
French Quarter accomadation has been all booked-up our entire visit,
so we have been staying in the Indian side, at the funky Ganga Guest
House, decorated with framed vintage Tamil film posters.
One day we went on an all-day bus tour sponsored by the Puducherry
Tourism Department.  A bus tour is something that neither of us have
never done.  In the afternoon the tour took us to the intentional
community of Auroville some 9km away.  Auroville was founded by “The
Mother,” a “spiritual companion” to Sri Aurobindo, the Indian mystic.
The Mother decreed, “Auroville wants to be a universal town where men
and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive
harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The
purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.”  The tour gave us no
background, except to sit us down for a short video presentation at
the Auroville information center which explained the central
importance of the Matrimandir to Auroville.  According to The Mother,
“The Matrimandir wants to be the symbol of the Universal Mother
according to Sri Aurobindo’s teachings, and “The Matrimandir wants to
be the symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for
perfection. Union with the Divine, manifesting in a progressive human
unity.”  We were told we were only going to be allowed to see the
outside of this structure, and not the world’s largest crystal in the
chamber inside, where Aurovillians come to “concentrate.”  A short
walk through very beautiful forests, we came to the Matrimandir.  The
Mother had decreed of the Matrimandir that, “It must be a thing of
great beauty, of such beauty that when people come they will say ‘Ah,
this is it.’
   To me the Matrimandir looked like a giant smooshed golden golf
ball in a red brick portable golf hole in the middle of green lawns
bordered by swathes of red clay.  It also looks like a spaceship from
some ’60s sci-fi movie.  If I did my Indian math correctly (Indians
use lakhs and crores instead of our hundred thousands and millions.)
the Matrimandir has cost 100 million dollars so far, and is still
being constructed.  Allegedly, all of the funds for the Matrimandir’s
construction have come from donations.  For a structure that is still
being constructed, it already looks dated.  I wanted to stay and look,
but because I was impressed by its bizareness, not its beauty.  The
Golden Temple of the Sikhs kicks its ass in that regard.
   Anjali really wanted to shop at the Auroville boutiques, since
the Aurovillians make their own clothes, candles, incense, soaps,
jewelry, paper, spirulina, cashew toffee, jams, you name it.  We were
forbidden by our tour guide to shop, since he said we didn’t have
enough time, but Anjali thought that enough of our group was dawdling,
that she could sneak in some shopping.  I was anxious and kept
insisting we get back to the bus, and sure enough, when we got back to
the parking lot we discovered that the bus had left without us.  Our
tour ticket explicitly stated that if you got left behind, there was
not going to be any refund.  There were a bunch of auto rickshaws in
the parking lot earlier in the day, so we figured we could hire one to
take us back to Pondicherry.  We went back to spend more time with the
informational displays that we were rushed through before,  and to
spend some more time shopping through the boutiques, where Glen Frey
and Prince being piped in supposedly puts you in a concentrative mood.
   As the sun was getting close to setting we went out to catch an
auto rickshaw only to discover that they were all gone.  We were told
that Pondicherry was only 9km away, so I figured we could walk along
the road for a few hours, although Anjali was none too happy about
walking along a desolate road in the woods at night.
   After a while we started hearing explosions in the distance in
the direction we were walking.  As we continued walking towards the
explosions Anjali was convinced she was hearing a gun, but I was
pretty sure it was firecrackers.  Sure enough it was firecrackers.
Very loud firecrackers.  Mortar loud.  A group of firework-tossing
villagers were leading a procession of drummers and a flower-covered
float.  The men would alternate throwing fireworks that shot into the
air and exploded, and ones that were tossed into the road that
exploded on the ground with an incredible BOOM and a blinding flash of
light.  Anjali figured standing near a group of small half-naked
village children on the side of the road to watch the procession go by
would be as safe a place as any.  The Tamil Nadu harvest festival of
Pongal was being celebrated while we were in Pondicherry, so I figured
this procession must be tied into the festival.  The men with the
fireworks passed us only to toss one behind in our direction, that
exploded with such force and made such a loud sound that Anjali (who
cranks stage monitors to the maximum) thought it gave her hearing
damage.  As the drummers and the float were coming close I began
snapping photos, excited to catch such a procession, when Anjali
called out, “It’s a body!” upon seeing the flower-bedecked form in the
center of the float.  Horrified, I quickly put away the camera.  I had
no idea that I was making like a spectator at a parade when it was a
floral hearse that was going by.  I was hoping the locals would decide
not to stone me, though they seemed to take little notice as they
marched by.
   After the procession passed we continued on our long walk back to
Pondicherry in the deeping darkness.  Fortunately after several
kilometers we came to a major road, where we stood with some locals to
catch a bus to Pondi.  We didn’t have to wait more than a half hour
before we were rescued by a standing-room-only B.O.-outgassing bus
blasting a moody Tamil soundtrack that lent quite an aura to the
packed and sweaty ride back to town.  It was quite a long ride, and
I’m very glad we caught a bus, and didn’t have to walk the whole way.
   Anjali and I usually have really bad timing, and are always
arriving somewhere just after, or leaving somewhere just before, major
events, concerts, celebrations, etc.  It was actually amazing that we
were in Pondicherry for the Pongal celebrations.  The doorsteps or
streets in front of houses and businesses were done up with kolam
white sandpaint designs, or colorful rangoli scenes.  No one ever
offered us any pongal, the rice dish that is the center of the
celebrations, but we felt the generally festive mood, and learned
first hand that many in Tamil Nadu head to the coast to celebrate the
festival.  One day we did the same, and hired a taxi to a boat launch,
where you can take a boat to a strip of sand between the ocean, and a
large backwater, called Paradise Beach.  It wasn’t quite paradise, as
the Indian beachgoers have covered the beach with litter, even glass.  In addition, people coming and going to paradise apparently lose any sense of civility, as they crowd onto narrow docks waiting to load onto boats that are full of people that need room on the dock in order to disembark, and wrestling, shoving, shouting and pushing matches occur in view of small children.  This wasn’t a football match, this was middle class families spending an afternoon at the beach.
However, Paradise Beach is a nice beach, and I swam in the Bay of Bengal for the first
time.  As a general rule, Indians never learn how to swim, but people
did enjoy standing in the shallows and having the waves wash over
them.  Since I swam out into the waves I was under close scrutiny by
the lifeguard in case I should go out too far.
   The weather in Pondicherry while we were there was hot, hot, hot,
and going to the beach seemed like a great idea.  There was a freak
rainstorm the morning we left for the beach, but I assumed it would still be
a blazing hot day.  Instead it was overcast, and it actually rained on us
while we were at Paradise Beach.  Most people fled for the return
boat, but Anjali and I stuck it out under one of the thatched huts near
the beach.  When we got back to Pondicherry later that evening we were ready for dinner,
but the first place we went to said they were closed, an hour before
the listed time.  Pongal is celebrated over many days, so we assumed
they were closing early for the holiday.  We went to another place
down the street and the guard at the entrance said they were “full,”
even though we could see many empty tables in the rooftop dining area.
We finally found a place that would serve us, but they wouldn’t let
us sit in the empty downstairs, and made us go up to their rooftop
area.  Anjali soon realized she was the only woman there, and I
noticed the menu said “bar and restaurant.”  The men around us were
all drinking and eating meat, and they chortled when we ordered our
fresh lime sodas.  The waiter emphasized that the paneer tikka we
ordered was “veg,” as if we were making some mistake. We had a very
tense meal, surrounded by increasingly rowdy drinkers, and the
waitstaff seemed happy to get us out of there.  When we went
downstairs the security guard pulled up the rolled-down metal door to
let us out, as if we were leaving a speakeasy.  The streets were
strangely empty and shut down for the hour, and we had an eerie walk
home, not sure what all of this had to do with the Pongal
Next:  On to Chennai, and then Mumbai.
Take care all,

Leave a Comment