“You will be going to Pondicherry, won’t you?” said all my French friends. Of course I did – but I was a little disappointed. I’m not sure what I expected, other than an ambience of past French colonial glory.
My first (late evening) impression of Pondicherry was of the usual hectic, noisy Indian city. If anything the streets seemed more chaotic than usual, with impenetrable lines of motor cycles parked on either side (though perhaps this was partly due to the Pongal festival). The view from my hotel room was also lacking in gallic elegance.
Was this really the grand capital of the former French territories in India, established in the 17th century by the French East India Company? My walks over the next couple of days did indeed reveal streets which seemed faintly reminiscent of a quartier in a Midi city such as Montpellier. I caught glimpses of the occasional imposing mansion, and the buildings round Government Square were an impressive gleaming white, facing well-kept (locked) gardens.
But the boulevards looked a little sad, particularly when they overlooked a smelly, dried up canal, and the seafront was distinctly shabby. I spotted the odd sign in French, a policeman wearing a colonial kepi, a handsome Institut Francais, some splendid French/Indian/Catholic churches, and came across three old French-Indian ladies conversing in French. But that apart, where was the continuing French influence? I got the impression that nobody spoke French; this was definitely an Indian city, just as Chennai no longer cries out that it is a former British colonial capital.
Having said that, there is no doubt that strolling around the former French boulevards is more relaxing than walks in other Indian cities, and there was an above average number of cafes serving delicious coffee and cakes (not to mention an excellent restaurant where we returned each night to enjoy delicious fish dishes on the rooftop).
A very different memory was our visit to Auroville, the utopian town just outside Pondicherry. It was founded in the sixties by The Mother, disciple of Aurobindo Ghose, a Bengali philosopher and mystic who sought refuge in Pondicherry to avoid arrest by the British. Auroville is intended to be an international commune embracing all nationalities, castes and religions. It sounds quite exciting, but tourist visitors only get to see the Matri Mandir, the meditation centre in the heart of the settlement, which looks like something which has landed from Mars. For a sceptic like me, the focus on mystical and spiritual issues distracts from the admirable experiment in new ways of living.