Pondicherry on the cake: the French colonial grandeur of Puducherry, India

Pondicherry is a place of beauty, grace and tranquility that feels out of time, both eerie and deeply seductive

My last post not withstanding, Pondicherry (or Puducherry) is a wonderous place.

I arrived in town around mid afternoon, fresh from the 7am train from Madurai (one of the dirtiest and least friendly places I have ever visited) that was followed by a hair raising bus ride from Villupuram (most trains go here rather than Puducherry Station), where even the locals looked concerned and during which one woman berated the driver for a good ten minutes on his homicidal driving.

Thus, it must be admitted that the bar was set quite low for Pondicherry, or ‘Pondy’ as the locals lovingly refer to it. However, stepping into the heritage part of the city (“white town”, would you believe) I soon began to feel like Alice in Wonderland, or a visitor to the twilight zone.

The first curiosity was the almost complete absence of trash on the streets – far from the putrid piles of stinking plastic waste that adorn every other spare inch of India, the streets of Pondicherry barely sported a scrap of litter. This was enforced/encouraged by many signs extolling the virtues of not littering such as “Pondy won’t be the same if you litter” and – my personal favourite – “Beauty is our city, preserving it is our duty”. I was – and remain – stunned.

Second were the buildings; while I was aware the French had colonised Pondy, I didn’t expect that to mean much today – an assumption I perhaps based on Mumbai, which feels fully Indian despite a few grand old English buildings. However, what I found in Pondy were streets of pristine or gently fading eighteenth and nineteenth century French houses, schools, government buildings and churches; their gleaming white plaster columns supporting balconies decked in highly varnished mahogany and dripping in verdant vines and their walls painted joyful summer shades of egg yolk, rose and azure blue.

Moreover, these beautiful buildings were set into extraordinarily green and leafy boulevards, most of which led to the central Bharathi Park that is encased within ornate wrought iron gates and which itself is a magical green space bursting with fragrant foliage that provides shade for gently dozing tuk-tuk drivers and India’s ever tormented canines. At the centre of the park is a white marble monument so pristine it seemed to be radiating light for ten metres around – a gift, I later discovered, from Emperor Napoleon III commemorating the charitable endeavours of a notorious “harlot” of Hindu legend.

Exiting the park I then found myself facing Pondicherry’s sparkling seafront, the centre of which is marked by a glorious ten foot black marble statue of the Mahatma that – again – is remarkably pristine. The shoreline is equally spotless and was filled with Indian families basking in the late afternoon sun. Walking along the main beach road I also found a monumental garden dedicated to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the law maker responsible for drafting India’s first constitution, at the back of which is an excellent free library that anyone can enter and peruse to learn more about the thoughts and policies of modern India’s most influential politicians and law makers. Later in the evening I discovered that the entire seafront is pedestrianised after 6pm to allow for completely safe evening promenading.

Perhaps most exciting for Westerner backpackers spent on veg curry and chappati, though, are the many, MANY wonderful French cafes and eateries that Pondy has to offer. There are far too many to list, but I would highly recommend Hot Breads and Baker Street for some of the best patisserie I have EVER eaten and the Art Cafe and Artika for a late afternoon coffee. Prices are high by Indian standards but for a two day blowout – it’s just the ticket. Restaurants range from the extravagant rooftop garden Rendevous to slightly lower key L’espace, the latter of which I enjoyed a beautifully cooked and seasoned poisson du jour avec pommes frites for 300 rupees, or £3.30. I didn’t try Rendevous due to prices touching the 900 rupee mark (which of course is still incredibly cheap by European standards), but which I am reliably informed boasts succulent steaks and an excellent wine list.

Finally – the shopping. As most who know me know, I generally hate shopping, especially when bargaining is involved. However, Pondy’s many handmade silver shops convinced me to part with some cash, as did a one-off craft market by the seafront and the extraordinarily modern and fresh boutique Ma Pondy Cherie, where I picked up a t-shirt from Mumbai based street fashion designer Jas Charanjiva, showing an Indian woman in traditional dress but flourishing a full-finger golden knuckle duster engraved with ‘BOOM.’

In terms of traditional Indian life, Pondy has little to offer – this is firmly an enclave for the wealthy and, more than in other Indian towns, white foreigners. I have not seen so many fashionable Europeans and glowing alabaster children idly cycling through leafy parks since Paris. There is also something a little sinister in the town’s order and cleanliness – something I have read is made possible by the fabulous wealth the Sri Aurobindo ashram generates from the thousands of spiritual seekers that visit every year from the West. As such the institution owns most of the real estate in the the town, and – I believe – is behind the strictly enforced clean street policy. Thus, while one cannot deny Pondicherry’s grace, beauty and elegance, I was left questioning exactly who gets to enjoy its peace and tranquility on a residential basis and at what cost. Nonetheless Pondicherry is a joy to visit, and a welcome respite from the glorious – but trying – chaos of mainland India.

How to walk in Trivandrum, Kerala

Trivandrum, or Thiruvananthapuram (most prefer the former), is not a typical tourist destination. There is little to recommend it in terms of sightseeing – it’s chief destinations being the softly fading palace of the former Thirunal royal family and a few crumbling museums near the somewhat depressing zoo in its one public park. Though the grounds at the latter are, admittedly, lush.

Like most of India, the city is noisy, dusty and overflowing with rubbish. The pecking order on the roads goes from truck to bus to car to tuk-tuk to motorbike to cyclist to pedestrian – the latter, I imagine, thought to deserve death for their stupidity. For those brave enough to try though, a walk through any part of this city is well worth it.

During the ten days I found myself an almost daily visitor to Kerala’s capital and it’s fine hospital (more on that later), I was a happy ambler; the trick, I soon realised, being to hold my nose past the particularly large or smoking rubbish piles and any open water, and to start out early.

Being in the south of the country, the Trivandrum heat is intense, particularly around March time, when I visited. To battle it, you need early exposure – be up and moving in it from 8am then come midday when it’s full weight bears down, you are adjusted. Hide out in an air conditioned room until then and you’re done for. You will pour with sweat all day. Not that you won’t pour anyway, just less profusely.

On my final day in town I took a left out of the hospital gates toward the East Fort. Passing a cage of sweltering puppies that had been a daily heartbreak for me, I found myself on what I discovered later was the bazaar road. I was on the hunt for a nail cleaning brush and struggling – while you can find an Ayurvedic cure for everything from headaches to herpes in India, a scrubbing brush and antibacterial soap are often harder to come by.

On the journey I stopped at a tea shop for a lemon soda and met Atil. Like almost every Keralan I have spoken to Atil had very good English. He introduced me to the local beautician – Ripi – who Atil frequently reminded me was from the north. While we discussed what could be done to improve my looks, a wealthy Delhi family stopped to buy some water and snacks. Chat stopped for a moment while the family – outfitted in Western style shorts, jeans and T-Shirts – were served. As they left Atil seemed to warmly thank the tuk-tuk driver for corralling the rich herd to him and after they were gone he and Ripi argued over whether southern or northern Indian women are more beautiful.

Later I got chatting to a trader in a spice shop that reluctantly sold me a bag of ‘second quality’ almonds for 200 rupees (rather than the more expensive ‘first quality’) but who liked me enough to change a 2,000 rupee note as payment.

‘You from where?’

‘England’ (if English, you say England in most of Asia – the UK draws a blank, or is mistaken for Ukraine).

‘Oh, very nice. I have sister nurse in London’

‘Oh great! You know which hospital?’

‘No, no…. Selfie?!’ *pulls out phone

The latter is the ultimate result of most conversations or interactions in India and while awkward at first, you get used it. I’m also fairly sure it’s a significantly warmer reception than the first Indian visitors received in the UK.

Indeed, every day of wandering the streets of Trivandrum I found people that genuinely wanted to talk to me, even in the absence of a cash transaction. Many were concerned for my health – the big bandage on my face making me an even more alien presence – while others, especially hoteliers and my nurses, were keen to ensure I had eaten and always enquired exactly what that meal had consisted of (thin women are rare in South India). I felt genuine warmth from almost every person I spoke to in this city and indeed, almost every person I walked past; a smile always returned with an even bigger one (rather than the suspicious scowls offered by many in countries and cities that shall remain nameless, England, London).

The city also boasts two of the best eateries I have found in India: a Swiss cafe named Kaffeehaus and an organic health food restaurant named Pathayam. The former I spent a very happy birthday in over a chicken salad and warm chocolate brownie for dessert and the latter I recovered in via a green pea curry with steamed rice, carrot and beetroot cakes for breakfast and a ‘special’ salad of all things natural and delectable for dinner. Both were a blissful luxury in the dust and heat.

And so Trivandrum’s strengths lie not – like Delhi – in its historic forts and monuments, or – like Mumbai – in its parks, beaches and arts scene – but in its people and in its interesting dining options. I look forward to visiting again.