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.

Healing the past and forging the future through Mahatma Gandhi – my visit to Madurai, Tamil Nadu

In Madurai I faced the past and saw the path to a better future through India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi

I got my first post-colonial telling-off in Madurai, the capital of Tamil Nadu in South India. Freshly arrived from a gruelling 14 hour train journey from Varkala – Kerala’s main beach town, I had headed straight out to visit the city’s main attraction – the Meenakshi Amman temple. Having negotiated the usual wide eyed staring and giggling on the bus, dodged the canny street sellers at the station and had a delicious lunch at the famous Murugan Idli shop, I was feeling confident, comfortable and relaxed.

This perhaps showed, and was not – I found out – entirely welcome. Not long after entering the pedestrianised temple area I realised I was being followed by a middle aged man that was visibly drunk. Unusually for India, he was not the first I had noticed since arriving in the city – with a few gently swaying men lining the streets near the idli shop including one that stared inexplicably at my flat and well covered chest as I passed.

This man, however, was more persistent and began trailing me despite my trying to shake him by browsing at one of Madurai’s many fine sari shops. In a second attempt at evasive manoeuvres I stopped again at a stall and started chatting to a woman selling devotional sandalwood powder. It soon became evident, though, that he wasn’t going anywhere. I asked the woman for help: “Please – I think this man is following me.” Stepping up from behind me, the man responded:

“I am not following you. You are following me. This is my India. I am intelligent man, I am respectful. This is my India.”

The tirade continued in broken English for a minute or two as he swayed unsteadily, and I can’t recall everything he said. However it followed the same line and I felt, quite clearly, that I was being reminded in no uncertain terms that the sun has fully set on the British Empire and it’s barbarous rule over India.

He moved off and the woman at the stall communicated to me through hand gestures and a gentle pat on the arm not to take any notice – that he was just drunk, while a friendly nearby book seller invited me to take refuge at his stall until the man had definitely disappeared.

While my confidence was a little dented I wasn’t too shaken by the incident and I don’t want this to read as an indictment of Madurai or its inhabitants. This is a single occurrence in two long visits to India otherwise marked by a warm and friendly reception from everyone I have met.

Indeed, I am amazed that this is only the first time I have been reminded of my country’s terrible occupation of India. I felt I knew enough of our colonial atrocities, however visiting the Gandhi Memorial Museum in the north of the city the following day made the horrors of British rule all the more vivid. The museum, which houses the blood stained lungi the Mahatma was wearing when he was assassinated, lays out the history of the Raj from the first dealings of the East India Trading Company under Elizabeth I to final independence in 1948, and is a deeply moving tribute to one of the world’s most remarkable freedom fighters.

Gandhi’s philosophy and vision, encapsulated in his 11 principles that include non-violence, truth, non-possession, fearlessness, equality of all religions and peoples (the latter centred around the removal of untouchability in the Indian caste system) are the benchmark to which humanity should aspire but which no nation – not Britain nor India – has yet lived up to. His message around sustainable and measured consumption – in which he advocated buying locally produced goods and only as much as is needed – is one we are only coming to realise the importance of today as the excesses of rampant consumerism are ravaging our environment – turning our rivers and oceans into toxic plastic-filled cesspools. Here in India this is heartbreakingly evident on almost every festering street corner and open water source – the smell of which is often harder to bear than the sight – as well as the sunless smoggy skies of its major cities.

Politically the globe is also polarising at a rate not seen for eighty years since fascism took hold in Europe and tore the world apart (during which – in his magnanimity – Ghandi supported the British). Virulent hatred of the other is on the rise again – Americans vs. Mexicans/China/Korea/Iran; the UK vs. Europe; France, Austria and others vs. Muslims and refugees; while atrocities against indigenous peoples and civil wars rage in Myanmar, Syria, Ukraine and central Africa.

And so it is a gross understatement to say that almost every nation on the planet has a lot of work to do in realising the sort of world that Gandhi imagined. In this task it is essential that the past be remembered and honoured – and I for one have no problem with being reminded of and humbled by the role my ancestors played in the enslavement and misery of millions. Most important, though, it must be learnt from as every one of us strives to build a new, better future for all people.

Plastic pollution: cropped out of sight, but not out of mind

Tourists and travellers don’t talk about – and certainly never take pictures of – the heartbreaking pollution that exists in the developing world. But we need to.

The one thing that absolutely no tourist or traveller talks about – and certainly never takes pictures of – is the heartbreaking level of pollution that exists in the developing world. So keen are we to boast to our friends and family of the exponential, life changing experiences we are having in magical, spiritual that we crop out – both consciously and unconsciously – the tragic filth we see around us every day.

For six months I lived in Ho Chi Minh, in an area called Binh Thanh, which is largely populated by older local people and young, white expats like me looking for the ‘authentic’ Vietnamese life. In Binh Thanh authenticity looks like this: great food that costs nothing but that is guaranteed to give you gastroenteritis roughly every three weeks; many, many rats, cockroaches and – if you’re lucky – huntsman spiders the size of your father’s outstretched hand that will keep you safe from both, at least inside of your house. And the arse-end of the Saigon River.

“Plastic bags inside plastic bags, bubble tea straws the size of copper pipes, it all finds it way into Saigon River”

Those that have only ever stayed in district 1 – the central business and tourist district of HCMC – will know the Saigon River as a fairly benign feature of the city – generally lazy and abundantly populated by water chestnuts floating up from the Mekong. Anyone in Binh Thanh, however, will know it as a stinking, belching, tar pit of refuse that gives off the most appalling stench that even a two minute crossing is a life changing experience. And why the difference? The authorities – in their wisdom – put nets up at either end of the part that flows through district 1 to keep the pollution in the poorer districts.

The Saigon River, as seen from Chinatown
The Saigon River, as seen from Chinatown

In Binh Thanh, the whole waterway is now almost entirely artificial. So obsessive are the Vietnamese about plastic bags, cups and straws that new river banks are created by the hour. Plastic bags inside plastic bags, bubble tea straws the size of copper pipes that funnel 20g of sugar a pop that is fast making children obese and diabetic – it all finds it way into Saigon River. It is heartbreaking to see an old woman rowing through carrier bags, straws, sewage and used nappies to reach her riverside house – now less than a rubbish tip.

On a visit to Cat Ba island in the north of the country I visited a number of beaches – every single one was awash with plastic rubbish. It comes from both holidaymakers and the distant floating villages, where fisherman thoughtlessly toss plastic wrappers into the ocean – ultimately poisoning the fish that are their livelihood, as well as those that eat them. On one beach I met a group of young local boys and a Sicilian backpacker that were swimming out to fill bags with rubbish. The latter told me he had been collecting for just an hour and had filled four large white straw sacks around a metre high and half a metre wide.

“In Delhi and Mumbai you truly cannot see the sky for the greasy smog”

Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh and the south especially – is blessed by a geographical position that means the air pollution that comes from the astonishing number of motorbikes on the road (in both HCMC and Hanoi there are two motorbikes for every citizen) doesn’t linger. This is not so in Delhi and Mumbai where you – quite literally – cannot see the sky for the heavy, grey smog that makes an already oppressive heat quite unbearable – particularly in the latter city. This inescapable evidence of environmental degradation makes it all the more frustrating to see the arsenal of plastic rubbish that carpets India’s most ancient monuments, such as Elephanta Island – a UNESCO world heritage site covered in empty water bottles.

Elephanta Island, Mumbai
Elephanta Island, Mumbai. A UNESCO world heritage site.

As a privileged white European, my experience in the developing world was the first time I have been faced by pollution of any meaningful quantity. Over the last 40 years Europe and the West has outsourced its manufacturing and by extension, our pollution and industrial waste to these regions. Many also labour under corrupt governments that do not build the infrastructure that can solve waste challenges as long as they are being incentivised by Western companies like Nestle and Coca-Cola not to do so. If Vietnamese and Indians could drink their tap water, their plastic waste problem would be halved overnight.

Since returning home it seems that we in Europe are waking up – excellent campaigns by Sky News and latterly Blue Planet are highlighting the irreversible damage we are doing to our oceans through our addiction to plastic. I have seen how disturbingly easy it is for us to sit back in our – truly – green and pleasant European lands and simply not see. And tourists that choose to crop out pollution from their holiday snaps do not help. During my whole year travelling and living in the developing world I took less than five photos of the terrible pollution I saw. I have published them here. And I call on all travellers to do the same.

“It’s time to acknowledge the rubbish – and to do something about it”

Meanwhile, I have made a firm pledge to change my own behaviour: I will not buy a single disposable water bottle or coffee cup again. I carry both a water bottle and travel mug with me at all times. I am also reducing waste – and saving money – by taking my own lunches to work and I will not use a plastic bag unless there is absolutely no choice. It’s time to open our eyes – to see and to acknowledge the rubbish – and to do something about it.

Mumbai weather forecast
Mumbai weather forecast