You can always judge a city by its road signs. Well, no you can’t but they do indicate priorities. There’s the rather stark advisory I saw in Madurai: WEAR A HELMET, AVOID DEATH, which was at least intermittently observed and the laughably ineffectual NO HORN ZONE, in several cities throughout India. In Puducherry, there’s a large red and white billboard at the north end of Goubert Salai: PUDUCHERRY ISN’T THE SAME WHEN YOU LITTER. This doesn’t exactly forbid it – in fact, it may prompt some staunch nationalist to add a garnish of pop cans, wet newspaper, dirty linens and the more unspeakable stuff. No, it isn’t the same when you litter. Too sterile by half. Downright Un-Indian in its way.
India had its own Macao, its own Hong Kong. Or more accurately the French did. While Britain was shedding its colonies after the Second World War, Puducherry or Pondicherry or ‘Pondi’ remained a French possession until 1954. The multitude of names can be confusing but it follows a historical pattern. It began as Poduke in Roman times, and the French, British and Portuguese among others, have had their hands on it. The current city plan is the work of Joseph Dupleix, the French official who became governor is 1742 and divided the city into east and west, split by the central canal. The more fashionable end was the eastern Ville Blanche, facing the sea.
The first impression of Pondi disappoints – this is the conventional line for those expecting some kind of sub-continental Left Bank or Rue de la Paix. This however is common in India, which would be bereft of tourists if it relied on first impressions, so in that sense it’s of a piece with the rest of the country. The Gallic mark is still here. Many road signs remain French while others stamp the street name in three languages (English and Tamil the other two). It achieves something rare among India’s port cities, a level of charm, and it remains a popular destination. What Pondi doesn’t have is a lot of ‘sights,’ at least nothing that screams, “Well you just haven’t seen India if you haven’t seen…” but you may be glad of that, for it explains the town’s laid back ambiance.
All things being relative – outside the French enclave and closer to the bus station and ‘Ville Noire’ is the honking chaos one comes to know and love – but even there the Indian trifecta of crowds, cacophony and cows is less than usual.
Back in the French Quarter (it seems larger somehow – a French third at least), is the lovely park called Bharathi, beautifully landscaped with an eye-catching giant conch shell for the kids to clamber about; and the pretty pastel Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception church on Mission Road. Of historic interest, inland a few blocks from the promenade’s north end is the Aurobindo Ashram, worth seeing as a useful reminder that the Indian drive for independence featured others beside the Mahatma. In this case it commemorates Sri Aurobindo Ghose, who was fighting the good fight in Bengal but finally retreated here for safety.
Eventually though, everyone heads to the sea. In late afternoon, most traffic is restricted on Goubert Salai, the former ‘Beach Road’ that runs alongside the promenade. ‘Beach’ was a misnomer in any case. The waves crash against big stone blocks but I wondered if this rock fortification was a recent development. There was considerable damage in 2004 when the tsunami hit Pondi, but the town I was visiting now looked none the worse for it, remarkable considering its flatness.