Pondicherry: Oui, Tamil teriyum!

All my life, I have lived in a city that speaks a hundred different tongues. As a resident of Mumbai city in the Marathi-speaking state of Maharashtra, I have occasionally wondered what it must feel like to be a native; to be able to converse with everyone from the bus conductor to the stranger on the street in the tongue that’s closest to your heart. Granted, English is the language I am most proficient in. It is my language of choice when it comes to practically any kind of communication. Yet, my mother tongue Tamil asserts itself in my sleep-numbed thoughts and heart-to-heart conversations with family and self. Never having spoken Tamil outside my home, I was very skeptical about being any different from my north-Indian friends when we embarked on our holiday to the Tamil-speaking territory of Pondicherry (a.k.a. Puducherry).
I couldn’t have been further off the mark. Right from the tiny by-lanes of Pondicherryto the organised highways of Chennai, I had to call upon the dustiest corners of my memory to dredge up the correct Tamil phrases and words. By the end of those five days, I was pleasantly disillusioned about my lack of proficiency in the language. I also realised that the inhibitions that prevent us from conversing in languages we don’t have complete command over, disappear in the face of necessity. I am now confident that I can survive in the interiors of Maharashtra on my rudimentary knowledge of Marathi.
This story spans three different towns along the East Coast Road in Tamil Nadu and stars two of my best friends and one of their boyfriends, along with myself. Like most other tourists who take this route, we explored Pondicherry, Mamallapuram (erstwhile Mahabalipuram) and Chennai over the course of five days. If I had to pick one memorable snapshot from each of these cities, it would be the video documentary I shot from my pillion seat in the French-inspired lanes of Heritage Town in Pondicherry, the quest for the elusive Krishna’s butterball in Mamallapuram and the life-size shark and animated dinosaur we witnessed at Egmore Museum in Chennai. If culture and culinary delights were the highlights of Pondicherry, Mamallapuram teemed with glowing relics of history and architecture while Chennai had it all, being a bustling metropolitan city.
While waiting outside Chennai airport, we encountered an Iranian woman and her companion. Even in that suffocating heat, she seemed completely unruffled, as though touched by a private zephyr. Her pious face as she held up her Hebrew prayer book to the sun stayed with me when we walked around Heritage Town and rode down the highway to Paradise Beach. Isabelle and her companion were planning to brave the heat of Rajasthan, drawn as they were by its famed beauty. We bid them goodbye, even as they partook of a strange repast of boiled eggs and potatoes.
In any travelling group, each member gradually assumes a particular role without really intending to. In our group of four too, we had a couple of leaders (me and my friend’s boyfriend), a planner and a follower. Since I usually take the backseat when in a group, being in charge was a pleasant surprise, though I didn’t really have a choice, as the only Tamilian in the group with an added knowledge of French language and ethos. Getting to our homestay in Pondicherry from Chennai airport involved one cab ride, bus ride and rickshaw ride. This triad of Indian public transport was successfully completed on the whole, though we had a crazy time finding a bus at the chaotic Palantigattu bus stop. Koyambedu might have been the better option but we’ll never know.
I have encountered several foreign tongues in my life. Yet, none of them have captured my heart as thoroughly as French. Something about the throaty ‘r’s and the mellifluous ‘eu’s, combined with the predominance of art and finesse in Parisian culture drew me to the language, the people and the country itself right since my school days. I was understandably excited about visiting a land where French is one of the official languages. Pondicherry did not disappoint with its winding rues (French for roads), white-washed colonnades and charming French cafes. The city owes its French legacy to their colonialisation from 1674 to 1962.
While familiarity with the language is not imperative, it does help when choosing from the pain au chocolats and the poissons au vins! At Le Café on Beach Road, we breakfasted on croissants and coffee while waving at fishing boats in the distance and laughing with the sun warming our faces and our lemonades. We posed against the walls emblazoned with the colours of the Bonjour India cultural festival that happens every year. We walked on Beach Road in the late evening and sat by the water with our legs dangling in the air and passing strollers casting their fleeting shadows on us. I was strangely reminded of the Marine Drive promenade in Mumbai as here too, the crowds refused to budge until midnight. The rest of Pondicherry is not exactly safe post eleven but the areas surrounding Beach Road and French Colony definitely are. Of the myriad thoughts that floated through my mind while we sat by the water, one makes me smile to this day. I was suddenly and beautifully aware of how happy I was, in the company of people who mattered, even if I didn’t utter a single word, content to listen to their pleased sighs and share in their blissful smiles.
We stayed at a rustic homestay called Serenity which was a stone’s throw away from the tiny but beautiful Serenity Beach. One tired evening, we skipped across the long rocky crag to sit right by the sea and allowed the salty waves to nudge the weariness out of our spirits. When dry and sun-scorched, the rocks are perfectly safe save a wobbly one or two. But in the late evening, awash by the high tide, they grow a tad slippery but that only added to my sense of adventure! And I found adventure aplenty in the course of the following days. Every night, we vowed to be up before the crack of dawn and explore the beach in the mystical morning air. And I was always up but somehow, I never made it to the beach until the very last day in Puducherry when K and I sauntered down to the seaside and sat in companionable silence on one of the upturned fishing boats. The toasty sun warmed our skin while we watched families, children, men and women stroll by, dressed in light cotton clothes and seemingly oblivious to the heat. Glossy coffee-coloured skins and lush black hair offset by light-hearted smiles and a peaceful co-existence with the sun, with no place for sunglasses or sunscreen – that’s the picture I have of native Tamilians in Pondicherry.
Drama waltzed into our sojourn in the form of two innocuous Activa scooters that we rented for the purpose of getting around Pondicherry. My friend K’s boyfriend J was a proficient rider while my friend W had learnt to ride a mere month ago. K and I rode pillion. W was beyond nervous about riding in the congested streets of Pondicherry, with a pillion rider to boot. She quipped that it was a good thing I was light, else the chances of me being toppled over at a tricky turning might have rocketed! Dependent as we were on J’s superior sense of direction, W and I had a merry time keeping him and K in sight while we navigated through trucks that had no regard for signals and pedestrians who seemed ready to risk their lives on precarious crossings! The icing on the cake was when J’s scooter broke down in the middle of the highway at eight in the night. We had to call the man who had lent us the scooters (Ganesh) and explain our location without being entirely sure of where we were! Finally, we roped in a helpful local who shot off landmarks in a jiffy and handed back the phone to J with a grin. Waiting on that godforsaken spot on the highway for over half an hour in the night with no means of transport was a nail-biting experience indeed.
W and I had an adventure of our own while returning from Paradise Beach, on that very same highway on the succeeding day. Paradise Beach is the best-known beach in Pondicherry. Yet, it was only sparsely crowded on a Sunday evening, which meant that we could explore the aquamarine sea with that much more abandon. As I’m wont to do, I hunted for shells and souvenirs on the beach, my toes tightening their grip on the soft sand. The water rushed up to meet the rims of our shorts and we giggled in delight. K and J drifted off for a romantic walk along the sea while W and I waded in, wanting to flirt with the waves but not entirely make love to them. We weren’t in swimming trunks after all, and alas, I don’t swim too well. We walked the entire length of Paradise Beach and eventually came upon Chenambar Lake, an alternative way of getting to the beach. The lakeside was peaceful and thicketed with palm trees, which formed a lovely canopy for a café which had unfortunately shut by the time we got there. We were so famished that we might have imagined plates piled with lip-smacking food on the tables like desert travellers seeing wondrous mirages of water-filled oases!
It was quite late by the time we rode back from Paradise Beach in search of dinner fit for weary souls who had rode continuously from morning to night. Somewhere on the highway, W and I lost sight of K and J. To add to the stress, three men on a bike began hooting and whistling at us, their hands reaching out alarmingly. Already a little unsteady on the scooter, we were quite panicked at the thought of pulling smart moves to shake those men off. They followed us until we entered the main city and left the highway behind. Then, mercifully they sped away and we were spared the effort of looking for a cop. That was however the only brush we had with eve-teasing in our entire trip. If you’re a woman travelling alone, try not to venture on the highways beyond eight in the night, if you’re on a scooter or a bike.
Pondicherry is a magnet for spiritual seekers thanks to the experimental township of Auroville. This eco-friendly, self-sustaining community was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa, who is referred to as ‘The Mother’ among Aurovillans. The township was a maze of institutes, museums, cultural centers and retreats and a complete exploration would have involved an entire trip devoted to Auroville. We had but a single day and we decided to spend it in the discovery of Auroville’s most stunning architectural masterpiece – ‘The Matrimandir’. We walked through wilderness in that unyielding sun for what seemed like hours to get to this unreligious temple. What kept us going were the scores of other curious tourists plodding alongside us and the strategically located drinking water spots. We sat in the shade of a gigantic banyan, sipping on the cool water like it was the very elixir of life, our tired faces covered with the sheen of perspiration. And then in the distance, we spotted this beautiful golden globe, blazing in the sun and casting its halo on the four surrounding pillars. Known as the soul of Auroville, the Matrimandir was conceived by The Mother as ‘a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s inspiration for perfection’. Perfection in my opinion, is merely a play of perception. What is to say that something cannot be made still better? The possibilities are limitless and it is only our perception that dictates limits and makes the very idea of ‘perfection’ possible. Yet, the Matrimandir in all its golden peace and splendour seemed to mesmerise us all, even as we gazed helplessly from afar. Going within requires a prior appointment and we did not have the time for that. But when I return, I hope to visit the meditation hall in its inner chamber which is told to contain the largest optically-perfect glass globe in the world.
While returning from Auroville, we encountered a heartwarming act of kindness is our quest for a late lunch. At four in the evening, none of the restaurants were open but when they saw our hungry plight, one restaurant owner and his wife offered to rustle up some pasta for us! Though greatly touched, we eventually ended up having sandwiches and divine banana shakes and ‘cold coffee extreme’ at Koffee Bar, manned by a single man and his mother. The speed with which he prepared our order made us suspicious about the taste but we were pleasantly proven wrong. Running a café is common business in Auroville and they are all refreshingly informal. However, there are specific timings for meals and very few of them run round-the-clock.
But the most memorable part of Pondicherry for me was the ride along the lovely cobble-stoned streets of French Colony, a preferred haunt for Indian and French artists. Tiny little buildings in vibrant colours complimented the varied colouring of both locals and tourists strolling around leisurely. Sitting pillion on the scooter, I filmed the pink houses, the glorious Notre Dame des Anges church, the evocative graffiti on the walls and the Café des Artistes portico, complete with enthused narration and laughter. Street names like Labourdonnais and Suffren had me smiling in delight and restaurant names like La Maison Rose even more so. We hunted high and low for a restaurant K said she had read rave reviews about – La Tasserie. But alas, it seemed that it no longer existed or it had been renamed and we settled for the similar-sounding La Terrasse. In the mellow lighting, out differences over losing sight of each other on the highway seemed inconsequential and we succumbed to the delights of the palate.
The night before we left for Mamallapuram, we bonded over generous glasses of rum and vodka, the bliss only marred by a bizarre phone call from Ganesh who claimed that we had damaged the Activas before returning them to him. Yes, it seemed that the scooters weren’t done with us yet. But J kept his cool and turned a deaf ear to all of Ganesh’s rants. Whether he really thought there was something wrong with the scooters or he was merely taking us for a ride, we will never know. Nevertheless, we headed for the bus stop the next morning and as was our ritual, K and W waited with the luggage while J and I went searching for a suitable bus. Nearly all the buses from Pondicherry to Chennai pass through Mamallapuram, so we found one without much difficulty. The ride was pleasant and we watched young men relinquish their seats en route to let older men and women rest their tired limbs. Google Maps enabled us to get off at the right stop without even having to bother the bus conductor.
The ancient town of Mahabalipuram has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And in the span of just two hours, we saw why. The moment we got off the bus, we were accosted by several rickshaw walas. One of them spoke perfect English and told us that he would charge 400 rupees for two hours, in total. He (Raja) promised to show us all the five great monuments of Mahabalipuram in that time-frame. It seemed like a good deal and we hopped on. In case you’re wondering how the four of us fit into one tiny rickshaw, K had to sit on J’s lap. Our first stop was the renowned Shore Temple, the only surviving one of the seven Pagodas that once graced Mamallapuram’s shores. Several shrines nestled deep within the cool, silent alcoves of this gigantic stone temple, dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu among other Hindu Gods. The beach surrounding this temple is a popular picnic spot but we kept away, since we had only twenty minutes before we had to head to the next monument. Raja had given us these strict deadlines because the monuments were open for public viewing only until six in the evening and it was already four when we started out.
Feeling rather like we were running a travel marathon, we hurried back to the rickshaw and crammed in once again. Our next stop was just around the corner, where we beheld the monolithic ‘Pancha Rathas’ (five chariots). The rathas are named after the Pandava brothers and Draupadi. But wait, aren’t there five Pandava brothers already? The mystery was solved when I realised that the twins Nakula and Sahadeva shared one ratha between them. If you think that’s injustice, you should take a look at Draupadi’s ratha, a mere hutment in comparison to the majestic Pandava rathas. But if studies are to be believed, these names are misnomers and the rathashave nothing to do with the aforementioned characters from the Mahabharata. I regret that I couldn’t read the inscriptions at the monuments in more detail, hungry as I was for details.
We then moved to Varaha Cave Temple and the Mahabalipuram Lighthouse. The five monuments are all located very close to each other and two hours actually proved to be enough time to see them all. Unlike the Shore Temple, the Varaha Temple is a rock-cut cave temple, bearing eloquent carvings and sculptures. The light reflected magically within the entrance of the Varsha Mandapa and it was all we could do to lay our cameras down and feast our eyes instead. We then had to climb a long flight of rock-hewn steps to reach the lighthouse but the panoramic bird’s-eye view of the city we were granted made it seem like a very short ascent indeed. Time did not permit us to climb to the top of the lighthouse and I envied the circling birds who had reached its pinnacle in a matter of moments.
We were nearly at the end of our two-hour whirlwind tour but one monument still eluded us – Krishna’s butterball. The name was so enticing that I was loath to leave Mamallapuram without finding it. And then when we had nearly made it out of the gates to Raja and his waiting rickshaw, we saw it. Against the descending sun lay a gigantic circular rock balanced precariously on a slope. A signboard pointing towards to it confirmed that it was indeed Krishna’s butterball. Not much to look at besides the fact that it was wonderfully balanced, we turned our attention instead to the kids who were using the slope to play slide. Several of our attempts at photography were also foiled by a man who refused to budge from his shaded spot beneath the butterball.
The best part of this whirlwind visit was that we didn’t have to wait for a ticket at every monument. One ticket costing a mere fifteen rupees allows one entry to any of the five monuments and also several others in the country. Famished after so much of non-stop walking and climbing, we settled for a late evening meal at the Moonrakers restaurant, famous for its freshly prepared seafood. We ordered two kinds of fishes – masalafish as a starter and fish curry and rice as a main course. The fish curry varied greatly from the kind served in Kerala. The thick coconut gravy had been swapped for something resembling the Tamil staple of sambhar. The masala fish was spicy and perfectly done. We had our fill of both dishes and left the restaurant, well rejuvenated and ready for the journey that lay ahead.
If you have ever been to Chennai, you know how the auto rickshaws ply. Fares begin at fifty and are thereafter offered in multiples of the same. Rickshaws running by meter are practically non-existent and while a little bargaining in Tamil might bring down the fare by ten rupees or so, it will still create a steep dent in your pocket. With this in mind, we stuck to buses for most of our time in Chennai and I found them to be rather well-serviced and frequent, comparable to Mumbai’s public transport. We had already made our reservations at a hotel close to the airport. However, the bus dropped us at Thiruvanmiyur, a busy junction with a large bus-depot from where we caught another bus to Pallavaram, the nearest stop to our hotel. I felt quite at home, conversing with the bus conductors in Tamil. Chennai reminded me of Mumbai tremendously with its large roads, motley nature of residents and ample crowds even in the night-time. However, the difference in pace was palpable. Where Mumbai makes you breathless with its relentless rushing, Chennai is relatively laidback even though it’s a metropolitan city as well.
Chennai is my hometown but it had been years since I had laid eyes on its wide highways and brown and ochre buses. I had no memory of the place; yet I recognised most of the suburb names partly due to the Tamilian pen friends I used to have and partly because of my reading. We had barely any energy left that night and early next morning, W and I bid goodbye to K and J who returned to their respective homes. W and I had a late flight and so we were able to explore Chennai during the day. After a scrumptious complimentary breakfast of upma, dosa, sambhar, chutney and sheera, we headed downstairs with very little idea of where to go. Alas, we hadn’t done any research on Chennai prior to our arrival. We spoke to the hotel receptionist, flipped through the sight-seeing booklet and formed an itinerary quite at random. We would first go to Mylapore and see the San Thome Basilica, we decided. From there, we would go to Marina Beach and then perhaps check out a museum. We wanted to be back by evening so we could catch our flights at eight without any last-minute rushing.
Armed with several different bus numbers that threatened to slip out of memory any moment, we headed to the nearest bus-stop. The majestic San Thome Basilica was a short walk away from the Mylapore bus-stop. Originally built by Portuguese explorers over the tomb of St Thomas, an apostle of Jesus, the basilica was rebuilt as a church by the British in 1893. We paused to admire the tall, pristine white facade of the church before entering. We were fortunate enough to catch the mid-day mass, complete with sermons in English and Tamil and singing of joyous carols. A few English tourists peeped in but left, disheartened by the priest’s robust Tamil. We knelt, folded hands and sang songs with the rest of the church. Strangely, I simply cannot recall what it is that I prayed for.
We then caught a rickshaw to Marina Beach, Chennai’s equivalent of Mumbai’s Juhu Beach. In the blazing sunlight however, we weren’t too enthused by the idea of spending any time by the sea. Besides, after witnessing Pondicherry’s sparkling seaside, a quintessentially urban beach like Marina simply didn’t catch our fancy! We spoke to some locals and decided to catch a bus to Pudupet, from where we could make our way to the famous Egmore Museum, also known as Government Museum. This is the second oldest museum in India and spread over a vast complex, it houses various sections such as the national art gallery, a children’s museum and a public library. It was impossible for us to explore every inch of the museum in a couple of hours but what we saw literally turned the clock back for us. Dynasties from my history textbook such as the Pallavas, the Cholas and the Pandyas came alive in the archaeology and history section of the museum. I devoted ample attention to every sculpture, studying the differences in detailing and reading the brief backgrounders beside each figure. The only grouse we had was the limited information available. True history enthusiasts would crave much more than a few lines replete with spelling errors and omissions.
Gargoyles and haughty Gods and demigods followed us with their stone-carved eyes while we strolled through the walk-through sculpture garden. This garden also houses the fossil of one of the oldest trees in India. We then entered the section housing the museum’s zoological and botanical artefacts and displays. Stuffed emus and macaws lay still beyond glass doors, captured for eternity in a moment of animation. An amazing life-size skeleton of a shark, suspended from the ceiling, held our attention for several minutes as we inspected its head, tail and fin bones. We then encountered the most memorable display of the museum – a giant replica of a tyrannosaurus. We began talking to the lady who guarded the dinosaur and she agreed to ‘play’ it for us ahead of schedule. Unsure of what to expect, we were flabbergasted when the animal began roaring and reaching out with its talons in quite a realistic fashion. A crowd gathered immediately to watch its histrionics. However, after a few moments, the movements began to get repetitive and we moved away, nevertheless greatly entertained.
Ravenous and exhausted after our day’s wandering, we settled for a late lunch at Rama’s Cafe, a spacious, airy and unassuming restaurant. Once again, we gorged on typical South Indian fare – masala dosasand filter coffee. Though the dosafilling was a little bland, the sambharand chutney were exceptional. Satisfied with our glimpse of Chennai, we hitch-hiked our way back to the hotel, changing buses in between but never resorting to expensive rickshaw rides. While my flight from Mumbai to Chennai had gone off without a glitch, this time I wasn’t so lucky. All flights were delayed by at least an hour and I spent a long time at the waiting lounge. I made good use of the time though, scribbling down the details of the trip so I wouldn’t be slave to a fast-diminishing memory when I sat down to pen a travelogue. When the plane finally took off, all I could think about was how absolutely satisfying, tiring and inspiring this trip had been. In five days, we had seen three cities, basked in serene beaches, tasted the finest of French cuisine and lost ourselves in bygone eras. I was weary but it was the kind of weariness that makes you smile from deep-within, the kind where you are completely spent but the resultant silence feels so good and so miraculous. Au revoir, Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu.
(Photographs by Ankita Shreeram)