There is the splendid architecture of the seaside enclave (also refered to as the 'white town' or 'Ville Blanche' and the French quarter) between Canal road and the sea. Clichéd and over-worn though it may be getting with untiring promotion by the tourist bureau - to us, it remains utterly beautiful. It can still provide moments of great tranquility amidst its wide side-walks, louvered balconies, high, yellow/ochre/grey/blue framed walls with flora gushing over, even if only until the next all invasive two-wheeler or car-horn rents the calm. There is a gentleness to many people-encounters in this part of town as well, and a casual street conversation conducted with great civility and warmth feels fresh and therapeutic beyond easy measure in our neurotic times. The flavour of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram is unmistakable. Irrespective of one's spiritual inclinations or intellectual positions, the Ashram and its establishments are a great source of the understated beauty and calm. The grey-white of the court-yarded buildings, the well preserved, burgeoning, leafy greenery within them, the large, airy, bright offices that you can look right into (and envy), the widespread use of bicycles, instead of motor vehicles, by many ashram volunteers and the aesthetic quality of what the various ashram 'units' produce, cannot but inspire. Even the occasional curt exchange with a less than pleasant Ashram volunteer is easier to stomach without reaction, given all the other salve, on hand.
The main park around the Aayi Madapam (across from the Governor's residence) remains a good place to sit on a bench under large canopy trees, and watch goings-on, punctuated by deep, harmonic tones of wind chimes1 strung here and there in the trees. At lunch time, it fills up with kids from a nearby school and their parents with lunch boxes in hand, following their wards around hoping they will accepts morsels of their meal with the presence of all the other distractions, to assist. The grimy - but atmospheric - Hotel Qualithe in the Chamber of Commerce Buildings offers the prospect of a cold beer while looking out of its saloon doors towards the park. The slime under foot may be safely ignored and postponed to another occasion to engage the management on, about a clean-up job. The utterly mediocre & perennial 'book exhibition' adjoining it, while not distinguished in any way, can throw up an occasional decent find, including local writing by and about Pondicherry, amongst its other non-descript piles.
What influences besides Sri Aurobindo's might have contributed to the altogether agreeable, multi-faceted seaside town it is today, we wonder? Among others, certainly, the Mother's, whose sweeping vision of an international community living in harmony with natural principles and the ideas of Sri Aurobindo, resulted in Auroville. The secular, nationalist, emancipatory vision and brilliant imagery of Subramanya Bharati (who sought refuge in the French territory to escape his British pursuers). The perspicacity and intelligence of Ananda Rangapillai (Rangapoulle, if you prefer to say it the French way), Dupleix's dubash, who created the most extensive and exhaustive records of life in his times, in his diaries. These are some of the well-known personalities of 'recent' Pondicherry. There are undoubtedly many thousands of the less well-known who have made, and continue to make, their contributions simply by living and conducting themselves in certain ways, thereby creating the culture that is enjoyed by many today2.
One is often asked what one can 'do' in Pondicherry. That is a hard question to answer. There is certainly a list of 'visitable' spots that you could come up with, and check-off as 'seen' when you do. But none of them in isolation would amount to much. Perhaps the sea-facing Goubert Avenue with its morning meditators and walkers, and sundal/bhel-puri in the evenings, is one such. And then there is the Pondicherry Museum, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with its wonderful stained glass work, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, the houses of Ananda Rangapoulle and Subramanya Bharati, or the charming Manakular Vinayagar temple on a pedestrians-only stretch in the heart of the French quarter, where you can be thumped on the head by the trunk of 16 year old (at the time of writing this note) Laxmi. There is also the INTACH historic walk, now signposted, with a clear walking map that can help you take in the architectural heritage of the town. But all these could still feel sterile and you could end up fussing with the heat and humidity after a long day or two's sightseeing unless you actually try to get under the skin of the place a bit ... Breakfast on croissants3, soak in a slice of life from the park, sip a cold one at the Qualithe, walk the inconsistently quiet streets (no-thanks to the punctuated violence of motor vehicles) of the French quarter at different times of day & night, visit the Ashram and its varied units (the paper factory, the perfumery, some of the innumerable shops selling Ashram and Auroville products), visit the Institute for Perfect Eyesight, the French institute (with its unparalleled and spectacular library balcony, overlooking the Bay of Bengal), listen in (as discreetly as possible, of course, thank you) on conversations between Tamil friends & families, in French, ... even do the rounds of the Sunday market on Mission Street ...
A lot of the larger city of Pondicherry (outside of the tiny area of the seaside enclave) is like any other congested, noisy, traffic infested city. Yet there is stuff of interest - like the way the streets around the white town gradually morph into fully Tamil character (yes, there is a discernible gradation) - as you move either north or west of the colonial town. Look out for name boards spelt the 'Rangapoulle' way, or peer into open spaces and lots to catch a group of veshti-clad men playing 'boulle' and don't forget to sample the truly excellent south Indian snacks and meal at Surguru (two locations - on Mission Street and Kamaraj Salai at the other end of Mission)
All said, there is grace to Pondicherry and its people that hasn't entirely disappeared yet under the onslaught of rapid homogenization and break neck growth. Catch it (and yes, please be sensitive, be discreet, soft-spoken, respect it and walk or cycle to get around as far as possible) before the creeping, garish neon buries it forever4.
1. The wind chimes in the park are from Auroville and are made by Svaram - an extraordinary Auroville unit that makes a wide assortment of unique musical instruments.
2. Pondicherry is one of a handful of places in the country where people who appear non-Indian are not objects of automatic attention. There are folks of many nationalities around, and with diverse agendas - and they appear to merge in quite comfortably. No shocked-by-cows type folk in business-suits to be found flailing between lurching traffic and gushing, open sewers (the image in my mind here is of the many unfortunate western visitors who are forced to visit Bangalore on business and then get stuck on the median on Airport road at peak hour).
3. The best croissants in the area (in our opinion) are from the bakeries in Auroville (so not in Pondicherry 'town', as such) - but there are several establishments even in town that dish out fresh confection in the morning. (Now how many places in Bangalore, for example, can you get a true, quality, confection-laden breakfast at 8am?) We suggest the Hot Breads on Canal Road at 8am (slice of life is interesting too at that hour). Other more expensive options exist, of course.
4. There are several sad instances of this going on. In the last 3 years (since about 2004) at least half a dozen (perhaps more) establishments with ugly, outsize neon signage have 'breached the canal'. Even Goubert Avenue currently reels under 3-4 such attacks. The Adayar Ananda Bhavan just across the Canal from Nehru Road and the Adyar Bakery are examples of tasteless neon signage. On Goubert, there is the Ajanta Sea View Hotel with its shameful assault and a couple of smaller idly/dosai places that offend the senses. More exist, undoubtedly, and more will come. The Pondicherry Tourism folks outdo everyone else with their hideous, public-loo-like "Le Cafe" right on the waterfront.