My last sortie to India for the present shows just a few souvenirs of Pondicherry as it looked when it was part of France’s colonial empire. Those days are long gone. Only the older inhabitants were taught in French-medium schools. These days, as throughout India, English is the first foreign language taught. But policeman still look reassuringly French in style, wearing a smart kepi: a military hat with horizontal peak.
And while the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Basilique du Sacré-Cœur de Jésus de Pondichéry), at the end of the street where my hotel was, might look European-inspired rather than specifically French, it was the then Archbishop, and two parish priests, all French, who were responsible for its inception in 1895.
Well, this is awkward. Just One Person from around the World is supposed to feature a single person in the main photo. But a second policeman got himself into the frame here Never mind. The school entrance features just one security guard, the Department of Public Works just one visitor. I may just get away with it.
Those builders hard at work just beyond my hotel room in Pondicherry weren’t the only slice of life I saw through my window there. The featured photo shows the view I had just after midnight every night (I told you I didn’t sleep), My camera – or the way I handled it anyway – wasn’t good at night-time vision, but I like the dream-like quality of this scene.
Can you see a group of five women – four of them in blue, seated in the road? Until just before I took this shot, they’d been busily sweeping all the streets round and about, equipped only with short brooms of the kind that witches in western fairy tales normally use . They made cheerful conversation, calling to each other so they could hear and be heard. Now though, it was time for a break, and the women simply sat down and rested in the road, their voices falling to a rippling murmur of chatter and laughter.
This intimate moment, sharing something with these women who were certainly unaware they were being observed, remains one of my treasured memories of India. These women, I’m sure, had little enough, and yet their easy relaxed movements suggested contentment with what their lives gave them. And above them is a washing line. All that day’s washing was blue, apparently.
Here are the windows through which I observed the scene.
In India, Pondicherry was one of my must-visit destinations. In was a French colonial settlement till 1954, and still has a well-preserved French quarter, with French-style colonial villas and characterful tree-lined streets. I stayed in one of these – a charming guest house called Le Rêve Bleu.
My room looked out over a building site. Was I dismayed? Not at all. Look at these scenes of builders – at least half of them women – at work from 6.30 every morning. I’d long been woken up by then, by the daily Muslim Call to Prayer, announced over a very loud tannoy system at about half past five,
When abroad – or even somewhere fresh here in the UK – a big pleasure comes from visiting the local market. People-watching ordinary folk going about their daily business: seeing what’s on offer at the run-of-the-mill fruit and veg stalls. What are the local cheeses? Is there any honey from round and about? What have they got on sale that‘s unexpected? Perhaps a stall holder will invite me to try this kind of apricot – and then that one – before I buy. Maybe a nun from the local convent will be selling home-pressed apple juice.
In India, it was spices I was particularly keen to see. But in Mysore, which isn’t short of European visitors, I had such a bad time I almost didn’t venture into a market again. I had Tourist emblazoned across my forehead for all to see. And I was pestered, by one young man in particular, who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, whether I was nice, nasty or ignored him.. Whatever. I left with no purchase, and in a very bad mood. Though later I got a few photos – the ones you see below and as the featured photo.
Pondicherry was much better. Here were men, women, seated on the floor and selling whatever they had – a few vegetables from their land, a few fish. There were larger, more business-like stalls too. I was doing my usual diffident-about-asking-to-take-photos there, so I only have one of a woman selling fish, and one water buffalo, who made a good story for the day by peeing copiously all over my feet.
Best of all was Thanjavur. Here, I stayed with a young American academic, who spoke fluent Tamil, and took me into the homes of her Indian friends, walked me round the back streets to admire the Diwali pavement decorations, and generally gave me a good time.
One day, she wanted me to go to the market for her. Just a few simple purchases. Carrots, onions, that kind of thing. For the first time in India, I met people who spoke no English at all. And my Tamil didn’t extend beyond ‘please’(தயவு செய்து Tayavu ceytu) and ‘thank you’ (நன்றி Nanri). But pointing’s fine.
I don’t think they’d ever had an English tourist wanting anything, let alone humble carrots at the vegetable stall, and soon I was the centre of an amiable group helping me make my purchases. They tried to increase my vocabulary, and begged me to teach them the same words in English because it was the end of the day and they weren’t busy. It was such fun. And when it came to payment, I tried to press far too much money into their hands. I thought they’d asked for 70 rupees (about 70 pence), and felt it cheap at the price. How ridiculous! They wanted seven. Honestly, that English woman! Is she made of money? And my new friend, the one who actually served me with the vegetables I needed, begged for a photo. Here it is.
So here we are: Two market traders for Just One Person from Around the World. There are a few more from where these came from. If we can’t go very far, we could at least do a Virtual Trip to India for a week or two.
Pondicherry. Until 1954, a French Colonial settlement. I wanted to stay in this most French bit of India, and I wasn’t disappointed. Only its historic old town built, French style, in a grid pattern retains a Gallic flavour these days, but what fun I had there.
Sacred Heart Church, near where I was staying. A Catholic church in glorious technicolour.
I think Pondicherry remains in my memory as a haven of peace because -well, it was. My solo Indian journey was stimulating, exciting, eye -opening: but exhausting. A solo female traveller had few options for daytime relaxation. I wasn’t spending my days in tourist Meccas, so there were no coffee shops for me to enjoy simple down-time. Men had their tea shops. Women – not so much. Pondicherry provided these, and the shores of the Bay of Bengal. And French patisseries where I discovered the joy of an Indian croissant and a strong shot of coffee as an antidote to spicy fare. I truly loved my spit-and-sawdust all-you-can-eat-piled-on-a-banana-leaf cafes, but they weren’t places to linger after you’d downed your food. In Pondicherry I went up-market, without the up-market bills.
I stayed in a hotel called Le Rêve Bleu, and was immediately transported back to the town’s colonial days. Older staff spoke French, because they would have been taught in French at school. Sadly, this no longer applies to anyone younger than 55 or so: it’s English now.
Looking through to the garden.
My balcony at le Rêve Bleu.
Le Rêve Bleu. The view from my room.
Rooms were large and elegantly proportioned, and there was a leafy courtyard. Christelle, the young and cheerful French owner whizzed me about on her motor bike on shopping sprees to make sure I wasn’t ripped off when choosing the textiles I wanted to take home. She found me a young local woman who gave me a couple of wonderfully relaxing and rejuvenating massages. And her male staff cooked up beautifully spicy breakfasts that I ate in that courtyard. Yet this was a budget hotel.
All the same, I didn’t sleep much there. My room overlooked a quiet road where from midnight, the female street cleaners would get busy. They spread themselves over several streets, and shouted conversations to each other. They’d sit down cross legged on the pavement near my window and chatter during their breaks. I was charmed by them. Night birds called. Dogs fought. At 5.30 there was the Call to Prayer. At 6.30, the (often female) builders showed up at the building site opposite. Hopeless really.
A fuzzy night photo of the street cleaners sit in the road and have a nice loud chat in the middle of the road outside le Rêve Bleu at midnight.
Building works opposite.
Delivery from the Builder’s Yard.
So I’d get up early and go for a walk along the seafront. I’d look as the schoolchildren piled into rickshaws or onto the backs of bikes arriving at school. I’d smile at the policemen in their fine French kepis, and enjoy passing public buildings still signed in French.
The Bay of Bengal.
The journey to school, Indian style.
Dept of Public Works, Pondicherry.
Pondicherry Police. Admire those kepis!
Children off to school in Pondicherry.
Lycee Francais, Pondicherry
To be continued….
New readers: This is Chapter Something-or-Other of an occasional series of memories of my month long trip to India in 2007.
Almost ten years ago now, I had my Indian Adventure, when I travelled first of all with a small group of like-minded English travellers, and then solo round southern India. That’s when I started blogging, using TravelBlog, though I later transcribed it onto WordPress which may be more user-friendly.
The culture shock of arriving in Bangalore with its constant traffic noise, its motor horns, its street-cattle, its monkeys, its people, its eagles and vultures wheeling overhead is unforgettable.
A back street in Bangalore, and a few rickshaws.
Arriving in Pondicherry some three weeks later was just as much of a jolt. Suddenly I was transported (after a motorway journey which included goats grazing on the central reservation) to colonial era France. Here were policemen in kepis, elegant public buildings, corner shops selling baguettes and croissants.
Dept of Public Works, Pondicherry
My guesthouse was a charming 19th century throwback which would have been totally at home on the French Riviera.
My verandah at le Rêve Bleu.
Yet I was undoubtedly in India. There was a spot of building work going on outside my bedroom window. Here’s the delivery wagon:
A delivery from the builder’s Yard
Here’s a more up-to-date delivery lorry:
They don’t usually need reminding to ‘Sound Horn’
Here’s the school run:
School run, Indian style
And here’s the beach:
The beach at Pondicherry.
Here though is the photo which answers this week’s WordPress photo challenge: ‘Names’. A street sign which represents the many-faceted cultural references of what I thought of as my favourite Indian city.
Cathedral Road, Pondicherry
In a couple of days I plan to re-blog an old post of mine which has something further to contribute to the ‘Names’ theme.