The Pondicherry Experience

The Art of doing nothing...
if you really want to learn how to do that, come to Pondicherry.
But before you come, read the article below, written by our very dear friend Virginia, who comes to stay with us every year.
She wrote this while staying at our other house in Pondicherry...GRATITUDE, on Rue Romain Rolland.
We hope our guests will be similarly inspired and write about their own experience while staying with us, and we can then share it with the world.

Experiencing Pondicherry

The Art of “Le Flâneur” – Virginia Soukup

“ There is no English equivalent for the term, just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city.”
-Cornelia Otis Skinner, Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals, 1962 

Time stops in Pondicherry, today called Puducherry, or rather time expands to invite the traveller to lay down her/his dusty bags, to close the computer and to kick back and enjoy doing nothing, absolutely nothing. The beginning of all real creativity. Guests at Gratitude come to rest, to explore the town, to write, to dream, to wander, to sit, to savour the moment.
The poetry of the place lies waiting to be discovered.
North of the Canal in Tamil Town, all is hustle & bustle, traffic, noise, crowds, commerce, sprawling urban development.
Gratitude is situated in the heart of the old French colonial “White Town” and only the early morning birds playing with the singing squirrels & the midday quarrelsome crows can disturb the peace and tranquility of the courtyard. Venture outside into the bougainvillea covered streets and you will find a delightful selection of cafés, hidden courtyards and rooftop hideaways. Aficionados trade personal favourite locations for the best espresso, the perfect cappuccino, the sinful pain au chocolat. It is a most light-hearted debate in the spirit of Baudelaire’s ‘gentleman flâneur’ and the jury will always be out on this subject as new venues open as fast as old ones change or close.

The architectural heritage of Pondy is divided by the canal, French colonial by the seafront to the south, and Tamil branching out in all directions north of the canal. Both sides offer a mixture of cultural surprises and curiosities for Susan Sonntag’s ‘voyeuristic stroller’ who enjoys savouring the city as a ‘landscape of voluptuous extremes’.
Lady “flâneurs” have obviously constructed their own traditions and also “wander aimlessly” with great panache these days.
For the early risers stepping out to see the dawn is always an adventure. Locals in Pondy enjoy taking their exercise by the seafront on Goubert Avenue before going to work and the police close the whole seafront stretch of road to traffic between 5 & 7 a.m. so the atmosphere is charmingly ambulatory.

If you start early enough, stroll up from Goubert Avenue into Tamil Town and catch a piping hot cup of tea or coffee at one of the roadside stalls, you will still be able to enjoy the luxurious breakfast back at Gratitude later.
The big central food market, Goubert Market or simply “The Big Market”, will be busy with local farmers delivering their fresh produce. Indubitably, South India is the bread basket of the sub-continent. The array of fresh vegetables, herbs, fruit & spices is a fine sensory experience. Of course, there is a lot of noise so it is not just the eyes and nose that are being assailed. If you want to experience total auditory mayhem, step into the fish market hall. Here the fishwives sip tea, gut fish and shout in no particularly discernable order. By 8.30 a.m. the excitement seems to die down in direct proportion to the smell. Definitely time to beat a hasty retreat and head back to Gratitude for breakfast!
Pre-prandial Peregrinations in Pondy:
There is no more delightful pastime in Pondy than taking an early evening pre-prandial stroll to some designated watering hole whilst dabbling in a spot of historical dilettantism. Road names provide an accelerated crash course in Indian and colonial history and an advanced test in orientiering.
In and around Pondicherry ancient Dravidian, Moghul and Muslim dynasties have survived or succumbed to an impressive succession of traders and invaders, ranging from the Greeks, Romans, Turks, Persians and Mongols to the Dutch, Danish, English and, most spectacularly, to the French.
Behind the innocuous-looking blue and white street signs lie centuries of bloody struggle, devious plotting, imperial greed and shrewd, dangerous or inspiring ventures which dictated the lives of local fishing and agricultural communities. Street names commemorate men of the sword, men of the cloth, traders and imperial brigands, courtiers, commissioners, petitioners, functionaries, soldiers of fortune, politicians, crooks, dreamers, freedom fighters, traitors, heroes and all the usual suspects between!
Let us start with a visionary philosopher. Gratitude is situated on one of the few streets named after a French literary figure, Romain Rolland, in what is still called “White Town”, t7he French colonial heritage district of Pondicherry between the seafront and the Canal.
Upon enquiry I discovered that the redoubtable Monsieur Rolland had supported Indian freedom fighters in the early twentieth century, and is renowned for having written :
“If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.”

This early openness to the enormous potential of India not only earned Romain his street reputation here but also an eponymous library. A great honour indeed.
Other French supporters of Indian freedom and independence for Pondicherry were thin on the ground so when Monsieur Edouard Goubert, the Pro-French Mayor publicly changed camps back in 1954 and declared his allegiance to the pro-merger movement he definitely earned himself the distinction of having the whole sea front avenue named after him.

Dumas Street around the corner from Gratitude provides an important key to most of the rest of the French street names which are mainly those of 17th and 18th century former governors and heads of the French Compagnie des Indes.
The roll call, illustrious or infernal, depending upon your allegiance, includes Bailli de Suffren, Bernard-François Mahé de la Bourdonnais, Charles de Busy de Castelnaud, Jean Law de Lauriston, Pierre Benoît Dumas, Joseph-François Marquis Dupleix, Lally-Tollendal and Le Vicomte, François de Souillac, to name but a few.


Bailli de Suffren

The ghosts of these French historical figures do not depart easily, as illustrated by the road signs for rue de Bussy where the local government has renamed the street to honour an eminent Indian freedom fighter and Prime Minister after Nehru in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri.


Locals still call the street Bussy Street, after Charles Joseph Patissier, Marquis de Bussy-Castelnau, French Governor General from 1783 to1785. Interestingly, Bussy Street (rue de Bussy) starts in White Town and then stretches across the Canal to Tamil Town. Bussy and Shastri seemed condemned to remain strange bedfellows a while longer.
Meanwhile, the intrepid stroller who has navigated North on Bussy St will soon note a further confusing development, designed to strike initial panic in the most stoic of visitors, especially one intent on imminently imbibing a cool drink.
Imagine the frustration when entering what is quite explicitly termed Rue de la Cathédrale the uwittig stroller discovers that it morphs into Rue des Missions on the left-hand side of the road on a blue background whilst on the right-hand side of the street a shiny green sign boldly claims the street to be Mission Street. Those fluent in Tamil are offered a parallel selection of names, along with decrees, edicts and some minor official obscurantism. A last vestige of imperial linguistic battles or an advanced case of delirium tremens?


A particularly humorous acquaintance once assured me that Mission St leads into Quai d’Ambour, aka H.M. Kassim Sallai, on the Canal. Gentle reader, you have been warned. Discussions about Pondy street signs can be bad for your health and should be taken in small judicious doses.
For reassurance, further in Tamil Town the more obvious, more easily recognizable Indian figures of the 20th Century such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subash Chandra Bose feature clearly. 


However, there is another aspect, perhaps the very soul of Pondicherry, based upon the spiritual collaboration between Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The well-kept grey walls and buildings of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram are the only visible indication of the thriving community inside.

The Ashram offers a very personal journey of exploration which, for the seeker, is waiting to be discovered. Street hawkers, curious onlookers and busloads of excited school children may sometimes assail the quiet exteriors but push open the door and you will be discovering an orderly world of calm devotion.
Another early 20th Century, visionary and fellow exile of Aurobindo’s was the poet and dramatist, Bharathi. A revolutionary on the run, he died young defending women’s rights, fighting for Indian political independence and opposing the caste system to the bitter end.
Now a national hero in Tamil Nadu he has a Park and a museum named after him, both visited by throngs of devoted “followers” and admirers. 

But, for settling down with a good drink at the end of all these peregrinations my preferred companion would have to be Anandaranga Pillai (1709-1761), Dubash to Governor General Dupleix who kept a journal from 1736 to1760. 

This venerable gentleman is often referred to as the Indian “Pepys”, and a visit to his palace for well-informed local gossip and political insights must have been on the mind of many a perambulatory dignitary in the past. 


Unfortunately, the Dubash’s palace is now locked and left to the vagaries of time and the twice yearly monsoons. Saving this palace could become a project, but not this evening. So, doffing cap in recognition of past glories, I turn away to re-enter present-day Pondy and look up to find my rooftop destination beckoning. No address provided, for each one finds her/his own favourite twilight hideaway!
For the self-respecting flâneur, staying at Gratitude and savouring Pondicherry does not constitute doing nothing. It is about being drawn into and enchanted by the living aspects of the place. Gracious tradition indeed.

Virginia Soukup

© Copyright 2020 VKS- All Rights Reserved
This article, in part or whole, should not be published without permission.

An article in the Harper's BAZAAR, me (Kakoli), is all about my relationship with Pondicherry


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