April's Notes From The Road: Tamil Nadu 2 (2008)

I’ve been on my own in India for a few days now. It seems that every time I encounter Indian men, the first question they ask is “Where is your husband?” More and more I am coming to realize that marriage really is the defining event in an Indian woman’s life. But in my case, whatever happened to being asked whether I am married to begin with?

The sweltering heat in Mamallapuram begins around 8am and lets up sometime after sundown. It’s no wonder that air-conditioned rooms (even in simple guest houses) go for up to triple the price as fan-cooled rooms. After bargaining hard for a tuk-tuk out of town, I hopped on a local bus down the coast to Pondicherry (Puducherry). I’d heard that this was a quirky former French colony, made famous by Sri Aurobindo’s ashram and a hippies-era international community named Auroville nearby. Recently there was a NY Times article written about the town, so I armed myself with that should anything go awry.

The bus ride itself was delightful – again on my own, with people of all ages staring at me (and asking about my erstwhile husband of course). Clickety-clack down the sometimes-dirt, usually-asphalt, almost-uniformly-bumpy road, swerving every few seconds to avoid oncoming buses, rickshaws, bull cars, tuk-tuks, moped drivers, cyclists and the occasional cow. Bhangra-type music on full blast. The young boy sitting next to me who cannot for the life of him stay awake, so his little head keeps plopping onto my shoulder and I just let it stay there. Palm trees and nameless villages passing by in quick succession, and all the while the ocean visible to the east. We drove for miles through land that was in the direct path of the 2004 tsunami, and though I saw much evidence of reconstruction – from temporary shelters (now turned into quasi-villages in their own right) to placards with international sponsorship, to “new” groomed beaches with lush vegetation – I still struggle to piece together what it must have been like at the time. It’s hard to imagine, and people here certainly do not talk much (if at all, even when asked) about it.

Pondicherry – or Pondy as it is locally known – is a real treat. The historic quarter is full of colonial French architecture, much of which is in decay though renovation works are visible in many places. Long verandas that reminded me almost of New Orleans or Savannah, bougainvilleas galore, and classical cathedrals peppered every few blocks. Despite these European touches however, the place is undoubtedly Indian. Indeed I didn’t find much of the French-Indian fusion that I thought I might – aside from a few bakeries selling pastries that were called croissants (but didn’t look like them) and more French translations of menus and historical places. The common language for tourists remains English, and preferred cuisine remains dosa, thali and chaat – and plenty of ice cream along the seaside promenade.

Stained glass seems to be a local tradition in Pondy. Not only in cathedrals and public spaces, but even in guest houses! I stayed in the positively delightful Coloniale Heritage Guest House, tucked away in the French quarter and surrounded by enormous palm trees (full of birds) and ochre columns, and my room, bathroom and terrace were all flanked by them. Quite a sight to awake to red, green, gold and cobalt light dappling on the ceiling.

The NY Times article quoted a museum owner here as saying something along the lines of “there is not a lot to see and do in Pondy, but there is a lot to feel.” I like that concept, and one place I figured it would be manifest was Auroville, the quasi-community founded in 1968 based on international peace and the negation of all religion (“whether past, modern, new or future”). So I made the trip outside of town to see what it is all about. What I found still baffles me – fairly interesting, international and peaceful yet not much to show for itself other than a massive gold-disc Jetsons-era globe called the Matrimandir that would fill the better part of a football field. Bizarre. The community which was originally conceived for up to 50,000 members has taken 40 years to grow to 2,000, so there is still a ways to go on many fronts. It is divided into four “zones” – international (the only one where visitors are allowed), cultural (apparently focused on education and which I was told is comprised mostly of yoga and dance), residential and industrial. Even for a non-shopper the best part of the whole place was the gift boutique, where beautiful handmade papers, textiles, ceramics and incense were available. I’m hoping that’s what the “industrial” zone is for, but for all I know the items were imported from elsewhere. In short I would characterize Auroville as a place with good intent but wacky (and very limited) results.

Now time for more Dravidian culture at night, where the colorful temples are lit up with giant neon Tamil-script messages – works of art in themselves!

TraveloguesApril Rinne