Heritage villas with shaded courtyards turned to hotels and restaurants, catholic churches of immaculate conception dotting the lanes, unending beach strip with sand the color of silver and alcohol available at prices lower than rest of India: well, that could be the tourist giant and party haven, Goa. But lack of shacks by the water or people drinking in public and absence of sun bathing European vacationers or jet skiing Indian weekenders makes it the intimate and cosy, authentic and honest, Pondicherry.
It amazes me what Pondicherry could have been – the decadent French speaking town, smugged at its history of having served a colonial power thats not English and a popular beachside getaway close to a big city; much like its alter ego on the other coast of India. But its not. Its better. The roads are not clogged with SUVs driving down from Mumbai, the prices don’t shoot up here on the drop of a hat; the locals are shy but polite and the food has both taste and character.
The city was divided into two parts on racial terms: one, the French designed, ocean front “white” town and then on the other side of a giant canal, the Tamil quarter. On either side you see sites emblematic of two cultures very diverse but yet influencing each other.
While, the French part feels like small island of history, an open air museum with an air of abandonment and nostalgia of era gone by, the town on the other side continues to move at the speed of any other regular Indian town. The street names are in French, the police still wear French caps called kepis, restaurants serve French cuisine making Pondicherry the easiest place to find croissant in India. However, there is no denying that beyond the white town, and a little bit of French, the Pondicherry is essentially Tamil in character. You will never be too far from coffee waterfalls in Kofi bars on every corner and rivers of sambar. To its credit, Pondicherry has effortlessly retained the memories of its tryst with the French alongside its indigenous pride.
However, the pace of Pondicherry relaxes you slows you down and that coffee on the sea facing twenty four coffee shop, Le Cafe, will make you philosophical in the artsy way. Something about Pondicherry makes you want to go to a bookshop and grab a book. Maybe because so many writers have based themselves here and to finish their manuscripts. If you’ve read Life of Pi, Pondicherry will make you want to buy and read more books. There are a couple of book shops but they don’t offer anything more special then your round the corner bookshop. You could however go to the library at the French Institute and sit with a book while you gaze at the view of the waves hitting against the black rocks watching where the French came from to make this town their trade center and then left.
Pondicherry is the love of my life for having the all the potential but never being the hedonistic ever expanding, all gorging monster Goa is, and thankfully so. Remember if you choose to visit the city, make it a long term friendship not a one night fling.
The article is written by Ishwinder Kaur, an aspiring novelist, free spirited avid traveler based out of Australia. She is cofounder of Empty Rucksack.