Coming from Chidambaram, I decide to take a short break at Puducherry. Puducherry is a place not new to me. My grandmother, who is in her nineties, lives here with my aunt. They live alone or rather in each other’s company. One of my two cousins is in Erode. The other is in France, married to an Indian with a French passport. This is one of the legacies of Puducherry, an erstwhile colony of France.
Needless to say, I have been to the city countless times. I have no wish to see anything in the city except relish some homecooked food and relax after such a busy tour of Tamil Nadu. My tour of Tamil Nadu is nearing to a close. A handful of places are left to cover and then I will be at the end of my grand yearlong tour of India. It seems apt to come to Puducherry to take stock of things before heading home.
My recollection of the city comes from almost a decade ago. That was the time when the city still went by the old familiar name Pondicherry. I loved the walks along the seafront. I loved the old French quarters. I visited Auroville on a guided tour arranged by the local tourism. The silence of the Auroville captivated me but I did not feel like I belonged there because there were so many foreigners. It was strange to be in India and yet not in India. The geodesic dome covering the meditation hall was only half complete. Inside, a narrow beam of light entered straight from the top and suffused the hall with its quiet brilliance.
Most of all, I remember coming home with a dozen books written by Sri Aurobindo or the Mother, and commentaries on their works. Many of these books are still unread. Maybe this time around I will make a resolution to start and finish Savitri, the classic poetic work from Sri Aurobindo.
Puducherry may look good in its French quarters but the rest of it is not so flattering. Traffic is messy. It is common for auto-rickshaws to drive against oncoming traffic. Footpaths don’t exist on many roads. To travel within city, there is no suitable public transport. Locals of limited means squeeze themselves into shared tempos and ride dangerously through the city’s busy roads. Where my folks live at Ratna Nagar, there are no proper drainage channels along the streets. The gutters don’t flow and are active breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Statues of Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi stand in stately poise as if all problems of modern India have been solved, as if others should take cue and follow.
About three years ago I visited the place once more and made an effort to find a good beach. Pondicherry was once famous for its stretches of clean sands. It was a draw for tourists from Chennai. Along the esplanade were rocks strewn about the shore. These rocks are still there today, keeping the sea at bay.
‘What happened to the beach?’ I asked someone. I vaguely recall the beach being at this exact location.
‘You have to go further south,’ he told me.
‘The beach got washed away during the tsunami of 2004,’ someone else commented.
I walked and walked in search of a beach. I found a little fishing village next to a small stretch of sand. Their fishing boats were parked on the sands. The beach was unclean as could be expected. It was not the kind of beach I had been looking to enjoy. Moreover, the day was hot. There was no a spot of cloud in the sky. Puducherry can be a hot and uncomfortable place during the summers. I almost suffered a heat stroke that day. To walk in this sun, one requires at least a litre of water every half an hour.
Today I have no ambition to see Auroville or any beach. At the end of a yearlong tour, covering the length and breadth of the land, I have seen a great deal. The motivation to see anything more is fast disappering. I have a fair idea of India’s past greatness and present potential. Indians are given to self-praise. You only have to look at the daily papers and news channels. They will tell you in chorus, ‘Mera Bharat Mahan.’ Very few people will actually tell you what makes India great. I do believe India was great once, but I can hardly relate that past to the present. At least I can tell people about the great past.
This evening I decide to head to the esplanade, not in search of a beach because I know there isn’t one, but just to enjoy the evening light and the steady sea breeze. It is a long walk by the roads bursting with traffic. It takes me an hour to get to the esplanade. On a Sunday evening, the place is a sea of bobbing heads. One might think that the whole of Puducherry has converged here. The night is clear. The moon not only makes the waves but dresses them with a silver glow. The waves come crashing on to the rocks but the gentle glance of the moon somehow pacifies the scene. There is romance in the air and young couples make the best of it.
Outside the city, there are beautifully isolated and quiet beaches. I can say this with certainty because I saw one of them from a distance on the bus from Chidambaram. I think it was somewhere between the villages of Thavalakuppam and Ariyankuppam on the outskirts of Puducherry city. It was just a glimpse but it was a scene that made an indelible impression – an inlet of sea, deep woodland cover, red-brown paths heading east towards sea and the waves crashing in the distance. The glittering waves caught the early afternoon light. A wet layer of smooth sand glistened. The horizon at sea stretched a thin line between two shades of blue. I could almost hear the waves. I believed the waves were right at my feet and my toes were dipping into the sands.