Monday, January 05, 2015

A Touch Of Foreignness

Puducherry, with its French influence, as well as the Aurobinda Ashram and Auroville, is a place with a distinctive heritage and charm

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception; Auroville Ashram. By G. Pattabi Raman 

On Christmas Eve, the lights are resplendent at the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception. Plastic chairs are being put outside. This is being supervised by the parish priest who is anticipating a large crowd for Midnight Mass.

On one of the chairs sits Rahul Sharma, a 21-year-old law student from Pune. He has come to Puducherry for the Christmas vacation. Dressed in a yellow T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, he stares raptly at the 300-year-old baroque-style structure. “It is a beautiful church and has been preserved well,” he says.

Outside the church, 11-year-old Dharmajan is selling large balloons at Rs 10 apiece. “I study in a Tamil medium school,” he says. “I am trying to earn some money for Christmas.” 

The streets are crowded. There is a festive spirit in the air. At 9 p.m., people are still rushing into bakery shops to buy last-minute cakes and pastries. On the terrace of the Corbelli Hotel, guests are sitting on wooden chairs and staring at the skyline. This is the Don Giovanni restaurant which is run by Massimiliano Morsiani. “It’s a long name,” he says, with a smile. “Call me Max, for short.”

Max, who is originally from Bologna in Italy, settled in Puducherry more than three decades ago and makes all types of pizzas. “I import ham all the way from Italy,” he says. Not surprisingly, it is a magnet for people from the USA, Germany, France, Italy and many other places. “Lots of Indians also come,” says Max.  

On a cloudy morning, when you walk down Perumal Koil street, you can see a yellow painted house with a tiled roof. This is the home of one of Tamil Nadu’s great poets Bharatidasan. His work was instrumental in the growth of the Dravidian movement in the state.

Today, the house has been converted into a museum. So there are photos of Bharatidasan meeting the eminent people of his time. His spectacles, walking stick, the white shirts that he wore – they have all been preserved. There is also a photocopy of a 1942 letter, which the 18-year-old M Karunanidhi [former Tamil Nadu chief minister] wrote to the eminent poet and the latter’s reply.

Outside, a swift breeze is blowing about. On the beach, there is a large signboard which states: ‘Puducherry is not the same when you litter’. However, this exhortation does not prevent a shop-keeper from throwing litter at the side of the road. Several tourists walk about, talking animatedly and taking snaps.

When somebody exclaims, “It is beautiful,” a local journalist says, “It was beautiful. I have lived in Puducherry all my life. Corruption, environmental degradation and government mismanagement have spoilt a lot of things.”

But democracy is alive and kicking in the small union territory. Outside the main post office, the Left parties are holding a demonstration with their familiar red hammer-and-sickle flags. 
The leaders are making various demands to the state government.

Near the post office, a Mumbai-based father tells his son, “Why don’t you buy an inland and write a letter to your grandparents about your experiences in Puducherry?” The 15-year-old son looks glum and makes no move to go inside. In the end, the duo walks away without buying the inland.

On another morning, on the Rue Romain Rolland, a group of youngsters are painting a tent in different colours, just outside the Indianostrum theatre building.

This is part of a ‘People’s Puppet Project’. Inside a large hall stands Rebecca Rutter, the Workshop Director of the Melbourne-based Snuff Puppets, which is having a collaboration with Indianostrum, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, and Urban Design Collective. So, a 12-foot high model of Ravana, with his ten heads, is getting readied. “The aim is to raise awareness about Puducherry’s French-Tamil cultural heritage, through puppetry and street theatre,” says Rebecca. “I have been here for two weeks and am having a wonderful time. The people are friendly and the place is beautiful.”

The French part of Puducherry is, indeed, beautiful. Many houses are painted in white. The roads are neatly paved and there are several tree-lined avenues. Outside a cafĂ© sits Gregory Hemart, who is a bookshop owner in Paris. “This is my second visit,” says Gregory, as he sips a cup of coffee. “I will be here for a fortnight. I like it, because there is so much of France here.” Indeed, many locals, including drivers and watchmen, know how to speak French fluently.

Many of the landmarks are in this area. These include the Bharati Park, the Gandhi statue, the Puducherry Museum, the Romain Rolland Library, the Assembly, the Governor’s house and the Alliance Francaise, which has a ‘French Corner’. A notice says, 'Visitors are free to come over, share a drink and have a conversation’.

And, finally, there is the Aurobinda Ashram, whose walls are painted in a distinctive grey and white. Inside the ashram, in a courtyard, under a large tree, is the Samadhi, a marble shrine, which is the burial place of Sree Aurobinda and the Mother (Mirra Alfasa). There is utter silence as people come in, kneel down in front of the Samadhi, pray and move on. A few foreigners, with their eyes closed, sit cross-legged on the floor.

The sprawling Auroville Ashram (2000 acres), 15 kms from Pondicherry, is also worth a visit. The striking feature is the Matri Mandir, a dome-like structure, which represents divine consciousness. The dome is made of 56 kgs of gold. For visitors, there is a viewing point. But garrulous Indians can never be silent. They are busy taking photos and having a chat.

Among the crowd are two senior Mumbai-based professionals. “I just don’t want this holiday to end,” said one of them. “This is the first time in a long while I have taken 20 days off.” The other man said, “You are not going to believe this, but I have bought a retirement home near the beach. The price and the place seemed so right.”

Yes, Puducherry is the right place to be, if you are looking for rejuvenation and relaxation and to experience a place that has a touch of foreignness to it.

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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