Ville Blanche – Pondicherry’s French Kiss to India

I had been day-dreaming about the quaint little streets of Pondicherry for almost a year before I finally booked my tickets and decided to realise my fantasies.

Earth meets heaven

Where Earth meets Heaven

Puducherry is not just a union territory in India, it is a world of its own. The Franco-rule that lasted here for almost 300 years, has soaked this place in its colours and flavours. To savour the ultimate French experience of La Côte d’Azur de l’Est, I decided to stay at Le Dupleix.

The colonial interiors of the luxury boutique hotel (Le Dupleix)

The colonial interiors of the luxury boutique hotel (Le Dupleix)

I started my Pondy-trip with a hearty meal of milk and cornflakes, fruits, flax seeds and orange-juice. Then gorged on some dosa-chutney and sambar while I waited for my green tea to arrive. (My appetite doubles when I am on a trip!)

The Tamil-English breakfast

The Tamil-English breakfast

With my stomach full, I started walking through the grid-like rues (roads) that lead me to this mustard building…

The French Embassy

The French Consulate

And then, there was another. This one in memory of the French soldiers.

Foyer du Soldat

Foyer du Soldat

I entered the Pondicherry Museum, which housed everything – from stone-sculptures dating back to the 1st century AD to ancient carriages that lived to see me visit!

Vintage carriages

Vintage carriages

To pay some heed to my roused hunger, I halted in front of Le Vietnam, where I had my lunch of bún chả with a pair of chopsticks while I stared wide-eyed at an interesting looking nón lá (Vietnamese conical leaf hat).

Post lunch, I rushed to the nearest church, just in time to hear the mass in Tamil!

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception cathedral

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception cathedral

I reached the Promenade beach before sunset and walked the entire stretch. The locals told me I should stop to look at the Gandhi statue and the French war memorial, which I dutifully did.

When the sun dissolved into the waters of the Bay of Bengal, the street suddenly came alive! One could watch the Pondy-Police-Force play the trumpet, activists staging street plays, live music and dancing all along the way. The once empty road was now thronged by a sizable crowd, and the mood was that of a carnival. It was, in fact, a carnival as today was St. Bastille’s Day! I was just lucky to be at the right place at the right time.

Bastille Day festivities

Bastille Day festivities

After the noise-overdose, I had a quiet dinner at my hotel. I ordered Italian – the cuisine that makes me think of nothing else but what’s on my plate. I then proceeded to catch some sleep for my trip to Auroville the next day!

Ravioli con funghi (Ravioli with mushroom)

Ravioli con funghi (Ravioli with mushroom)

Sauntering through Salt Lake City

I spent this morning sitting on rows of bamboo-rods, gazing at the vastness of the waters of Nalban, as the breeze caressed my hair. I wondered how this place could be so cool in contrast with the heat that radiated from Bengali fishermen who cycled to this place.

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Fishing area at Nalban

Kolkata – a metropolis famed for its fresh water fishes, has a popular satellite city called ‘Salt Lake‘. They say it’s a posh area where residents seldom speak to their neighbours. That explains the tranquil airs that transmit little other than the sounds of chirping birds. Salt Lake is known in the football-circles for its famous stadium. But the multicoloured bungalows that line every street are what catch my eye. The houses that start from a single storey and go up to 5, are painted in all colours imaginable to mankind. These are alternated by some very rustic buildings that have weathered the monsoon and cried their paint out.

A colourful bungalow in Salt Lake City

A colourful bungalow in Salt Lake City

I noticed at some distance many old ladies in salwar-kameez and sneakers brisk-walking out of a park, and instantly decided to walk in. This was Banobitan University Park, or more poplularly, Central Park, a sprawling enclosure of green and purple flora that are ornamented by white egrets. At the centre of this park is a lake that is opened for boating from 10am to 5pm.

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A tree house inside the Banobitan University Park

Bengalis, by nature, tend to exaggerate most things. They scared me into carrying woollens and a scarf to this trip. But I discovered that the light chill in the air didn’t warrant warm clothes. Most pedestrians, however, wore chequered sweaters, mufflers and wrapped embroidered shawls tightly around themselves. I noticed also that the locals love their cotton. They will wear multiple layers to insulate themselves from the cold but will never part with their cotton-clothes.

Cotton sarees hung out to dry

Cotton sarees hung out to dry

In Kolkata, there will be new streets, new metro-corridors, new flyovers and even multi-storeyed office-buidings, but some things will never change. The Ambassador is one of them. These taxis from the last century still ply on the narrow Culcuttan streets alongside the quintessentially Bengali rickshaws.

An Ambassador (taxi) and a cycle-rickshaw

An Ambassador (taxi) and a cycle-rickshaw

The only thing more enchanting than the places and vehicles in Calcutta are the people. They are loud when they scream and sell their wares, yet soft when they invite you over for a meal; frustrated with the traffic and the political scenario, yet glad to live in their jonmobhumi (birthplace). Their faces hold a million expressions at the same time – anger, joy, pride, disgust, relief, fear, despair, frenzy, abhorrence and love. Perhaps this rare quality of holding so many emotions and still not losing their equilibrium makes Bengalis so beautiful to behold.

A cane-furniture vendor making his way through the crowd

A cane-furniture vendor making his way through the crowd

I have been visiting this city every year for more than two decades now. But this time, my eyes see what they’ve never seen before. Stay tuned for more posts in the Kolkata-series, as I take you through the heart and soul of my jonmobhumi