Can this be India? A French tricoleur ripples listlessly above the saffron and white walls of the Lycee Francais higher education school. Outside, a cluster of children chatter excitedly in French as their teacher cycles up. Chicly accessorized in a long white tunic and loose pants, she looks as though she’s stepped off the set of ‘Indochine’. People emerge from lush, high-walled gardens filled with exotic blooms onto cobblestone laneways and the aroma of freshly baked pastries punctuates the air. Standing on Goubert Avenue, a traffic policeman’s khaki uniform is snappily accented with a bright red French cap worn, naturellement, at a jaunty angle.
The British Raj may have corseted Indian society by introducing administrative systems and Victorian-Gothic architecture but there was another European influence at work. Even though they left half a century ago, France’s much desired colony in India still retains its savoir faire. Formed to oil the wheels of commerce and bolster imperialist aspirations, the French East India Company’s toehold was Pondicherry, a pretty town on a sliver of land framed by the Bay of Bengal’s langurous waves on southern India’s east coast which was finally ‘arm-wrestled’ from the British in 1814. Often referred to as the French Riviera of the East, the town’s simple grid system, splendid parks, botanical garden, squares and star-shaped flowerbeds show the French town planners’ aesthetic for simple geometry.
Old Pondicherry has two distinct faces, the French and the Tamil and both display reciprocity when it comes to architecture. Exploring the French Quarter’s shady tree-lined roads, the streetscape is an interesting pastiche. Adapted to a semi-tropical climate, French colonial houses are designed to retain coolness. Through partially open heavy wooden doors we catch tantalising glimpses of tall arched doorways, windows and high ceiling rooms arranged around a central courtyard shaded by expansive trees. Hibiscus spills over high walls and there’s a flowery profusion on wrought iron balconies. Walls are ragged with rose or saffron paint or washed by the passing of time. Small brightly painted shutters are open to catch passing zephyrs or sealed tightly against the heat.
Strolling its streets, I sense a definite throwback to another era when life passed at a gentler pace. Wiry men wearing check sarongs slowly peddle tri-shaws, sari-clad women ride past on classic French bicycles and even the Ambassador cars have a voluptuous, 1950s retro shape. It’s a blend of saints and shrines with dozens of Hindu temples and outstanding Catholic churches including the rococo 18th Century Cathedral and The Sacred Heart church, an oriental specimen of Gothic splendour complete with stained glass windows. Many splendid French colonial buildings now house the city’s administrative arms including Hotel de Ville, the original town hall and now the State Finance Commission. Across the street, imposingly attired police stand guard in front of their equally grand police headquarters.
With its unique blend of French chic, Indian textiles and handicrafts, the prospect of shopping in Pondicherry is exciting and I’m not disappointed. The Grand Bazaar daily market runs between M G Road and Bharathi Street and is a bustling blend of heat, colour, noise and spices. Women shop daily for fruit, vegetables, dried fish and flowers with time to contemplate lines of dazzling saris. Busy though this is, the crowd swells for the Sunday market held at the crossroads of M G Road and Nehru Street where cheap clothes, books, toys and CDs make souvenir hunting a cinch.
Wandering off the main thoroughfares of silk houses and gold jewelers, some delightful surprises are revealed along quiet side-streets. In a lush garden courtyard on rue Bussy, Gnanou is one of a number of shops selling colonial furniture, antiques and artifacts. I love Suffren Street with its sprinkling of exquisite boutiques including FabIndia and Pondy Cre’Art boutique and café where locally designed clothing, accessories and homewares fuse traditional and modern. Next door at the purple painted Nirvana boutique, funky accessories, t.shirts and tops covered with outrageous Indian pop-art designs make quirky take-home gifts while at The Red Courtyard on Chetty Street, I discover a boutique filled with delicate silks and feminine jewellery.
Following my nose I head to Flora and Flacon perfume on rue Saint Gilles for locally made scents while L’art Naturel on Canteen Street has silks, jewellery and cotton clothes at knock-down prices. The aromatic Kalki boutique on Mission Street is where chic Pondicherrians stock up on fragrant candles and beautiful hand-made silk co-ordinates while La Boutique d’Auroville showcases some of India’s most exciting fashion and accessory designers. There’s also handmade paper products, Pondicherry dolls made in terracotta, papier mache and plaster of Paris and village-made woven reed mats and accessories for the home.
Working up an appetite is easy in ‘Pondy’, a town where you can savour authentic bouillabaisse or crème caramel for a fraction of the price you’d pay in France. Straddling the French and Tamil quarters, the escargots, almond croissants, baguettes and coffee at Hot Breads on Ambour Salai make this a popular spot for international visitors. Built in 1886, Rendez-vous on rue Suffren is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner or there’s Touskilfo, a smart cyber café nearby at 11a rue Romain Rolland. La Terrace dishes up simple local fare and we enjoy Mass on Saint Laurent Street for its well-priced international selections served in a secluded garden. Along the seafront, The Promenade hotel is known for its reliable buffet but we opt for a wicked cocktail and spectacular sunset over the Bay of Bengal from their Risque Bar.
To experience the romance of oriental India, the 18th century Hotel de l’Orient on rue Romain Rolland is best in town. Overhead, leaves tremble delicately in the warm evening breeze as we dine in the courtyard framed by arched walls. A Creole menu includes mutton coconut and chicken curries or there’s a handful of dishes with a light touch of India but this is where you come to eat fine food with a decidedly French flavour. A sweet lime, orange, date and dry fig salad is aromatized with rosewater. Vegetarian options include a combination of carrot mousse and mushroom ravioli with ratatouille. There’s Kingfish caught off the coast that morning and calamari delicately dressed with a lemon sauce. At one hundred rupees, around $2.40, the ridiculously priced classic chocolate mousse is to die for.
The days are hot and we join promenading Pondicherrians seeking the Bay of Bengal’s cooling breezes. Women in vividly hued saris enjoy the cool swirling water where fishing nets are being laid out. In India where there’s people there’s food and entertainment and the kilometer-long beachfront is no exception. Young boys sell drums and toys, vendors pedal ice cream carts, stalls display mounds of sweet corn, pulses and exotically decorated sour mangos or you can pay to have a parrot pick cards and tell your fortune. At the end of the promenade, children play on a life-sized monument of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern India, who gazes benignly towards a town that’s grown from a humble fishing village to a cosmopolitan city that’s chicly French.
You will need a visa to visit India.
The weather is coolest between November and February and like rest of south India is tolerably humid and hot from March until August.
With its French heritage, Christmas is celebrated – quite a surreal experience – and there’s an India-French pageant to commemorate Bastille Day each July 14. Balancing the scales, the harvest festival of Pongal, the largest Hindu festival in Tamil Nadu, happens every January.
Bring a spare bag. Pondicherry’s shops have beautiful clothes in cool Indian cottons and silks that fuse French chic with Indian flamboyance at great prices.
Links: – India Unbound – Incredible India – Hotel de l’Orient –