Too often Pondicherry is patronised as charming, its French colonial heritage fetishised. But Aditi Sriram finds many Pondicherries exist simultaneously, in reality and in memory
Featured in postcards for its still-preserved European architecture, in letters as the backdrop to a thriving spiritual ashram, and in newspapers for its alarming suicide rates, Pondicherry is arguably a city best written about when it is compartmentalised. The postcolonial French town with palm trees; a stretch of coast emanating divine energy; a troubled, restless, populous city—and these are just three of the most apparent options. Whatever aspect one chooses to consider, there is plenty to uncover, from the city’s interfaith scene, to its original printing press, to its extensive and multilingual scholarly archives. For some reason, though, the portrayal of Pondicherry that has stuck, one that is reflexively reached for by unimaginative travel writers, is that of the sleepy village hamlet. This Pondicherry is an ode to France. This Pondicherry is quaint, a one-syllable word with a hard ending but a soft, harmless meaning.
But ‘quaintness’ goes deeper than its current connotation. In the 12th century, it was a French word, ‘cointe’, that meant ‘knowledgeable, well-informed; clever; arrogant, proud; elegant, gracious’. From France, cointe swam across the Channel, where, in Middle English, it came to mean ‘cunning, ingenious; proud’. This upgraded to ‘elaborate, skilfully made’ in the 13th century, and ‘strange and clever’ by the mid-14th century. The word then resurfaced in the 18th century to mean ‘old-fashioned but charming’. Gone is the word’s once sharp-edged arrogance and shrewdness; today, quaint is used to imply something practically opposite to its original meaning. By being denied its history, this powerful word has been robbed of its power, reduced to nostalgia, a memory in sepia.
Pondicherry—of the past and of the present—is indeed elegant, cunning, skilfully made, strange and, yes, old-fashioned. Walking its rues, its ruelles and its boulevards, one can navigate from one historical era to another, one aesthetic trend to another, one wave of immigration to another. The city is a delight for scholars and salsa dancers alike, for educators and environmentalists, but this is rarely acknowledged when examining Pondicherry through a sentimental lens. As Italo Calvino writes in Invisible Cities, “If the traveller does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one.”
Conveniently for tourists visiting Pondy, the ‘postcard city’ manifests in large metal plaques and delicate palm-leaf scrolls, both available for viewing if one looks carefully.
M Yuvaraj, a dedicated tourism officer, takes twenty minutes on his motorcycle to complete one round of the four main boulevards closest to Pondicherry’s beach. These form an oval and enclose some of the city’s most attractive real estate, eateries and monuments; three hundred years ago they marked the perimeter of Fort Louis, built by the French. Yuvaraj stops to read the plaques marking the four gates, or portes, into the fort. New Madras Gate faces north, in the direction of Madras. Facing west, with its back to the Bay of Bengal, is the Vazhudavur Gate—which leads to the Tamil Nadu town of the same name. Farther southwest is Villiyanur Gate, also at the end of one of the city’s main streets. This is not a coincidence. Before these streets were thoroughfares they were the only access points into and out of the fort, making them well-trodden roads when the fort existed.
Shrouded by clusters of plants, traffic signals, lamp posts, and their accompanying tangles of wires, the Fort Louis plaques are easy to miss. They look steel- or aluminium-plated, but have lost their sheen. The lettering is faded and scratched in parts, but spells out the history of the fort and the significance of each porte. Illustrations are included, as if these are pages out of a textbook. Yuvaraj sighs as he reads from the signs, ignoring the honking and engine revs around him. If only these pieces of history were respected for the knowledge and heritage they contain, he muses, a rare frown on his face. Traffic—two-, three- and four-wheeler; two- and four-legged; purposeful and passive, all oblivious—congeals and flows without any time for detours into urban history.
Yuvaraj’s motorcycle pilgrimage ends opposite Pondicherry’s Railway Station at the final gate, Porte de Goudelour, almost hidden behind a sugarcane-crusher- and-juice stall. Inaugurated in October 1879, this was once a tiny station whose trains shuttled only between Pondicherry and Villipuram. Today it is a crowded junction, and its trains run all the way to Calcutta, some 1,850 kilometres northeast.
Within this oval of past and present, Pondicherry’s proper nouns insist on announcing their presence. ‘Knowledge’ is the building where the Sri Aurobindo Ashram school graduates pursue higher studies. ‘Heritage’ can refer to one of many charming French buildings, renovated and expanded into boutique hotels, and wearing official, golden ‘Vieilles Maisons Françaises’ signs at the entrance. For its uniquely large and rare collection of Sanskrit and Tamil palm-leaf scrolls, the French Institute of Pondicherry is a registered Unesco ‘Memory of the World’ site. Literally and figuratively, the city centre is bounded by knowledge, heritage and memory.
The French Institute is in one corner of the city, a majestic yellow building with an ultra-alert watchman at the entrance, and several offices, labs and study spaces within. Seated in its dust-free, air-conditioned rooms, one can study the “largest collection in the world of manuscripts of texts of the Śaiva Siddhānta” that date back as early as the 6th century. This “documentary heritage” of the Hindu god Shiva “long represented the mainstream of Tantric doctrine and worship and appears to have influenced every Indian theistic tradition”. The United Nations included these manuscripts in their ‘Memory of the World
Register’ in 2005, declaring Pondicherry as a site of memory more significant, and far less wistful, than the city one finds conveyed on postcards.
Continuing on foot from the French Institute, one can map out a small rectangle of Pondicherry memories within the boulevards: a four-sided keyhole into the city. Just one block east is the Bay of Bengal, visible from the Institute’s library, audible from the rooftop, and tempting all around. Back in the sixties and seventies, my father remembers the sea as his personal swimming pool—a boyish exaggeration, since he didn’t know how to swim. In his memory, he and his siblings would jump into the sea every evening, miraculously making it home unharmed. But the construction of a port in the late eighties caused the coastline to erode, in response to which the government installed a rock seawall against which the waves could break. The once famous and picturesque beachfront, a treasured memory for most Pondicherrians above a certain age, was turned into a harsh and stony landscape, referred to as ‘Rock Beach’, which few today can imagine any other way.
What was once four kilometres of accessible beach and promenade running parallel to Pondicherry has shrunk to about a kilometre and a half of waves hitting tetrapods, and villages north and south of this are suffering—not to mention anyone who remembers the beach being accessible. Any interventions so far have only exacerbated the problem. Creating artificial barriers to concentrate sand in one area means erosion elsewhere: the stones unavoidably sink, requiring more stones, which becomes increasingly expensive without becoming a permanent solution.
PondyCAN, a ‘Citizens’ Action Network’ involved in several sustainability projects throughout the city, has been working since March 2017 to restore part of the beach, and has successfully recreated a small patch close to the French Institute. “Once a good stretch of beach appears along the whole beach promenade, this will encourage other places in the country to take up beach restoration—this is already happening, but only marginally so,” says one of the organisation’s leaders. My father is hopeful. He longs for his childhood memories to be revived; how else can his granddaughter enjoy the same unfettered aquatic freedom that he did?
My father’s stories of Pondicherry are part of a family tree of recollections starting with my great-grandfather. So much of what those three generations described must be thought of only as such: descriptions of yore rather than lingering realities. And yet, with each retelling, the freshly baked bread from Sri Aurobindo Ashram’s bakery smells as inviting; the classroom antics with my father’s French teacher as entertaining; the status of the UCO Bank in the middle of town—where my great-grandfather was the Manager—as intimidating. With limited photographs and ‘documentary heritage’, to borrow a Unesco term, these images are kept alive through oral histories, which are not only enjoyable, but also immortal. Stories are designed to be passed on to subsequent generations.
That is the case three blocks west of the beach, at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (SAICE), a school founded by the ‘Mother’, the spiritual partner of Sri Aurobindo and co-leader of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Set up around 1930, the Ashram was originally intended for
sadhaks, or devotees, seeking internal peace and ‘cosmic bliss’. Individuals, couples and even families arrived from all over North India—a monumental feat in the 1940s. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were prepared for spiritual dedication in their followers, but that their followers would come with children, who needed somewhere to go while their parents were serving, studying, meditating—that presented a new challenge. Once the Mother realised that devotees were bringing their children, and that they needed a school, a new dimension of the Ashram was established, what is today SAICE.
Some of its first students, Kittu Reddy, Urmila Patel, Lata Jauhar—referred to throughout the Ashram community by their first names and the Bengali suffixes da and di—were Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s oldest devotees, who came to Pondicherry as young children in the 1940s and chose never to leave. Today they are in their eighties, still bright-eyed and sprightly. Asked how the Ashram has changed in nearly a century, one septuagenarian points out that his generation, unlike the ones that came after, knew Sri Aurobindo and the Mother personally. Many are still involved with the school today, as teachers, mentors and administrators. One school principal remembers how he began teaching there decades ago, without any conventional qualifications: “One day I was a student; the next day I was a teacher.”
By repeating the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, this group has found the confidence, and the content, to teach the many generations of Ashram families and students who have followed them. While they also use conventional syllabi, the teachers (and presumably students too) turn frequently to their gurus’ writings, in the form of poetry, prose and prayers. Once again stories come into play: meeting the Mother, receiving a birthday present from her, asking her a question. These anecdotes allow her philosophy—and through her, Sri Aurobindo’s—to resonate in the classrooms, courtyards and playgrounds at SAICE. Learning here is defined not just as curriculum review, but as a deep study of the two ultimate teachers, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The more stories to convey the latter, the better the class. So students independently study the Mother’s or Sri Aurobindo’s writings. Those who continue in SAICE for college listen to a morning melody composed by the Mother every morning, at the beginning of first period. (It is atmospheric, chords merging into one another, sounding rather like the soundtrack of a science-fiction movie. It lasts at least two minutes, during which all the students bow their heads in silence, in a gesture that looks real and committed—not something one associates with sleep-deprived twenty-somethings.) And true students of the Mother honour her lifelong commitment to fitness with their own lifelong calisthenics routines: the number of octogenarians doing stretches in the Ashram playground every evening is not small.
As Calvino wrote, “sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices’ accent, and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place. It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them, just as the old post cards do not depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Maurilia, like this one.”
From SAICE, the French Institute is a two-minute walk away. And the rectangular-shaped keyhole has been fully examined. In this quadrangle within the boulevards—one of so many quadrangles and ovals in the city—Pondicherry’s memories are architectural, environmental, spiritual. They are visible, audible, narratable. They are concrete and abstract. They belong to the student and to the teacher, to the sand and to the stone, to my father and to his granddaughter. They are unchanged and they are changing, just like the city itself.
This essay was published in the July-September 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was Memory.