13 March 2015
After traversing the sub-continent by taxi, air and hired car, I’m now in Pondicherry, or Puducherry as it is now known – the French colony on the southeast coast of India. Have you read “Life of Pi” (or, for those lazy readers, seen the film)? Well, it started at the Zoo in Pondicherry.
Slap my visage (face) with a poisson (fish) and shove a croissant (really if you don’t know that one, be embarrassed) in my bouche (mouth). This can’t still be India!
The boulevards are tree-lined, the villas lining the streets are French colonial in design, and the ever-present roundabout traffic cop is a gendarme, complete with his whit(ish) gloves and red pillbox hat.
The attitude is different; our request for wine with our meal is not accompanied by the waiter’s ‘corrupted foreigner’ frown – it’s expected, “But of course”. Even better, alcohol is tax free in this small jurisdiction – still trying to work that one out.
We are staying at “La Closerie Bay of Bengal”, a boutique French white-walled villa surrounding a shaded courtyard and small pool. The wooden French doors (of course they’re French doors!) that open off the quiet street don’t even hint at the cloistered gem beyond. An explosion of fuschia bougainvillea, ferns and gardenias, all shaded by a massive flame tree. The small courtyard that our rooms looks into is a colonnaded oasis of chaise lounges, wicker and teak armchairs, massive stone and brass urns, all cooled by ceiling fans that languidly move the humid air. The tastefully chosen decor of Indian and French antiques is straight from the pages of Belle or Conde Naste magazines.
Those of you who know me will understand. I am in my idea of colonial-design heaven.
Having arisen at 3.30am in Kolkata for the journey to the airport (boy, Kolkata seems like another world, away right now – I couldn’t be in a more polar opposite place), we planned to have an early night. We decided to do as the Franco-Indians do, and take a sunset promenade on the ocean-front esplanade. No longer are we gazing at moss-covered statues paying homage to Lords Dalrymple or Mountbatten, now it is the Marquis Dupleix who lords it over the locals. The French only handed back this outpost to India in 1954. French is all the population has known.
The locals. Well, it was like being in Place de la Concorde, with citizens in their “Sunday best” greeting each other, the monsieurs sitting on the low stone walls huddled and complaining about the youth of today and the madames gossiping about Mademoiselle Chandrasekar, who clearly has a new and quite ostentatious nose ring. We caught snippets of French conversations interspersed with Hindi and Tamil phrases. The haute couture was fine silk and organza saris, with gold brocade, in a brilliant array of peacock blues, emerald greens and startling pinks.
So as I sit having my breakfast baguette, we are planning a day of nothing. No traipsing around rocky forts, wandering through dusty city streets, or crossing hectic roads with sweaty palms and frayed nerves due to the constant car horns.
Today is devoted to reading a good book around the piscine (pool) with a cold Chenin Blanc in hand.
Vive la France!
This town has style.