If Clive had lost the battle of Plassey in 1757, maybe the call center workers in Delhi and Bangalore would be speaking French instead of English. His victory gave the British East India company control of the riches of Bengal, and French imperial prospects in India never recovered. But just as relics of Portuguese ambitions in India remained on the west coast in Goa, on the east coast Puducherry (aka Pondicherry, aka Pondy) remained under French control until 1954.
I had read a lot about how Pondy was still an oasis of French culture in India – croissants and coffee, quiet, mansion-lined boulevards, and lots of shopping. I had my doubts, but was interested to see for myself, and it made a convenient stop between Trichy and Chennai.
Well, its true that a small part of Pondy isn’t quite India, but it isn’t France either. Most of Pondy, the area formerly known as “black town”, has always been Indian, the “white town” was a few blocks along the waterfront in the east. The promenade boasted the first trash cans I’d seen in India , although some had been beaten up a bit. The streets were wide and quiet, the buildings clearly colonial, the restaurants offered western food, and I never saw a cow, but I didn’t need the rapacious rickshaw drivers to remind me that I was still in India.
The heritage hotel I stayed at was a little more basic than I expected, but I appreciated the verandah, the high, wide bed (and the mosquito net, which I needed) and the wi-fi, which I used extensively to book for my upcoming month in southeast Asia. Unfortunately, I found both the food and the service in the western-style restaurants sub-standard, until I tried the very modern Promenade. The roof-top restaurant had a good view, although rather too much wind the night I ate there, but the service and food – both western and Indian – impressed me.
I didn’t do a whole lot in Pondy besides eat and stroll. I had my hair cut – much shorter than I intended, I restocked Imodium and Cortisone – that required quite a trek into “black town”, and I was ecstatic to find a bookshop with second-hand English-language novels. I did visit the Catholic cathedral, the in-town branch of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and walked past the Sri Manakula Vinayagar temple, and got no spiritual lift from any of them.
I also had interesting chat with an Indian woman who worked for the Ashram. She shared my table at the sea-front Le Cafe, where I was surprised, and rather horrified, to realize that she was never served. I was also surprised by her rationale for the dirt so prevalent in India: “it’s a tropical country”.