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French twist

Rooms illai
Pondicherry (now Puduchery)

A month into following Mata Amritanandamayi's 2004 South Indian tour,  I landed in this former French colony for a week or so to recuperate from the extreme fatigue, sore joints, and pernicious headaches brought about by following a saint across India dawn to dusk.  But I almost never got a room.

After an unbelievable 4 hours of fruitless search for a room, any room where I won't get bedbugs (which BTW I have had twice, both times in Bangalore) - after 4 hours of "rooms illai, " ("there are no rooms"), the auto rickshaw driver was laughing and saying "you come my house? staying? no problem, wife is there!" with a genuine smile.

It was that bad. Pondicherry on a weekend in the high season is impossible (Pondy being a town of only 1/2 million, there are not so many options). Finally, I had him drive me out to the edge of town where lies a marble monstrosity masquerading as a 5-star hotel, the Hotel Mass (!?). Some kind of miracle got me the cheapest room in the house for 600Rs a night (some $15 USD). About 3 times what I usually pay, but I was in no position to argue. After a month of hostels and budget hotels, a hot shower is a nice change, and I have to admit, after months of the cultural "immersion" approach, I appreciated their greater fluency in English.

The winter tour was a lesson in why high season in India (December-January) is a hard time to wing it, in terms of traveling sans reservations.  A great number of tourists (Indian and otherwise) avail of the relatively cool weather.  Also, the south Indian harvest holiday Pongal (usually second week of January) guarantees trains and guest houses will be packed.  And the "Men In Black" - the pilgrims going to Sabarimala, Kerala for the god Ayyappan - fill the trains and buses in an impressive display of devotion, carrying their belongings for the entire six-week journey on their heads. 

The French quarter of Pondicherry manages to weave some famliar comforts - you can get a nice croissant and cafe au lait here, even a glass of wine - into the surrounding traditional Tamil town.  But it's still too damned hot.  From about 12 noon till 4pm, I'm useless.  A siesta culture is followed in which stores close between 12 and 3 generally.  And in classic French tradition, AC and fans are not too popular. (No wonder so many people died in the heat wave in France of 2003  - I bet no one would turn on the bloody fan.)

"Pondy" is a leisurely town, deriving much of its charm from its effortless integration of French and Tamil heritage. I had an entire conversation in French with 2 venerable old school Indian gentleman; it was disorienting to hear them say "oui, je sais, c'est quoi - sa?" while doing the Indian head-woggle.

It occurred to me that both the French and Tamils share a zeal for their respective mother tongues, and unshakeable faith in the supremacy of their mother cultures.  Perhaps in this they found a mutual respect that outlasted the relationship of colonizer and colonized.

And the Pondy weather is so hot, it would force even the French to shower daily.

This blog originally appeared in January 2004.
I spent my months in Pondicherry as an "inmate" at the Sri Aurbindo Ashram, which deserves a blog entry of its own.

This post first appeared on Feringhee: The India Diaries, please read the originial post: here

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French twist


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