French Kiss

The reasons to travel were many: to be away from home, to breathe fresh air, to soak in some peace and quiet. Then there was the ocean, the architecture, the history, and the culture. And so, one fine morning, I found myself in a place I have often fancied living in – Pondicherry.

Although famous for its French connection, Pondicherry wasn’t a French colony to begin with. The Portuguese were first to arrive here in the 16th century to trade through its ports. Unfortunately for them, the royalty found them too unfriendly for comfort and showed them the door soon after; the Danes and the Dutch were next to set up shops in different parts of the town, but of course no one succeeded in making the place their home until the French arrived.

Pondicherry’s rendezvous with France began in 1673 when its first French citizen was commissioned by the King to set up trade in the city – he wanted the French to compete with the Dutch. The French must have succeeded, for, barring a few incidents English interference, the town primarily remained a French colony for almost 400 years, until seven years after India’s independence from the British.

Today, the coastal town happens to be the only place in the country co-inhabited by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Danes, the English, and the French, besides the native Tamils and some Vietnamese. Not surprising then that even after sixty years of being a part of independent India, Pondicherry retains its French flavour – in art, culture, architecture, and most importantly, attitude.

I arrive in Pondicherry on a Sunday morning, in a state transport bus. The bus, although air conditioned, is old and rickety. Its jacquard seats, which would have been light green at some point, have turned a shade of deep grey, the levers to adjust the backrest are broken, and the slots in the air-conditioning ducts are missing. Thankfully the air-conditioner is functional and the bus isn’t crowded. I find that the best excuse to catch up some sleep.

I wake up only minutes before we enter Pondicherry. Thanks to my sleep, I have missed the picturesque drive along the coast, but the long nap has refreshed me. The city however seems lazy on a Sunday morning: the roads are deserted and devoid of any activity, the bus terminal is as empty as the bus; the only sign of life I see are the few stray dogs scurrying about, perhaps looking for breakfast, and a sweeper indolently sweeping the pavement. The arrival of our bus has finally woken up some people. Bored and listless auto-rickshaw drivers, invisible until now, have sprung into action, so has the lone tea vendor inside the terminal. I have gotten off the bus expecting to haggle with the drivers fully prepared with my defence, but I am in for a surprise: the first driver I speak with, agrees to ferry me to the guest house for a measly eighty rupees.

We – the driver and I – are soon driving through the deserted wide road lined with transport offices and hardware shops on one side; food stalls, cheap garment shops, and empty buses on the other. Taking a left turn from a huge intersection, we get into the old city where I can finally see some signs of life – little houses along the street with fresh kolams, Tamil women wearing flowers in their hair and turmeric on their faces,  young men on their bikes. Along another street, I see food stalls gearing up to serve fresh breakfast of Idlis, Vadas, Dosas, and Filter coffee, their aroma wafting in the air, along with that of freshly lit incense sticks.

It takes me less than fifteen minutes to reach the guest house which stands right behind the handsome white building of Alliance Francaise. A green signboard announcing “Dumas Guest House” confirms I am at the right place – a two hundred year old, white and yellow house, a portion of which has been converted into this cosy guest house.

A small, red ramp leads me to a tall teak door opening into a foyer. The foyer, which has a wooden desk with some stationery, a few tourist guides, and a pile of dark blue business cards that read ‘Dumas Guest House’, looks like a Pondicherry equivalent of the reception – quiet and restrained.

But I cannot not see anyone around and decide to wait.

The foyer has a high ceiling supported by thick wooden beams. The wall on my left displays a few black and white pictures and a huge map of the French Quarters. A few curios adorn the wall behind the desk; the same wall also has a small door leading into a courtyard. On the wall to my right, hangs a soft board with a key stand – presently devoid of any keys – and a sheet of paper with the names of the guests, their room numbers, and the their arrival dates. I promptly look for my name and find it somewhere in the middle. Assured, I look around.

Right next to the board is another door that opens into a spacious room with cream coloured walls. In the centre of the room stands a huge wooden desk with a couple of chairs on both the sides; an antique wooden cupboard stands majestically in one corner and a small writing desk in another. This room, which looks like an office, also turns out to be empty. I have now been waiting for over ten minutes and am beginning to get restless. Since I cannot spot any bell, I decide to call the attendant.

A few days before, I had spoken to a man called Bala, who had helped me make the booking. Going by his name and the way he spoke (he was very polite and spoke in accented English), I had expected him to be a local Tamilian in his late forties who worked at the guest house. Presently when I call him to say that I have been waiting at the reception, he apologises, and promises to see me in less than a minute. I am still contemplating if I should complain for having to wait at an empty reception for so long, when a tall, dark, good-looking man with a big warm smile enters the room. Dressed in a white T-shirt and a pair of khaki Bermudas, he looks not a day older than forty-five. He introduces himself as Bala, the co-owner of the place. I forget all about complaining and follow him meekly through the courtyard to a narrow staircase into the café on the terrace.

On the terrace I have two things waiting for me: a scrumptious breakfast that Bala had ordered as soon as I had called and one of my closest friends. She has travelled from Bangalore and had reached a few hours before. A long, tight hug and a cold glass of water later, I am gleefully digging into my plate of simple yet delightful breakfast of perfectly fried eggs, crisp toast with soft, creamy butter and a cup of strong filter-coffee.

Sitting among the quiet of the trees, the chirping of the birds, looking through a huge frangipani tree into the bright blue sky, and listening to her stories, I finish what is one of the most pleasurable breakfasts I have ever had. Since we have arrived much before the check-in time and our room is not yet ready, we decide to go for a walk.

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Having spent most of my life in the North India, where you are either frozen to your bone or roasted alive by the heat, I find the weather in coastal towns particularly fascinating – the sun is always bright and ready to burn your skin, while the pleasant breeze tirelessly works to undo the damage done by its partner; just when you begin to get used to their hide and seek, a few clouds join them adding another dimension to the game. Presently, we are out on a walk after the large breakfast, and only the sun seem to have accompanied us; the breeze and the cloud are away, probably playing their own secret game.

Besides the sun, our other companion on the street is an elderly Japanese couple strolling in their trademark shorts and white floppy hats; each of them has a sophisticated camera into which they grin every few minutes. My friend, inspired by the couple, has launched into a photo session of her own: she clicks the doors, the windows, and herself as we walk along the street.

The large houses on either side of the road look resplendent with huge teak doors and wide French windows. From their high boundary walls hang curtains of bougainvillea bursting with bright pink, pale white, and rich green. Some of these flowers have fallen on to the street and the doorways weaving a delicate pink and white carpet. It is, according to my companion, the perfect background for taking pictures. I somehow agree with her.

The most enchanting part about travelling to a coastal town, for me, has always been the first view of the ocean. At times sudden, at times gradual but the sight is always alluring – the vast expanse of water, the rippled blue-green surface, the glimmering rays of the sun, the bobbing boats – the sight works as a perfect balm for a soul battered by hours, often days of travel.

By the time we reach the end of the street, the sea is already visible through the gaps between buildings, but I want to witness it in all its might, so I wait until I am right in front of it.

Standing on the boulevard, right under a blazing sun, I finally look at the Bay of Bengal.I see the golden ripples on a clear blue surface, the huge white frothy waves crashing against charcoal grey rocks, the fishing boats on the horizon, the silhouette of the jetty against a bright blue sky. The moment is worth all the time, effort and money I have spent in reaching Pondicherry.

I could stand here forever, gazing at the sea and the sky but with no sign of the breeze or the clouds, it is getting uncomfortably warm. We decide to walk back.

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Back at the guest house, our room is not ready, so we wait in the compact courtyard on large cane chairs with a chilled bottle of coke by our sides.

From the low boundary wall of the courtyard, I see the other portion of the house. There is a large hall with French windows & tall columns, a lawn and a small temple. The temple, a small enclosure with idols in all shapes and sizes, fascinates me enough to trespass the boundary & step into the residence. The temple is unusual. It has no roof but only  four pillars and a beam and uncountable idols. I can recognise the familiar ones: Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva but there were many, which I cannot. They are arranged neatly along the periphery while a big Nandi sits majestically on a platform in the centre. A traditional brass lamp hangs in front of it, grimy from the oil and the stubbed wick; parts of it have turned green with moisture. A few more brass lamps stand in various parts of the enclosure. I wonder who owns the place and plan to ask Bala about it, (that would also give me a reason to talk to him), when I see my companion chatting merrily to a middle-aged woman.

The lady happens to be the owner of the house & the guest house, her name is Jackie & she is here to apologise to us for the delay in setting up the room but ends up entertaining us. Soon she is telling us her story.

Jackie was born and brought up in Pondicherry to French parents and this building was her ancestral home. Since she had family back in France, all through her childhood she kept visiting the country and liked it enough to make it home during her youth. She worked, married, and had children there, but something – she was not sure what – kept pulling her back to India. After trying to avoid it for long, she finally came back a few years before and set the guest house up in one part of the mansion. She has since been living in the city, while her children, grand children, and parents are back in France.

Looking at the sturdy, smart and youthful Jackie, it is hard to believe that she had children and grand children back home. Also, the conversation had given me no clue on how Bala fit the picture. I am curious but decide not to ask any further questions.

Our room is finally ready for occupation. Fitted with old-world furniture – a huge set of typical Pondicherry beds, a duvet on the side, a cupboard, a marble top writing desk, and an old sturdy chair – it is dream come true for an aficionado of art and history like me. The windows are French & doors have glass panels & translucent curtains, something that reminds me of my first school housed in a 100 year old British building in Kanpur

The fun of travelling alone is not only in doing things you like – sleeping, eating, reading – but also in not having to do things that you don’t want to. With no husband or children, there is nothing that I have to do, so I decide to do nothing at all. While my friend gets busy in unpacking and dressing up, I lounge in different parts of the room doing absolutely nothing. Hours later, only after she is done and has pestered me enough, do I enter the bathroom.

Just like the room, the bathroom is spacious and has a high ceiling, it also has an old fashioned ventilator, a wooden stool and a wooden clothe hanger.

The refreshing bath, the unhindered lounging and the non-stop chatter has now made us hungry enough to eat a horse, but since civilised men – and women – cannot be eating live animals, we decide to give Rendezvous a chance to feed us.

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My last trip to Pondicherry, which was also my first, had been quite a disaster. Right from the drive, to the place we stayed at, to the rain & the toddler we were travelling had ensured we went back disappointed. The only consolation was one particular meal, at one particular place. Rendezvous.

Touted as the best French café in town, the place had salvaged the trip for us. Although not particularly French, the place had good & comforting food. As a gesture of gratefulness, I wanted my first meal in town to be at the same place. Plus, I loved its fusion décor: a Tamil themed passage leading into a Parisian café.

Today, when I walk in, it takes me a minute to recognise the place, in two years the place seems to have undergone a complete, and unfortunate, makeover. The trademark huge teak door with dimly lit doorway, terracotta pots and an urlis, kolams  and vintage pictures have given way to a just another posh eatery with plush sofas & fancy decor. The only thing that sets the place apart now is the little signboard that reads: “Rule #1, Coffee always comes first”.

My heart fills with joy: in this tea-obsessed country at least someone is ready to serve coffee, that too before the meal. But coffee is not what we want right now, we want food, and in the excitement we order a little too much – Grilled Fish, Chicken Steak, Hash Brown, Lemonade, Ice cream, Coffee.

The food arrives in phases, like us, there are many who are as much for the conversation as for food. And so we enjoy our extended lunch along with the din of the place catching up on love & life, interjected only by the waiter getting us glasses full of lemonade.The conversation would have carried on until evening, if I did not have something else luring me.

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Picture this: you are at a store, any store, and you fancy something, say a fountain pen. It is love at first sight – you and the pen. It is just what you had always wanted: rare, unique, and there is no way anyone else around you would have something like it. You are OK to pay the price for it (which is a little steep, to say the least) but just as you take it to the billing desk, you find your alter ego asking you some uncomfortable questions: “Do you really need it? Is it worth the price? Can’t you put the same money to better use?” You are so overcome by guilt that put it right back at its place, buy whatever else you had to – or not buy anything at all – and leave the store. But the pen haunts you, you think of it all the time – while reading, driving, at work, when you are trying hard to sleep – until you are convinced that you want to possess it, price be damned. You rush to the store at the first opportunity only to find it’s gone.

One of the reasons for my coming back to Pondicherry is a scooter – a vibrant yellow piece of tin that had been moulded into a Lambretta. I had almost bought it on my last trip when I had realised that spending four hundred rupees on a piece of tin was not worth it. I had later found myself obsessing over it, even dreaming about it for months. I had to pick it up now and have therefore cut short a very interesting conversation and have rushed to buy it. I am somehow hopeful that I would find it even after two years. But. I am wrong.

The boutique store, a treasure trove for craft diggers like me, however makes up for the loss by offering an array of other interesting and quirky stuff. It has art, it has craft, it has pottery; there are curious, and clothes, and wine, and everything you expect to find in Pondi. Hours later, when I finally leave the store, my hands are full and wallet empty. The rest of the afternoon is spent in spreading everything out on the bed and justifying the prices  paid for them.

Evening falls early. Before we know the sun has come down and and we are once again out on the street. The quiet French neighbourhood of the morning has, by now, transformed into a bustling picnic-spot. There are bikes parked at all possible intersections & cars line every inch of the street.

The boulevard is abuzz with activity. Young boys and girls walk in groups, laughing and backslapping; large families are gathered around food stalls eagerly awaiting their turn, young couples are trying to steal a moment or two away from the world; elderly couples walk their dogs, children rally around a visibly harassed ice-cream vendor. On a regular day, the crowd and the noise would have driven me crazy, today somehow I enjoy being a part of it.

Settling in on the charcoal grey rocks, with the frothy waves spraying salty water on our faces, overlooking the solitary boat on the horizon, we talk of love and of life, of friends and of sisters, of happiness and of sorrow, and of a quaint little town called Pondicherry.

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