Pondicherry, C'est Parfait! Jon Sopel Is Enchanted by an Indian Town with a Rich French History (and Where the Men Still Play Boules)
Byline: Jon Sopel
JE VOUDRAIS une baguette, deux croissants et trois cafes creme. Of all the sentences you expect to utter when you get to India, this really isn't one of them. But there I was in the bakery - sorry, boulangerie - at Pondicherry and standing across the counter from me were two South Indian women, strikingly elegant in silk saris, speaking French as their first language.
The local policemen wear kepis, and war veterans play boules in the evening on the Rue Dumas (road signs are in Tamil and English and made of blue enamel with white lettering) across from the Eglise de Notre Dame. They go on from there for a quick pastis or two at their club, Le Foyer du Soldat, at the entrance to which hang portraits of presidents of the Fifth Republic, from de Gaulle to Hollande.
The buildings in this part of town are all French colonial style. The sun has not quite set on this little outpost of the French empire. OK, so I didn't see men on bicycles wearing berets and stripy T-shirts and selling strings of onions, but in every other way could it get any more French?
By way of explanation, let me try to condense 350 years of history into one brisk paragraph. French get jealous of British wealth being garnered in India and think, 'We'll have some of that.' They need to find a seaport where they can land which isn't too well protected. Voila Pondicherry. The Brits fight them off, the French fight back, and this goes on until the Brits are humiliated in the 18th Century. They are so busy preparing to fend off the French again at Pondicherry that they forget to protect Madras, the British headquarters in East India, and the French invade. At this point the Brits say: 'Give us Madras back and you can have these towns clustered in the south.' The French agree. The Tricolour continued to fly over Pondicherry until 1954 (interestingly, seven years after the end of British rule in India).
What you are left with today is an intriguing Indian town with a decidedly French accent: the French quarter is called La Ville Blanche and the Indian section is La Ville Noire. Both are well worth exploring.
Pondicherry is dominated by the ashram set up in the Twenties by Sri Aurobindo and a French woman, Mirra Alfassa, known by everyone as 'The Mother'. She died in 1973, but the spiritual community continues to thrive. It has to be the biggest landowner in the town - the ashram occupies a good chunk of the waterfront and also includes a school, guesthouses, laundry and bakery.
Much of the ashram is closed to the public but the areas that are open reveal the deeply spiritual, beating heart of India. You leave your shoes at the door and walk through courtyards and alleyways where the smell of jasmine hangs in the air and disciples pray and practise yoga.
We stayed at the Maison Perumal, a delightful Tamil merchant's house which has been converted into a guesthouse-cum-hotel. There area handful of rooms built around a fragrant courtyard - trees grow up in the middle of the courtyard and a sprinkler system on the roof creates the effect of light, misty rain falling. Stained glass windows illuminate the area with wonderfully refracted colours.
The bedrooms are simple but stylish, with lots of dark wood and comfortable beds. There's a real feeling of tranquillity in an otherwise bustling town. The proud boast of Maison Perumal's chef is that his kitchen has no freezer.
All food is bought from the market each morning, and given our position on the Bay of Bengal, there is a strong accent on fish. The food was delicious.
WE THEN travelled 100 miles north to Chennai - or Madras as was - the capital of Tamil Nadu. There we stayed in an equally wonderful hotel - but it could not have been more different. If Maison Perumal was a throwback to an earlier age in Indian life, the ITC Grand Chola is 100 per cent proof that 21st Century India is a global superpower. …