I will never dream about Pondicherry again.
I have had my heart’s fill of it now.
Going back to Pondicherry after 46 years (we left there in 1962) with my sister and her husband (see picture above) who were visiting from Bombay, was the most rewarding experience. Though I have lived in Chennai for the last 41 years, the opportunity to visit Pondicherry had never arisen, though it is just three hours away.
And I never felt the need to go, but would dream about the place. About the house we lived in, the school we went to and our days there. I wanted to keep my memories intact, and so never thought of going.
My heart was full of happy childhood memories of the place. So many wonderful things had happened there. My youngest sister was born there. We went to the best school possible. We made a lot of road trips to the ultimate city (to us!) Madras. We learnt French and a bit of French culture, and made so many friends.
We were there from 1957 to 1962 – a very brief period, when my father(above) was posted there on deputation from New Delhi. He served as the Development Secretary. We lived on the top portion of a huge building, next door to what was then known as the Government House, and housed the Governor’s/ Chief Commissioner’s residence and other government offices. And my father had his office downstairs. We were only young children and did not know anything about the takeover of Pondicherry from the French by the Indian Government. All we knew was the predominant French influence and atmosphere in the city.
So when Viji called from Bombay and said “Raji, shall we keep our date with Pondicherry?” I was only too happy to say yes.
And Viji was the best companion I could have had on that trip. She and I (along with brother Bala) shared the same memories of home and school, though there is about six years difference between us - and nearly six inches! Driving down the ECR in the car hired for the express purpose, we talked and relived those days, fifty years ago!
Reaching Pondicherry, we tucked into a delicious breakfast and told the driver to take us to the Government House(on the right). He insisted that that was not one of the sights, but we had our own agenda.
He then said he did not know the way. We told him to go to the beach and we would direct him. And happily we could. We were going to see the house we had lived in. The streets were the same, the buildings were the same. The memories came flooding back and we knew exactly where the house was going to be.
It was a clear and sunny day, but not too warm, adding to our expectations. We reached where ‘our’ house should have been, and found to our dismay that there was a building housing the Romain Rolland Library close up to the compound wall with the front gate, blocking our view of ‘our’ house. It was like a slap in the face. When we enquired inside we were told that the entrance to our building was on the street alongside, the street separating our house from the Government House. And there we found this board! Our house had become a museum – we are now on par with the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, whose home has been turned into a museum too, we joked. My mother who had visited Pondicherry a few years ago and been to the house had prepared us for this. In a way it was good, otherwise we would never have been able to see the inside of the place.
We went in and asked to see the upstairs. The man at the reception table pulled out three tickets at Rs. 2 each. And while we excitedly told him that we used to live there so many years ago, he pulled back the tickets and waved us in. We insisted on buying the tickets, because as we told him, my father would have been the last person to encourage the misuse of concessions.
Going upstairs we found the rooms had become models of the luxurious rooms of the French period, (with suitable furniture and furnishings)– no photographs were allowed to be taken inside. We spent a long time there looking at the rooms and other exhibits, usually found in museums, reliving and revelling in so many memories. As a child I remember the shine my mother maintained on the red floor, but now that sheen was missing.
We wandered about the huge rooms, and discovered the changes made there – the person-in-charge was very helpful once he also learnt we were ghosts from the past. We went up to the terrace, where we found some more buildings blocking the view of the sea, barely 100 yards from the place. That was sad. From the other side the view was overlooking the Government House, and beautiful it was, just as before.
The sky was never bluer, the light never brighter than on that day. From the tiny balcony in front of one of the rooms we could see the road separating the house from the Government House. In the corridors of our memory we heard the reveille being played in front of the Government House – twice every day, once to hoist the flag in the morning, and once in the evening, to lower it. How often had we seen the men marching from somewhere behind the Government House to the front, in their smart khaki uniforms and hats along that road. When we left the house (museum)we were satisfied, warmed by the reception accorded to us once the persons there knew us for past residents.
Next on our list was the school.
We told the driver to drive slowly while we drank in the sights of the place, the straight and parallel roads, laid at right angles. The Pondicherry we knew and loved was this one square mile city, called the white town, with no public transport, but for hand-pulled rickshaws. We had no truck with the rest of the city, but for visits to the cinema theatres.
We used to walk to school, barely half a mile away, across the Government park where the lovely Aayi Mandapam is (we did not know then that that is its name).
St. Joseph de Cluny High School, run by the Cluny sisters from France held the most important place in my mind then. The Headmistress then was foundress Sr. Peter Claver, a nun who was from Switzerland who we referred to as Mother Peter. She made sure that along with academics we had a well-rounded education with music and art classes and sports. She set up a Literary Society, and the sports day was an annual event to look forward to – just as Parents’ Day was. For the latter she thought up interesting programmes that included Thamizh songs and dances, and also English and French pieces, for which we trained assiduously from weeks ahead. I am sure all schools have the same events, but to me it was special, especially because of Mother Peter’s enthusiasm. Then there was the annual fete, which was open to the public – there were stalls selling wares made by the inmates of the orphanage attached to the convent, and music played incessantly. Packets of confetti (contributed by us cutting the wrappers of sweets and toffees into fine pieces) were sold for four annas – 25 paise - and used to be scattered over everyone, just for fun. That was one day the strict teachers and sisters let all the rules relax, and fun was the keynote.
Even studying was made out to be an enjoyable occupation. The school was young then and had only a few students in each class, so a lot of personal attention was given to everyone. Mother Peter’s able assistants were Miss Thomas and Miss Gowri, who taught English, History and Geography in the senior classes. All these memories are still green ....
We went looking for the school and found it – in the same place, with the same buildings on either side of the road. But where was the school? Only the Montessori section functions here, and classes for Western music, another legacy from Mother Peter, are being held in what used to be classrooms.
The staircase where Bala and I had posed for photographs with friends was still there, though narrowed down. Sister Judith, the sister in charge there gave us the details of the number of music students and the exams they were trained for – Trinity College of London was the examining authority. I remembered that Viji had taken one of these exams.
We met Sr. Phyllis, the Principal of the Montessori section, and she told us how the school on account of its growing strength had moved from here to another part of the city – but we already knew this. The newspaper I worked with used to run a sister newspaper called Pondicherry Times, and I got a lot of updates from it. We were touched to see Mother Peter’s picture gracing the place. My brother Raja who was then very young was her favourite. – she used to call him her sweetheart.
On the other side of the road - where the French section used to be, along with the sports ground and the hall with its stage – everything was still there, but everything was different.
Sister Suzanne who received us told us of the current activities of the school. All the sisters received us so affectionately when they knew the purpose of our visit, even if they did not know us. . . Not a soul whom we knew, or who knew us, did we meet. Fifty years is a long time.
Following our own whims, we decided to hit the beach next, but after succumbing to thirst quenchers next door to the school. The restaurant on the first floor had a thatched roof, and the walls had original paintings from Hindu myths, in the style of Ravi Varma.
The beach was a favourite haunt in those days, and my father used to take us there regularly; though it was only an itsy bitsy walk, we would go in the car. (I used to hate the beach for some reason, and preferred not to go.) The raised, wide cemented path along the beach, Promenade as it is called appropriately, saw many people after the sun had set.
The students of the Medical College – these were pre-Jipmer days - would also come there, as well as the doctors, my father’s colleagues with their families and residents of the Ashram.
Walking on the promenade was a popular exercise, with the cool breeze balancing the warm cemented walk with its little wall on which people could sit. One could not reach the sea so easily then. Today it is possible to reach the sea after a walk on the sands. Lord Dupleix’s statue has been move to the farthest part of the beach, from the place of honour, and Gandhi’s statue is put up there. And from the beach it is easy to walk across to the Government Park.
As we did.
The park has been transformed from a plain garden with acacia trees and grass to a tourist spot with flowering shrubs and vague pieces of sculpture, and a corner with swing and other playthings for children. But that lovely arch, where I was once the chief priestess invoking Lord Zeus, remains the same.
We went round the park looking at the buildings on the sides – We oohed and aahed “Oh there is the hospital” where Gowri was born, and “There is the Club”, where we used to go regularly, and where my father used to play tennis. It was a treat to be taken to the Cercle (de Pondicherry), as it was known, with him and be treated to dainty sandwiches and lime juice.
Viji’s husband Venky remained a mute spectator throughout, silent support coming from him at all points.
After a detour for lunch into the other side of town, (the other side of the canal, separating it from the white town) we came back for a last look at ‘our house’, and the streets around it.
The buildings here are so beautifully maintained, painted in muted shades of grey. The roads are paved and slope to the sides of the road, where there are outlets for rainwater to drain out. Most of the buildings are owned by Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which is what Pondicherry is most famous for now. One of the buildings is where the Mother used to give darshan from, Viji remembered.
As a student there was a healthy rivalry between the Ashram school and ours in inter school events. As a Clunyite, I dutifully hated the Ashram students. But the fact remains that the Ashram played a huge part in the development of Pondicherry.
We also wanted to visit the Pillayar temple which we used to go to regularly - it is so close to where we used to live. My father never took the car on outside trips without visiting this temple and breaking a coconut. The temple has grown very large now – with land donated by Ashram mother, says a legend in the temple. The little elephant outside the temple was a crowd puller - Lakshmi, a real charmer, with a chain of bells, and anklets round her legs.
Outside, we saw two women stringing jasmines, and remembered the small packet of stringed jasmines which was delivered to our door every evening, and we would all wear them in our hair, right from Grandmother downwards.
It had been a perfect day, and a sense of fulfillment pervaded us, as we drove back home. Our driver suggested we visit the relatively new Sri Anjaneyar Temple at Panchavadi. We did and marvelled at the 36 foot high Hanuman. The road we took was the Trichy road, and a smooth ride it was.
All ghosts have been laid to rest.