Wednesday, 12 November 2008

PONDICHERRY AGAIN

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.

My father during one of his 'Development' jobs

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.
See the shine on the floor! Taken in 1962, when we were leaving Pondicherry for good.

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.

45 comments:

Webradio said...

Hello Raji !

Your text is very well to explain Your great trip in Pondicherry...

All photos are very nice...
You are 'lovely' on it... Smile for You...

See You later...

Maddy said...

tracing your footsteps? eh? - i have never been there, was reminded of reading 'life of pi'. the books starts at pondy. nice write up.

kallu said...

Great nostalgia trip Raji.Lovely pics and a not- too-slurpy write up.Good reading.
Have made your thirattu paal today. hope guests like it as much as I do.

Anonymous said...

Very nice piece. We were in Pondy some months back and there was some confusion about which one was 'your' house. We did spend quite some time at the museum (having paid our Rs 3!) and now I know.

Sekar

Indrani said...

Wonderful! So well written! Nothing like revisiting the place where one grew up. :)

Rinkly Rimes said...

Very nostalgic! The name Pondicherry sounds wonderful to English ears.I always knew it must be a wonderful place. Are you sure you've had your fill?

Vincent D' Souza said...

Raji's piece should motivate loads of people to visit Pondy,
Sam Mathew who heads Pondy Tourism ( now at the Toursm Mart in London) will also be pleased with this!

The best way to experience Pondy is by cyclerick ( which takes me to Peter, a Canadian who spends half the year in Pondy and has written 3 books on Pondy and hopes to publish a coffee table book next year. . .he lives on Saint Therese St)

Raji has experienced her childhood once over. Now, she needs to make another trip to explore the entire town, part of which is chaos and stink though . .
Once again because Pondy surprises you.

PS - Kingfisher has just launched its Draught Beer in Cans. Sunday offer at a lounge bar - six cans for Rs.250. No snacks!

Once done, walk down to the Le Cafe on the beach and sit down with Cappucino and freshly baked cakes.

Maddy said...

Wonderful!! Indeed the "red" floor is shining in the pictures. I guess what was your feeling when you visited those rooms.

Oh! that staircase photo!! that's lovely....How much it has changed and the person standing there too.

I have been to Pondy couple of times to meet my ex-boss in Rue de Campagie(some library was there).Its a lovely town.

Thank you so much for sharing!!

Maddy from Middle East

Kat said...

It's not laid to rest, but invoked. And you did invoke a thrill in us reading about

down-the-memory-lane trip.

Lucky the Chief Priestess escaped being mobbed for autographs :))))

Sunita said...

What a lovely post, Raji! Makes me think of my own childhood home. I can well imagine your feelings as you walked through those rooms again.
I've been to Pondy just once , on a stolen holiday with my hostel-mates from Madras (please dont insist on my calling it Chennai?). That of course, made it a much more memorable trip . Especially considering that was potentially the last day of my life!
We found the beach and roads deserted and strolled down the pier to dance at the very edge above the waves with the supreme arrogance of the very young. We found out only when we got back to Madras that there had been a raging cyclone howling around us. Remembering that and thinking of how we were just a step away from drowning still gives me goose-bumps!

design dossier said...

Hello from Washington, DC,

I stumbled across your blog on google and I'm glad I did. I really enjoyed your musings about your visit to Pondicherry. Certainly took me back to Madras and life in India which I sometimes miss sorely. We both share the same first name, have a dear friend named Mahema and are both bloggers...I'm sure there's much more in common once we get around to discussing...

Great post! Take care.

hpy said...

It must have been a wonderful trip back to childhood. (It's strange, comes a time when you want to visit childhood places again, even when you have left them without any hesitation.)

Kamini said...

Nice trip down memory lane. As Sekar said, we were in Pondy this April, and visited the museum - we had no idea you had lived there! glad that things had not changed beyond recognition.

namaki said...

What a trip ! what a thrill ! This is a wonderful reportage ! a deep insight into a child's memories and yet so cultural ! You are excellent at telling stories ...

Anonymous said...

What was for lunch?

Devika said...

Nice reading this, Raji ...so long and inetresting...i think you should be writing a book on your life- seriously, i mean it..

But the start and the end, struck a wrong chord with me..

"I will never dream about Pondicherry again.
I have had my heart’s fill of it now." ---

but i can never be this..every nook and corner, ever person, every thing of a place i loved to be stays with me...and i keep rewinding those memories while dreaming to be there..a changed me seeing the changed places, people...

its a fun in life i had cherished always..

"All ghosts have been laid to rest."

the ghosts never leave me to rest in peace, i mean in life ..they keep visiting me :-)
really i get the feeling that spirits surround me in certain afternoons, certain midnights...

who knows, whats wrong with me...I keep asking God..:-)

wishes!
devika

Devika said...

by the way, your sister looks a gem! :-)

see again later
devika

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

Absolutely beautiful peice, Raji Aunty!! Amused to know ur house got converted into a mueseum! That doesn't happen to everyoeone! I loved the photo on the staircase BTW, when u were young (not to say you're not easy on the eyes now! ;-)) Enjoyed learning about your life!

Gardenia said...

Anonymous has given voice to my unasked question - do tell what you had for lunch!

flowergirl said...

How familiar everything you describe was, as I read it! Given that we had been to Pondy earlier this year, and saw all the sights that you mention!

We also discovered a nice new bakery called Bakers Street.

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Web, Maddy, Kallu,Indrani, thank you, dear freinds.

Sekar, Kamini, Flowergirl, glad you know what I am talking about !

Rinkkly rimes, You are so right, I can never have my fill....

Vincent,put me on to Sam, please! :)

Maddy, thanks for stopping by - and how did you know which is me in the staircase photo? :)

Kat, now who told you that?

Sunita, thanks; your experience sounds frightening, really. The daredevil days of youth.

Design Dossier, glad you connected, I visited your blog and was impresssed. Do come back again.

Hpy, how true! But I don't get the same thrill from other childhood places, somehow.

Namaki, gald you enjoyed my trip!

Anonymous and Gardenia, I am not sure, but dosas I think - anyway who cares??!!!

Devika, thanks for your faith in my wrting.

As for my sister...Just wait till you see more pics of her.
She is not only beautiful, she is hardworking (has a 24x7 job), efficient and a brilliant housekeeper, all of which I sadly am not.
And having said that happily, beI remain my lazy old self.

Lakshmi , you are too sweet.

flowergirl said...

Raji, I've finally passed on the award - take a look at http://madraswanderer.blogspot.com/2008/11/arte-y-pico-award.html

Karthik Narayan said...

Brilliantly written... by far ur best and i am sure the start of that "one of your bests"

Swami said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

EDITED BY BLOG ANDMINISTRATOR

SWAMI SAID
Looking at the guy with the white beard and jeans and the woman, seem to remember them. Did she not post a write up on Paris? we now know why should she have visited Paris. The French nostalgia!
Was there not another person writing about this place producing photographs? Any relation again?
This blog seems to have bloggers related to each other!!

Visited Pondi but was never impressed. The interesting gossips were always about how Madras State was 'dry' and Pondi was 'wet', and why that explains the govt officials in Pondi sent whiffs of alcohol-mixed breaths whenever they opened their mouths even during office hours!!. While Bharathiar was a teetotaller in his days in Pondi (?), his 'Dasan' composed his poems with alcohol in his system. That to most was quintessential Pondi. Then there was Mother and all that followed including the Auroville, the scandals... That has been Pondi.

Happy Kitten said...

Wow!

What a lovely way to rekindle childhood memories...

!! Oxymoron !! said...

Hi Raji,

I was born in Pondicherry and later moved town because of my father's nature of work. I have such wonderful memories of the little town (just typing that made me go warm inside!). Yesterday, I had written a post about Sister Judith, because for some reason, my memories from the kindergarden school in Pondy surfaced. I googled for Sister Judith in Pondy and came across your blog! Glad to know she's still there! I'm going to make a trip, to say 'hi'!!

p.s.- Lovely pics!

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Oxymoron, I am happy you found my blog! I shall visit yours and read about Cluny - what a thrill to look forward to.

Admin said...

Pondicherry is My home!!! I love to go there but past 15 yrs life in abroad nvr brought chance to go there. thru ur blog i got happiness as if i visited there. Thanks for this post really good.. I write mostly about pondicherry in my blog. getting kinda happiness in it. http://pondyblog.blogspot.com/

have a look at it b4 u go somewhere in this web world

monalisa said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Deepa Krishnan said...

Raji, one of your best! What lovely photos as well. I thoroughly enjoyed this post and will see Pondicherry through new eyes now - yours!!

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Deepa, thank you, thank you!

Dinakar KR said...

Very nice one. School memories are the best and near-indelible. These are the memories that will linger on and on.

vaidhehi said...

raji,i almost felt i was walking along with you all..you have made the whole experience come alive with your painting -pics- with- words style..thanks..i really was transported to another time and era..

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Dinakar, thank you.

Vaidhehi, I am so glad you could share our feelings of joy. Thanks for visiting.

rajkumar said...

Hello
You had a great chance to have experienced such a wonderful childhood and again having the chance to rediscover all the past. I haven't completed reading your blog but i am pushed by a great excitement to share my views.
Myself working in France was born and brought up in Pondichery.Its my hometown that gives me a lot of energy every time i visit. Great Town.

I am a photophilic so just went up and down your blog and the photo with the stair case...wow...no words to describe your experience.
I searched for any seashore photos but was not there. I could hardly remember the long sand beach at those days where i liked to chase the tiny little beach crabs for fun. I always ended up in the mud hole in which those tiny crabs disappeared.
But now there is no more sandy beach but only water and somme rocks which act as wave dampers.
Impossible to get that past paysage ...more nostalgique:-(
I liked the line you use at the beginning of your blog "We went to the best school possible".For sure those days in Pondichery with a moderate population reminds me a image of a small town with schools that are countable. I was also proud to be in one of the best schools "Petit Seminaire HrSEC" a real rival for the CLUNY school. But now things have changed with more schools and Pondichery giving the image of a big CITY. Things change a lot nowadays in Pondichery. Thats tha way the world moves .
My humble request: plz upload more photos of the OLD Pondichery if you have them.I will be more pleased to gaze at them ...
Keep your spirit. Raju

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Raju, Thank you for the nice comment. My brother also went to Petit Seminaire.
As for photos of the old beach, I shall certainly see if I have any and post them. In the meantime you might like to visit my mother's blog - http://lifeinpondicherry.blogspot.com/ - which has a few posts on Pondichery.

Sriram said...

I dont know how I came across this blog... the evening seemed long and lots of work, but the best thing that happened was to reach here and see Pondicherry, my Pondicherry... I cant ever come around to call it Puducherry. I dont understand why the politicians play with our sentiments. Every cell in my body lived through all its nostalgia reading through this...Thanks Raji Aunty... and thanks again

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Sriram, welcome to my blog, fellow Pondicherry-lover, and thanks for the kind words. My motherr also blogs and she has a blog the first few posts of which are about Pondicherry.http://lifeinpondicherry.blogspot.com/

Hema said...

I somehow stumbled upon your blog a couple of days ago and enjoyed reading your posts. This post on your pondicherry trip reminded me of my primary schooling at Cluny, when Sr. Agnes was the headmistress. My father was working in SBI and we shifted to Madras when he got transferred there. Thanks mam for the write up and the lovely pictures especially the B&W ones which I always like. There is something very comforting in your style of writing and I like the expression "muted grey"

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Hema, how nice to come across a Clunyite. Am going across to see your blog, now.

Uma Mahadevan said...

Hi Raji....just happened to be browsing and stumbled on your blog...oh my God its like reading the story of the life of me and my sisters...our father was posted in Cuddalore from 1960 to 1967 and we studied at Cluny staying there as boarders...we experienced everything you have written ..a coupke of years ago we, sisters went back to lay some ghosts to rests and felt so sad when we saw our old house, the beach, our school, Mother Peter's photo, Miss thomas, miss gouri.. etc etc....this is an old blog of yours..if you do get to read this...would love to swap some stories..

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Uma, so happy to see this. I too would love to swap stories. Where and how may I contact you? My email id is rajimuth@gmail.com

brinda's bytes said...

Wonderful piece Raji! Brought a flood of memories - Cluny, the teachers, the friends (Viji was my classmate and one of my closest pals), the annual fete... And all the landmarks ... thanks for the lovely pictures!
I remember spending our first couple of nights in your house on landing in Pondy in 1959!

brinda's bytes said...

Wonderful piece Raji! Brought a flood of memories - Cluny, the teachers, the friends (Viji was my classmate and one of my closest pals), the annual fete ... And the various landmarks.... Thanks for the awesome pics!
I remember spending the first couple of nights at your place on landing in Pondy in 1960.

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