My Rendition of Pondicherry: Introduction

Renamed ‘Puducherry’ in 2006, this coastal union territory packs a punch in terms of an unreal experience. Something about ‘Puducherry’ could not conjure the same image as ‘Pondicherry’ for me, if you ask me the reason for it, I wouldn’t know.  Interestingly, it seemed that the locals and the people in Tamil Nadu were also bitten by the same bug and they continue with ‘Pondy’ and ‘Pondicherry’, as if the change means nothing to them. But as Shakespeare pointed out, what’s in a name?

Travelers looking for peace and quiet would love Pondicherry. However, anybody expecting a Goa like party frenzy will be disappointed; this is a place to spend time with yourself and in many ways to find yourself again.

Unlike my usual trips, I decided to travel blind, where I did not research like I usually do and just randomly made a plan to go to Pondicherry; I guess I wanted to be surprised. Mind you, we were travelling there for the New Year and we hadn’t even made our hotel reservations (which is a dumb thing to do, but I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before). I was travelling with a friend so it wasn’t that foolish, but foolish nonetheless, knowing how crowded the place would be.

We took a bus to Pondi from Chennai. After the three and half hour bus drive, we reached Pondicherry, and that is when I started hyperventilating. The place was awash with tourists, and every place we went to had no rooms available. The thought uppermost in my mind was, would we never get a place to stay? After a three hour search we finally managed to book into a very comfortable budget hotel on the Captain Marius Xavier Street which was not very far from the main square.

After thanking our stars for coming to our rescue we quickly grabbed some food and set out to explore this fascinating melting pot of cultures.

The Extraordinary Architecture: A Feast for the eyes!

What stood out was the architectural divide! The French rule which ended in the early 60s had a profound effect on the architecture and the plan of the town; all the streets have retained their French names .                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

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The largest square in the city, Government square, is surrounded by all the public buildings, which can easily be labeled as the heart of the town. Wherever we went, we crossed this square at least twice a day.

In the colonial times, the city was divided into the White town and the Black town, interestingly, this can be still perceived in the architecture. The White Town (popularly known as the French Colony), is by the sea side, all the buildings are inspired by French Architecture ( usually yellow or orange)

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 which makes the whole experience of walking around them remarkable, as soon as we move a little further, we can see the buildings that are Franco- Tamil and which mark the Tamil Quarter. It was fascinating to see the changing look of the buildings.  Moving further was the Muslim Quarter characterized by mosques.

Even the churches have a Franco- Tamil feel to them

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The Beaches

The Promenade beach overlooking the Bay of Bengal is the most crowded and the most frequently visited beaches in the city. Its promenade is long and is surrounded by the White town on the other side, the promenade houses the most important memorials and statues.

The other beach, the Serenity Beach was a typical fishing beach with fishing boats and fishermen et al, unlike its name; it’s not very serene and is usually crowded, so there is nothing which can pass for a quiet and private beach around the city.       DSCN0717

The Auro Beach was also crowded with the local people and the fishermen were selling freshly cooked fish in small shacks. The locals explained that after the Tsunami raised the water level the beach here does not exist per se, a small strip of sand passes as the beach.  

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Arikamedu 

The highlight of my sojourn was a day trip to Arikamedu in Kakkayanthope, which is about 7 kms from the city.  This was a Tamil fishing village which archaeologists claim had trading ties with Rome in the pre- historic times; it was an important centre in bead making. Riding through the quiet south Indian village of Kakkayanthope (on a Scooty) was an experience I will never forget. The site looked abandoned and deserted with not  a  single soul present, after about half an hour we spotted a local on a bike; we stopped him to ask a few questions. He enthusiastically informed us how the ancient Arikameduans used an underground tunnel to transport their goods to a nearby port which would then be sent to Rome. The tunnel in question was covered by a thick covering of trees and vegetation.
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It was a surreal experience to stand at the very place, which despite being a quiet South Indian village had made a mark as an International Centre for bead making in as far back as 200 BC!  I could envision the bygone era… feel it in my bones. Today, the village has fallen into obscurity and the main site has been taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India. The artifacts, coins and pottery excavated from the site are displayed in the Pondicherry museum and some have been sent to the museums in Italy.

A Temple Town?

Like all the cities in Southern India, even this one was full of temples and shrines. The most remarkable feature about the temples in South India is that they are ostentatious and flamboyant, in a good way. Most of temple domes depict a scene from the Ramayana on the outside whereas the temples in the north have all the depictions on the inside.

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The Sri Aurobindo Ashram

No post about Pondicherry can be complete without the mention of the ‘Ashram’; the building is small and looks quite unassuming from the outside. But as soon as I went inside, I was struck with stillness, it seemed like time stood still and all my worries and inhibitions left me. The peace and serenity engulfed me as I sat there for about two hours. The energy in that place was poignant. Even now, while writing, I can feel Goosebumps on my arm just thinking about that place.

My next post will cover my gastronomic adventures and obviously Auroville!!!!

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The Other Side of Development


Don’t worry, I won’t go all Amartya Sen on you. But as promised (see The Pilot Post), I will share my social organization escapades with you.

In no terms am I anti-development, in fact, I have always extolled the merits of development and how it is vital for our country. But this experience has made me question my judgment. It was shocking to see the lack of importance given to human life and dignity, its like they don’t even exist for these people. The people who have money on their minds but they gift wrap these ambitions in the universally accepted goal of ‘Development’.

What started off as an innocuous field trip turned into a mind shattering rendezvous with the truth. A truth which has been ever-present but always disregarded. There are two Indias- on one side there is more than 70% of the people living in rural areas and on the other side, the urban inhabitants. Both the groups are ignorant of the way the other lives. In reality, the urban dwelling population will do everything in its power to not even acknowledge the other’s presence. Perhaps, they are terrified of what they might find?

We talk about development as being vital for this country and how the GDP should grow in leaps and bounds. We talk about industries, SEZs and every other way to increase production. So, the Land Acquisition Act (which enables the government to reclaim land for development) becomes a source of power in this tale of money lust. A whole network of people (from the government, industries and bureaucracy) lobbies in order to illegally reclaim land for money minting industries. The fertile land is shown as barren land so that it can be acquired.

Development is not the predicament here but the way in which it is carried out is. It will leave you speechless if you really see it for yourself. Majority of the people in these villages sustain because of farming and animal rearing, their land is taken from them and they are left with nothing to live on. Some stone crushing units and mines which sprung up right in the middle of the villages (ignoring the law which establishes a threshold of some distance between the industries and the villages) have destroyed the villages, have damaged the houses (one house I saw, had cracks as big as if it had survived a very high magnitude earthquake) and according to the local stories the stones fly all over the village and can hit anyone anytime. It is like living on a live volcano.

My earlier thinking was industries lead to employment and a better way of life. However, the ground realities are entirely different. What about the houses that are completely destroyed; the land, the villagers have lived on for generations, and most importantly, is this employment a sufficient compensation for what they have lost financially?

This ain’t no movie! People have actually been killed for raising their voice. What’s worse is the mining culture that develops with these industries; the outsiders who come to work in the mines have become a threat to the security of young girls and women in the villages. Some gruesome incidents were recounted which made me absolutely shudder.

This, however, does not divide the people into good guys and bad guys. All humans are capable of either good or bad, but this collective ambition to selfishly replenish their bags of cash is disconcerting. Why should the villagers pay the price for having homes in a place that caught the fancy of these so-called developers? Don’t they have any value at all?

These self-proclaimed developers are plunderers who will stop at nothing to get what they want. They see, they decide and they conquer. The lands are acquired and the poor rural people are left with nothing. Wouldn’t this be pushing the people to take up arms and revolt? Wouldn’t this be literally pushing them over the edge? Then the usual response is to brand them as Terrorists. Have we learnt nothing from the Maoist Movement?

Wanderlust Explained:

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By this post, I will attempt to talk about this ‘ wanderlust’ which affects us. On reflecting, I realized that not just the humans; but even a lot of migratory animals are affected by it. Specifically, some birds never stay put in one place all their life.  Perhaps that is why they have wings; so that they can fly?

How many times have you wanted to be someplace else as opposed to where you are right now? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a place you want to travel to, it could simply be a shopping mall, a cinema, a park or a yearning for some fresh air.

Travel is just a part of the Wish:

The yearning to travel is just a part of the whole scenario.

Is it just me or everyone feels like there is something out there to be experienced, discovered and lived. Not that there is anything wrong with the way we are living our present lives but there is a vacuum, a chasm ; if you will, somewhere  deep inside which can only be filled by this pursuit of the desire to discover something which  hitherto is unknown. Think about the gazillion cultures, tribes, cults, religions, places and tales just waiting to be explored, exposed and revealed!!!

At this point, it would be wrong not to mention the Inner Travel and Outer Travel.

According to me, any travel experience which entails travelling to any place, we are not familiar with would constitute two things on a basic level, an inner experience and an outer experience.

The outer experience would embrace the aesthetic beauty which we will see, natural like beautiful beaches, valleys, mountains and also manmade like beautifully designed buildings and cultural architecture.

However, the inner experience responds directly with the soul. So, you not only see things with your eyes but also with your soul… There is something about the sight of the magnificent ocean or the never-ending snow-covered mountain range, which communicates with you at an atavistic level. It strikes you at a spiritual level and makes you realize how insignificant you really are, how trivial your sorrows and pains, how ludicrous your struggles…..

Every travel experience changes something about you or rather teaches you something about yourself you didn’t know, the reason being that we are faced with unfamiliar circumstances and situations , things we are not used to and the way we react to them acquaints us with a part of our personality we didn’t know existed. So it really helps us grow. Every travel has changed me a little, my perspective in certain things.  It makes you aware about new things; things you didn’t know existed or cared about before, perhaps.

Does it signify a yearning for Freedom/ Emancipation?

Could this mean that the human soul really desires freedom when it wants to discover new things, new places , new people? Freedom to live beyond their societal boundaries by assimilating with different cultures and different ways of life? Maybe the soul was really not meant to live in these manmade boundaries, these boundaries which define how to live and how not to live.

What is strange is that every culture has a specific way to live and deal with things, so which one is really the correct way? How do we know that?

At this point, my saner self tells me, hey everything you wish to know and discover is right beside you, with you and around you. But how will I know that unless I do this, unless I give into this wanderlust and see where it takes me?

Was this a Glimpse of Nirvana???

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We started off with a trip to Andaman and Nicobar Islands but soon realized that there was no Nicobar to visit because the tiny archipelago was made tinier by the Tsunami that rocked the Pacific Islands in 2004.

I will admit that I am a little conventional in a way and I like to fully prepare myself about a place before I travel, I read travel blogs and travelogues about it. But nothing had prepared me for the real Andaman! What awaited us there was an experience beyond mere words. Not only was it aesthetically beautiful, it being an archipelago, the view from the airplane window before you land on the Veer Savarkar Airport in Port Blair, is beyond compare. It was culturally, anthropologically and even geologically unparalleled to anything I have ever seen even on Discovery HD.

(Honestly!)

It will take me posts and posts if I tell you the  complete story of Andaman as I saw it, so I will stick to a cursory view of the island. The promenade around the ocean in Port Blair is thrice the size of the much talked about Marine Drive and ten times more beautiful. Anthropologically, it hosts many tribes, the Jarawas, Onges , Sentinelese etc  which despite the advent  of a nuclear world live in absolute ignorance of the world around them. I mean they operate in a parallel universe because their civilization has not progressed from the Cavemen stage. This is astounding. No? Imagine! They haven’t heard of TV and yes our very own ‘the Internet’ is a mystery to them.  I saw hordes of anthropologists visiting the island and studying their culture.

In the Colonial times, this island was used to dump the political prisoners, and it earned its moniker “kala-paani”. The Cellular Jail made me think that how can some place so beautiful be marred by so much bloodshed? On a tour of the jail; the place where the prisoners were hanged is also pointed out. Many people who fought for us; died here.

To cover the whole chain of islands, we decided to hire a car. We drove through the whole expanse of the archipelago, the local ferries would ferry the passengers and their vehicles across the water. It was pure joy to watch gas cylinders being ferried from one island to another. One thing which really intrigued me was that every little town had a library. The public libraries in the bigger towns were often huge buildings, that says a lot about the people there.

The Beaches! Where do I even begin? The Havelock Island had its own immigration office (which was a cute little hut), a lot of tourists moor their yachts and use speed boats to come to the island and enjoy the beach and for water sports. With coral reefs to explore; Andaman has made a niche for itself in water sports.  The Ross and Smith Islands are twin islands off the coast of North Andaman (picture above); the sight of them emerging when you drive towards them in a speed boat is unsurpassed.

I will never ever forget the sight of underwater life; the scene I saw when I snorkeled on the Jolly Buoy Island. I saw a school of sea anemone fish (the clown fish rather Nemo, if you will ). It was like watching Nemo come alive. This school was attempting to hide in a sea anemone.

There is so much to cover the cuisine, the museums and more beaches; which keep getting better… When you think that nothing can be more beautiful than this; you come across something twice as beautiful.

So! If you ever think of an Island holiday; don’t forget we live close to one of the best in the World ( even though it is unexplored; which adds to its allure)!!!!

What is Honor:To do or not to Do?

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One of my fondest memories of my recent Goa trip, strangely, is a book I bought from the famous Singbal Bookstore which is located on the Church Square in Panaji ( Panjim), infact even Lonely Planet recommends this place.

I was in my Turkish- writer’s phase and decided to give Honor by Elif Shafak a chance. Since I had read the Forty Rules of Love and enjoyed it.

On the cover it looks like any other oft- written book about immigrants to foreign lands. However, this book grapples with a lot of other fundamental questions which are beautifully weaved into the plot. What is Honour? What are we really protecting ‘this’ for? And most importantly, from whom? Why is ‘honour’ only associated with women?

It is a powerful story set in Turkey and London, which roughly covers three generations. Adem and his wife Pembe immigrate to London from Turkey in search of a good life.  It highlights the differences between the Turkish and Kurdish people. Shafak highlights the question of Identity crisis which is faced by immigrants and even the generations that follow. It follows the lives of these family members which are shattered by an act of a brutal murder.

The protagonist, Iskender, a young seventeen year old is made to choose between honour and love and he ends up murdering his own Mother for the sake of ‘honour’. On finding out that she was having an affair with another man after his father abandons the family he is made to choose since he is the head of the family, being the eldest male in the family.

It makes you question the significance of love and blood ties. Peculiarly, by the end of the book a feeling of allegiance can be associated with Iskender and I wanted a happy ending for him, despite his cold blooded act.

Shafak managed to bring out the notion that you can’t hate the sinner; it is the sin that is condemn-able since behind everything there is a reason.

This was a good buy. Nothing is worse than paying for a bad book.

My next post will be about the beautiful Andamans!!

The Pilot Post!

I am a law graduate ( graduated a few months ago) , like everybody else i knew what i was doing when i started law school. I was supposedly one step ahead and had my career mapped out to the last detail. Then, life happened or shall i use a euphemism and say that i grew up!

In my last year of law school, I realized that i did not want to do anything I had mapped out infact I was clueless about what I even wanted for dinner sometimes (No kidding)! Then I graduated and I was more clueless than ever… I wanted to travel, write about things I am passionate about ( which ranges from anthropology to books to music to metaphysics and yes also world peace) and work for social organizations. In a parallel world, all these things might be possible to do and even together but the real world does not give that much leverage I realized.

But then it hit me.. I can do all these things if I want to and yes all of them can be done together. With this blog, I will share my travels, vicarious and real ones. My social organization escapades and yes, my books..

I hope you will enjoy it as much as I will!!!!!!