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The Insider’s Pondicherry

Francis Kuriakose (francis.kuriakose@gmail.com) is with the Cambridge Development Initiative, University of Cambridge.

The unique blend of silence and vibrancy characteristic of Pondicherry is slowly disappearing as locals grapple with rapid development.

As I pack my bags to leave the city that I have called home for the last 10 years, I realise that my personal history is inextricably linked to this place in ways I did not imagine before. Being a celebrated international destination, there are as many claims on Pondicherry (now known as Puducherry) as there are visitors. But, the heart of the city opens only to the insider when the milling crowds leave. As the sweltering summer sets in with its breeze-laden evenings, those who have nowhere else to go remain. It is then that Pondicherry opens up in quiet contemplation like a late summer flower, drawing in the sinewy bonds of community forged between neighbours from all over the world. Then, it is not just a place, but also a state of mind.

Every summer day, I begin my morning walk through the wide-angled cobblestone streets of the French town, with building façades crowned by the bright bougainvillea and golden blossoms of cassia. The friendly street dogs approvingly growl at my passing and the odd flute song wafts across along with the fragrance of freshly baked bread. Familiar faces dot the promenade, and the sea-side is a motley mix of solitary contemplation, and various forms of fitness routines, socialisation and cultural expression. Here, the mystical seamlessly flows into the natural and the social.

This seamless continuum that I experience at three distinct levels is what defines the heart of this city for me. The first continuum is that the personal touches the universal. Pondicherry has remarkably allowed me to keep my personal universe intact in an urban milieu. For example, as an avid gardener, my terrace is a veritable nest of floral and animal menagerie. A scurry of squirrels, a flight of mynahs, and swallows and sparrows have made this space their home. There are regular crepuscular visitors such as bats, egrets, and the odd humming bird. Many of my neighbours’ green homes are waterholes to a lively thriving population of these creatures.

This is possible only because of the second continuum, the coexistence of silence and vibrancy. Pondicherry is a very quiet city with periodic bursts of activity, such as the Sunday market, that brings everyone together. Here, the urban blurs into the rural and the pastoral, giving a unique laid-back rhythm to city life. This ebb and flow of human activity is the hallmark of its micro-political economy, where even the fishing boats take anchor, and shops and schools take their petite sièste (afternoon nap). This routine of rest and recuperation reflects the spirit of rejuvenation that Pondicherry stands for.

The natural rhythm of Pondicherry is therefore geared to the third continuum of hospitality in thrift. Any visitor would vouch for the warm hospitality of the people that comes from an elegant simplicity. When I first moved here, what struck me most was how much we could have for very little. There is a tight-knit entrepreneurial community and volunteer corps that service the entire society throughout the year, and especially in times of difficulty such as during the periodic cyclones and heatwaves, enabling people of all classes to own the city and make it their home.

Over the years, an unwelcome transformation has been underway in the city. The advent of “development” that has been foisted on Pondicherry to make it “smarter” and “world-class” strikes at the heart of the city. Suddenly, there is predatory real-estate emerging everywhere and especially as residential complexes with plush stay-ins to enable outsiders to experience the life here. Aggressive marketing tactics include all-night lights and generators, and the energy consumption of these establishments coupled with open balconies and terrace restaurants ensure that silence, privacy of residents, and sustainability are given a hard pass. For the first time, power shortage and water availability are coming up as questions of serious concerns among the permanent residents.

There is also the problem of insensitive tourism whereby visitors in their quest for selfie-worthy memories trample on local life with overcrowding, noise, ostentatious vehicle parking, and littering. Walking and cycling, which was a way of life here, is under threats of extermination. The flashy and gaudy consumption also irks the local population, who are often not beneficiaries of tourism because of the presence of intermediaries and agents. All these issues are aggravating rapidly, changing the face of the city that I know so well into a strange cocktail of conflicts.

I am not against development when it means improvement of the existing infrastructure or the addition of revenue generated by employment of the locals. But development cannot be at the expense of the city’s natural character and spiritual core. We have seen too many examples of mindless exploitation transforming spaces of exceptional promise to ghost towns. Pondicherry cannot end up in that list of nostalgic horror.

There are many reasons why everyone, including non-Pondicherrians, has a stake in defending this city. First, in contemporary India, Pondicherry is a living example of syncretism with multiple flows of thoughts, cultures, and ideas coexisting harmoniously. Second, the city has historic significance as it was built and tempered by time through the passage of droves of people who have left their mark on its heart. Third, it espouses a new idea of urbanism by being a city that marches to its own quaint rhythm. In a remarkably organic manner, it shows how sustainable living can be achieved from the grass roots through its core principles of maintaining individualities of its people, the coexisting silence and vibrancy as well as the inherent hospitality rooted in thrift and simplicity. We need such non-conformist spaces to show us other possibilities when dominant paradigms become inadequate to meet our needs.

A couple of decades from now, I do not want my beloved Pondicherry to become an image on a sepia-tinted postcard or a nostalgic dream in the hearts of its residents. While she is still a vibrant, pulsating, and beautiful city, there is hope for her to remain that place of refuge she has always been. She is the shoreline that is home to humans, sea birds and scrubby tropical plants. She is a place on the map and a state of mind that all who know her want to cherish.

 

Updated On : 5th Jul, 2019

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