A FrancoIndian Connection

A FrancoIndian Connection
As a Francophile and a frequent traveler to India, I have long been fascinated by the prospect of visiting the one remaining French enclave on the subcontinent – Pondicherry. Located in the state of Tamil Nadu on the southeast coast, this seaside city still counts French among the languages spoken and has most of its streets labeled as Rue… It even has a French quarter – La Ville Blanche – complete with Hôtel de Ville. I had the opportunity to visit Pondi (as the natives call it) for three days after a grueling but successful week of business activities in nearby Chennai. I intended to use my brief time there as a retreat of sorts, as I needed to begin a couple of writing projects in a peaceful environment. But I also wanted to get a taste of the culture in this unique part of south India. I stayed at Le Dupleix, a small, handsome hotel named after the most successful French governor of Pondicherry, Marquis Joseph François Dupleix. Under his rule, the French gained control over much of south India and the British found their circle of influence restricted to Madras (Chennai). Dupleix’s expansion of French control extended the district of Pondicherry (now called Puducherry, a derivative of the Tamil word meaning “new settlement”) to areas that are now part of the states of Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Pondicherry town is only a small part of this district. The hotel occupies what was once the governor’s mansion. This 18th century building has been completely restored using traditional methods of construction and finishing. As an example, the walls of the hotel were refinished with a traditional lime plaster called “Chettinad Egg Plaster” consisting of egg white, powdered sea shells and yogurt. Each layer of plaster was polished by hand! Exquisitely carved wood paneling from Dupleix’s home adorns the walls of the hotel. Each of its 14 rooms is designed differently. Mine was located on the corner of the top floor, with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides that overlooked lush trees shading the surrounding homes and businesses. It was the perfect room for a writing retreat! On the one day that I allowed myself for sightseeing, I spent four hours on a self-guided heritage walk. The map supplied by the Pondicherry tourism office provided routes for the French quarter and the Tamil quarter, which is roughly divided into Muslim, Christian and Hindi areas. While I didn’t attempt to visit every site listed on the map, I saw everything that I wanted to see. This included most of the French quarter, a Hindi temple, a mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and a couple of grand Catholic churches. The French quarter is on the easternmost side of the city, bordered by the Bay of Bengal. The beach is long and narrow and not particularly beautiful. Still, if you love the sea, it serves its purpose. Along the road that parallels the beach (Goubert Avenue) are the tourist office, a statue of Gandhi, and a beachside café called Le Café. Many government administrative buildings are located along this road, including the Hôtel de Ville. With the exception of a few buildings at the southern end of the beach, most of the structures are not very interesting from an architectural standpoint. Going westward, however, things change dramatically. One immediately notices the prominence of French colonial architecture along rue Dumas, one block away from the beach. Numerous villas sprawl behind high, brightly painted walls behind which foliage and flowers grow abundantly. The Eglise Notre Dame des Anges rises above the dwellings in the neighborhood, looking as pristine as the day it was built. Today’s edifice, constructed in 1855, is the fourth iteration of a church that was razed by the British in 1761. Masses are performed in French here. The entrance to the Hôtel de Ville lies on this street. Relative silence reigns, as signs forbidding the honking of horns (a ubiquitous practice for drivers in India) are posted throughout the French quarter. While I didn’t hear much French spoken in the streets, people who greeted me during my walk said “bonjour” addressed me as “Madame”. One feature of this section of the quartier that immediately captured my interest was the sidewalks and gutters. The broad sidewalks are built up to almost a foot above ground to accommodate drainage, a system that is lacking in other areas of India that I have visited. On many streets, the edge of the sidewalk is marked with alternating black and white rectangles; whether this is to alert pedestrians or drivers of the location of the edge of the sidewalk, I do not know. In this part of La Ville Blanche, however, they served to further emphasize the presence of the gutters for me. I noted that most people prefer to walk in the street, even though the sidewalks provided more shade. (It was amazingly hot at 8 AM, the time that I began my exploratory trek.) On Rue Suffren near the western edge of the French quarter lies a villa that houses the Alliance Française. It was abuzz with predominantly “60-something” Francophones who were waiting for some event to take place, or perhaps to embark on a tour. A sign outside indicated that an art exposition at the Alliance had recently closed, so that could not account for the rapidly gathering crowd. I did not inquire about this, but did take a quick look around the premises. Within the villa, a large courtyard serves as common ground for a dining area and a library, among other things. A large, overhead fan hanging from an arcade bordering the courtyard provides a cool breeze to augment the effect of the trees that shade the courtyard. Leaving the Alliance Française, I crossed the canal that separates the French quarter from the…
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