Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 9

A couple of months ago, I got a call from India. The caller wished to know if my company was interested in outsourcing any of its work to his company. I silently chuckled during his sales pitch, imagining how someone in India might write an account of, say, a North Franklin Township meeting for our newspaper.
I told the caller that I couldn't foresee any possibility of a working relationship, given the nature of our business (although a newspaper in California, the Pasadena Star-News, has done exactly that). I asked him from where he was calling.
"Pondicherry," was his answer.
"Ah, Pondy," I said. Tell me, is that restaurant, Rendezvous, still operating down by the sea?"
Taken aback by my familiarity with his city, the caller seemed at a loss for words, but he recovered and told me that Rendezvous was a place he frequented and enjoyed. "How do you know Pondy?" he asked.
I know it well enough for it to be my favorite place in all of India, I told him.

The British were not the only Europeans to colonize India. The French and Portuguese also claimed parts of it for themselves. Pondicherry was built by the French, who withdrew in 1954. It is laid out in a grid of wide streets. The architecture is European, the atmosphere tropically decadent.
The French government abandoned Pondy many years ago, but French culture proved to be more difficult to uproot than its bureaucracy. Pondicherry is actually a separate state with its own government, even though it is tiny and divided into three enclaves: the area of the city, another area about 100 kilometers down the coast, and another one on the west coast. French is still spoken in Pondy, and many Indian residents born before 1954 hold French citizenship.

Where Bombay and Madras were assaults on the senses, the blinding colors, the constant noise, the rub of human flesh in crowds, Pondicherry was everything different: muted pastels, sleepy, shaded and uncrowded streets beyond which could be heard the thump of waves upon sand. Here, too, we would uncover aspects of India other than the visually sensual: the entrepreneurial, the intellectual, the affluent and, more than anything, the spiritual.

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