It is a shame when you think about it. I have spent 4.5 years in Chennai. And it was only last weekend that I finally got around to going to Pondicherry. Pondi has always been a bit of a mythical land to me. I knew it existed. Infact I have even been there. My parents took me there when I was quite young. They took me there again on a hot summer day whose only memory I have is of desperately thirsting for water while everybody else seemed to be enjoying the divine aura of the Aurobindo Ashram.
I however had no clue what it was all about.
Saturday morning, P, N and I were all up and bright and well ensconced in the deluxe bus to Pondicherry starting from the Koyambedu bus stand. Please rem that there is a deluxe bus at 8 (which actually leaves at 8.30 after 80% capacity utilization is reached) and plays trampy Tamil movies throughout the journey. The bus’s key selling point is the curtains on the windows. In case you cleverly parked yourself at the window on the east side of the bus, with the idea of gazing soulfully into the sea by the East Coast Road, the curtains come in handy after 9 a.m. By then the sun is out in its full glory. You can barely squint, forget gaze.
We reached Pondi around 11.30 and promptly set off to explore the first restaurant on our list – Café Rendezvous (pronounced Ren-des-woo by the local auto drivers). Rendezvous’s cool thatched hut and welcoming tables immediately swept us off our feet. We sunk into the chairs and began a heated debate on the menu. I never used to be a foodie but somewhere along the way, I learnt to enjoy food. This means, poring over menus take a long time. Choosing a dish involves active consultation with co-diners and sometimes the waiters. Not talking much during the first few bites and then permitting only sentences like ‘oh this is yumm’. I ended up choosing garlic and cream calamari. P informed me that calamari is fish. So I was rather surprised when the dish came as rubbery ringlets. After the first few mouthfuls I promptly went up to the chart hanging over the washbasin, called ‘commercials fishes of India ’ and did not find the calamari there. The waiter was duly summoned and asked to bring a live calamari. It turned out calamari is squid. I sighed and then began to eye P’s cannelloni and we immediately swapped the food. P is the perfect foodie (unlike the baptized me) and can eat practically anything.
Our rooms were not going to be available till 6 p.m. P and I had faithfully read the very helpful Pondicherry tourism website the previous day and had a long list of museums, churches and temples we could see. Not to mention the famous Auroville and Aurobindo Ashram were on our list too. Post lunch though was not conducive to such touristy stuff. We had already eyed a Fab India nearby and several antique shops. So without further ado, P and I dragged a reluctant N on an aimless walk. Fab India outlets are all different based on the city and can be used as a handy social preferences barometer. Chennai’s has conservative, sometimes outright dowdy clothes. Bangalore ’s has skimpier stuff. Cochin stocks fairly stereotyped Indian ethnic. Pondi’s was pretty similar to Cochin ’s. After half an hour of ooh-ing and aah-ing over the furniture, we stepped onto the street and ooh-ed and aah-ed over the houses.
We were in the French quarters, which was certainly definitely the more charming side of Pondi. Thanks to a well-loved French colonial legacy that outlasted even the British rule in India, the town has two quarters, Tamil and French. The Tamil side is considered to be crowded. The French side on the other hand, had cobbled streets and delightfully French names like ‘Rue Suffren’ or ‘Rue Romain Rolland’. There were huge colonial villas on both sides of the streets. High walls, with a hint of a carefully wild flowing garden inside, lots of windows with shutters and nice iron grills. P and I excitedly peered through the gaps in the gates, took photos outside various houses and just soaked in the atmosphere. Eventually, deciding to get some rest, we headed to our hotel.
The hotels that line Pondi’s promenade are terribly expensive. The cheapest of them would charge 2500 rupees a night. The one loophole is the Ashram guesthouses. They are reasonably priced (around 800 a night) but have strict rules (gates close at 10 p.m. and no alcohol allowed) and are difficult to get a place in. We were staying at the Executive Inn, a couple of streets away from the promenade, in presumably the Tamil quarters (I was not sure since the street was called a Tam-French Rue Perumal Koil). It was at walking distance from the promenade and that is what really mattered. During our walk, we had discovered some reasonably priced and colourful guesthouses two streets away from the promenade in the French quarters and stored the references away for future use.
A short nap, one cup of chai and a plate of bajjis later, the three of us were bright eyed and bushy tailed again. This time the plan was to walk the length of the promenade. Pondi blocks traffic on the Goubert Avenue (where the promenade is) on weekends. So you can stroll down the road all la di dah and not secretly worry about being mowed down by an auto. N, P and I stared at the sea for a while, and then began to walk. Our explorer spirit of the afternoon continued, and we dashed in and out of various restaurants trying to find the perfect one for dinner. The Hotel Promenade was kind of classy and pretty pricey. Ajantha had a nice rooftop with reasonably priced food and a great view of the sea. Le Café seemed to be closed for renovations. Eventually we found a place just off the promenade. Le Club was quite cool, not too pretentious, had comfortable music and a good menu. Plus it had the wonderful virtue of being the place where our legs gave up and would walk no further.
J and S were joining us in the night and we promptly called them and asked them to come over directly to Le Club. The food was as expected, divine. The mood was chirpy. Everyone tucked in well. By the time we left it was already 11.30. The bantering continued at our hotel and finally it was around 2 that the last person fell asleep. P and I slept through breakfast the next day. The other three had breakfast and promptly settled for a nap. It was noon before any of us began to show some semblance of being alive. As we got ready, we began to cluster around the TV and watch Dhoom 2. What can I say? The movie is the perfect recipe for a good laugh when you are with friends. Why, Oh why did God make Ash so beautiful, yet such a terrible actress. Watching her try to pull a Yank accent and saying ‘you are like checking me out?’ is enough to make you lose faith in the casting ability of Bollywood.
The final meal was at one of Pondi’s yummiest restaurants, Satsang. My mashed potatoes seemed to be a tribute to Pondi’s gastronomic delights. After another aimless stroll, it was time to head back. We did not manage to catch the luxury bus but were comfortable enough just feeling the cool breeze on our faces and recollecting the previous twenty four hours.
We realised we had not seen a single place in the long list of ‘must see’ places. Instead we had talked, walked, eaten and slept well.
What a fine weekend.