When I first displayed an interest in writing, my father tried to steer me towards travel writing, a genre I was not very interested in. Later in life, with the amount of travelling I had done, he once again exhorted me to try my hand at it. A couple of years ago I did. This is the outcome:
Pondichéri vs Puducherry
The stench of the fish market assails one’s senses immediately. My twelve year old gags and steps back. My nine year old is fascinated and wanders curiously through the stalls displaying a variety of raw, freshly caught fish, all ready to be filleted to the customer’s satisfaction. The fisherwomen plying their wares chat, happily oblivious to the heat or the smell. It is 38c and we are in the Tamil quarter of Puducherry, India.
What a contrast this is to the French quarter by the sea front. There, the wide boulevards, the mediterranean structures, and the freely spoken French harken back to a different era, when Pondichéri was governed by the French. We are staying at a small boutique hotel in the heart of the French quarter. Last night’s dinner was rounded off by the best creme brûlée we have eaten outside of France.
Right now, we are being urged forward by my intrepid husband. We are in the fruit market, and I stop to watch a man cut open a jackfruit the size of a mammoth baseball. He holds it between his legs and plunges the knife in swiftly, yanking back, cleaving through the hard skin to reveal the soft fleshy fruit inside. He offers me some. I look at the all flies swarming over the fruit, but take a piece nonetheless. It is as sweet as last night’s dessert, and brings back a whole host of childhood memories.
We weave our way into a flower market. My daughters ask for flowers to put in their hair, as they have seen the local women do. The flower seller shakes her head vigorously to signal no. “Sami”, she says, grinning toothlessly. After a lot of gesticulating, we figure she means that these flowers are only to be offered to the Gods at the temple. The more common place jasmine flowers are for mere mortals. As a peace offering, she gives two little pink buds to my daughters, who accept it cheerfully.
We walk everywhere in Pondy, as it fondly known. Most tourists hire motorbikes or cycles. Hawkers don’t pester you here.They are far too used to seeing foreigners in their midst, and people are happy to let you mind your own business.
We deposit our shoes, and walk barefoot into Aurobindo Ashram. Almost immediately, a sense of calm envelops us. People sit around the flower bedecked samadhi or tomb of Sri Aurobindo, the great yogi philosopher, and his disciple, the Mother, in silence. A wander through the Ashram reveals an impressive array of memorabilia. This is the very soul of Pondicherry, and people flock here from different parts of the world, in search of spirituality. At Auroshikha, we stock up on scented candles and incense sticks.
Once more, however, we are lured back to the hustle and bustle of the street stalls. I want to take some photos to show friends back home. My daughter yanks my arm, and leads me to the fish market. “Mummy”, she says, “I’m hungry. Can we get some smoked salmon please?”, expecting a Waitrose fish counter to fulfil her innocent request. I laugh and hug her close. The fisherwomen smile at us in tacit understanding.