Two years ago, we’d asked Pavi to look for a house for us in Pondicherry, without ever having seen the city – we knew we’d like it. Then, over the years, we rationalized that Bangalore would probably be a better place for us. First, the weather would be cooler. Second, we would have access to cultural events in English because Bangalore draws people from all over India (and the MNC [multi-national corporation] world). Third, it is a central transportation hub, and we would be assured of getting visitors. We had even floated the idea of Bangalore to Ayla’s mother, who had wanted to go in on a house with us in Pondy.
We spent three days in Bangalore before going to Nagapattinam on January 20, and we could not breathe. Yes, it was great to be “home” at Dinesh’s, just as it was great to be “home” at the Krishnan’s in Madurai. The eating is fantastic, the shopping is good and easy, and the people, at least the people we meet through Dinesh and some of our other “service” friends, are wonderful. Pratiba has grown to be a well-adjusted dog, and still has the endearing curled-over-at-the-end tail. (While Saki in Madurai, who has grown better-looking with age, still cannot fully control his bladder – he’s still doing the “I’m so excited to see you I have to pee” piddle at age 2+.) And Dinesh’s cousins still provide material for soap operas.
But, the city is a mess. There is construction everywhere; the traffic is horrible; and the attendant pollution makes it hard to be out on the streets for any length of time. Dinesh told us that 700 cars are added in the city every day! And, housing prices are out of control. (Not that housing prices are reasonable anywhere else. Apparently, prices have gone up 20% in Chennai every year.)
We took an overnight bus from Bangalore to Pondicherry, which arrived at 4:30am. We sat at the offices of the private bus company, which also doubles as a package courier, for two and a half hours, until we were picked up to go to Nagapattinam. We spent most of the day in Nagapattinam, the most heavily tsunami-affected area in Tamil Nadu, at an NGO coordination meeting, then caught a ride back to Pondicherry with Raju and Geetha Rajagopal, who were driving back to Chennai that evening. Pavi, who was at the Aravind Eye Hospital in Pondicherry, acted as our concierge, and found us one of the few beds in Pondicherry at the Villa Pondichery. (We could not stay at the Aravind guest house because Rahul Gandhi was visiting the next day, and the buildings were under security lock-down. We were not sure we would be returning that day, so Pavi had not put our names on the security list in time.) We vowed to sleep in the next morning, and spend some time exploring Pondicherry before heading to Auroville the next day.
The next morning, while Mark slept in, I spent some time with some of the other guests at Villa Pondichery. They were from Paris, and they come every year to Pondicherry to spend time with the owner of the guest house, Pichaya Manet (great name, eh?), who is an artist. One of the guests invited me to the opening of an exhibition of Pichaya’s paintings that evening, at the Alliance Francaise.
I was able to get a map and some basic guidelines about the city from Ashok, who works at the guest house. He pointed out where we were, at the southern edge of town, and the Muslim section we had to pass to get to the French section, fronting the water. (Dinesh told us about White Pondy and Black Pondy, separated by the canal.) Mark and I spent the rest of the day walking around Pondicherry.
We loved it! The buildings are wonderful, the town has a laid-back, tropical feel to it, and there is enough greenery (and not too much traffic) to make the air bearable. (Even though it is much more humid than Bangalore…)
Immediately, we start looking at buildings, picking out “the” one. It soon became apparent that in many lanes, off the major streets, any one of the buildings would do. We explore the bazaar, whose bordering streets prohibit 3- and 4-wheelers; eat at Salem Biriyani House, where we throw the waiters in a tizzy, as we usually do, because I do not go upstairs to eat with the other women (eventually, a waiters puts us in one of the small, curtained rooms with two other guys, who try to keep poker faces); and find two of the many Satyam iWay Internet cafes in town.
At 6pm, we stop by the Alliance Francaise for the art opening. Not surprisingly, someone is still banging away at frames and none of the art is up on the walls. The Director of the Alliance Francaise, a Mr. Thomas, comes by to apologize for the delay. We have no complaints because we are fully occupied in admiring the building and grounds. Mark declares that he would trade me for the building (like I didn’t know that!) and has already begun to make sketches. Our future life in Pondicherry is clear… a tropical, open-plan house, French lessons at the Alliance Francaise…