Oui Pondicherry!!

Well, firstly a note for the category name. Why “History/Geography”? I believe one is incomplete without the other. If you are trying to understand one, you would have to draw the lines from other.

I spent my weekend before last on unfamiliar territory with a lot of new/curious sights. Some beliefs were reinforced and many myths broken. Due to a fortunate circumstance granting us 3 days of official leave (On-duty leaves) in Chennai, that too starting on a Monday, a larger trip was always on cards. After a brief discussion we decided to explore Pondicherry on the weekend previous to our sojourn in Chennai.

We had heard exotic things about Pondicherry, and i couldn’t test if all were true in my short stay. However, i saw some exciting/fresh architecture in the place and also a unique place called Auroville. Its a huge Ashram of sorts, established by some followers of Sri Aurobindo in 1960s and now houses a couple of thousand people from many countries. The place claimed to be a laboratory working towards finding spirituality and working on human problems. I don’t know how much success they get with spirituality, but the place sure looked anything but ordinary. According to them, in 60s the place was an eroding plateau , but right now it was quite a jungle out there.

Besides Auroville, we roamed around in Pondicherry’s bazaar, which was huge and tried french-italian food. Surely, the people in West can do with a healthy dose of salt-pepper in their cuisine. I know what to pack up when i go there. For a drinker of alcohol (unlike me :-P) the place is a heaven; with duty-free liquor flowing, every night can be a party. You can see people lying on the streets which makes me wonder if its such a good thing.

Another place that really struck me was the Beach road. It was like Mumbai’s Marine Drive at a smaller scale and much better maintained. All the major administrative offices as well as the more posh hotels in the city were located here. The view of the “Bay of Bengal” was breathtaking and the crowd was quite diverse; ranging from the ubiquitous Gori-Chamdi waale, to almost every region of India i could think of at the time.

Whats special about Pondi? Well, History students would no doubt know that by the 16th century, Western Colonial powers were eying a piece of India. The main powers in the contest were Portuguese, British, French, Dutch and Denmark. Later on, English swiped almost the whole of India except a few conclaves/ports of other powers left in the country. The Union Territory of Pondicherry (which represents the French possessions in India till 1960s) consists of four small unconnected districts: Pondicherry, Karaikal, and Yanam on the Bay of Bengal and Mahé on the Arabian Sea. Puducherry and Karaikal are by far the larger ones, and are both enclaves of Tamil Nadu. Yanam and Mahé are enclaves of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala respectively.

Initially, the French like Portugese weren’t doing so bad in India. Their maximum extent of influence as shown by this Map, was quite substantial. But due to some strategic mistakes by its Generals, as well as other geo-political reasons like Napoleonic wars and its aftermath reduced the French to just the five places shown in the map. Not that I sympathize with them. The French rule in India would have been as catastrophic or traumatic to India as the British rule has been. After all it was a White Man’s burden to cleanse the other cultures (even cultures more advanced than their own) and subjugate them by all means necessary. Nationality didn’t actually matter in the end!!

After independence the port of Chandernagar was promptly ceded to the Govt of West Bengal in 1950. The removal of French influence in the other territories was going to be more long-drawn and dramatic. The most dramatic of all was a coup in Yanam. Causes for Liberaton of Indian colonies in India were wide-ranging and many; the most obvious of them being the wave of Nationalism sweeping the country at the time.

I am glad UT of Pondicherry is part of India now. Still the case of Yanam makes you wonder, if people in some of these conclaves were really happy with Foreign rule. Even now, sometimes you can hear people saying “Yaar, isse to Angrezon ka zamana acchaa tha..” in an off-hand manner. Do they really think British rule was good for us? What do they know about the British rule? Such people would do well to read “Poverty and Un-British Rule in India” by Dadabhai Naoroji. British rule did so much harm to India, that till now we are under mental chains of their slavery. These chains have only recently started to shake & break. But I do hope, people will realize the truth in time, because there’s a certain resurgence in the Imperialist rhetoric in the West. And they get stronger by such loosely worded statements from the Indian “intelligentsia” (if you could actually call it intelligent, that is).