I had long felt it would be nice if I could take my parents on an all-expenses paid holiday trip, at least once, and it has worked out at last. I have just returned from a most satisfying holiday in Pondicherry.
We chose the location because my old folks had good memories of their last visit, when they stayed there for several months, seventeen years ago. It was also, I thought, a good choice because it could be a short trip, and wouldn’t put too much of a strain on them. Pupu went along happily, though this was our second trip to the seaside within a month.
So it was a (smooth and quick) afternoon flight to Chennai, and a three and half hour car trip along a very well-maintained and brightly lit highway to the Union Territory that still proudly retains its French connection, along with Chandannagar in our own West Bengal (shades of the same mid-18th century Governor Dupleix, too). The hotel we checked in was posh, as I had decided. Swimming in the rooftop pool was still too cold for our liking, but lazing on deckchairs at sundown and beyond was wonderful, though it did get rather too windy at times. The next three days were spent ambling around the town in a leisurely fashion, on foot and in autos, taking in the beach – early morning, forenoon and evening – a few local eateries (Italiza served up a very good ‘fully loaded’ pizza, Archana’s treated us to a very tasty and filling standard local thali; the dosa at the roadside Café Tifen was quite as delectable), the Ashram, Serenity Beach, Auroville, the Botanical Garden, the Museum, Bharathi Park, Paradise Island (to which we sailed on a motorized catamaran: the place reminded me strongly of Sagardweep) and suchlike. Shilpi dropped in, because she has been camping in Tirupati, so we had fun together for a day.
The promenade with its adjacent rows of well-cared for old buildings in the severe colonial style and French street names makes a very nice walk, though the boulder-bound beach is a bit of a disappontment. The famous Aurobindo Ashram left me unfazed – I am, alas, not religiously inclined in the usual Indian sense – and Auroville, I found, was basically a very big, well-appointed theme park (everytime I visit a nice park, I sigh that we have only Kumaramangalam Park in Durgapur, and nothing at all in blasted Bidhan Nagar, much vaunted as the haunt of affluent and educated people), where the boutique sells exorbitantly priced souvenirs. We joked among ourselves that since the place counts a Bengali sadhu as its USP, Bengali tourists should be welcomed with large discounts. At Auroville, we learnt from a roadside sign that rotikashaala was the Hindi word for boulangerie. Which reminds me, food in Pondicherry is decent but considerably more expensive than in these parts, God bless Bengal; liquor is much cheaper and widely available though they are overdoing the anti-smoking campaign, and the way the roads are swarming with two- and three wheelers whose drivers don’t seem to have heard about traffic rules, they’d save many more lives and lessen air pollution very much more if the administration paid attention in the right place.
As is usual virtually all over the south, the man in the street and his supposedly better educated brothers everywhere, even in fancy hotels, refuse either to speak Hindi or learn proper English (I am not just talking about the atrocious accent – one can quickly get used to wokey and right-ǝ and lunchi – but nine out of ten cannot, or will not, put five English words meaningfully together), so communication with locals was a frustrating non starter. You don’t speak Tamil, you don’t have to talk to us, seems to be the attitude, though we had a niggling suspicion that most of them would prove to be quite nice people if only we could talk to them. If this is what I’d have to let myself in for, Rajdeep, I am sorry but I am not coming to Japan.
The days rapidly grew hotter, so that on the trip back along the scenic East Coast Road, it was already blazing in the afternoon at Mamallapuram, where we stopped for lunch as well as a dekko of the famous rock cut temples and sculptures (by an interesting coincidence, I was reading John Keay's India Discovered, in which these monuments have been given considerable attention as possible artistic prototypes for all later temples in the south). The beach there, by the way, seemed more charming than the ones we had seen before, and apparently good for bathing in. We were back home in Kolkata just before eleven at night on the 22nd. For a long time to come I shall never hear a ship blowing its foghorn without thinking of the municipal buses of Pondi (their autos, on the other hand, use handblown air horns like our rickshaws), and I shall always remember wonderingly that roadside coffee shops were as rare to find there as Sardarjis in Amritsar.
The single smoking rooms – actually, little glass cages – at the airports are a nightmare; half a dozen men crammed together and poisoning one another with exhaled smoke. Why can’t they furnish those rooms with a large exhaust fan, for heaven’s sake, when they can centrally aircondition the whole of the rest of the place? Also, at every airport, food and drink is atrociously expensive. Does anyone know why? And one more thought that has struck me often: if our Metros, shopping malls and airports can be kept so clean, why can’t the major railway stations? I was a little sad to see that Chennai already has an airport to city Metro connection: in Kolkata ours is still under construction. With that and the East-West Metro corridor in operation – and if and when the authorities in their wisdom make a/c buses much more widely available – travelling around Kolkata, which is already much less troublesome than it was in the eighties, will become hugely easier. And of course they must cut down massively on private transport by taxing them heavily and forcing people to park only in designated (preferably multi-storied) parking lots for a hefty fee. Becoming civilized is not cheap and easy, but sure it can be done.
This was my second trip this year, and I am planning to make one more before the hot and busy season sets in at the end of March.
For photos, click here.