Chapter 4, Part 15
In 2006 I was in my second year learning French, and like many others who learned the language, I became a Francophile. I spent a considerable amount of time turning the pages of various French magazines and tuning into TV5Monde whenever possible, although only about 20% was intelligible to me. Then in the same year I came across a novel, which I have yet to finish, and learned about a place I never knew existed.
Life of Pi follows the life of a boy called Piscine Molitor Patel, or Pi, who spent hundreds of days on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Nevertheless it was Pi’s hometown, a former French colony called Pondicherry, which drew my attention the most. The city which is now part of Puducherry – one of India’s seven union territories (which are ruled directly by the Central Government) – was the seat of French colonial administration in India for almost three centuries. Before reading the book, I always assumed that the British were the only European power who colonized the South Asian country. Hence my amusement upon learning about French India.
My interest in Pondicherry gradually faded away as I stopped learning French, and it was not until 2012 when the former French colony reappeared on my mind when James and I were planning the itinerary for our months-long trip in 2015. Surrounded by the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, visiting Pondicherry was only natural as the small territory was conveniently located midway between the town of Kumbakonam and Chennai.
However, as our journey across Tamil Nadu coincided with the peak of the northeast monsoon which caused severe flooding in places all over the state, we were not able to visit a few sites. On the day we left Kumbakonam for Pondicherry, we had high hopes for the weather to improve. But in the morning of our last day in the small city, we were informed by one of the staff members of our hotel that the road to Pondicherry was cut off due to the flooding. We decided to wait while he kept calling people to give him updates on the road condition. Several hours later, good news came: the road was now accessible and we were good to go.
After traveling for a few hours in our small rented car, we were confronted with an inconvenient reality just before we entered Pondicherry. The main access to the city was still flooded with water reaching as high as one and a half meter, obviously not safe for our driver to keep going. He could have said to us that he couldn’t go any further, but he decided to ask some locals and a police officer for an alternative route. Eventually, after a small detour, he managed to take us to Pi’s hometown, which was surprisingly not quite what I had imagined as everything looked just exactly the same with other cities in Tamil Nadu. Only after venturing into the city’s French Quarter did I see the stately and well-preserved French colonial buildings I had always imagined.
Walking into the French Quarter was like entering an entirely different city: clean streets, beautiful French buildings, well-kept gardens, quiet neighborhoods, and – most surprising of all – a wide and pleasant beach promenade. While in Goa street and shop signs were mostly written in English and Portuguese, in Pondicherry Tamil and French were used instead. Former French colonial administration buildings lined the street parallel to the promenade, constantly receiving gentle breeze, at times violent storms, from the Indian Ocean. The French Quarter’s grid plan, meanwhile, was peppered with elegant old churches.
Physical vestiges of a bygone French era were palpable everywhere we looked, thanks to centuries of French presence in this part of the subcontinent. The French, however, were considerably late in joining the spice race which by the 17th century was dominated by the English (later the British) and the Dutch through the East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch East India Company (VOC), respectively. One of the reasons for this was the fact that the kings of France were more focused on resolving internal issues as well as consolidating their power in continental Europe, rather than expanding their influence overseas.
Eventually in 1642, the French established their own East India company, more than four decades after the English and the Dutch set up their own. Unlike the EIC and VOC, however, the French East India Company saw only very limited financial success. Its inability to compete with the EIC, which later controlled much of the trade between India and the rest of the world, and the VOC which controlled the trade in Sri Lanka and the Spice Islands (part of modern-day Indonesia), brought the company to its demise a century after its establishment. A few years later it was resurrected, only to be liquidated several years afterward following the French Revolution.
Pondicherry was acquired by the French from the Sultan of Bijapur in 1673, five years after they established the first French factory in India, on the subcontinent’s western coast. However, as the British consolidated their power and possessions in India, the French were forced to retreat to small pockets of land scattered both on the Coromandel and Malabar coasts, the east and west coasts of India respectively. In the decades that followed, Pondicherry changed hands between France and Britain until 1816 in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat in Europe a year earlier. As agreed by both powers in 1814, Britain would restore the French colonial possessions it occupied.
The French remained in Pondicherry for more than a century until India gained independence from the British, an event which sparked nationalist sentiment among the locals in Pondicherry and other French possessions in India. In 1954, India took over all French colonies in the subcontinent which was followed by the annexation of Goa seven years later, effectively uniting all lands south of the Tropic of Cancer in the Indian subcontinent under Delhi’s control.
The French had long left Pondicherry, but their churches and former administration buildings are still standing, providing a romantic backdrop for movies and TV commercials alike. French is still taught at schools, but unlike in Indochina where many dishes reflect the marriage between French technique and local ingredients, in Pondicherry southern Indian food is king. Perhaps it’s their way of reminding visitors that in spite of the French flair, this is still India with all the exotic scents and sights.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.