Pondicherry threw me from the first second. Rising on the morning of our departure from Mamallapuram, we grabbed a quick two-silce Breake Fast and headed for the bus stand, where an almost empty bus was waiting, proclaiming 'Pondy' on the front. Empty buses don't exist in India, but there, in front of us, was one with leg room and space for luggage, and not only was it empty, but it only took an hour and a half to do the three-and-a-half hour stretch south to Pondicherry. It quite unnerved me.
So we arrived in Pondicherry earlier than expected, still reeling from this efficient service, and wandered about the streets in a bit of a daze. Pondicherry town is part of the tiny, scattered Union Territory of Pondicherry, which contains the four little French pockets of the country that were only bequeathed to independent India in the 1950s. Pondy is supposed to be the place where France meets India, but initial impressions are of a place that's still overwhelmingly Indian, where paint peels and the dust blows just as it does everywhere else. There's still the fragrance of stagnant merde wafting sur le vent, and plenty of local characters qui faisent de toilette in the middle of the street; le canal through the centre of town is more like a slow trickling sewer, and le parc central plays host to plenty of characters from Les Miserables.
But after a while you notice the little things: Pondy isn't quite Pont-de-cherie, but the French influence is still visible. The water front, though not exactly French, is not exactly Indian either; the police sport red gendarmerie caps; crumbling cathedrals hide down broad, leafy boulevards with names like Rue de Dumas and Rue de François Martin, while cafés sport names like Bar Qualithé and Le Rendezvous and sell dishes like poulet au beurre d'ail avec riz blanc; and the French area, sandwiched between le canal and la mer, is spotlessly clean, with lots of little men cleaning the streets using witches' brooms. On the other hand, when a rickshaw driver tried his usual, 'Hello sir, want rickshaw?' and I replied with, «Non merci, je veux me promener. C'est un beau jour et Pondicherry est une petite ville, n'est pas?» he just looked confused and shuffled his feet.
The French influence is probably most noticeable when it comes to the availability of alcohol, as we found out when Howard and I visited the Bar Qualithé for a few beers in the company of Matthew, an American we'd met en route.
The price of beer is exceptional, even if the beer isn't; stocks are always low in India, and we managed to drink our way through the bar's entire stock of Kingfisher, Haywards, Black Label Lager1 and Cannon 10000 in only four beers each. Before we knew it, last orders were called at 11pm and a drunken fight broke out between a couple of low-tolerance Indian patrons and the management; not surprisingly, the management won, as they do the world over at closing time.
The menu had looked good, too, though after we'd perused the available dishes for about half an hour, the waiter happened to mention, 'All we have is rice and noodles, I hope that's all right,' which was a shame as I was dying to try the Green Piece Soup and Finger Chipes. And as we wandered home through the dark streets between the French and Indian areas, we came across a huge collection of bodies, sleeping peacefully on the pavement, in the nearby park and outside a set of gates labelled 'Pondicherry Maternal Hospital'. On closer inspection every one of the bodies was a pregnant woman, most of whom were a lot closer to the labour pains than to the conception. That's not the sort of thing you'd see in Paris.
Still, one thing's definitely the same in Pondy as in France: they drive like maniacs, and often on the right-hand side of the road. Not that they're supposed to in India...
1 Bottles of Black Label are ominously labelled 'The taste you grow up to'. This is, of course, only two letters off the real story.