Some people like to visit the same place again and again. I like to visit a new place whenever I get an opportunity to travel. Having said that, I must admit that there are a couple of places that I would really like to go back to and spend a few days. Pondicherry however is not on that list. So I was wondering what to fill the two and a half days with when I was there.
I was visiting Pondicherry (or Pondy for short) with my better-half for a house warming ceremony. He was going to attend the house warming ceremony only as much as protocol required. “Come for breakfast”, said the host. So we went. “Come for lunch”, said the host, and we were there at the stipulated time. The host is a business associate and there was an office to go to and work in and that’s where he was while not attending the ceremony.
Please do not get me wrong. I LOVED it the first time I visited Pondy in 2017. On that trip we visited the usual must-see/do places including Auroville, went on a walking tour, ate at some ‘you must eat there’ places and even spent some time in a beach resort (See slideshow below). That checks all the boxes, right? Well, not so right actually….
While trying to read up on the history of Pondy, I learnt that Monsieur Dupleix the French Governor in Pondy (whose statue can be found on the southern end of the Rocky Beach Promenade, Goubert Avenue) had a right-hand man, his dubash, going by the name Ananda Ranga Pillai.
Mr. Pillai belonged to a wealthy business family from a small town near Madras (now Chennai). His father Thiruvengada Pillai moved to Pondy when Ananda Ranga was a little boy. Papa Pillai’s business grew and so also his influence and network among the French officials who governed Pondy. On his passing away, Ananda Ranga was employed by the French and he grew to become the dubash, (a man who spoke two languages from the Hindi – ‘do bhash’). Now the responsibilities of a dubash are not only limited to language interpretation and translation. Given his background in business and having the expertise of running them efficiently for himself and for the French earned him a place of respect in the ruler circles. The one other aspect that set him apart from others was the meticulous diaries he maintained for 25 years! His finely detailed diary entries are a rich source for historians to understand the day-to-day life in French Pondicherry from the mid to late 1700s. My interest in the man piqued some more when I learnt that his house stands even today in Pondicherry on a street named after him!
So one afternoon after visiting the Sacred Heart Basilica, I started walking along Bharathi Street.
The tree-lined Bharathi street felt like quintessential Pondy to me. Old and new, small to mid sized homes, offices, shops are juxtaposed together, sometimes interspersed with abandoned houses, where the banyan tree has found a home to grow (See slideshow below). House doors sometimes display names of the resident in a rather archaic way – Moutouvelle, Balamourougane, Nizamoudine, Kamatchi, Danalatachmi, Ramou and so on.
I turned into Ranga Pillai Street which is in the heart of Pondy’s fresh fruit, flower, vegetable, seafood and groceries market. Before the intoxicating spices cast their spell on me and led me away, I decided to focus on the matter at hand – to find the house. A fading board reads ‘Sri Ananda Rangapillai Man…’ the rest is hidden behind a grocer’s board.
When I was not sure what to do next, the grocer whose board cover’s the mansion’s name volunteered – Look, there is a doorbell, ring it.
It took me a few seconds to find the bell that is positioned so as to not be found easily among the stakes of the palisade gate. I rang the bell and waited.
Grocer – Ring the bell a few more times, and each time let it ring for a bit.
It was someone’s home after all, I was not comfortable to ring away madly.
He coaxed me – Go on, he said, they will be on the other side and won’t hear you.
And I did, a more few times.
No one answered the door.
Here, call this number, said the grocer.
I said my calls went unanswered and that’s why I took a chance to visit unannounced.
The grocer’s friend and the grocer both now want to verify that I had the correct phone number.
Once they were convinced that I did, the grocer gave me an alternative number.
I called, no answer.
Grocer says, the young lady may have gone to college, she will be back at 5pm.
It was 4.45pm
In my head I was swinging between waiting and leaving.
The thought of pouncing on someone just returning home from perhaps a long day at work made me uneasy. So I planned to leave.
That’s when the grocer said, there is an entrance to the mansion on the parallel road. Take the path after the next building.
While all the buildings on this street were decrepit, the ‘path’ suggested by the grocer seemed to belong further back in time! It was a gap in between two buildings.
I got the ‘looks’ as I stood there wondering if I should take the path. I could see the other end (light at the end of the tunnel moment!) but it was so dingy that I thought I may have to hop-skip-jump over poop and whatnot as is typical of places such as these.
I was wrong.
There were more shops and someone gestured to indicate it was ok to walk.
So I went.
On the other side (Vellalar Street) was a Bank of Baroda office, the portly man sitting on a chair at the gate and taking a late afternoon nap pointed to a shop next door and told me to look for the driver who would help me gain entry to the mansion.
The driver accompanied me to the entrance.
We rang the bell. We did not have to ring for as long or as many times as I did at the other entrance to the house.
A young lady opened the door.
I introduced myself.
She said, no. not today, call and come on Saturday or Sunday.
My heart sank. I told her I had that evening and the next day only and therefore visiting over the weekend was impossible.
She said call me tomorrow at 5pm.
I called the next day.
No one answered the phone and I did not want to impose myself on them. So I did not go.
So another trip to Pondicherry has now been officially added to the list of places I want to visit again. I hope I get third time lucky! Fingers crossed!!