Pondicherry has always felt like home, ever since the first time, many years ago. Travel is but the act (and the art) of finding home and when we do, on an island in the Cyclades or in a narrow street in Paris, a part of our selves stays there forever. In this simple worldview of ours, with our many selves strewn across various homes all over the world, our hearts are here, in Pondicherry.
This visit, in July, was for the monsoons. For us urban dwellers, to whom the word ‘monsoon’ conjures only images of frustrating work commutes, delayed appointments and spoilt suits, there is a certain sadness about our inability to savour one of nature’s true spectacles. Having been here before, we knew that it is during monsoon that Pondicherry, like most quaint coastal towns, comes alive to our senses. When you ride a bicycle through its wet cobbled streets and smell the impending rain mingled with the scent of the sea, the fragrance from the flower stalls by the street corner and the aroma of food that linger outside the windows of houses you pass by, you have it there - Pondicherry on a platter.
Like every time, we planned our stay at the Palais de Mahe, a charming hotel in the French Quarter, not far from the Boulevard. Dinu, the general manager, was thinner and paler than when we last saw him but that had in no way diminished his exuberant hospitality. Dressed in khadi and plain white lungi, as he always is, he welcomed us like the long-lost friends we were and wasted no time in updating us on all that was new in town since our last visit. The little jewel of that conversation was coming to know that the lighthouse near the old pier had been opened for visitors. For us, who look at lighthouses as the charming sentinels that guard the shores with an almost affectionate stoicism, it came as a pleasant surprise.
Sunrise on the boulevard, lazy walks before breakfast, bicycle rides through the French quarter, drive to Auroville, time spent listening to wind chimes under the trees and a visit to the Matri Mandir, picking colourful Ceramic Crockery at Splendor, Pasta at the Satsanga and French Pastries at the Bakers Street, incense shopping at Auroshika, people-watching on the Promenade at sunset, an evening drink at the Sea Gulls Restaurant overlooking the sea… Over the course of the few days, we did all that we usually do, revisiting earlier memories and adding new ones.
One of the evenings, we decided to take a long drive along the East Coast Road, with an aim to find a beach we had not been to before. Driving along in absolute map-lessness, we stumbled upon a small village half an hour north of Pondicherry, nestled in paddy fields with its own little shrimp hatchery. Hours went by in the presence of mellow white waves, a legion of empty boats, and village children playing with their grandfathers in the sand. As we brushed the sands off our heels and drove back to the East Coast Road, we found that there was an inland storm approaching, gathering strength and moving towards the coast. Thrilled at the sight, we decided to find a patch of open land to be able to encounter it in plain view.
In the span of mere minutes, the sky turned into an ominous shade of grey like a Turner seascape, and we, powerless mortals in front of nature’s fury, nestled into our car seats with windows boarded up, bracing for the impact. For a while, the storm tore through the landscape, like a lonely giant sprinting to the sea for companionship, and we looked on in childlike wonder. Then it passed, and normalcy returned as quickly as it had disappeared.
The next afternoon, after a lunch filled with sinful south Indian delicacies, we decided to cycle to the lighthouse and climb upstairs for the view. It was the ideal activity under a cloudy sky as the rest of the town napped for the afternoon. Having always been fond of the old pier and spent mornings and evenings gazing out into the open sea in blissful anonymity, we marvelled at the lighthouse that proudly dominated the view. It was like a dear friend who we have never spoken to, until now. And finally, when we did, what a conversation it made for.
Before leaving, someone asked us why we keep coming back to this place. There were so many answers - because of the people who welcome us so wholeheartedly every single time, because we love the enigmatic windows framed against the backdrop of its bright colourful walls, because of the earthly serenity that pervades the place, because it’s simply adorable to watch sari-clad old women nonchalantly riding bicycles, because we love the way clocks lose their relevance in this town, because it is a place where we always return to childhood, chasing storms and lighthouses.