Colourful, noisy, manic but undeniably charming. That was the first sentence I wrote in my Indian travel diary as we made our way by taxi from Chennai (Madras) to Pondicherry.
It was an interesting experience for me, as foreign as everything seemed relative to Australia I was experiencing a sense of familiarity. The photograph on the left is Southall, a town in West London famous for its Indian and Pakistani community. Southall was a ten-minute drive from where I grew up and is now listed on www.visitlondon.com as a tourist attraction. As the streets of suburban Chennai drifted past I found myself thinking about my boyhood home and the pleasant memories of childhood.
That all swiftly changed as we left Chennai and hit the open road heading southwards down the Bay of Bengal. As our taxi driver stated the Indians care little for safety and frankly I’ve never seen anything like it. For the three hour drive I didn’t take my eyes off the road and the multiple hazards that were coming at us with remarkable regularity. There are simply no road rules in rural India; Cows graze randomly on scraps in the middle of the road, a single lane carriageway often has double the number of cars heading towards each other, heavily laden tuk-tuks are everywhere and use either side of the road regardless of direction and the car horn replaces the indicator. Quite how the driver copes with all this is hard to know, I was struggling to take in all the things coming at us let alone wondering what on earth was going on in the rear-view mirror. I’ve never experienced anything like it, in the calm and safety of my hotel later that evening my diary entry summed up the drive as frightening but fun!
Our destination was Pondicherry, made famous for several reasons including the setting for Yann Martel’s 2001 classic novel Life of Pi and the subsequent movie of the same name. The city is a heady fusion of France and India thanks to the historical French Colonial influence of the region. The French quarter is remarkably well preserved, broad tree lined boulevards with buildings in the classic European style. There are French schools, a French military club and a French Consulate. All that said white faces are still few and far between and our presence did cause some fascination for the school kids which was rather lovely. On one occasion a little girl insisted her Mum turn her motorcycle around so that she could come over and say hello or bonjour as it turned out as interestingly we conversed in French. The French quarter is quiet, calm and beautiful to wander around but it sits in stark contrast to the rest of the town. Once you cross the old canal traditional India hits your every sense.
Calm turns to chaos and the quiet gives way to a cacophony of Indian life but you can’t help but find it enchanting. Everywhere you look something interesting is going on, there’s almost too much to take in, overwhelming almost. Crossing the road, is something we do every day but in our society, it’s a relatively mundane and safe event. In India crossing the road is an adventure, a calculated gamble if you will but it forces you to focus on the task in hand, crossing these roads while day dreaming about what’s for dinner tonight simply isn’t an option.
Despite the perceived chaos India remains oddly functional, after all this is the world’s largest democracy and is tipped to have the world’s 5th largest economy by 2020.
For me one of the delights of Pondicherry was the market. The presentation of the market stalls was incredible, with each stallholder clearly taking pride in their work. The vegetable and flower markets are stunning, which to some extent reflect the Hindu domination of the local Tamil population. Vegetarian food and floral tributes to the multiple Hindu Gods are central to the local culture. That said Pondicherry has a rather lovely Muslim quarter and the town also boasts two large Catholic Cathedrals, all of which add to the amazing cultural variety packed into this small town.
The town is however more renowned for Sri Aurobindo a utopian mystic whose devoted follower “The Mother” conceived the Auroville project. Built and developed as a place where one can live a universal community life www.auroville.org check out the website, it’s interesting stuff.
Often when you mention India it can be hard to ignore the stereotypes; Delhi belly, poverty, dirty, beggars, the list goes on. I only got to see a tiny glimpse of this huge and diverse country but found none of the stereotypes were deserved. The food was magnificent and we had no problems with hygiene, I also encounter more beggars on George Street in Sydney than I did in India which poses some interesting questions for our own society.
No Dehli belly, but I’ve definitely got the bug!
I highly recommend living your dream, for me India was all I had hoped and more. One word of caution was offered to me by a client that has been to India many times, she told me that India calls you back and that it has cost her a fortune to satisfy that call over the years. I now understand what she meant, it does call you, but for now I got my fix through watching the quite brilliant movie Lion http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3741834/ what a magical film set in India and Tasmania.