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PONDICHERRY, India—Near the southern tip of India lies a city where streets have names like Rue De La Marine and statues bear inscriptions in French. A French war memorial sits at the heart of the city, which is surprising given the overwhelming British colonial influence in India.
This city, located at the shore of the Indian ocean, has a flavor unlike any other part of India and is reminiscent of colonial France. Welcome to Pondicherry.
One might remember Pondicherry from Yann Martel’s book "Life of Pi," where it is described as "the French riviera of India." While most of India was under British rule, Pondicherry was occupied by the French until 1954. Although 60 years have passed since its independence, Pondicherry still proudly upholds the remnants of its French heritage, a legacy that has resisted the rise of modern India. Along a coastal drive next to a rocky shore lies Ville Blanche. Tropical trees arch over the streets which are lined by colonial buildings built in French architecture with regal walls.
The colonial influence is remarkably concentrated in the small town. Walk a few blocks into the mainland and the city abruptly loses order, dropping its French heritage to make way for bustling India. While the Ville Blanche, which translates to "White Town," was meticulously designed by the French, the remainder of the city, known as Black Town, was allowed to grow organically. The difference between the two lifestyles is stark. It leads one to wonder how the calmness of White Town sits so close to the constant movement of Black Town.
"Life of Pi" recounts the story of Richard Parker, a tiger captive in a local zoo, Jardin Botanique. The garden it turns out, is a five minute walk from the railway station in Pondicherry. Jardin Botanique, however, has never housed animals and has remained a mere botanical garden for over a century. The stately gate, painted white and yellow, is padlocked and instead of welcoming flowers one is greeted by blaring excavators engaged in what seems to be an expansion project.
The traffic here, however, isn’t much different than the rest of India. Courtesy and concession are thrown to the wind. Doorless auto rickshaws are the most ubiquitous and convenient means of travel, and the aggression with which the drivers navigate the roads makes any ride memorable. On a short 30-minute ride, our cab almost ran over a dog and nearly hit five pedestrians.
Having retained its heritage amid widespread modernization, Pondicherry is an oddity in India. While most of India is buzzing with activity, Pondicherry beams messages of spirituality and harmony over the usual calm of the Indian Ocean. This small city is blessed with spaces for peaceful contemplation and meditation, from quiet parks to spiritual centers.
A traveler in India is often impressed till exhaustion by the fullness of life and frenzy of urbanization. A short trip to Pondicherry will not fail to offer respite.
Pradeep Niroula '18 is a Crimson editorial writer in Quincy House.
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