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I know the streets, the corners, the Rue(s), the coffee shops and the stories of their owners, where they come from, what it is about Pondicherry that has captured their hearts, I know how many kilometers away Auroville and just how much petrol in the tank is enough for Gopi’s bike to take me there and back, I know the size of glasses at Le Café and the height of the Texan-pub door at the Pizza Hut on Rue Romain Rolland – amid all these familiar sights, I caught sight of the new-things that made me just as pleased as a local would be to wake up one morning and find some street on one of the walls of the French Quarter and to visit a newly opened coffee shop in one of the maisons.
Pondicherry now has a street scene, I took a moment to appreciate this beauty – the hornbill and the monkey feathers are incredible, is there a political, Banskyian statement to this? I didn’t look long enough to unravel anything, perhaps on my next visit but for now, this proved a special, new sight.
A surprise part of this travel to Pondicherry came from one of my on-location Facebook posts. A very old friend, in fact, my oldest friend from school with whom I haven’t been much in touch, recognized that I was in Pondicherry and wrote to me asking if we could meet. I always told myself that I shold remember Keerthi and meet her when I am in Pondy but see – I forgot! I was very happy that Keerthi wrote, she suggested an evening meeting and let me pick the place. I picked La Maison Rose, because I remember seeing the place on my last visit but couldn’t check it out for the lack of time.
Keerthi picked me up Nehru Street, just outside of Le Hidesign Café which is another new place I checked out the same day but wasn’t really impressed except for their menu card. Little did I know that my friend, whom I hardly know really would turn up with her husband. I am generally sociable but I wasn’t sure about what conversation to have with the husband, I had never met him. I did know that my friend’s was a love marriage, so maybe they will tell me about their new life together.
Within minutes, I was very happy to meet Ashish. Now my friends are doctors, that I knew and was curious but I imagined them to be working for some posh hospital in Pondicherry while enjoying the luxury of a French lifestyle that the place’d offer. My imagination couldn’t be any farther from truth. No, they weren’t really enjoying a boring, pretentious French styled weekend. I was instantly humbled to learn about the work and lives of my friends who are doctors at a rural hospital and live 30 km away from Pondicherry, cut off from the normal, urbane, pretentiousness that I live in and allow myself to feel normal. It isn’t easy, I could tell but I could barely think of anything more meaningful and also exciting. I remember Keerthi as the brightest girl in the class in maybe standard four, and while at the café, listening to her husband and her speak, I felt the same about her, like this real distinct thought I had about a person some 15 years ago revisited and found itself back in that same girl – it was awesome. Ashish on the other hand launched a series of surprises with the things he said. Firstly and pleasantly, he knew me a little from my Facebook posts and is one of the very few people who apparently, don’t think of them as too annoying. Secondly, he recognized my ringtone within seconds – ‘Lonely Planet theme song,’ he said – of course I like this new friend! So over beer and some guava panacotta which we all enjoyed, it was a nice evening of meeting an old friend and a new and the warm satisfaction that they are a package and when I meet them next, it will be them both again, like those things about Pondicherry that won’t change, like the sea!
Another not-so-new but new enough for me as I hadn’t visited it since the time of its launch is the lovely café ‘La Maison Rose’ again on Rue Romain Rolland. This one street seems to rock! The restaurant cum coffee shop with a lifestyle boutique in the actual maison is as refreshing as a monsoon rose. It is here that I met Keerthi and Ashish and went back again the next morning with my travel mate, for some salad and a slice of lime pastry. The maison is large and typically Tamil with a regional influence. It was a Sunday morning, pleasant with families seated under a large lime tree, on wooden chairs and tables, eating nice food and chatting about happy things.
Two other things that are new in Pondicherry but since they were on my body and stayed on, got carried to Hyderabad. These are my new tattoos. I have wanted more tattoos since I got the first one but wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted. For my love of the sea, I thought I’d either get an anchor or a boat though both clichéd. Another idea that struck me was the symbol infinity on one of my fingers on the right hand – so infinite stories flow out of my fingers. I felt Pondicherry was right, it was a holiday, a happy one and we had time – hence I decided on getting the tattoos done. The only problem was that we had to find an artist. We spotted an advert for a studio but I hated its name ‘Black Magic Tattoo’ eeww, found the place, met the artist and though everything about the place and the artist was unconvincing, I decided to get inked and stuck to the decision. Soon I had and anchor on my left leg, just above the foot and an open infinity symbol on the middle finger of the right hand. I am pleased with both. How long these will remain I don’t know, they are supposed to be permanent but I see them fading a little by little, which is also good because then I can have them redone at the Amsterdam Tattoo Museum maybe!
Things That Don’t Change
Of course the sea doesn’t change, nor do the rocks nor the moss on them nor the endless line of street vendors on Goubert Avenue on a weekend evening and nor does Le Café. I can’t think of any other 24 hour coffee shop that I know or have been to, and even if I should find one, Le Café would remain among my top favourites. What can get better than a 24 hour coffee shop by the sea side that is cheap, easy to reach, has the sweetest staff and also sells cool merchandise! I hope this remains here for long and that I find myself amidst empty chairs and tables more often – I don’t like this place when it’s crowded, in fact it makes me angry that a place so intimate to me is contaminated by too many people! Yes, I can be that selfish!
Things I Didn’t Believe Will Change
Sometimes I can’t believe how naïve and stupid I can be until the point where Im forced to see just how unbelievably, impossibly stupid I can be. I was saddened to not find Ram at Pizza Hut! Did I imagine he’d work there forever and that he will come and greet me the moment I enter Pizza Hut! I met Ram three years ago on one of my visits. Back then, Pizza Hut ran a End World Hunger program that asked customers if they’d like to donate a rupee or two towards hunger relief. Ram waited on the table I was one. When Ram asked me what I would like to have, I replied ‘your badge!’ which was a ‘World Hunger Relief’ badge. Ram said he was sorry that he can’t give it to me as he’d be fired if he lost the badge through the program. I expressed disappointment, at which point he said he’d put the badge in the mail for me after a month when the program is over. I couldn’t believe he said that and I also didn’t believe he’d do any such thing. He took no money from me for the mail, he only promised and took my address. To my greatest disbelief, the badge arrived in mail two months later. Of course I called him, thanked him and all that. When I went back to Pondicherry a year later, Ram was still at Pizza Hut and came up to me – these are travel stories that give me great thrill. I never kept in touch with Ram and when I went back to Pizza Hut this time – Ram wasn’t there. Many of his peers quit – and there was not a single staff member who knew him. I think I’ve lost Ram, I didn’t think I would for as long as Pizza Hut was there – but Pizza Hut was there, he was not.