An Ode to Pondicherry…
It was named by Burma. Thane, they called it, the Eagle. It was 2011’s strongest tropical cyclone in the north Indian Ocean and on December 28, it was categorized a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm. For context, the cyclone that hit my town was the equivalent of a Category One Hurricane.
That. Is Big.
Pondicherry was under siege that early morning.
On New Years Eve, 4:30 am, Parthi, me and Rajesh stood just outside the Central Bus Stand, waiting for our other friends to come and drop us home. We had just got down from our bus, we had no idea what had happened. We had missed the storm. It was pitch dark, not a light. Not even the moon. Not a soul in sight.
We were still laughing and joking around. We did not realize the state our town was in. How could we? We could not see anything, the blackness of the night all around us. We knew there was no power anywhere, but we didn’t really think about it.
It was only later in the day, after golden rays split the night apart, did I really understand.
There have always been storms in Pondicherry. I remember one particularly bad one when I was in school, during which I sat at home reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, listening to the wind performing weird dances outside.
We are a sunburned, hardy people. The sea is not something we worship as much as something we identify ourselves with. Storms don’t bother us much. The next day it was business as usual for us. That’s just how we are.
But this time it was different. I didn’t want to to believe what my eyes were showing me that day. But I had to.
Scenes of utter destruction greeted me with all their gory details. Both sides of the street, I watched as people tried to clear the debris, to reclaim anything that was left of their houses, their shops, their belongings.
It was the eyes that hurt me most. The dazed, disbelieving look that asked of anyone and everyone ‘Did this really happen?’
Everything was broken. Power lines across town had been ripped off, there was not a tree in sight. Mud houses across town had been demolished, the huge, newly installed floodlights had fallen into three tiered office buildings. Glass lay on the roads. Plastic tanks had been blown halfway across town. There was no water. In some places, houses were underwater.
It was carnage.
People stood in very long queues, waiting for petrol or to take cash out of ATMs, their eyes betraying their emotions, as they took in the devastation that nature had wreaked around them. My people usually talk a lot, there’s laughter in every corner, every turn, in my beautiful little town, but that day, I heard nothing. Not one thing.
How did I feel?
Have you ever seen the town you were born in, grew up in, destroyed? The buildings you are so used to, the roads you drove your bicycle to school on, the shops that you bought chewing gum for free cricket cards when you were a kid, the trees whose branches were cradles for you and your friends, all of them, in tatters? Your town, where you first fell in love, where you made your first friends, where you played, fell, rose, fought, loved and lived?
If you have not, you will not know how I felt.
Pondicherry was a French colony. The architecture around the boulevard is still, mostly French. The arches, the facades, the wooden doorways, the very atmosphere itself is reminiscent of something of an era that is long gone. The breeze from the ocean sometimes brings with it old sailors tales, of long voyages on ships whose names are now forgotten. The beachfront smells of salt, of ships lost at sea, of a way of life lost to time.
I say this because that is how we are, as a people. Pondicherry is a small town. Everybody knows everybody. When at school, if I was hanging around near the now defunct Anandha theatre, Dad would know even before I had turned my bicycle around. I’m not exaggerating even a small bit here. Ask any kid brought up in Pondicherry. Its like the whole town is family.
And the family is old. We cling to traditions here, as if things that have survived for hundreds of generations could be torn from us in second. That day, it almost seemed as if it had.
My bike turned by itself to the place that means most to me in my town. Behind the main Cathedral and the Archbishop’s house, the building that taught me all I know today.
The entrance to Petit Seminaire Higher Secondary School revealed nothing. It was as calm and welcoming as it always has been, for 160 years. But inside, was a different story. Our beloved Escande Hall, the humungous exam room in which 6000 students sat and wrote their examinations, a building steeped in history as much as in emotion, had had its roof blown off.
The Assembly ground at the end, under the watchful eyes of St. Joseph, our patron saint, had trees. And I don’t mean your everyday trees that a harsh wind can bring down. These were decades old trees, on which generations of boys had played, wrestled with, and had their lunch under. Even they were reeling. One was completely ripped out and our ground was littered with branches and leaves, sand and green leaves forming an unnerving combination.
As I walked through, confused, downcast, a voice called out to me.
It was the school peon. His name is Anthony, I think. Very old he is, a thin, short man. His smile is something that all Petit Seminarians must have seen, at some time during our years there, but must have forgotten. He is as much part of the school as the statue of Virgin Mary at the entrance of Escande Hall is. He is a constant.
I asked him, “Anna, school eppa thirakum?” When is school opening?
“Naalaneiku pa” Day after tomorrow.
“Eppdi anna, ground ippdi irruku, thanni vera illayaam” How, the ground is like this, there’s no water too?
“Naanga ethukku irrukom?” What are we there for? He said, and smiled, that million dollar smile of his.
That old man has seen generations of boys become young men in that campus. He has picked up boys injured during fights and ran to the hospital. He has washed us when we were all nursery kids and didn’t know that crying wouldn’t get us back home. He applied medicine on our hands when we were caned by Father Rosario or Jayakumar Sir for being brats.
Petit Seminaire will open as usual after the half yearly holidays. 6000+ grey ties and white shirts would come out in full force and take over Mahatma Gandhi road. They will see no trees in their ground, talk about it for a bit and then go back to chasing each other, fighting and of course, studying.
Pondicherry is not the same today, but it will be. It might take a few months to get back all that we lost in that storm, but we will.
We will have that sparkling sunrise, that heart breaking sunset, the sound of the crashing waves, that cool breeze through the boulevard, the Christmas lights at the cathedral, the New Year celebrations that bring tourists from across the world, everything, every bit of it, again.
But more importantly, we’ll have laughter in the streets again, smiles on our faces again, the world envying us, all of it. Again.
Why, you ask?
Because Anthony represents all that Pondicherry stands for.
We are citizens of a town called Pondicherry and we are as proud as it is beautiful. And we will endure. A storm will not be allowed to scar us. We are a small town sure, but we have a big heart.
We will reclaim our town. As Anthony reclaims our school for us.
Pondicherry will rise again. And you will never see what went into getting our pint sized paradise up and running again. You will never see the hundreds of volunteers, PWD workers, policemen, working day and night to clear the streets and restore the glory that Thane stole from us for some time.
In the same way that we never saw Anthony cleaning our classrooms at Petit Seminaire.
Pondicherry prefers it that way.
Plan a trip a few weeks later, from Bangalore, from Chennai, from Hyderabad, from Delhi, from wherever you are, and you will find a vista of peace, of silence, of prayer. You will see sands that glimmer in the afternoon Sun, the beachfront shimmering in the cold evening wind.
You will enjoy your trip, every bit of it. We promise.
To the ‘The French Riviera of the East’.
To the town where Time stands still.