On a rainy November afternoon on the Pondicherry beachfront, the nine workers who were restoring the old French Town Hall, the Mairie, went out for lunch. They would usually have their lunch under the main awning, in the shade, where the breeze was delightful. But that day, they decided to head out.
That chance decision saved their lives.
At around half past one, the Mairie collapsed in a great crash that resounded throughout Pondicherry’s White Town, the old French enclave. The Town Hall was once the seat of the French municipal administration, the symbolic heart of Pondicherry’s composite culture. For over a century, it carried a piece of the town’s history in itself. Not anymore.
With it came down many an edifice of memory, nostalgia and pride held by the town’s older inhabitants. At 144 years old, the Mairie was the crowning glory of heritage monuments in a town full of them.
I first saw the news on Twitter and I would be lying if I said I was surprised. Growing up in India, you are used to seeing your heritage treated like junk. No one cares. Everyone, especially the educated, have better things to do with their time. In the great Indian economic boom, time and energy for such frivolous activities as conservation is in short supply.
In William Dalrymple’s 1993 travelogue of Delhi, City of Djinns, this attitude is perfectly conveyed in a brief, insightful dialogue. A bureaucrat in the Indian Railways is explaining to Dalrymple the dilapidated state of an old British building he has come to see, “You see actually in India today no one is looking at these old historical places. Our people are looking to the future only” (p. 126).
It has been 23 years since City of Djinns was published. Although India likes to believe a lot has changed, much still remains the same. We neglect our past, and don’t think about or study our own history as much as we should. And this paves the way for our history itself to become malleable and pliant, making it easy for propagandists to reshape or mold it into forms that work for their agendas.
In a lot of ways, the decay of Pondicherry’s iconic architecture mirrors what is happening to the town itself. Unable to cope with the changes wrought by a mutating country and its growing population, the old capital of French India is crumbling.
French cities and towns historically place a lot of importance on the Mayors’ offices, which are housed within the town halls. In rural France, these halls are sometimes the only administrative building around and are treated with appropriate reverence and respect. Which was exactly the case with French India and its capital.
The Mairie, or the Hotel de Ville, housed the Mayor’s quarters and the town’s municipal administration for over 100 years. For a while, it housed the legislative assembly of independent Pondicherry. Scores of weddings, retirements, conferences and other public ceremonies were conducted in its halls. In 1955, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru arrived in Pondicherry to initiate proceedings for the territory’s handing over to India, it was in the Mairie that he addressed the gathered citizens of Indo-France.
As the building deteriorated after independence, the government offices started to leave. The last remaining registry office moved out as late as 2012 and it was then that the building was completely evacuated in order to initiate proper restoration.
It was a beautiful building even in its state of ruin. I must have passed it hundreds of times on foot, bicycle, or motorcycle, and I remember it vividly. It was a two-storied, airy building in the French style, with a large arcaded verandah. The first floor had a gallery space and a large ceremony hall where marriages and public celebrations took place. Today, the site of the building is locked up and protected. When I asked to be let in to have a look, I was denied entry. I protested that there was nothing to be this fussy about. The two guards on duty were only guarding a great pile of rubble.
One year after the Mairie fell, I found myself back home in Pondicherry. I had somehow gathered up enough courage to quit my job and planned to spend some time in the town and write about it. I had been inspired by the book I referenced earlier, Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, which had first pointed me towards the ideas of place and history, themes I became almost obsessed with.
The town I came back to in 2015 was not the town I’d left to go to university in 2005. In 1971, the population of Pondicherry was almost 350,000. In the 2011 census, the number had approximately doubled. In 2015, however, the population jumped to almost a million. In short, the town has grown in 4 years by roughly the same amount it grew in the last 40.
The consequences are there for everyone to see. On roads where once you’d be surprised to see even a single car, there are eight vying for space. On Fridays and Saturdays, the White Town is assaulted by an endless motorcade of cars and buses, making the traffic unmanageable. The wide, gorgeous roads leading into the town have become obstacle courses. Adding in the tourists, the town becomes a bloated, corpulent drunk, heaving this way and that, threatening to fall but somehow holding up.
Why is this happening? Why is the population of the town, a number that had remained stable for so long, exploding?
There are several reasons, and they all can be explained with one major header – opportunity. Pondicherry is a Union Territory, meaning that it is directly administered by the Central Government in New Delhi. And though Pondicherry has its own Chief Minister and a cabinet, the purse strings are still controlled from up north. This separate identity means that the quality of its public services – electricity, water, drainage – and general standard of living are much better than the state of Tamil Nadu, which surrounds it. In certain parts of Tamil Nadu, the state government provides power only for five or six hours in a day. Pondicherry has no such cutbacks, so it’s attractive for business.
In addition, Pondicherry has an incredibly high concentration of educational institutions. With more than 50 colleges and its own university, residents of Pondicherry don’t need to go far for higher education. In addition, the town’s young people have reserved quotas in these institutions, making the deal even sweeter.
Tamil Nadu’s hospitals are overcrowded. There simply aren’t enough beds and doctors to serve the state. Pondicherry is much better off – with five major hospitals, several dental hospitals, and dozens of primary health centers and sub-centers. Simply put, one’s life is in safer hands in the Union Territory than in the surrounding state.
The locals have also become richer. In the boom of the 2000s, young, English-speaking graduates from the southern states entered the Indian workforce in droves. The remittances that started coming to the town never stopped. Consumption increased and businesses took advantage. The rise in disposable income for young professionals in nearby Chennai made Pondicherry, with its beautiful promenade, proximity to the experimental international township of Auroville, and cheaper alcohol, an easily accessible holiday destination.
So in the end, a town that was built for a far smaller population is now bursting at its seams. Roads that were conceived for walking and two-wheelers are now inadequate for the mushrooming number of four-wheelers. The locals feel threatened and the influx of tourists on weekends is starting to be resented.
In British writer Lee Langley’s 1995 novel, A House in Pondicherry, she writes of “..a fine, gleaming town with an imposing Promenade that curved the length of the bay, straight streets lined with trees, houses spilling bougainvillea down their white walls, gardens filled with flowers and shady fragrance” (p. 7). The major character of Langley’s novel is called Oriane, a reference to Proust’s enigmatic heroine. She is a lost, lonely creation, half of France, half of India, and never wholly of anywhere but Pondicherry.
It is her town that is threatening to disappear.
The focus of the popular Tamil press and among the town’s influential circles is on Pondicherry’s overpopulation and the resulting pressure on the town’s resources.
But the town’s growth is just a symptom. The cause is something else – poor urban planning. Ten years ago, in 2005, most of the streets were filled with nothing but breeze. Cycling through the main boulevard in the evenings after school, I remember the air of carefreeness, of the intimacy of a place in which everyone knew each other, of a town where time stood still.
All that is gone now. The congested, noisier spaces of today’s Pondicherry deliver scary premonitions of a soulless future – of a homogenized, mass-packaged tourist town, more a theme park than the living, breathing old capital of French India.
It would be easy to blame the government, but India simply does not have the processes and institutions in place to foresee and proactively counter this kind of urban development. But having said that, has the government at least recognized the problem?
It’s not clear if it has. Work on a bridge heading south towards Cuddalore from one of the arterial signals has been going on for more than a year now, aggravating traffic. The December 2015 floods have damaged most roads and only in anticipation of the May 2016 elections did work even begin on a few.
When criticized the government has the usual responses – that central funds take time to arrive and that there aren’t enough for everything. Even if this were true, there simply isn’t enough time for these discussions anymore.
Pondicherry is an important place. Filled with history, heritage, and stories, the town has been a witness to extraordinary events, and has somehow maintained its unique cultural hold in a corner of a vast, wondrous country.
There is much here worth saving. And lately, things are happening.
The Department of Art and Culture is looking at revamping the government museum and modernizing the Romain Rolland library. The municipality is bringing back into the life of the town heirlooms like the old Grand Bazaar siren. The cynical mind may point out that these are cosmetic efforts, being kickstarted mainly to attract tourists. But they aren’t a bad start. And there are a few platforms working to improve city planning, like the volunteer organization, PondyCAN, and conservation non-profit, INTACH, who together are doing great work.
The cultural and conversational spaces of towns and cities like Pondicherry or Madras or Bangalore are usually occupied by a certain kind of citizen – educated abroad, well off and with plenty of time to indulge in these activities. The involvement of this segment of the population is undoubtedly invaluable; without them nothing would ever happen. This segment includes me, the writer. Literature is, by definition, a bourgeois pursuit, and though I may walk in these streets, recording their sights and smells, its spaces don’t really belong to me.
The streets belong to the rickshaw-wallahs playing chess on the pavement of Rue Suffren; the streets belong to the women with the baskets of fish in the Grand Bazaar; they belong to the tea-sipping clerks of the Secretariat, their bicycles leaning on walls painted bright yellow, their eyes on the sea.
It is these people who own the roads of the town, whose daily lives are marked by its rhythms. It is their voices that are most important.
Last I heard, INTACH had submitted a proposal to the government of Pondicherry, with plans of reconstructing the Mairie in the exact same design of the old building. The proposal included ideas to use, as much as possible, the same type of materials that were used to construct the original century-old structure. Word is that the government is looking at the plan favorably.
Perhaps, for this little town by the sea, there is still hope.