Tishani Doshi explains the lure of Pondy, a seaside town in Tamil Nadu.
Recharge your batteries in the bustle of Puducherry
For a period of my life I was intrigued by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo - an Indian freedom-fighter-turned-guru who made Pondy his home in 1910. I used to make regular trips down the coastal highway connecting Madras and Pondicherry, now Chennai and Puducherry, to spend a contemplative weekend reading beautifully bound books on integral yoga and the "life divine" at the Park Guest House on the promenade. What I liked best about Pondy was the choice of fresh croissants or beachside masala dosas for breakfast, cycling around pretty rues and boulevards named after dead French governors, the moustachioed Tamil policemen in red kepis. There's something about the syncretism in Pondy - three centuries of French influence filtered through a lens of powerful south Indian light - which seems to place the entire city in a time warp. So even though I gave up on my spiritual-seeking a long time ago, I continue to make that trip down the coast, just to forget for a while where in the world I am.
A comfortable bed
At 600 rupees to 800 rupees (Dh48 to Dh65) a night, the ashram-run Park Guest House is cheap, but they're not the cheeriest of proprietors. Besides, they impose a 10.30pm curfew. As soon as I could afford it, I shifted loyalties to the Hotel De L'Orient (www.neemranahotels.com), a beautifully restored property, which used to house the French government's education department. There are 16 rooms to choose from, all blending the best of Tamil and French styles, starting from 4,000 rupees (Dh325) per night. If you want something less old-school and hipper, head out of city limits to the Dune Eco Village and Spa (www.thedunehotel.com). Here, you can get a mud house for 5,500 rupees (Dh446) or a Kerala planter's house for 17,950 rupees (Dh1,456). Dune is a spectacular property spread over 700 metres of beach, with an infinity pool and individually designed rooms and villas using materials as diverse as steel, wood, cow dung, mud and straw.
Find your feet
For all the times I've visited Pondy, I never fail to get lost. I have come to accept that part of being in Pondy is to discover new alleyways on bicycle or foot. You can always take a rickshaw, but they will probably rip you off and leave little room for serendipity. Visiting friends from abroad tell me it's the easiest Indian city they've navigated, divided as it is by a not-so-grand canal into the French and Tamil quarters, known in previous, non-politically correct times as ville blanche and ville noire. Whichever direction you travel in, though, all roads will lead to the promenade, where the waters of the Bay of Bengal surge against a man-made wall of rocks.
Meet the locals
The Sri Aurobindo Ashram might be the heart of Puducherry, but the place to meet and greet residents is definitely the beach. At first glance the promenade could be the picture of any Indian seaside town, with its mandatory statue of Mahatma Gandhi, old men with walking canes, sari-clad women and young Romeos. But on closer inspection you will see signs for the French War Memorial and the Joan of Arc Park, bringing you back to that French connection.
Book a table
I remember making the two-hour drive down the coast with my family just for Sunday lunch of fresh grilled pomfret and apple custard pies at the Rendezvous, which was the only restaurant in Pondy at the time. The Rendezvous is still going strong, but now faces stiff competition from the city's new eateries. A lot of people come to Pondy looking for the perfect coq au vin or chateaubriand with Béarnaise sauce, but my experiences with Pondy's French cuisine haven't always been fantastic, so I tend to stick to Indian fare - Chettinad or Mughlai - which rarely disappoints. An ideal evening would involve a beverage at The Governor's Bar at Le Dupleix Hotel (5, Rue de la Caserne), a rooftop meal at The Promenade (23, Goubert Avenue; about 1,000 rupees [Dh81] for two), and if your stomach is sturdy enough, an ice cream (10 rupees, Dh8) from a beach vendor.
Pondy is a shopping haven for people with inexhaustible energy reserves. My usual route involves a stop at 165 Mission Street for the multi-storeyed department store Casablanca, which stocks clothes, jewellery, exquisite Golden Bridge Pottery and Hidesign leather goods. On the opposite side of the street is Kalki, a boutique that sells hand-painted silk, among other things. What Pondy does best, though, is antique furniture. You could scour the French Quarter and try your luck at the many dealers - Curio Centre (40 Romain Rolland St) or the Art Colony, next door. Or hire a taxi and drive north out of the city to the warehouses that line the streets. You might have to dig around, but your treasures will be cheaper.
What to avoid
Puducherry diverts briefly from the French influence to follow the Spanish concept of siesta. The hours after lunch are the hottest time of the day, so it's best to avoid walking around till 4pm. Find a planter's chair on a balcony and rest a while with a fresh lime soda close at hand.
A trip to Auroville, "universal city in the making", on the outskirts of Pondy. Best described as a human experiment aiming to integrate the social and spiritual needs of mankind, Aurovillians are concerned with means of sustainable, harmonious living in a society sans cash and property ownership. The city is the brainchild of Sri Aurobindo's Parisian spiritual partner, Mirra Alfassa, or "The Mother", probably the greatest modern French influence on Puducherry. Auroville garners extreme reactions from cult-like devotion to severe. Drop in just to see the Matrimandir, the meditation centre, which looks like a giant golden spaceship has just landed in the garden.
Tishani Doshi's new novel, The Pleasure Seekers, is out now.