Monday, October 17, 2011

The French Connection

          Very often it happens that there would be some marvelous destination that is a stone’s throw from your place, and you never really take the trouble to check it out; keep putting it off for another day, but head to distant locales, throwing more cash than you intended to on those vacations. And one fine day, you make up your mind to ‘just go check the damn place out’- and fall in love with it. Exactly what happened to me this weekend, at Pondicherry.

          I had always wanted to go to this little Union Territory, close to four hours from Chennai, by road., for the French connection that it offered. Having learnt enough of the language and culture for a good five-six years, with the folks at the Alliance Français  doing a pretty remarkable job of it, it was only natural that I  wanted to go see if it was  la meme chose.

          And boy it was. Much, much better!!!

          We started from Chennai at around 4 pm and the drive was uneventful, reaching Pondicherry at around 7.30 pm. The best part about the trip was that two among us were locals, so they had an itinerary in their heads, saving us precious research time. And I can say, no amount of research and planning would have made a better trip that what these friends had drawn up for us. We headed to one of their homes to dump the bags and freshen up. Then we headed out for the night. 

          The UT is markedly split into two- the French quartiers and the Indian neighborhoods. The architecture, colours, the crowd, even the width of the roads, spelt the difference. Smart policemen with red hats caught my attention everywhere we drove through. That is also a French-hand-me-down custom, I hear.  We went to this settlement near the beach, with all the roads named Rue-blah-blah. The spot is simply awesome for a walk- the weather and the bunch of merry friends only complementing the scene. We went to this diner called Le Club, Rue Dumas. Amazing place- great ambience and music, splendid food, only slightly expensive. Wanting to experiment authentic French cuisine, the gang asked me to choose. I picked dishes that I remembered from text books: Poulet au citron- (Lemon Chicken?)  and Poulet à la Crème de Champignon (Chicken cooked with mushroom sauce). The mushroom sauce won.

          We headed to the beach carrying clinking bottles of breezers. There was this push cart selling fried fish, squid, macaroni, fried rice and noodles. I’m blaming it on the Indian appetite, because the single course meal at Le Club was simply not filling enough. We settled down on the sand less beach, making ourselves comfortable on the rocks, with the moon for company. In a word- Amazing. I would rate this the best part of the trip. Pulling one another’s legs,  sipping and stuffing our faces with food, giggling away, with the boys having more than enough eye candy for themselves- it was a very fine evening indeed.

          We headed back home quite late, calling it a day. The next morning saw us up just in time for brunch. We went back to the same quartier, walking around, checking curio shops, and saying non, merci at anything that was offered. Expensive stuff. Very very. But great ideas, if you are the handicrafts sort of person.
More food at La Terrasse,, Beach Corner. Fairly economical, good food, frequented by a mixed crowd. I even walked over to a gang of French girls and struck up a little bit of conversation...good fun. We ordered quite a bit, but I would recommend the steaks, pizzas and a certain bacon omelette. Very tasty.

          Post lunch, we drove to this spot that not many tourists know of. The residents took us there to show it off, and we couldn’t stop going ‘oooh-aaaah’ over it. It is a little down the rickety road from the light house- a pier leading into the beach, for a good two hundered metres. The sun was playing spoil sport, but it is a splendid place to go for a swim, or to just chill out. We hung around there for a while, and started back home…the poor man’s holiday, but couldn’t have asked for more!

          The way back was eventful enough, with Gaurav promising me a three digit numeral on the R15 speedometer- and keeping it. And ironically, after we relinquished the bike to Arun and switched to the car, he was caught for over speeding: 65 Kmph. (straight face)

          Some favoured must visit places apart from those mentioned- Madame Shante’s, Rendezvous, Auroville and the Ashram. Auroville stays closed between 12 noon and 4 pm, so you might want to plan accordingly. All of us had visited the Ashram, so we just skipped it- but it is beautiful- soothing. On a closing note- - Pondy is an awesome destination, every Chennaite simply has to visit it atleast once. You have no idea what you are missing!

Friday, October 14, 2011

          The other day, we had this debate at Toastmasters, the L&T Chapter. It was one of those topics that has been debated enough, through the centuries past, and will always be questioned for those that follow. Capital Punishment? Or Forgive and let live? I had gruesome facts and figures, but no matter what I said, my friend Gaurav stood his stand- prisons reform people. In the solitary confinement of a prison, he said, a man is condemned to live with nothing but this thoughts. He lives his past again, and withers away thinking about the future that he could have had. He craves for the love of his family, and buries himself in regret. ‘You have no idea what goes on inside their heads during those days, with nothing but stench, walls, stale food and survival instinct for company’ he told me in a low voice, with a buddhist-monk ring to it, ‘Read Shantaram’.
          And soon enough, it landed on my lap- gift wrapped. I kept putting off reading it. 900 odd pages needed exclusive attention and time. I was then reading a Harold Robbins, that was followed by a couple of Arthur Haileys..and when there was absolutely nothing to read on a rainy evening, I flipped this open.
And I was hooked.
          The tale is written in first person. Gregory David Roberts claims it is a true story, the grim details make you hope it is not. The title, Shantaram, is what Roberts’ friend’s mother names him when he visits a remote village in Maharashtra. Man of Peace. Though, through the entire length of the book, he goes by the name Lin. Lin baba. He is convict, a heroin addict, who escapes from prison in Australia, lands in Mumbai- and falls for the city. He lives in a slum, he starts a free clinic there, he trades in the black market, gets involved with the local mafia, fights a war in Afghanistan, stars in a Bollywood movie, attains international smuggler status, falls in love, and throughout- describes every detail with amazing clarity, that the words come alive, coming together to form motion pictures in your head.
          It is ironic, I believe, after reading this book, that a gora has taught me so much about the Mumbai that I share a very special bond- it is my mum’s city and the city where I was born. Not only did I pick some more Marathi from it (I’m in the Marathi learning phase currently), I also got to know quite a bit about the people and the culture of the city. The standing babas. The mafia. Cocaine. Cold turkey. Smuggling. Love.  Friendship. Death. Trust. Prisons. Black markets. Forgery. Guns. Refugees. And the value of life. How each one of us ought to be happy to simply be alive. And the gift that call the present.
You should read it to get the feel of it. It would ruin the surprise if I said more.
          Through the past week, I had also been giving a few friends a very hard time, texting phrases and quotes from the book, at very odd hours, as I was reading. Some moved my heart, some made me think, some made me go- ‘THAT Is the answer!’.  Some of those, for you guys:

“Fate gives all of us three teachers, three friends, three enemies and three great loves in our lives. But these twelve are always disguised and we can never know which one is which until we've loved them, left them or fought with them.”

“Sometimes we love with nothing more than hope. Sometimes we cry with everything except tears. In the end that's all there is: love and its duty, sorrow and its truth. In the end that's all we have - to hold on to tight, until the dawn.”

“We live on because we can love, and we love because we can forgive.”

“We find it easier to be brave for someone else than we do for ourselves alone.”

“Silence is the tortured man’s revenge.”

“Nothing grieves more deeply or pathetically than one half of a great love that isn’t meant to be.”

“At first, when we truly love someone, our greatest fear is that the loved one will stop loving us. What we should fear and dread instead is that we won’t stop loving them, even after they are dead and gone.”

“When we are young, we think suffering is something that is done to us. As we grow older, we realize that real suffering is measured by what is taken away from us.”

“Most loves are like this: your heart feels like an overcrowded life boat. First you throw pride out to keep it afloat. Then your self respect. Then your independence. After a while, you throw people out-your friends, everyone you used t know. But it still keeps sinking, and you know it’s taking you down with it.”

“People haven't stopped believing in love. They haven't stopped wanting to be in love. They just don't believe in a happy ending anymore.”

“We know who we are and define what we are by reference to the people we love and our reasons for loving them.”

The gyan overflows. But it brought me peace. a lot of it.