French connection endures
MADAME Khantamma de Condappa epitomises the spirit of Pondicherry — feisty and elegant. At 86, Madame is a storehouse of information, having been witness to the ups and downs of French rule since the beginning of the century. Over 400 years of a colonial regime in Pondicherry has left a sizeable brown-skinned French population in this 30-sq. km area on the coast of southern India. Local Tamils in Pondicherry who opted for French nationality when France relinquished its control in 1954 enjoy all the rights extended to French citizens. They do not need a visa to visit France, are entitled to a career in the French military and can even elect their representative to the French Parliament.
French and Tamil are the only languages widely spoken. While some understand English, not many can converse fluently in it. Madame Condappa is one of the rare few. As she travels down memory lane, we get to know how this diminutive woman acquired her facility for languages. "I went to a royal school meant only for the children of the Maharaja of Mysore, his close relatives and ministers," she says. "My mother’s brother was a Diwan and that’s how I attended the school. All our teachers were from Europe. Life was full of fun and we studied only for four hours a day," she reminisces.
Madame Condappa came to
Pondicherry in1932, soon after her marriage to a college principal, when
the French were still in power. "The French were forced to leave in
1954 by corrupt officials who later became prominent politicians. The
town was blockaded and nothing could reach us, not even food," she
says. Madame goes on, "Compared to British rule, the French had
high standards of governance. Things were cheap and there was no
Creole foods, essentially rice and non-vegetarian Tamil preparations combined with typical French restraint, are the mouth-watering gastronomic legacies.
Mansions, still called by their French names, follow a distinct French architecture. One of the oldest and best representatives is Hotel Lagrenee de Meziere dating back to 1774. The other that has perhaps the finest collection of colonial furniture and assiduously seeks to maintain its character is unfortunately not accessible.
The owner of the house does not entertain visitors; journalists and photographers are particularly discouraged. The owner fiercely guards her privacy and says, "I did not even permit my brother who works for a French TV channel to shoot in my house!" However, she agreed to show me her house as I had a reference she trusted. But there was a caveat that she shouldn’t be identified, since she has had too many curious and discourteous visitors. The story of her family dates back to the 1660s when her great-great-grandfather from France married a lady from Madras (Chennai). The present owner moved to Pondicherry when her husband, an Irishman in the construction business, bought the mansion. A typical French villa, the high boundary wall gives no idea of its rich interiors: pillared verandas, high ceilings, louvered windows and huge rooms. "Ours was the first French house in Pondicherry to have toilets," she says. The French preferred moveable commodes instead.
Agreeing that life at present is tough, she is nonetheless critical of the current trend of leaving the country. "It is sad that a number of Pondicherian French are looking towards France for direction while our future lies here in India."
This feeling is echoed by Sister Therese of the St. Joseph Cluny Congregation. "The French of Pondicherry are a kind of nowhere people, neither French nor Indian." Unlike the other two, Sister Therese is of French origin and was born and brought up in France. She first came to Pondicherry as a traveller in 1952 when she was 23. In 1968, 14 years after the end of the colonial rule, she returned and settled down here to teach needlework, cutting and embroidery to 60 poor women. Her congregation is housed in Hotel Lagrenee de Meziere, which was donated to them 150 years ago.
No story of the French women of Pondicherry can be complete without the mention of two remarkable personalities, one modern and the other of the late medieval period. ‘The Mother’, as Mirra Alfassa is reverentially called, first heard of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry in 1914. Seeking spiritual guidance, she arrived here never to leave. Her legacy is enduring — the township of Auroville about 20 km away in the state of Tamil Nadu is a unique experiment in international community living.
The story of Aayi, a courtesan who lived almost 300 years ago, represents the fusion of cultures. Aayi had razed her house to the ground to appease a passing Pallava king and constructed a reservoir for drinking water. In the early part of their rule, the French drew water from this tank 5 km away to quench their thirst. Aayi Mandapam (temple) stands in the centre of the town and is the only French monument in the memory of a local courtesan. Napoleon III, then the Emperor of France, was so enamoured by this story that he ordered the construction of this structure.
Aayi perhaps best symbolises Madame Pondicherry — an amalgam of the Orient and Occident, its confusion and coherence. As more and more young people depart for France, leaving behind their heritage, there is one silver lining. Come July, Pondicherry is filled with young men and women: It is holiday time in France, and also the time for wedding bells to ring. Hopefully, the unique Franco-Tamil spirit of Pondicherry will live on. WFS