India à la Française

Before our trip to Puducherry I had not realised that there had once been a French colony in India. It is not formally part of La Francophonie, the organisation of French-speaking (or previously French-speaking) countries, but Pondicherry/Pondichéry was a French colony off and on for around three hundred years, until the 1950s. The current union territory of Puducherry is in four (unconnected) districts and the guidebook states that there are still French citizens living in ‘Pondy’, with a continuing French influence. So I was looking forward to enjoying some French pastries, spotting beret-wearers, and brushing off my French language.

We set off to see the sites. The old town is divided by a canal into the French Quarter and Indian Quarter. The Indian Quarter seems to be pretty much like other towns in India.  The French is on the cooler seaward side, and has old French-style villas, a statue of Joan of Arc, a pétanque court, a basilica, and a cathedral. Our guide Boniface told us that, unsurprisingly, the main converts to Catholicism were among the Dalit – formerly ‘untouchable’ – population, and there are still services in French every morning.

But what about French language outside the church? Searching out French language influences became a mission for my few days in Puducherry. This was not as easy as I had thought.

Even negotiating our way out of the hotel became a challenge at one point, since most of the 18 rooms had been taken by participants of the Hindu wedding of a young US-based Indian couple, and the various ceremonies continued over several days. Things became tricky when the whole foyer was taken over and we could not get past. My years at boarding school proved their worth, and in no time we had found a window which could be unbolted and we jumped out onto the footpath. But I digress.

On the street, the most obvious remnant of French is in the road signs, bilingual in Tamil and French. I looked up Romain Rolland and he was – bien sûr! – the winner of a Nobel prize in literature.

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We had croissants at breakfast, but no baguettes. Restaurant menus were in French and English, and the waiters all spoke good English. I certainly could not notice the ‘light French accent’ remarked on by others in Puducherry’s spoken English. I wondered if there is any parallel in French to Indian English, but even among the tourists I did not hear any French spoken, so I could not find anyone to ask and I have not been able to find anything written about it.

Meanwhile, the influence of English was clear, as in this street graffiti, Tamil-style.

Women is life

My hopes were raised by hearing about Auroville, one of the main tourist attractions of Puducherry, with an obviously French name. Auroville is an ‘ongoing experiment in human unity and transformation of consciousness’, built just outside the town as a sort of commune. It was founded by a French-Turkish-Egyptian-Jewish woman who was spiritual collaborator with the nationalist visionary Sri Aurobindi. I thought we might find some French being used at Auroville, but when we got there most of the signs were in New Age English.

Auroville balsam (2)

So I gave up. Modern-day Puducherry is a lively mixture of cultural influences, and it seems to me that religion (and non-religion) is now the symbol of Puducherry’s identity, with the French language slipping into memories of a colonial past.