Pondicherry was quite strange. A French colony until 1962, it remains an eclectic mix of South Indian and French culture, sprinkled with the chic cosmopolitan flair added by the proximity to nearby Auroville and the steady influx of boutique tourism. The streets are filled with nuns, their grey habits contrasting with the bright lemon buildings. The Shri Aurobindo Ashram occupies several austere grey buildings, and its members shuffle around in white uniforms. The Shri Vinayagar Temple, complete with its resident Temple Elephant, draws crowds of pilgrims who leave with white and red marks smeared across their foreheads. The seaside and central Bharathi Park draw locals and tourists alike for evening strolls in the sea air.
While geographically its sits on the coast right in the middle of Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry is actually a Union Territory - just like Delhi and Chandigarh. The spoken languages alternate between Tamil and French, just as the cuisines feature both French croissants and South Indian dosas.
The Puducherry Government Museum gave a little context (and you know my affinity for Indian Government Museums - see here). Fan-cooled high-ceilinged rooms were crammed with the rotting furniture of old French colonials. Plaster busts of women named Rossi and Marianne sat atop carved wooden side tables. Highlights of the very extensive rock and mineral gallery included asbestos brought from Rajasthan and miniature porcelain toilets, unlabelled but sitting on the top shelf of the glass cabinets.
Lofty impressionist paintings of French ships and fleshy white children adorned the walls, mixed with ornate gold-embossed paintings of Shiva in his cosmic Nataraja dance. It was unclear what the purpose of the museum was. What belonged? What didn't?
I stood there, in my Indian kurta and Israeli backpacker sandals, assessing one of the impressionist paintings. Shades of grey and green wove their way into the cloudy sky and choppy waves, as a sailboat waving a French flag made its way towards the Pondicherry lighthouse. Did any of these things belong?
But in a way Pondicherry serves as a microcosm of so many places in India. The cultural masala I encountered in the Union Territory was symbolic of millennia of different influences converging and creating a wholly unique taste. Just like the British influences left over from the Raj, the bits of Portugal in Goa, the Mughal influence in the North, the Dravidian roots of the deep South, the magnanimity of Bollywood culture, the conglomeration of 24 national languages, and the deep unity that pervades the breadth of difference all shape the India that I've come to encounter.
It also made me think about how I belong. I don't feel like a normal backpacker - picking a region, smoking a lot, and spending days on end in Himalayan villages. I'm certainly not a package tourist. My Hindi is strong enough to help me understand, but not strong enough to make me belong. I've probably experienced more regions and more depth than your average backpacker, and have experienced local living, but does that change anything? Everywhere I go, people stop and ask for selfies. It doesn't matter to them that I've spent the past two years working to help build my little microbubble of Indian society. They see me the same as every other foreigner with a backpack.
But it's also okay - to be comfortable in that discomfort. Pondicherry doesn't need to fit into my perception of what an Indian city should be. I don't need to fit into the idea of a standard backpacker. It's okay for me to be a little bit Indian and a little bit not. When I first came here I think I felt a lot of pressure to do certain things - taking the train instead of an Uber to prove that I wasn't just an expat, buying my vegetables in Hindi to show that I belonged. I was very self-conscious about wearing bits of Indian jewellery or clothing because I didn't want people to think I was one of those foreigners who lose their own identities. But as I've seen more and more of India, and met more and more people here, I've tried to accept the places and people for what they are, not for what I expect them to be.
From Pondicherry I travelled south to the town of Trichy. I packed out of my cramped, stuffy, poorly-lit, hard-mattressed five dollar ashram guesthouse and headed to the bus station. On the way I bought a croissant from the bakery on the corner. It was hot and crispy and fluffy and delicious and possibly one of the best croissants I’ve ever had. I sat in the sweaty rusted piece of metal that passed for a public bus and took in the contradictions of such a strange place.
*'Kya' means 'what' in Hindi