Pondicherry 2: Á la recherche du temps perdu

Before your start reading this, I’d like to say a couple of things. This is a departure from the other pieces you can read about on the AE site in so far as it is not about actual events, the events portrayed are generalised to form a picture – Bob Cranwell


The second difference is that rather than simply reporting, I have tried to put myself in the mind of the elderly lady who features in the story. You may think I’m being patronising or deprecating in some way, but my intention was to try and imagine what goes through the mind of a person who has seen a lot of change in her life, but for her, most things simply have not changed, except who she answers to.


The house hums to the sounds of life outside, the constant crows’ chattering, distant radios with high pitched nasal songs  filtering through the coconut thatch and even further off, the thuds and smacks of dhobi wallahs (washerfolk) punishing stones. Replacing buttons is a business as reliably constant as that of hair cutting in India.

Inside the house the resident flies circle and multiply, waiting for a chance to settle on the uncovered sugar bowl or on my sweaty outstretched toes. Mosquitoes have parked up for the day on walls, awaiting the evening when their prey will lie still. I use the fan all night to dissuade them, and to keep just cool enough to sleep; since the meter for the electricity isn’t working, (accident, oversight, or small payment to the engineer who fitted it ?), it costs nothing for this small comfort. The only other electricity usage in this house is the niece’s radio and two 40 watt bulbs, so it’s not the crime of the century !


A leisurely way of life in South india
A leisurely way of life in South india


Mother settles back onto her charpoy, for the umpteenth time that day. Although she’s 73 she still rises at 05.30 for her daily ablutions, (like millions of other Indian women for whom the dark is the only privacy they might get), even if she goes back to sleep within the hour.

She literally never goes beyond the boundary of the house, save her morning excursion; not to shop, not to talk, not even to temple. Instead, she imports company, like the two families at the bottom of the garden, living in the size of sheds you might keep a lawnmower in. She might scold them from time to time for the space they occupy, but they are living as best they can, and are accommodated with a sometimes brusque tolerance. (In towns these ad hoc encampments are termed ‘encroachments’ by frantic town planners). Mother can’t stand being left alone in this great big house when her grand-niece goes to study typing, and her sons are all away.

Her grand-niece is learning this new office work in Tamil and English, though it must be said she can only copy what is given to her, in English, not correct or improve since she speaks no English at all beyond ‘coffee’ and ‘hot water’. The ‘Academy’ itself might be just a nice little earner, shared ancient typewriters, diplomas recognised and sought by few but the promise of a future, perhaps, might just be there.

Mother is caught between two stools, really since she does want the girl to do better for herself (at times it seems that this education has been a waste of money, as her only interest is cartoon strips from films). At the same time, if the girl does do better for herself, does find a job, or a husband, then who will look after Mother ? This sort of dilemma produces the mental exhaustion which lulls her back onto the charpoy for a little rest.


Off to market with freshly decorated oxen for Pongal festival
Off to market with freshly decorated oxen for Pongal festival


Awake. Take a sip of water and one or two of the biscuits that the Englishman brought in a box. All different ones, they were, but it was hard to open the box, she had to get out the coconut splitter to get at them.

Her son is out, somewhere with his friend, the one with one arm. Her son keeps pestering her to move into the big new house, so that he can begin work on her old, thatched part, but she likes the dirt under her feet. He goes on about using the new kerosene cooker, but she thinks its smelly and dangerous, and insists on burning the old husks from the coconuts, After all, you have to buy kerosene, but coconuts come free. And where would the money come from ?

She thinks back over times past, of the French who lived here so long, with bright uniforms, and shiny buttons, and yes, sharp words if things were not done properly. Surely, though, they knew how to look after the place, not like that Nehru and those others . . .

She was born in a time of the French rule and lived a third of her life under them. She knows one or two insults in French, being the only phrases used directly in communication with her.

Happy times, though, sweet dreams to recapture, piece by piece

Catch yer later !

Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant

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