The Courts of Pondicherry
SOURCE: The Atlantic, February 4, 1998
They’re sitting at the far end of the court, fifteen men of various ages huddled into their withered cane chairs, cheering my opponent. “Like a row of bowling pins,” I think, throwing the entire weight of my frustration behind a forehand in their direction. My shot flies out; the men clap. The umpire announces the score with a smirk on his face.
For reasons unfathomable even to me, I’ve entered a state tennis tournament in Pondicherry, a former French colony on the South Indian coast. It’s just past noon and the sun is merciless. I’m being thrashed by a man twice my age and weight. My legs are jelly, my throat feels like I’ve swallowed hot coals. Outside, a Hindu temple is blaring devotional songs, and the buses and lorries are celebrating my plight with their endless cacophony.
The thing is, I’m on the wrong side of town. Fatigued souls like mine should be across the canal, where traffic flows smoothly — and quietly — along tree-lined boulevards, and where expansive parks cast a cool shade to keep the sun at bay. Over there, in the “ville blanche,” or “white town,” as that part of town was known during French rule, the European masters spared no effort to defy the heat and dust of their colonial outpost. They built a home away from home, a whites-only Riviera on the Indian Ocean, complete with elegant seaside walkways, high-roofed villas, and those lazy, shady parks that seemed so far away from the “ville noire” where the natives lived — and where I am currently being humiliated. For years, tennis itself was a whites-only affair, restricted to members of the rarefied “Cercle Sportif de Pondichéry,” across town; the courts I’m on were built shortly before independence, as a sop to native protests.
Of course Pondicherry is no longer a divided town. But, as in so much of India, traces of an imperial era linger everywhere. A visitor arriving by train alights opposite the Place de Gaulle, a decrepit monument to the man who swore he would never grant Pondicherry independence. At traffic intersections, policemen still wear the traditional uniforms of the French gendarmes, including the hallmark flat-topped hat known as the kepi. On afternoons, in dusty clearings set throughout the town, men in shorts gather to play the French game of boules. Pondicherians are proud of these colonial mementos. Recently, at a public gathering, the tourism minister bemoaned the changing times and exhorted his listeners to uphold Pondicherry’s distinctive “Frenchness.”
He would no doubt be heartened by the spectacle of my defeat here, where the very men who have cheered my opponent on to victory now rush to my side. Decked out in the latest sporting fashions from Le Coq Sportif, they commiserate in French. “Bien joué,” one says, offering me the same hand that, I distinctly recall, was clapping at my double faults. “C’est dommage,” another says. On one count, at least, it appears the minister need not fear: the famous French gift for hypocrisy is alive and well.
And yet the minister’s anxieties are not entirely misplaced: Pondicherry is changing. My newly acquired fans, their French airs notwithstanding, are emblematic not so much of a colonial elite as of an emergent Indian middle class whose presence has only begun to be felt in the past decade or so. They are doctors, engineers, and businessmen. In contrast to an earlier generation of Pondicherians who grew rich on generous French pensions, their wealth is self-made, the product of a new entrepreneurialism and social mobility.
Even their French vocabulary, upon closer examination, yields an insight into the new India. As always — and as with English in the rest of India — French is the lingua franca of Pondicherry’s elite. But whereas membership in that elite was once restricted to what might be called anoblesse indigène, the doors have now been wedged apart, if not quite flung wide open. These bilingualists speak the colonial tongue not necessarily because they were born into distinguished lineage but because their families’ hard-earned money opened the doors to private schools where French was the medium of instruction. As in any capitalist economy, one can now buy one’s way into the Indian ruling class.
Not everyone, of course, is sanguine about such changes. To many, the new India is a soulless India, a nation out of touch with its past, and on the verge of cultural oblivion. But here in Pondicherry, far from the maelstrom of Hindu chauvinistic politics that has overtaken the North, there are few signs of such anxiety. Inside the tennis club a new class of capitalist Indians speaks the imperial tongue. Outside, the temple continues to celebrate Saraswati puja, a religious occasion characteristically observed by the garlanding and blessing of cars, computers, and other technological totems. From time to time, as the music becomes unbearably loud, play on the tennis courts is temporarily suspended. But barring such hiccups, the past and the future, the indigenous and the imported, co-exist harmoniously. To most residents of this unselfconsciously cosmopolitan town, these different worlds are nothing other than a single reality that they know only as everyday life.