My most cherished memories from my childhood belong to the one and only Pondicherry aka Puducherry aka Pondy.

We lived there from when I was about 4 or 5 till I turned 13.

Pondy is a beautiful French colony with architecture that is elegant and influenced by the French. This post is not about the architecture, or what one can readily find out about Pondy on the interwebs—it’s about what Pondy meant to me.

Pondy meant—first and foremost, its pristine beach along the Bay of Bengal. With its long promenade, a huge statue of Gandhi, and a clean beach, it’s one of my earliest and happiest memories. My memory is of a narrow shoreline, with steps leading down to the beach from behind the Gandhi statue. Or you could go down the rocks by the parapet wall (Ad :)) and reach the beach—this was my preferred route.

To this day, I crave the ocean when I am stressed—it brings me a sense of calm and peace, transports me to a different realm, takes me to my zen place, whatever you want to call it, and is an overall meditative experience. I believe that stems from the happy times we spent at the beach. That was the one thing that my dad indulged us four girls in.

Pondy meant streets with French names, at right angles, neat and clean. It meant being able to see the beach from the 3rd floor terrace of the house we lived in.

It meant Beenu, the crazy mean dog that scarred me almost for life, but not quite—Kashew came along and rescued me and now I love dogs, as my friends can painfully vouch.

It meant long walks to school with friends.

It meant my first crush–a vague one on a random guy I saw every day on my way to school. (Clearly, it went nowhere.)

It was where I first heard (yes, heard not saw) a chicken being strangled to death for a Sunday feast. We lived on the terrace house (house is an exaggeration for the tiny dwelling which amazingly housed 6 of us) of our owners’ house. Directly below us was a kind of a semi-open outhouse where they stored grains, there was a well, and on Sundays, their servant would kill a chicken for the midday meal. It was not cut/slaughtered—there was no blood. He killed it by breaking its neck—I never saw this. All I would hear on most Sunday mornings was the awful squealing of a chicken.

Surprisingly, I don’t remember feeling particularly traumatized by this. It was just something that happened that we got used to.

Pondy meant mom indulging us in softy ice cream on Sundays.

It meant stories—that my dad told us at bedtime, the “Kaakaa vadai” story, the only crow in the world that sang “chowdvi kaa chaand ho” to steal the vadai from the paati, thanks to my dad’s sense of play. It meant my dad teaching me to play chess. And the time he tried to braid my hair because my mom was sick or not at home, and I had to go to school.

It meant stories that my mom told us—of Cinderella, some version of the Beauty and the Beast, and other stories I have no idea where she got from.

It meant stories my uncle (Chellappa mama) used to tell me of the MGR movies he watched—scene by scene. He is the sole reason I became an MGR fan.

It meant fighting to get hold of the children’s mag, “Gokulam”, first on Thursdays, with my sister.

It meant sharing the only doll the four of us had—she was green, plastic and she was garrish. She was called Shakuntala.

It meant hanging out with my first real girlfriend in the real sense of the word, outside of school—Vasuki, my neighbor. I later heard she died during childbirth and couldn’t get over it for days.

I had my first brush with death in Pondy—a school friend of mine, who never looked well now that I think about it, died when she was still in elementary school. I remember going to her house and looking at the body. The things that our parents let us do!!! I couldn’t have been more than 10!

My best friend during the middle school years was a Jain girl, Santosh Kumari. She and her sister Tara used to bring delicious Jain food for lunch and share with me.

We were the closest but fought quite a bit and would go for long periods of time without speaking. Awkwardly sitting next to each other in class, not speaking to each other, speaking through other friends or worse, through the teacher 🙂

I remember the time when she wanted me to go with her to see some visiting Jain priest—apparently a naked one or maybe a semi-naked one. Any Jain reading this, please correct me if this doesn’t happen. I remember fighting with my mom to go see him because she was my best friend. Of course, mom put her foot down, depriving me of a great spiritual experience.

It meant sleeping on the open terrace on warm nights under the stars.

It meant music lessons with K K Adikesavan that abruptly ended when we moved to Madras. Who also taught the Veena, and refused to let me learn both at the same time when I begged him for Veena lessons.

It meant my first act of rebellion. My mom didn’t like me leaving my hair loose. I was 13. So I did it anyway. And was sitting by the oscillating table fan, doing my homework, enjoying my new hairdo. And got a bit too close to the fan. And the next thing I know, the fan grabs hold of a chunk of my hair, on the front right. Mom didn’t say a word. She turned off the fan. My hair was so tangled in the fan blades she couldn’t unfurl it. She ended up cutting it off in the front and I was left with a very bad haircut for days.  I don’t think that particular patch of hair ever recovered from the trauma and is my most problem frizz area. You would think there’s an obvious lesson here, wouldn’t you? Nope, none of that moral of the story crap for me.

Pondy meant so much more, but most of all, it meant the most uncomplicated and happy times of my life. Every trip I go back home, I mean to go visit but it’s never worked so far. In a way, I wonder if that’s almost a good thing—as my memories of my Pondy are untarnished. I do hope to eventually end up in my beloved Pondy beach!







Madras Memories: Puli

We only knew him as ‘puli’—the word for tiger in the Tamil language.   He is one of my earliest scary memories.

We could see into his balcony from the terrace or the balcony in the back of our grandparents’ house in Madras. He was always pacing. Catlike. We had heard stories about him—bad stories, scary stories. To this day, I don’t know the origin of these stories because no one in our family had ever met him. As if he knew we kids were watching him from our balcony he would suddenly stop and turn to look at us.  This usually sent us screaming inside.   I remember his eyes were unblinking, and catlike.

The stories we heard about puli were wild. How he came to be called ‘puli’ (his eyes were yellow like a tiger’s), and most terrorizing to us kids, that he had a girl tied up in chains inside the room by the balcony where he could be seen. This girl was supposed to be his sister, and mentally unstable. That he was guarding this mad person. And that he never let her out of the house. Never fed her.

If you have ever walked on Tana Street, you know it’s a madhouse. My grandfather’s house was across from a church. We would go for walks in evenings to the market to buy the day’s vegetables, and crossing the spot where his house was, in the back of Tana Street, was comparable to going past a cemetery. I would literally hold my breath and was very aware of his house, and the catlike stare and the pacing, until I passed it.

My grandparents eventually moved away from Tana Street but we never solved the mystery of the tiger. I wonder what was really going on in that house. I wonder if puli is still alive. I don’t know why I suddenly thought about him today, but it’s one of those memories that still sends shivers up my spine.

Is this an irrational fear or a sixth sense? I don’t know…and hope to never find out.