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!







Pasumai Niraindha Ninaivugale (It was the best of times…)

Signs of spring everywhere.   It feels like the whole city’s dynamics is suddenly different.  Pulsing, alive, expectant.  My tulips are in bloom.  My daughter is home.  Hah…that almost rhymed.

We survived her 1st year of college, away from home.  She survived.  She is a more confident, more independent version of herself after the past 8 months.  She has promised to spend time with us…already planning evenings of playing euchre, literature, scrabble, or watching our favorite shows as a family – House, How I met your mother, Big Bang Theory…  Spring is my most favorite season – a time for rejuvenation and hope.  The darkness of the winter past buried with the snow – laid to rest for now.

When I think of my younger self, and good times, Pondicherry beach always tops the list. Followed by, in no particular order: waiting for the children’s magazine “Gokulam” every Thursday and fighting with my sister to lay my hands on it first (loved the Vikramaditya stories – still do with a passion – they are THE BEST – he’s my hero, hands down!), fun with my cousins playing ‘ezhu kal’, Trade (Monopoly for those in the US), being able to see the beach from the mottai maadi (terrace) of the house in Pondy.

(I remember believing the grown-ups when they told us we couldn’t go to the beach on Sundays because it was closed but that’s a whole other story about my naivete or stupidity as some people would say)

I also grew up in a family that loved stories. My mom fed us dinner with stories of  Cinderalla, some version of the Beauty and the Beast, a story about 3 sisters Rupavathi, Kalavathi and Gunavathi. (No prizes for guessing their character traits, and who sticks with her father when he’s old and broke!)  She didn’t have access to a lot of resources, and spent her life taking care of her family – I am amazed that she knew these stories because I don’t think her mother (my paati, Perambur paati as we called her) couldn’t have told her either.  (note to self: ask amma about this).

I was the chosen company for my Purasawalkam patti (paternal paati) when she went to the ‘katha kalakshebams’ at the temple during summers. (I think the real reason was no one else wanted to go).  And came to love the stories of Ramayana and other Indian mythology.

My dad’s stories were fun and action-filled animal stories from Panchatantra – complete with sound effects.  The crow in the ‘Paati – vadai – kaka’ story always sang ‘chowdvi kaa chand ho’ when the cunning fox asked it to sing, to steal the vadai.

I have continued this with my kids.  I’ve told them stories – some made up, some read from books.  They both until very recently would ask me shamelessly to read or tell them stories at bed time J (seriously though, I don’t think one is ever too old for stories…)

I loved the beach – the Gandhi statue which was (is?)  the landmark of the Pondicherry beach, with the narrow steps leading down to the beach, the ‘pattani sundal’ with the tart mango pieces and chillies.  To this day, the ocean calms me down.   Whenever I’m stressed seriously, I crave the ocean – the salty air, the never-ending blue shimmering in the sun, the deafening roar of the crashing waves.  It’s a meditative experience – I always come back recharged, refreshed and my creative juices flowing.

Then once we moved to Chennai in my 9th grade, life was different.   I took a while to come into my own and went through some confusing and difficult times.  Then came my +2 years.  We were a group of 8 girls who hung out all the time together – Padma and Shanti who were almost like twins, Rajni and Chandra the quietest, sweetest and the nerdiest, Mythili and me who were best friends for those 2 years, and Rachel, and Usha, a super tall, super skinny Telugu girl who brought really hot Andhra food for lunch. I loved her tomato rice and she would bring a whole separate box just for me on days she brought the tomato rice. Trying to get into the lunch boxes before the lunch hour was the greatest accomplishment we looked forward to every day.

We argued about everything – Who was a better music director (Ilayaraja or M S V), better director (Balachander or Bharathi Raja), sexier actor (Kamal or Rajni), everything under the sun. Debates with our Commerce teacher (Zeenat) would get pretty heated …I remember one particular one – is footwear a necessity? This one went on for a long time. Ms Zeenat, vivacious and young, encouraged us to be open about everything.

I remember reading (and crying over) ‘Love Story’ by Erich Segal at school under the tree we used to hang out at, during a free period.  ( I watched it recently – and kinda surprised – it did nothing for me…)

 And of course, guys. There were 2 handsome guys who came to audit the accounts at our all girls, Christian missionary school – one short and handsome, and the other tall and handsome. They had close to a mob worship going on considering it was an all-girls school.  Nothing happened – just a lot of ogling.  But that was our big thrill back in those days. Of course, we were all seriously obsessed with cricket. I was ‘in love’ with Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricketer (later married an English girl…sigh…)….Wonder what he’s up to now.

College was more subdued, but still fun. My best years were my 11th and 12th grades. I was close to Rachel, and kept in touch until a few years ago. Those were the carefree days. You could forget all your troubles when you’re with your friends. We could solve all the world’s problems – nothing was out of reach.  So idealistic, rebellious, impractical!

It was the best of times!