India Diaries: Day 2 in Pondicherry

What a day! After surviving a three hour drive from Chennai yesterday-- no streetlights, reckless overtaking, incessant hooting, robots I can count on one hand-- we arrived in Pondicherry. It was cooler and quieter than Chennai. Pondicherry is right by the coast of what used to be a French colony.
Today we started the day with Sku talking to MA students at Pondicherry University. Pondicherry University is a mixture of both buildings and forest across the campus (or jungle;we saw a snake slither across the road) . It's a postgrad university with only Masters and PhD students. The class Sku addressed was dominated by women. There's very little I can say beyond my observations about the campus as I spoke to very few students. The class dynamic was very apparent within the university as the cleaners around the university were women who are visibly poor, gaunt and old. The university is so expansive we couldn't walk from the gate to the Humanities building when we arrived. We hopped onto the official on-campus tuk tuks to get us to our next destination. After the lecture we met the English Department HOD for lunch together with Sku's colleague who has organised the trip. They were very worried about whether we would enjoy the food but we assured them that we were well-versed in South Indian cuisine thanks to Dosa Hut, Spiceburg in our neck of the hood.

Sku's lecture notes.
 We were then given an itinerary of things to do for the afternoon. Top of the list was a book fair in the heart of Pondicherry. Perfect! The fair was wonderful; stuck in an old hall, there were stalls of various book shops in the region. Most books were in Tamil or a variation of Hindi and Tamil(even Long walk to freedom in Tamil). We found some interesting books by Indian writers (Sku bought another copy of Mein Kampf:seriously!). If I had to compare the book fair with any literary space in South Africa I would have to say I've never seen so much literature written in a local language. In South Africa, our literature is dominated by English. In India the literary sphere is dominated by the dominant local languages (or the region perhaps). There are familiar covers of books written in Tamil and Hindi. There are translations of the major autobiographies rather than English copies in India. All this seems to be done by independent publishers rather than a government entity. We definitely don't have this in South Africa. We don't value the translation of texts in our local languages because we defer this to the government to do this work. India could teach us a thing or two about the error in this shirking of the responsibility.


One of the stalls at the book fair

Look who I found in India!

Next on our list was Pothys: the Macy's of Pondicherry. First and second floor: women's clothing. Third floor: children's clothing. Fourth floor: men's clothing. Fifth floor: groceries and the basement: electronics and parking for moterbikes! Sku has been wondering where the normal people are: "people who aren't trading and just living their lives"; basically people like us who go to the shops after work and buy normal things. Of course we've seen normal people since we've arrived but not Sku's version of normal. This is a simplistic understanding of people in Pondicherry. Most people seem to be working as traders with very few professionals in the mix. Perhaps it's just the consequence of being in a place like Pondicherry (New Delhi will probably be different).
Pothys was a dream. Sku managed to successfully distract me from the first and second floor by occupying me with his concerns for pots and pans and an extra t-shirt. What fascinated me most about Pothys was the first and second floor: sprawling spaces filled with fabric for saris and reams of ready made saris. Interestingly the men's section is dominated by "western" clothing of jeans, t-shirts and suits. The colours on the first and second floor were dazzling. And it's no surprise that women are targeted: we are the biggest consumers. Like the book festival, the centering of "Indian" culture was glaring. There's absolutely no shop in South Africa that has the amount of space I saw at Pothys of what we could consider as "South African" clothing. Sku pointed out that if we do have something that is typically South African it's a boutique or a shop like Urban Zulu. But our mainstream shops certainly don't centre what we consider South African or even African styles of clothing. And when they do it's probably a short-lived marketing gimmick that is very expensive. But of course, there's the issue of colourism (or racism as a friend pointed out to me a while ago): all the advertising (tv and print media) is of light-skinned people. This is in spite of the fact that people in the South are considerably dark. This is probably the only area where whiteness (or the hankerings after the "West") are visible (I walked past a salon that advertised skin bleaching as one of their services).
This is an open secret in India: Indians prefer light skin. A book that I bought at the book fair by Chetan Bhagat, Making India Awesome, writes about this as well as all the other interesting dynamics about India. With all it's problems, there's an interesting sense of nationalism operating in this country. From the language issue (where there doesn't seem to be an obsession with speaking "good" English but rather being multi-lingual) to the lack of American influence (no McDonalds in these parts, no rap music and no pictures of American brands), Indians seem to have a healthy sense of what it means to be Indian: with all its problems. I don't think I could say the same as a South African. Ours is a visibly American/Westernised country with tiny gestures of including Africa. Even in the moment of decolonising education. One of students asked me what my mother tongue was and when he discovered it's different to Sku's he said "so that's why you guys speak English". I responded "No, we're just lazy" considering Sku and I speak a variation of the same language. His comment precisely points to the existence Sku and I have in South Africa: we easily lean towards Englishness in most aspects of our lives.
Pothys is situated in an area that appears to be the CBD of Pondicherry. It's vastly different to where we stay which is near Auroville which has restaurants and stalls on the side of the road. On a Facebook post about Day 1 I compared Chennai to Butterworth (perhaps Umtata would have been more correct): the hustle and bustle felt familiar. Pondicherry feels like Pondicherry. I've never seen anything like it. The smells of cooking on the side of the road, the motorcycles that rule the road, the bullying buses, the honking tuk tuks, the men in wraps and pants and the women in their beautiful colours is unlike anywhere I've been to. There's definitely a "third world" sense about the place as Sku remarked "everything could do with an extra coat of paint around here". But that just highlights how my lifestyle in Johannesburg is basically first world. Everything in my radius of Johannesburg life is the right kind of shiny and clean (even Braamfontein) and the right kind of shabby because the buildings are still well-kempt. But not here, but that doesn't matter until someone point it out to you.
It's important to note what I was wearing today: I decided to wear one of my favourite dresses on account of the weather. Instead of wearing my kurti and blending in with the locals I decided on a knee-length dress. Sku was the one to tell me that everyone was looking at my legs. Tomorrow I shall wear my kurti and leggings and attempt to blend in. It's probably the most sensible thing to do.

I'm not sure what tomorrow holds: possibly Pothys shopping for me and university things for Sku!

This is a chalk drawing found on the entrance of most homes and shops. This was at the entrance of our guest house. It is believed that it brings luck to the home. New patterns are drawn everyday.
And some pics from Day 1 in Nanganallur, Chennai:
A sign outside the bank: India (or rather Modi) decided to demonitise 500 and 100 rupee notes in November which left very little money in circulation. Most ATMs have shut down and there are long queues outside banks. 

There are shrines and temples everywhere. It feels weird taking pictures of them so I've only taken a few when I don't feel weird about it.


Trying a worm's eye view of the entrance of a temple



Just to give you a sense of the competing elements in the road: although this picture doesn't do justice to the number of motorbikes on the road who are a law unto themselves.


And of course: cows everywhere!

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