Or, A Wet Weekend in Pondicherry
R has a friend who moved out to India a few days after my lumpectomy back in April. She is French and had found a job managing a hotel in Pondicherry, a small city on the East Coast of Tamil Nadu. It used to be a French colonial outpost.
The street names all sound French and they drink more red wine than you'd expect of a predominantly Hindu area. The policemen even wear Kepis, and their bins are peculiarly sinister looking rabbits (though I don't think the rabbit thing is a French thing).
Pascale was taking her six year old daughter, Victoire, with her. Victoire was going to be enrolled at a local school, where they would study classes in Tamil and English.
I remember we went to visit them both for a cup of tea to wish her well a few days before they left. I was still recovering from my operation physically, and shell-shocked from my diagnosis emotionally.
Pascale was packing up the final items in her house and gave me a little Ganesh. A tiny bronze elephant she'd bought on her trips to India. She passed it on with the advice to put the tiny pachyderm somewhere where he could survey all who entered my flat. That way, she said, he would stop any bad spirits from entering.
And he has sat, patiently guarding me from bad spirits, on the windowsill next to my door ever since. I give him a little stroke every now and again, for luck, and to keep his back nice and shiny.
Now, eight months later and during our holiday in India, we thought it the perfect opportunity to try and pay Pascale and Victoire a visit. We may have been staying 500 miles away from where they lived, but budget airlines have come to India, so we found ourselves booking two seats on an Air Deccan flights from Trivandurum to Chennai for 4,000 rupees. Or around £50 for us both. Throw in another 2,000 rupees for an almost fatal taxi ride three hours south to Pondi, and we were there in time for tea.
We stayed at Pascale's apartment and hung out with her and her daughter, and Mugoo and Valee, her babysitter and cook respectively. It felt weird having 'staff' around. Valee would just about cope if I tried to make a cup of tea in the kitchen, but if R tried to lift a finger he was severely scolded and sent back to sit down. But Pascale works every day except Sundays, from 9 til 3pm and then again from 6.30pm til midnight or later. With those hours, anybody would need help, and Victoire seems to love Valee and Mugoo. It quickly became apparent that this might have something to do with how readily they indulged her whims - more so than a mother would at any rate.
Pascale and Valee
On Saturday, Valee could a massive pot of Chicken Biryani. Pascale had warned me that she may need some help with any electric gadgetry required, and I wanted the opportunity to see how she cooked, so I set to with her. With some great effort in sign language she indicated she wanted me to chop the three heads of garlic and a massive fist of fresh ginger. I peeled and cleaned the raw ingredients and gave them a whizz in Pascale's small blender. I showed Valee the results.
More, more she motioned. Clearly she wanted it chopped really finely.
I whizzed some more. And some more. Still not happy, she shook her head and motioned again. She took the margarine out of the fridge and gestured that she wanted the mixture to resemble this in texture.
So I added a drizzle of olive oil and whizzed the stuff until I feared I'd fry the machine. The pieces of ginger and garlic were tiny now, but were not getting any smaller. Valee took the bowl back off me and marched next door. She returned ten minutes later with a satisfied smile on her face. I peered into the bowl. What had been finely chopped garlic and ginger earlier had been transformed into a creamy sauce.
God knows how she had done it. No blender in the West would have had that effect. I suspect it was some artful pestle and mortaring in the neighbour's kitchen.
Chastened, I left Valee to finish the cooking and just watched. I was obviously not worthy. The Biryani was delicious.
The following day we went market shopping with Pascale, who drives a hard bargain. I bought another Ganesh for a friend. This one flashes with multi-coloured lights and is the height of Hindu Camp. It's great and shall be my house-warming come birthday present for her.
The market was full of other bargains. We didn't buy any vests or pants, even though there was a stall specialising in them. But we did buy an awful lot of other shit. And we bumped into Valee and her daughter, shopping for saris.
Later we visited a Hindu temple, dedicated to Ganesh in fact, with the most amazing carvings inside. Hindu temples welcome all and sundry apparently, unless you are a menstruating woman.
How can they tell I wondered?
The temple also had its very own temple elephant, trained to take coins from visitors and bless them by touching their heads with its trunk. The elephant had pink eyes which made it look a little tired, but it was sporting rather sweet elephant-sized anklets.
Do anklet shops have to arrange the little silver chains by size? I imagined rows arranged in order - infant, girl, lady, and elephant.
It rained every day, each day harder than the last. What we'd failed to realise until we got to Pondi was that Tamil Nadu tends to miss out on the main Indian monsoon from June-October and instead gets most of its rain between October and January. I felt damp for the duration of our whole visit.
Eventually we gave in and headed back to Kovalam, land of palms and sunshine, relieved to be resuming our holiday.