The immense water body that washes up constantly on the beaches of Pondicherry has been as a much a source of life and happiness as it has brought death and sorrow with it.
The blue sky with its clusters of grey clouds meets the swelling ocean at the horizon. At 7 in the morning, the Manapet beach is abuzz with people, crabs and crows. This is my second day in Pondicherry and I am making plans of having a home here someday. In retrospect, that’s the way of this city.
Everyone’s made a home here. The street-side vendors have neat little coconut- leaf brooms resting against trees and pet dogs curled up in corners; Every evening when the school and college crowd disperses at 4, mothers are busy sweeping the front yard and fathers are busy buying snacks for the little hungry mouths that sit perched on parked scooters and cycles. Almost every house we crossed en route Pondy from Chennai through the East Coast Road had rangoli at the entrance and a breeziness of having the incessant ocean nearby.
I have had my eyes glued to a decaying tortoise for a while now, quenching a carnal curiosity that death invokes in me. Watching the crows inch back after gauging me from a distance, I absent mindedly wade closer to the black dome like shape. That’s when the rotting smell breaks over me like a wave. It was overpowering. Trying hard not to breathe, I fasten my pace on the ever-slipping damp sand. I wasn’t wary of the tap-dancing crabs anymore. I just wanted to get away.
I can’t. The air of Pondicherry now smells like death to me. Walking around the Nehru Street market in the scorching heat of January, I wipe my nose repeatedly and smell a lot of perfume. A young French guy winks at me but I can’t focus. The heat seems to be making it worse. The soil is giving off that scent as are the coconut remains in a garbage bin. I spot an Indian Coffee House and hurry across the street to its spacious echoing comfort. A woman sells golden bangles and mukhuttis next to the coffee house. The sun beating down on the ornaments shines with a vengeance making me regret my aversion to sunglasses. A beggar sits before the shady entrance and counts his day’s earnings. He’s got a white mess of hair on his head and eyes full of contagious happiness.
I stand at the cash counter and try to communicate my desire of sipping on a cold coffee. I am lost in translation ever since I reached Pondicherry. I speak to my driver, Thevari, in Hindi, he doesn’t understand. I explain in English he gets it. I apply the same formula to fisherman Ramakrishna, who I found plucking live baits from sea shells and putting it in his hook before he went fishing on his boat and became a speck in the distance, and he tells me he understands Hindi fine enough. By the third day, I have mastered the art of nodding my head and speaking with my eyes.
Pondicherry has a strange sense of peace prevailing over it. It’s noisy and the traffic is mostly mad. I hear Thevari mouth angry curses in Tamil to a man on scooter and return to the car with a tranquil smile. It is only as I write that I realize how much this behavior is borrowed from the character of the Indian Ocean.
The immense water body that washes up constantly on the beaches of Pondicherry has been as a much a source of life and happiness as it has brought death and sorrow with it. The first thing that Club Mahindra manager Vikas Syal talks about as we head to the beach on the first day is how the Thane cyclone devastated his property on the 30th of December, 2011. He laments the loss of the beach-side spa and the new government regulations which have rendered the remaining 22 acres of his property unusable. The 2011 Thane cyclone which killed 33 people in Tamil Nadu was not so uncommon. It was preceded by Cyclone Nisha in 2008 killing 189 and later by Cyclone Jal in 2010, resulting in 1 death. Ocean calamities have been a recurring threat to the coastline of Pondicherry but none of it did as much damage as the Tsunami of 2004. Ten years have passed but the beaches of Pondicherry are still peppered with fisherman colonies which sing about that tremendous wrath of nature.
One of the worst hit villages during the 2004 Tsunami, Pudukuppam, lies about 2 Kilometers to the right of the Manapet beach outside Club Mahindra. Broken boats lie enmeshed in ipomoea climbers, sunk like corpses in the sand. A little ahead, a cracked Adi Shakti temple stands abandoned. In its stead, another makeshift temple has been created: On a square cement deck in the corner, sits Ganesha and Shiv-Parvati sculptures and photos. Five metal trishuls have been erected vertically from the deck and marked with sindoor. Lemons bleed stuck on the sharp ends of each trishul. The site hints at the practice of tantra tradition which is often used to ward off the evil eye and I find myself thinking how apt it is for such a temple to be on the beach, right next to the ocean.
Even though the village outskirts are deserted and decaying at 11 in the morning, the lanes further in have a different story to tell. A woman sits outside her thatched-roof home, grinding lentils in an aluminum container. Having spotted an outsider in her area, she is quick to make a pained expression and ask for money. I point to her utensil to find out she’s making idlis. I gesture her to make extra for me. She finds that very amusing and laughing heartily says something to the other women hanging around in the lane. Most of them are wearing floral printed sarees and have their hair tied in buns. Some are wearing flowers in their hair. They all have golden jewellery adorning their ears, nose, wrist and neck. They seem to be discussing something heatedly and with a lot of giggles.
I ask one of them about the broken houses all around us. She, too, is quick to make the same pained expression and points to the sea. Soon she doesn’t care that I don’t understand her language. She speaks fluently in Tamil about the Tsunami which hit her village. She raises her hand above her head to gesture how high the water had reached. But the rest I don’t understand and I have no one to translate.
Further down the village, the Tsunami and the constant cyclones are not the talk of the day. Having worked hard since early morning for the day’s catch, mid-day is meant for relaxing. On a raised rectangular platform with pillars supporting the roof, three women sit playing what they call Aadpulia-attam and what I know as Ludo. A square wooden plank marked with red nail paint to resemble a female princess or demon in a square box. They play with broken glass bangle pieces and two cylindrical metal dice.
Below the platform, on the road, a patch has been cleaned for drying small silver fishes. Called Karavada, these fishes will be dried for two days before they are roasted with spices for a meal. All through this while – during the lunch at Le Café in the French city, at the rocky beach, during the walk at Aurovile and even in my room – I had been trying to shrug off the decaying smell of the ocean. But as I sat on the platform, following the board game, I realized I had learnt to ignore the stink. I had started to accept it as a part of my stay in Pondicherry. Maybe that’s what the people at Pudukuppam village have also learnt to do. As I later find out, the government has constructed new houses for the people of this village a little far away from the ocean to avoid future calamities, but the people of Pudukuppam seem to be reluctant to live there. The beach continues to be where they are truly at home.
Later standing ankle deep in the water clutching my camera, I feel the water rise in leaps and bounds to my knee only to leave as rapidly as it came and take all the soil from beneath my feet along with it. Water rushing towards me, water retreating back to the sea and the earth slipping from under my feet. I feel dizzy, as if I’m stuck in Hitchcock’s famous vertigo effect on a loop. I remember how Vicky Harrison once put it — “Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”