12 April 2019
Pondicherry has been arranging and rearranging itself ever since it was pentaqued onto a South Indian land where different boules knock against each other. Some boules confront each other, some keep their distances and some roll purposefully to other directions. Watch and listen them carefully for each has their own story to narrate that is plentiful, paradoxical and placing Pondicherry more precisely on the map.
Beyond the Boulevards – a short biography of Pondicherry is a really tiny book. Small in size, some 200 pages that are neatly divided into segments. Easy to read, very easy to relate if you have spent some time in the city. It is like a virtual visit to the city through the ages.
While figuring out its multilingual identity, Pondicherry transformed into a spiritual centre, a hub for alternative education, a quasi-extension of the large state of Tamil Nadu bordering it, an ecological and environmental bastion—and, thanks to a liberal liquor license, a party town.
Residents shared their stories with the author in Tamil, English and French. There is the butcher who spent fourteen years in jail; a twenty-one-year-old waiting to join her boyfriend in New York; a Tibetan woman raised in Delhi who runs a popular Latin American dance studio; an English literature professor who is compiling a multi-volume encyclopaedia about his city.
All of them converge on the beach Promenade in the evenings, an incidental procession of sunset- watching, breeze-seeking pedestrians. This city-wide ritual tells its own story of how people come together: the contrast of colours, languages, religions, and family legacies.
Beyond the Boulevards, pointed to the city’s phenomenal history — a melting pot of Dutch, Portugese, British and French colonial influences — and the shifting stories and changing perceptions that bring the city to life. One remarkable thing about the city was that amid all the dramatic changes in the landscape, one still felt that “one had a handle on things,”
What makes Beyond the Boulevards a treat for readers, is it’s non history narration. Aleph’s all books in the City Series are a set of little gems. The biographies are of cities, but they’re not dry histories full of footnotes. The authors are insiders, and writers of repute, and these pocket-sized books are as much about their relationships with their cities as anything else. Beautifully tapped and explored, the book is a chronicle of the lives of not the elite and rich class of Pondicherry but rather of the ones who make it the real city, the artists, the bohemians, the drunkards, the paradise of alcohol and others. What makes the city a gem on the map, is it’s free of alcohol service, contrast to its dry neighbour Tamil Nadu.
Sriram cleverly taps out the history, origin, lifestyle, lanes, hubs, markets, familiarity, by lanes, boulevards, sub roads, highways, villages and many more within this short work and a short union territory through different voices. When you travel through the book, you see a change in voice, from a butcher to an artist, from a relative to a professor, from a Tibetan woman to residents of Aurobindo’s Ashram.
There is pot-pourie of Dutch, English, Portuguese and French feeling in the book for you explore through the short chapters, the origins in a limelight of myths and history, the places in a limelight of real experiences, spiritual hubs through papers and chronicles, the bars and alcohol centres through the drunkards and the elite, and finally the libraries through a farrago of languages. Adding as a cream over the cake, is the beautious cover, the beautiful medley of cover both on front and back provides to you a sneak peek of how vivid, colourful and wondrous the city of Pondicherry is.
Sriram’s book does a justice to a city that has been so easily lost in the map and from people’s mind. She does a job of an author and explores what is beyond the boulevards in Pondicherry.