Saturday, March 29, 2008


The Cercle de Pondichery was the local club where the elite met every evening for a game of tennis, or a round of bridge, or several rounds of drinks. Babuji, who used to play tennis before he got married, started playing again every evening, and enjoyed it very much.

It was here at the club I was introduced to Dubonnet, a sweet wine, which I really enjoyed, and given a choice, I always went for that. The children were given a treat at the club once a week, the club’s special open toasted sandwich with tomato and onion chutney, which we had never tasted before, or after our time in Pondicherry. It was something different and new and enjoyed by all.
Soon after our arrival in this town, there was a fancy dress party for the children, held in the club. Just to introduce the children to the club, I had Viji, a six-year old, dressed as a South Indian bride,
and Bala, a ten year old then as a bridegroom. Raji was dressed as a gypsy girl. The costumes were a success, and appreciated by all.

Later on there was a fancy dress party for the adults as well, and Babuji and I took part. I was a Malayali woman and wore the traditional white mundu - neriyathu, and Babuji was a Reddiar, with diamond earrings sparkling in his ears.

On the last Saturday of every month, the club used to organise a dinner- dance party which was well attended from the Chief Commissioner downwards. Ninety nine percent of the club members were non-vegetarians. On Saturdays they refrained from non- vegetarian food. Hence accordingly, the dinner used to be announced only after midnight. The music and the dance, starting from 9 pm or 9.30 pm went on into the small hours of the next day.

Though neither of us danced, Babuji and I used to go regularly to listen to the music and watch the others dance. One couple used to do the rock and roll so well that all the other dancers would move back and give them the whole floor. And this couple, the Squires, used to do full justice to this privilege.

Mr. Kripalani was really surprised when he asked me for a dance once, and I told him that I did not dance. His next question was, “Well, then, do you sing?”
“Do you play tennis? Do you play bridge? Do you swim?” were his next questions, to all of which my answer was – “No.”
He was really taken aback, and asked me seriously, “Then how do you manage to survive?”

Mr. Kripalani belonged to the Indian Civil Service cadre, whose members were trained in England in pre-independent years, and these officers were totally anglicized. Well, actually, there are some exceptions to this. And we came to know one of them in Trichy, while we were there for ten months. He was a District Judge there. A Malayali, he was not in the least anglicized, and he and his family were very down-to-earth people. His children and Raji and Bala were good friends, and went to school together. Mr. Kripalani, being a bachelor, and used to his own life-style, could not understand that a housewife with four demanding children and a husband, had plenty of reasons to survive, without any other outside recreations.

What really knocked me out was seeing a whole roasted pig, with a garland round its neck and a nimboo in its mouth as the centrepiece at the non-vegetarian table. Thank goodness I was able to hide my feelings and surprise from showing on my face. I had seen pictures like this in many English magazines, and that saved me.

There was a separate table for the vegetarians – “The Grass Eaters” we were called. Today’s grass eaters, or, shall I say grass smokers, use a different grass.

The club used to hold dinner dance parties for visiting dignitaries too. There were also magic shows, puppet shows and mono-acting shows. Special Christmas parties for the children were held, too. All told, the club life was enjoyed by everybody. It was a kind of life which we had never experienced before, or after our Pondy life.

In Pondicherry we were one in a hundred. Coming back to Delhi, we were just one in a million.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


After that first sit down dinner that I experienced on our first day (official day) in Pondicherry, I found that it was only the first of its kind. In the five and odd years we were in Pondicherry, there were more and more to follow. Not only were there sit down dinners, there were also buffet dinners, sit-down lunches, garden parties, tea parties and more - Babuji and I learnt to take this in our stride.

All the dinners hosted by the Chief Commissioners usually ended with songs from the guests. Mr. J. L. Kripalani, the then Chief Commissioner, was a music lover. His dinner parties at the Government House ended with a song either from Saroja or from Loknath Bhattacharya. Saroja’s ‘Katriniley Varum Geetham’ was Mr. Kripalani’s favourite. Mr. Bhattacharya was good with patriotic songs and also light Bengali songs. Astir was good with Hindi classical and light music. Her rendition of K. L. Saigal’s ‘Babul Mora’ was enjoyed by one and all. Even after 50 odd years, that song still haunts me the way Astir sang it.(See picture: Mr. Kriplani on the left with Babuji (right) and a friend.)

Bhattacharya had a good clear and loud voice, and he was very proud of his voice and singing. Here I have to tell you about a dinner at the Government House concerning Bhattacharya and his songs. Once when Mr. C. D. Deshmukh the then Finance Minister and his wife Mrs. Durgabai Deshmukh, then the Social Welfare Minister, came to Pondicherry on an official visit. Mr. Kripalani hosted a dinner for them, and he had invited the top ten officials with their wives to it. We were all seated at four or five tables with six persons to a table. I was seated at the table where Mrs. Deshmukh was siting. She was a very considerate lady with no frills attached, and carried on a conversation with all of us at her table with ease. The dinner, a five course one, with red or white wine for each course, was being enjoyed by everybody. As we were waiting for the last course, the sweet dish and the fruits, Mr. Kripalani requested Mr. Bhattacharya for a song. The young man promptly stood up and started singing the national anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana’.

The chief guests stood up, and so also the rest of us. When the national anthem ended, the chief guest walked away from the table, the rest of us following them. We were all deprived of the sweet dish for which the Government House chef was very famous. We were sure that Mr. Kripalani gave Mr. Bhattacharya a good and lashing piece of his mind the next day.

While writing the above, I am reminded of two other dinners. When a Minister of State from Delhi visited Pondicherry, she was hosted a dinner by the local ministers, officers and their wives. Though we the ladies were all introduced to her, she never bothered to acknowledge our presence.

Throughout the buffet dinner, she moved among the men folk busy carrying on a conversation with them. Not only that, she commented the ladies could not think or talk about anything other than saris and jewels, and that is why the ladies kept to themselves. The men folk later mentioned this to us. The Honourable Minister forgot that she also belonged to the same species as we! (That is me on the left in the picture above.)

The second dinner I mentioned was the dinner we had on our last night in Pondicherry. Since we were leaving the place, there was a deluge of farewell parties, starting from breakfast, sometimes two on the same day, lunch, coffee or tea get-togethers, everyday for two weeks. One couple requested us specially to reserve the last evening for them, as they had planned to give us a grand party, which we could not forget so easily.

I reserved my best sari for that evening. And on that evening dressed in our best, we were really surprised when we walked into their drawing room, there was pin-drop silence – for nobody was there, not even the host or hostess. Since Babuji was one for punctuality, I started blaming him saying we must have come too early. But I was wrong. After a few minutes the host and the hostess came in, offering no apology. And no drinks.

They took us straight to the dining table, and treated us to a dal roti dinner. If this was a ‘grand party’, I wondered what a simple dinner would have been like!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


As I said before, we had a happy and busy life in Pondicherry. Our outlook on life also started changing and this life was very different from our Delhi life, where we had our set group of friends and we were happy interacting with them.

Here, in the new life, we were always in touch with a cosmopolitan set of people from all walks of life – not only from different parts of India, but from different parts of other nations, too. Our life also became busy with luncheon gatherings, tea and dinner parties.

We had been in Trichy, Chingleput and Saidapet for a period of two years where Babuji underwent administrative training. Life in these places was also different from the Delhi life, but it was nothing like life in this new place.

Talking of dinner parties, I have to tell you about our first get-together. On the very day Babuji took charge of his post, we were invited to a sit-down dinner hosted by the Rotary Club.

‘SIT –DOWN’ dinner! I was aghast!!

I was full of fear and apprehension. It was the first of its kind we were invited to. Though I knew how to use cutlery in an off-hand manner, at a sit-down dinner one had to use the correct spoon, fork and knife for each course. And I was very ignorant of these things.

To add to my confusion, Babuji was seated at another table, while I was seated at the centre table, at the head of which sat the Chief Commissioner – the head of the state. Thank God I did not show my fear or nervousness on my face. As soon as we were seated, I started a conversation with the lady sitting next to me. When the food started coming, one after another (and it was a five-course dinner), I waited till the lady next to me picked up her spoon and fork. I followed her example and the day was saved for me – the ordeal over.

Later in life, more than three decades after, Gowri and Mohan, with Parvati, took me out to lunch at a famous restaurant. I was amazed at the way Parvati, a three-year-old kid, handled the food with her knife, fork and spoon so deftly. Thanks to the tea garden culture she was growing up in.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


Pondicherry, or Puthucherry , as it is known today is very different from what it was some fifty years ago. I last went to Pondicherry with Gowri, Mohan and Raja in 2002.
Gowri was keen to see the place of her birth. She was born there and we left Pondicherry when she was not even six months old.

Babuji was on deputation there from June 1957 to November 1963. We were there during the de facto, or de jure, period, and when the French influence was very strong still.

At the time, the town was divided into two parts by a canal that ran across it from about a kilometre west of the sea. The east side was known as the white town where the Head of the State - the Chief Commissioner, and other top officials lived and worked. The Cercle de Pondicherry, St. Joseph de Cluny High School and the Medical College were also housed there.

A major part was occupied by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its inmates, its shops and its school.

The west side of the canal was called the Black Town where the local people lived, and where the markets and shops were situated. Most of the local people were Creoles who worked for the French Government, and they spoke French as well as any Frenchman. The French influence was very much in evidence.

This was how we saw the place when we went there. The sea and the beach, though it was an apology of a beach, captivated me, particularly the sea. From our terrace the sea, with the ships moving far away on the horizon and the deep blue green waters, looked like a huge picture post card.

We were given a bungalow in Rue de Rangapillai, which housed the Development office, of which Babuji was posted as Secretary. Our living quarters were on the first floor. It was a really big house built by the French in real colonial style. The dining-cum-living room was so big it could have housed a large flat of today.

The day we moved in, one of the officials working in the department advised us to keep one of the north side doors on this big room closed, and never to open it at any time. The reason given was that previous occupants had felt that this doorway was haunted, and many apparitions had been seen there by many.

Babuji’s immediate reaction to that was to ask me to have my ‘pooja’ set up by that doorway and to never ever keep that door closed, not even at night. We were in that house for more than six years and we never saw any ghosts or apparitions. Rather, we had a happy and busy life there.

More to follow. . .