I discovered an aspect of Pondy I've so far studiously avoided. And a big part of the motivation was the aspect itself - the people! It is only when you stay there long enough that you realise that the people in Pondicherry have an approach to life that is, most importantly about equality and equanimity. Here are some that surfaced in my six days of wantering there on foot, on bicycle, at restaurants and road side coffee shops, boutiques and beaches.
Limited work hours
Something that a close friend who works there once said rang jarringly this time - it's perfect - you work hard all through the week, because there are no distractions. Over the weekend, you are free to laze, or get out of town to escape to the bustle of the as-urban-as-it-gets Chennai/ Bangalore. However, if you're not a corporate bug in Pondy (far more likely unless you're employed with one of the two or three national or international organizations that bear roots there), it is possible to live the old world or even European life in Pondicherry with absolute ease. Business doesn't start before 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning. Everyone shuts for lunch & siesta, and then it's time to shut shop by 5 o'clock. If you're in the restaurant business, last orders must be wrapped up by 11:00 pm. Even in the 5 stars. That brings me to the next point.
Pondicherry might seem dry and sleepy to those visiting, but one look at the notices and flyers at the several watering holes and cafes in the French town and Auroville will tell you that's hardly the case. Yoga, dance, theatre, music concerts, it's all there. The town's people have many a ways to keep themselves entertained and in high spirits.
I can't imagine any other town's municipality blocking their most scenic route for a couple of hours in the morning and some more in the evening for its people to stroll and enjoy the sea's roar and breeze. Oh yes, the people treat their daily jaunt like religion in Pondicherry!
Watching women on auto-geared two-wheelers is a common site anywhere in India. On a motorbike too, one might spot quite a few of them across most towns in India. With kids, the week's grocery shopping and a work bag - now that was new. Even if this last peculiarity was only a common siting in Auroville, I'd say the foreigners set a blaring example in Pondy and for the rest of us to rely on our strength ability to multitask.
On a less obvious aspect too, people in Pondy seem to be able to do what they like more easily than the rest of us. There seems to be the exposure to do what they want - I haven;t met so many enterprising people in one town - whether it is starting a little curio corner, a restaurant, a toy shop, a bookstore or a bamboo products boutique (that includes possibly the softest fabric I have ever touched!).
Unbiased by gender
My favourite haunt in Pondicherry still remains the coconut vendor opposite the General Post Office and the Governor's Bungalow. That woman exudes not only confidence, but almost terror in many an outsiders' eyes. For me, she has been the ultimate epitome of strength and ferocity - contained in a cheery smile and flowers that match her saree.
I've seen burly women managing cash counters of cycle repair shops, and dainty ones serving three tables at a time in their own cafes. None looking life threatening, all cheery and ready for the world. There is truly nothing a man can do that a woman can't, it seems in Pondy.
The distinction remains
Pondicherry is a paradox. The French town has none or few living there now - the buildings are mostly government property or ancient bungalows owned by Tamilian locals who choose to live in smaller houses for convenience of maintenance and awaiting a mad occupant to revive it while also paying for the rent. Foreigners in general are mostly a feature of Auroville, where Indians are a minority (48% of the members) even if a marginal one.
And yet, the whites vs browns distinction is clear. For even the foreigners who have spent ages here, or born here (second generation and therefore, I'm guessing eligible citizens) either do not choose to serve in government positions or aren't entitled to (not sure which). They stick to their private jobs or occupations or professions while the Indians go about their business in the allies and marketplaces and offices.
Ironically, when just a couple of weeks ago we were hosting a Frenchman here in Pune - my first encounter with the nationality at such close quarters - I realise there is a striking similarity in the obstinate pride of intellect and opinion between the Tams and the French!
Dignity to profession
A quality that makes even the most menial work force in Pondicherry take pride in what they do, is the dignity of labour. Whether it is masons at a construction site, stewards at a restaurant, vendors at the Grand Bazaar's Goubert Market or elsewhere, people truly serve with a smile.
Love for liberty
I've yet to come across more entrepreneurial individuals in another small town as in Pondy. Everyone seems to be an independent professional - either they own a coffee shop (sprouting at the rate of a dime a dozen!) or are designers, architects, consultants, something this or the other. They seem to need little to start and much less to sustain themselves.
Clothes and walls seem to be quenchers of Pondicherry's thirst for colour. And it is everywhere. Whether you are eating out or shopping or at work - it seems to almost personify the town. Bright ochre, parrot green, vermilion, lotus pink, cobalt blue, royal purple... You can't miss colour if you're in Pondicherry! And you have little choise but to immerse yourself in it or it would be hard to believe you were ever even there...