Pondicherry is an ancient city first mentioned
by the Romans in the second century. It was established as a colony by
the French East India Company in 1673, and it now consists of four unconnected
enclaves in South India. After the British left in 1947, it took another
15 years for Pondicherry to join India as a Union Territory. Last year
it changed its name to Puducherry, which in Tami means new colony.
Arunabh, Rajeev, and I flew into Chennai early Saturday
morning and hired Sabhabati to drive us to Pondicherry.
This dude drove his Indigo like I drive my XBox - either
full throttle or full brakes. A half hour into our
trip he swerved to the left and slammed into a family
scooter. The scooter wobbled, but the family stayed
onboard. The bump broke our side mirror and ran a deep
scrape down our passenger doors. We stopped, the scooter
stopped, and the two drivers yelled at each other while
the three of us and the wife and two kids watched.
As a crowd gathered around us, we got scared that Sabhabati
was going to lose the fight, and we urged him to avoid
the danger and get us back on the road.
I asked Sabhabati to be careful. He nodded. "No
problem, sir." And not two minutes later, bang!
Sabhabati had whacked an oncoming two wheeler on our
right side. The blow popped off our remaining side mirror.
The two wheeler stayed upright and kept going. We all
yelled at Sabhabati to slow down. I put on my seat belt.
Bikes were one thing; what if Sabhabati swerved into
The traffic dissipated as we drove down the Eastern Coastal
Road. We could see the Bay of Bengal a few hundred
yards off on our left. Sabhabati pointed out the remains
of a village which had been washed away by the tsunami;
nobody had yet rebuilt it. He said that there was no
need, as the villagers had also been washed away.
That wasn't so cheery. I got to thinking about
what happened when the tsunami struck. The landscape
was flat, and there was no place to run. It was probably
good nobody was rebuilding in this danger spot.
We stopped at Mamallapuram, the center of the Pullava
Empire thirteen hundred years ago. There's a
nice Pullavan shore temple sitting on the beach: our
guide Natraj told us there were seven temples, but
the other six were now under water.
Well, five of them were under water. Until two years
ago, one temple was just a two foot high rock on the
beach where people sat as they fished. Today, it's
a twenty foot high temple, uncovered when the tsunami
washed away the sand.
Natraj told us about the day the tsunami hit: it was
26 December 2004, and he was on duty as a guide at
the temple. It was early, eight in the morning, and
the vendor stalls were setting up with only a few customers.
Suddenly people pointed at the water and started yelling,
and Natraj saw three large waves heading towards the
beach. Everybody went running away towards the lighthouse,
except for one German shopper and two vendors who were
trying to sell him something. Those three were washed
I looked at the waves and tried to imagine what it would
be like to stand here watching a tsunami heading towards
you. This place seemed safer than the previous village,
as there were some hills and a couple lighthouses a
half mile away. Still, you'd have to be able
to run awfully fast.
Natraj showed us more Pallavan carvings in Mamallapuram.
We visited several temples which were carved out of
single stones. At one of the stone carvings at the
base of a cliff, tourists were snapping pictures of
some monkeys sitting on the rocks.
Arunabh doesn't like monkeys. Last year he screamed
and bolted when a monkey chased him in Sri Sailam, and
I've been teasing him about that whenever I remember
to. So this time when a monkey came up to him, Arunabh
stood his ground and showed how brave he could be against
these dangerous wild beasts.
Apparently this suited the monkey just fine. He pulled
the soda bottle out of Arunabh's hands and ran
away. Then he opened the cap with his teeth, set the
bottle sideways on the ground, and lapped up the soda
as it poured out. Another monkey grabbed the bottle
and drank it like we do. It made for a great photograph.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and we still had
an hour to reach Pondicherry. We talked in the car
about the tsunami and how much damage it had caused,
and how many lives had been lost. And then we got a
really big scare: Rajeev's dad called and said
that he heard on the radio that an 8.3 earthquake had
hit somewhere around Japan, and that there were tsunami
warnings all over coastal Asia. He didn't know
anything else, but said he'd call back if he
heard more. He told Rajeev to get out of there and
get somewhere safe.
Great. Where was this safe place? We were halfway to
Pondicherry along a coastal road with no exits. The
terrain was flat, except for back in Mamallapuram.
We decided we needed more information. I pulled out
my Blackberry to check the web. Good news: the earthquake
had struck the Northern Pacific. There had indeed been
a tsunami, but it was only four inches high when it
hit Japan's shores. Not that dangerous after
We had a hard time finding a room in Pondicherry, because
this was a three day holiday weekend (Sankranthi),
and the beach hotels were all booked. Eventually our
guide found us a guest house that had plenty of rooms
available, and after spending the night there, we found
out why: its name and its inhabitants.
Its name is the "Golden Shower Hotel". The
receptionist said that's a translation from the
Tamil name of the tree outside the front door. He was
mortified when I explained what it meant in colloquial
English. I'm guessing that the name hurt their
long distance bookings.
About the inhabitants: the mosquitoes come on duty at
two in the morning. It was a miserable night for me.
I wrapped the covers tight around my head and body,
but the darn bugs found a way through and kept on biting.
I'd fall asleep and jerk awake every few minutes
to smack the ones sucking at my arms and legs and face.
By five thirty, I had defeated the mosquitoes. Two
hundred of the bastards, each fat with my blood, had
been splattered on my sheets. I was happy I had won,
but I was worried about getting malaria or some other
dangerous mosquito-borne disease.
We saw the sunrise at the Gandhi statue in the center
of the city, and then took a drive to the Roman ruins
at Arikamedu. We skipped some rocks on a river that
we scared ourselves into thinking was snake- and crocodile-infested
when we heard the splash of a goat herd taking a bath.
Then we went for a swim at the beach, and scrambled
out of the water when we saw some fins that turned
out to be dolphins. By this point in the trip, we were
inventing our own dangers.
Our tire had gone flat at the beach, and we stopped and
ate at a small dhabba while Sabhabati got it repaired.
We laughed at how we had survived all the dangers of
our trip. Well, almost all of them. Arunabh and I drank
the local water while we ate that last meal, and we
both got sick for the next three days.
When Alison and Holly were eight, they shared with me
their literary discovery: all good stories were laced
with just enough danger to make them exciting and fun
to remember. The same held true for our weekend trip
to Mamallapuram and Pondicherry.