Indian Sojourn
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One More Time

My past experiences with short term stays in Provence, Savoie, and Shanghai only marginally prepared me for my latest assignment in India.  Once again, my employer called on me to help with a new facility that was being constructed in the southern Indian city of Chennai.  I was to be there for approximately three months, and I had little time to prepare.  Thankfully, my recent relocation to Texas had at least helped me acclimate to the insufferable heat that my Indian colleagues warned me to expect.

Perhaps it was my enhanced stature in the company or just the way things were done at my destination, but I didn’t have any of the logistical issues that I did in my previous assignments.  I was picked up from the airport by a driver.  One thing everyone knows about India is that there are loads of people – over a billion to be more specific.  This was evident from the onset as we crept along in traffic at 4:30 on a Sunday morning.  Caught up in a swarm of cars, motorbikes, scooters, and auto rickshaws, I didn’t know at the time that this wasn’t traffic.  Real traffic was what I would encounter the following day trying to get to and from the office.

Nevertheless, I was “whisked away” to a service apartment in an affluent part of town near where I was to work.  Despite the early hour, I was introduced to my manservant, Kumar, who was to cook for me, clean up after me, and do my laundry.  While my wife would likely disagree, this is something to which I was unaccustomed, and I suspected that I would feel very uncomfortable with the arrangement.  But sleeping was the immediate forecast, and everything else would work itself out later.

Work the next day began with a tour of the facility and an introduction to the team. It was immediately evident that this trip would be much more about the work than the play. In fact, people in the office routinely worked eight hours on Saturday. With a ribbon cutting ceremony only weeks away, we would be expected to put in 12 hour days for six days a week as there was much to be done. That left only Sunday to experience anything outside of the office.

19th century lighthouse

Fragrant pineapples for sale

Gandhi watches over the promenade


A few days after my arrival, I was joined by a colleague from Massachusetts who would stay for just over a week.  As this was his second time to Chennai, he had pretty much seen all the high points and didn’t feel much like seeing them again.  The only place that was recommended to us that he had not visited was Pondicherry.  Situated about two hours down the coast, Pondicherry (now renamed to Puducherry, meaning “new village” in the Tamil language) was the cornerstone of the French possessions in India.  The French East India Company set up shop there in 1674 and created a city the only way it knew how – a grid pattern with boulevards.  A French settlement in British India certainly had its challenges, but the colony flourished as a major port city.  Even after Indian independence from the British in 1947, Pondicherry remained in French hands for another seven years.

Today, the unique Franco-Indian architecture and culture (much of the local Indian population speaks French) makes Pondicherry a popular destination for tourists, and its tax-free status makes it a popular shopping destination for Indians.  For my colleague and I, it meant a two hour drive down the East Coast Road (ECR) which was itself quite an experience.  We zipped past anything from trucks to cars to motorbikes to livestock; all on a two lane road where passing in the face of oncoming traffic is the norm.

It was a relatively hot day, and my colleague from New England was reluctant to get out of the air conditioned vehicle.  So I was on my own to look around in the few minutes I was allotted.  I walked along the seawall promenade that the French built in the 18th century to curtail the seaside erosion of the town.  There were a number of vendors selling food and knickknacks but very few people about.  Heading into the town a bit, there were a large number of people dressed in their Indian fineries congregating in the shade of trees and in the park.  Many of the buildings in the areas surrounding the park had that colonial feel but seemed to be in a state of disrepair.

When I got back to the car, the driver suggested that we visit the Sri Aurobindo which was supposed to be one of the more famous ashrams in India.  We got there just as it was closing for the lunchtime hours, so we decided to have lunch too.  We were dropped at a hotel with a buffet which worked out well because it gave me a chance to try some different local dishes.  Afterwards, my travel companion had had enough of Pondicherry and suggested we return home.  I felt I had already put him out enough for the day, so didn’t put up much of a fight.  I figured that if I wanted to come back again, I would have plenty of opportunity over the next three months.

On our way back to Chennai, our driver insisted that we stop at Auroville.  We had no idea what it was, and the only thing our driver could offer was that it was a town with many international people.  To his credit, we did see many foreigners riding around on bicycles while we traveled some back roads to get there.  Despite having spent about 30 minutes walking around, we still had no idea what this place was.  The driver just kept pointing to the sign that said Matrimandir with an arrow.  We found several more signs that led us on a walk that lasted for about 20 minutes before our driver pointed to a gate.  There in the distance was a gold domed building.  There was no explanation of what it was and the gate was locked, so we piled into an autorickshaw and asked the driver to take us back to the car.  Later I found out that Auroville was the brainchild of a French woman who wanted to build a city that belonged to humanity and where people could live together and aspire to create a better world.  We didn't see much "aspiring for a better world", just people sitting on the ground talking.  Apparently the dome was a "place of tranquility".

The following day, we got a new driver.

A batsman in the making

Palais du Gouvernement

The Matrimandir in Auroville

Catches of the day

A family dip

A constant reminder


While the northeastern US was hammered by Hurricane Sandy, southern India was being lashed by Cyclone Nilam.  As the skies darkened, people left work early and the government announced school closures for the next day.  People were out pruning potentially troublesome branches and stocking up on supplies.  It was a widely accepted fact that power would be lost.  In fact, rolling brown outs are a daily event.  Most upper-class apartments and big businesses have a UPS and/or a generator to ease the pain.  Toward nightfall, the winds started picking up and pushing debris around.  The rain seemed to hold off with only brief showers settling some of the dust.  As this was monsoon season in this part of India, rain is nothing new, but water tends to pool up in the streets for long periods after the rain stops.

In the end, the storm was milder than feared in Chennai.  To the south, it was reported that winds reached 50 mph and there was some loss of life.  Several coastal towns had been evacuated, or the toll would have been worse.  In and around my neighborhood, there was visible damage to houses and walls from fallen tree limbs.  Many people were still without power, but the city was picking itself back up.  One of the more talked about consequences of the cyclone was a large oil tanker that broke free from its anchorage and ran aground on Marina Beach – Chennai’s longest urban beach.  Six sailors died trying to abandon the drifting ship.  The tanker became somewhat of an attraction as throngs of people came to watch the attempts to tow it back into the sea.

Marina Beach is a huge attraction in its own right.  It is India’s longest urban beach and the second longest in the world at over 8 miles of shoreline along the Bay of Bengal.  Even in winter, families come out to spend a day on the beach, but stay out of the water because of the exceptionally strong riptide.  Swimming is in fact illegal at the beach but there are regular drownings in spite of it.  Several pools are available to help deter swimming in the sea.  If the riptide weren’t enough, pollution is another good reason to stay out of the water.  Sewage flows directly into the sea around Chennai, and the beach itself is littered with, well, litter.

Just south of the lighthouse, fishermen remove their catch tangled in their nets. The big stuff is sold right on the street, while the smaller bargain pickings are available closer to the water. You can either take your seafood selections home as is or have them cleaned and cut right there on the sand. I'm not sure whether it was the polluted water or the mass of flies, but I decided to pass.

Shade is at a premium

Marina Beach

A troubled tanker