Stories from an older town

A couple of months ago I was at home in Pondicherry, and my mother asked my father and me to go get fish for lunch. 

So I rolled out my needlessly powerful motorcycle and off we went to the old harbour near the stadium. There’s a narrow road that curves down from the main road to the very badly maintained harbour, and as always, it was bustling with people, noise, and the thunk of knives on wood. There were women on both sides of the road, squatting on makeshift stools or on their haunches, their cutting boards in front of them. On these broad boards were the treasures of the Bay of Bengal: small prawns and huge prawns, squids, small sharks, a red coloured fish with funny gills whose name I don’t know. There were sting rays too, and crabs of different shapes and sizes: Both of these can only be prepared with copious amounts of pepper and red chillies. When you eat them, your mouth burns, but you can’t stop. You just eat and eat and then run for Arun ice cream.

The market that day was a cacophony of women’s voices, haggling, nagging, fighting, teasing, and spitting. It used to be much larger and more crowded but my little town is modernising too, and now there are air conditioned places to get your meat and fish. But this little remnant of an older town shouts on, and natives like my grandfather and father will buy their fish from no place else.

My grandfather actually never bought his fish here, at this market. He was a busy man, but when he came to buy fish, he came in the early morning and went directly to the harbour. He held one of pre-liberalisation India’s great ranks: a gazetted officer, and he could hop directly to the harbour, choosing the best fish right off the boats. I have been on these jaunts with him, and the smell of the sea and fish would hit me as he drove his old Vespa right up to the jetties. It is a smell I know very well. It is the smell of my grandmother’s furiously hot crab curry, which I would spill on my white school shirt as I gobbled it down at lunch, the red stain taking days of washing to come off.

As I drove us back home, my father told me a story.

He showed me a road next to the harbour, just behind the Volontoriat, a social service organisation set up in 1962 by a young Belgian woman named Madeleine Herman de Blic. The Volontoriat (tra: roughly, the Volunteers) is transliterated directly to Tamil by us locals. So it is, even now, written and read in Tamil with the French pronunciation, not English. The organisation uses the same old building it has been in for decades, and Madeleine Herman de Blic, now an Indian citizen, was in 2016 conferred the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri, for her service to society. This is in addition to the French government’s Legion of Honour, and the Order of the Crown from the King of Belgium.

Behind that road, where this lady worked to improve the lives of Pondicherry’s fishing community, said my father, was my great grandfather’s cowshed.

This was my grandmother’s father, they were the ones already in Pondicherry. My grandfather’s father and mother were still in the paddy fields in our village of Sangeethamangalam, under the great hill fort of Gingee (Senji in Tamil).

He had four cows in the cowshed, my father said, and as the eldest, it was at times his job to accompany my great grandfather to milk runs around town. And these weren’t normal milk runs. When his grandfather woke up, my father said, he would go and open the cows up. There was no real traffic in 1970s Pondicherry, and the cows knew where to go. Each one of them would wander off to a particular restaurant, where the restaurant owner would set out some overripe bananas and banana leaves for them. By this time, my father and his grandfather would turn up at these restaurants, greet the owners, and milk the cows in front of them. People were particular about these things then. The milk would go straight to the kitchen, and the cow, having done its job, would come back to the shed, even as its owner went to the next restaurant, where his next cow was waiting patiently. My father’s job was at times to milk the cow and at other times to make sure all four of them were back and secure in the cowshed. After that, he would take his bag and go to school. This was the VOC Government High School, on the street beside mine, the almost 200 year old Petit Seminaire.

I don’t know why my father told me this story then, because unlike me, he isn’t a talker. But now that he is retired and has time to reflect, maybe he’s thinking about his growing up years. It is also beautiful to me how the story of your family can also be the story of a place, its geography, its little landmarks, its very soul. My father became a policeman in his own town, and I knew he didn’t take that lightly. He was a reader, that’s how I became one, and he knew that in his life a circle had been completed, a story had been told. As he plays with his grandchild, my son, I would like to think that he’s a content man. 

One of my own goals is to complete that circle for myself, to become someone in the place that made me. Because who else would you rather be?