Bass is up before 5 am every day, but has no time for a morning walk. He is a butcher who must have all his meat cut, packaged and distributed to various bars and biryani stores around Pondicherry by noon.
His cubicle in Goubert Market, about ten minutes from the Promenade, is flanked by other butcher stalls, and there is a uniformity to how they are decorated, and how they display their meat. All the stalls have photos of idols and religious calendars hanging on bare nails – Hindu, Muslim, Christian; Sri Aurobindo’s face is among these.
“We cut the heads open for brain fry. It’s a delicacy,” Bass says, eager to show someone around; how often do tourists visit the market? He beckons to an empty stall where there is enough space to plonk down some furniture – a one-armed plastic chair and a small plastic stool. He offers me the chair and crouches on the stool.
His muscles, nearly black in the dim light, bulge out of his short-sleeved polo shirt, his legs are comfortable in sweatpants. The perimeter of the cubicle is lined with cases. What are they? “Enna case?” he repeats in Tamil, to confirm the question. “Beer case.”
Bass is full of restless energy, fidgeting, and leaning forward on his stool. He happily answers questions about his past, which include serving a fourteen-year jail sentence for murder. He’s still part of the gang he was with before his incarceration, but now feels like he is given more respect, having done time.
He pronounces his name “boss” and suggests that I do, too. Cops are the worst members of society, he warns in the same breath. Gangs should settle disputes among themselves. But Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi – he pronounces her first name “Crane” – is a “great lady”, he says, his respect genuine.
Having lost his freedom once before, Bass lives simply and in the moment. After work, he meets his friends for languorous food-and-drink sessions. He has observed Pondicherry grow over the years, and is unhappy with how congested and unsafe it has become – something not immediately apparent during an early morning walk.
While he does not have a solution for the traffic, this gangster surrounded by cases of beer does have an idea to increase safety: close the bars earlier at night so that people are less drunk and start fewer fights.
He flashes bright white teeth when he smiles, and peppers his conversation with invitations to meet later that night for biryani, or for a drink, or both. When I take up his offer some evenings later, Bass is sporting a totally different look: jeans and a leather jacket. He leads the way to a rooftop bar he particularly enjoys.
“Even vegetarians like you must drink,” he reasons. Butcher by day and convict by past, he is just one more protagonist, one more narrator, on Pondicherry’s storyscaped coastline.
The sun sinks below the horizon and Pondicherry twinkles under the light. Bass raises a toast to the evening ahead. He will be at work hours before the others at the table have even woken up, but that is no reason to not enjoy beer and conversation tonight.
By 7.30 a.m. every morning, the beach road is noisy with the vehicles that have replaced the walkers. Where Baudelaire’s protagonist might have climbed aboard a pousse-pousse (an earlier version of the rickshaw) to convey him to his next appointment, the contemporary Pondicherry flâneur, or flâneuse, hops onto a two- wheeler – that most ubiquitous sight on Pondicherry’s narrow streets.
These can dart through traffic, catch the sea breeze on the Promenade, and enable frequent stops to study historical artefacts still scattered around the city. But many men on bikes seem to have no purpose besides speeding past women while whistling at them. Amusing at first, this becomes grating when it happens throughout the day, no matter the time or street, and has proven to be dangerous at night – making me think twice before setting out alone after dinner, having been not just touched, but slapped on the back, by a brazen motorist.
M Yuvaraj, however, is a professional and experienced tourism officer, and on the back of his motorcycle it takes us only twenty minutes to complete one round of the boulevards.
This includes stops to read the plaques marking the gates into Fort Louis, which was built by Governors François Martin and Joseph François Dupleix in the early eighteenth century – one of Pondicherry’s most significant architectural chapters, and harbingers of today’s thoroughfares and boulevards.
New Madras Gate faces north, in the direction of Madras. Facing west, away from the water, is the Vazhudavur Gate – which leads to the eponymous Tamil Nadu town of Vazhudavur. Farther southwest is Villiyanur Gate, also at the end of one of the city’s main streets. This is not a coincidence. Before these streets were thoroughfares they were the only access points into and out of the fort, making them well-trodden roads when the fort existed.
Shrouded by clusters of plants, traffic signals, lamp posts, and their accompanying tangles of wires, the Fort Louis plaques are easy to miss. They look steel- or aluminium-plated, but have lost their sheen. The lettering is faded and scratched in parts, but spells out the history of the fort and the significance of each gate. Illustrations are included, as if these are pages out of a textbook.
Yuvaraj sighs as he reads from the signs, ignoring the honking and engine revs around him. If only these pieces of history were respected for the knowledge and heritage they contain, he muses, a rare frown on his face. He can identify the plaques easily, having made the rounds several times, but this makes him one of few experts; the French history most tourists seek are stylish sandwiches, boutique apparel, and movie screenings at the Alliance Française. Traffic – two-, three- and four-wheeler; two-, and four-legged; purposeful and passive, all oblivious – congeals and flows without any time for introspection into an urban history.
Yuvaraj’s motorcycle tour ends opposite Pondicherry’s Railway Station at the final gate, Porte de Goudelour, almost hidden behind a sugarcane-crusher-and-juice stall. Inaugurated in October 1879, this was once a tiny station whose trains shuttled only between Pondicherry and Villipuram. Today it is a crowded junction, and its trains run all the way to Calcutta, some 1,850 kilometres northeast.
Excerpted with permission from Beyond The Boulevards: A Short Biography Of Pondicherry, Aditi Sriram, Aleph Book Company.