The Other Pondicherry

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 27 April 2019

Aditi Sriram’s debut book —Beyond the Boulevards — is a biography of the city, which is more lived in and teeming with people, ideas, antiquities and myths

Puducherry (earlier known as Pondicherry) conjures up different images — of partying on the beach, of the organic lifestyle at the Ashram, the pretty cafes and boutiques, a city with French names whose denizens speak in Tamil. The sum total of the city is more than these images. 

Aditi Sriram puts its succinctly in Beyond the Boulevards — A short biography of Pondicherry — that the city is far from ‘quaint’, an adjective often used to describe the Union Territory. In the book, published by Aleph Book Company, she writes, Indeed, Pondicherry is a post-colonial cultural melee: a series of boules being flung at each other. Somehow, popular writing about Pondicherry does not capture these collisions. Rather, the city has been painted as a sleepy village hamlet; an ode to France...

Sriram, who teaches creative writing at Ashoka University, gives us more details 

- How is a biography of a city different from that of writing a biography of a personality?
A biography is a catalogue of milestones, accomplishments, challenges, peaks and troughs, all stitched together by narrative. Just as it covers a person’s life, so can it cover a city’s history, from ‘birth’ until present, charting the different phases the city has been through. 

If a person’s biography explores their many influences, a city biography studies how its various leaders and governments have left an impact on it, from infrastructure to employment, from demographics to culture. A person’s life story is also built on split-second decisions and sheer coincidence; similarly, a city can transform after a natural disaster — like a tsunami — or become a spiritual centre because a Bengali revolutionary had to hide in French-ruled Pondicherry to avoid the British police. 

Just as one person’s life is populated and animated by, the communities around them, so is a city comprised of its residents, tenants, visitors and strays. I did my best to study each of these aspects to construct a narrative for Puducherry.

- Have you visited Puducherry before deciding to pen the book? If so, what were your impressions then? And, did they undergo any change when you began working on the book?
I had visited it with family, several years ago. I remember the cognitive dissonance of the French street names and the Tamil being spoken on the street — which continued when I was doing my fieldwork there between 2016-2018. 

Back in 2012, my brother and I spent a long, hot afternoon in Bharati Park, seeking shade and failing. We eventually found air-conditioning in a barber shop on Nehru Street, where my brother got a haircut and I took a nap! 

I remember meandering through several streets with my brother until we found this shop, and I also recall thinking of Pondicherry as being large and disorganised; today I can tell you exactly where these two spots are, and how many quarters and neighbourhoods one has to traverse between them. 

Other than this blurry sense of place, I had no serious impressions, which was good, because I wanted the book to take shape based on current, and living, impressions of the city, rather than a forced sense of nostalgia.

- For all the information and opinions that you have managed to weave into the book, it is a very slim volume. How did you achieve it?
Lots of editing! I knew from the beginning that the book couldn’t be too long; it’s part of a series on Cities, and the average book length is 150 pages. I had to cut out some interviews, and my first and last chapters went through several drafts.

- What legwork went into the making of this book? How did you zero in on the places and people that you wanted to speak to?
Literally, legs! I began my research with a handful of contacts: friends of friends, and people known to my father (who grew up in Puducherry). I would meet them, and they would suggest a friend or colleague to meet, and I’d follow their directions and end up in another part of the city to meet that person. 

My list very quickly grew, like a family tree. Within a month, I was meeting several people a day, and sometimes bumping into them on the Promenade, or striking up a conversation in a shop and turning that into a longer interview. 

I often began my interviews by asking people what had brought them to Pondicherry in the first place. Everyone has an origin story and this first response would give me enough tidbits to ask follow up questions. 

- Usually, when we read biographies of personalities, there is a section devoted to photographs. Beyond the Boulevards doesn’t have one. Why?
None of the books in the series has a section for photographs. I took it as part of the challenge to capture a three-dimensional, bustling city on the page, using just words. Now that I think about it, that helped me structure the book to ensure that I opened with lots of visuals: a group of men playing petanque on the beach; what a walk down the beach looked and felt like; a stack of maps I pored over in one of the city’s research archives.

- It’s apparent that you went the hard news reporting way in gathering material for the book. You have also managed to retain that tone while writing, instead of it being a nostalgia piece.
Thank you for noticing this! Yes, I was insistent that the city speak for itself, through a range of voices and city rhythms. And while everyone has pasts, histories, and reminiscences to dip into when telling their story, they are often most excited to talk about who they are today, and where they see themselves in the future. 

I tried to capture that on the page by attaching each character in my chapters to a building, a street, a park, an activity, so that the person and the city were speaking in harmony. That allowed the book to contain several characters without making it a series of profiles; it also revealed the age of the city, through its monuments and street signs and physical layout, without having to dwell in old memories for too long.

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