On a Sunday evening at the Notre Dame des Anges church, the strings of jasmine festooning the pedestals of Mary and Jesus and the dark-skinned female parishioners wearing saris suggest a firm foot in India. That is, until the priest says mass in French.
The French may have left Pondicherry, their tiny bastion in British India, 51 years ago, but this city in Southeastern India has preserved what they left behind.
Signs of France can been seen immediately in the more than 270 heritage buildings that stand in the colonial quarter of the city. "Nowhere else in India can you see in one section of a city such a large number of well-preserved colonial buildings," says Venkataramaya Nallam, president of Pondicherry's historical society.
While India worked furiously to dismantle links to Britain after gaining independence in 1947, Pondicherry has held dearly to French names and institutions. Residents don't appear to harbor resentment toward the French, and that has aided the city's preservation efforts, Dr. Nallam says. "We never had any bitterness against the French colonials," he explains. "The kind of oppression in British India was not felt here."
Unlike British India, Pondicherry became independent without bloodshed. The city also had served as a haven for Indian revolutionaries fleeing British rule. One such revolutionary, Aurobindo Ghosh, gave up his incendiary activities upon arrival in Pondicherry and started a small ashram in the quarter where the French lived. Over the years, the ashram grew into an enormous entity that bought up many of the surrounding colonial buildings to accommodate its members and programs. Residents credit Aurobindo Ashram with being the forerunner, albeit unintentionally, of Pondicherry's preservation effort. "The best preserved part of the [colonial quarter] is around the ashram," says Ajit Koujalgi, a senior architect at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage in Pondicherry.
In addition, Pondicherry's union territory status, similar to a city state, has helped the preservation effort, especially when government cooperation is required. "Because it's small, there's much less bureaucracy," says local architect Arul Arjunan.
Apart from buildings, the use of the French language has also been preserved in the city. Most street signs are bilingual, written in French and Tamil.
The local French high school has played a large role in keeping the language alive. The school, supported by the French government, has about 1,000 students ages 3 to 18 who are educated completely in the French system. Some 80 percent of the students are French citizens. They gained that status from their parents who opted for French citizenship at the time Pondicherry was handed over to India.
Many of these children will go to France to pursue higher education. Marie Berthe, a Pondicherrian resident with French citizenship, sends her 13-year-old son to the school. "He'll study here until he's 18 and then he'll go to France," she says.
Since they speak Tamil at home, Ms. Berthe takes her son to Sunday mass in French and other such events to expose him to French social contexts. Berthe, who once worked as a French teacher, says even non-French nationals in Pondicherry want their children to learn French because the language is a ticket into France. "They go there to settle down," she says.
But French-speaking people are in demand within India. Business people from other parts of India call all the time, Nallam says, to ask him to recommend French speakers from Pondicherry to work for them. "People are learning French because of the hospitality and tourism industries also," he says.
With the rise of India as an economic power, Pondicherry is serving once again as a foothold for French business interests in the subcontinent. The opening up of the Indian market and the high-tech boom has led lots of French people to come to India to do business, says Robert Xavier, a Pondicherry tour operator who returned to the city from France a decade ago.
Others returning to Pondicherry from France have perpetuated some French traditions that might otherwise have become defunct. Around 5 o'clock every evening, a group gathers on Pondicherry's esplanade to play petanque - a French game similar to bocce. Indian visitors sometimes watch the game, but few understand it. Michel Balecovr, a petanque stalwart and a former soldier in the French military, swears by the authenticity of their game. "We respect the French rules. If not, then it's not petanque."
The game may be exactly as it's played in Paris, but Indian swear words have crept into the players' exchanges. Mr. Balecovr has been playing the game since he returned to Pondicherry in 1965. His other favorite pastime is crossword puzzles in French. "It's good for the head," he says. Although Balecovr sends for his puzzle books from France, one or two local publishing houses put out books in French for limited distribution.
As for older books and documents, they have been preserved by history buffs. Nallam moved his historical society's book collection from the Pondicherry Museum, where he says they were being eaten by termites, to a room on the third floor of the hospital where he works as a surgeon. He's added his own collection of rare books and journals and allows scholars and researchers free access to this library, which is maintained at his personal cost.
For those in search of historical materials on the city, Nallam's hospital would be a better bet than the public libraries. "As the president of the society, it was my duty to preserve [the collection].... Future generations should be benefited."