What is Pondicherry without Aurobindo Ashram and the French Quarter? In my two rushed business visits so far, what I have seen is a crowded Tamil city. The streets are full of bicycles and motorcycles. It is tough to drive a car: the two-wheelers don't care much for the four-wheelers and don't make way. There is constant fear that you might knock one down. They are a mild-mannered people. I wonder if they are the same in summer. My two visits have been in these cool October and November days. It was clouded over but without rain and was not sultry both times so I must have been there in the best part of the year. (In the period between my visits the rains had come down hard and there had been severe flooding in the same places the Tsunami had struck months before. There was deep distress again there, as the newspapers reported.)
We went to see the industrial estates with a man from PIPDIC, their investment promotion department. He had a lot to say about their chief minister: he was once a driver for a the Tamil Nadu chief minister. A simple man, he often sits for a coffee at the roadside coffee shops in his home district, without pomp. And he is very popular. All this were told me by only this man, I do not know the truth and have not had time to check. All streets in town have posters of the chief minister, with different aspects of the face, but always smiling. The lines on the face are of one who has smiled a lot, so maybe all love him.
They were efficient and extremely helpful at the government offices. In the morning at the Directorate of Industries they gave information easily. The IAS officer at PIPDIC met us quickly, gave information briskly and assigned a man to take us round the estates. Another engineer met us at Thirubhuvanei, eager to show us all available properties and quick to take out a measuring tape to start off measuring acre size plots! If he stopped short of giving us data it was because we restrained his enthusiasm. Our government escort then took us to Mettupalayam, not minding that it was dark by then. Mettupalayam Industrial Area is a cantankerous mess. The roads are all gone. There are very big names in the estate, it is busy, and looked successful with many plants lit and running late in the evening; but they have not organized themselves to make their area clean, that Indian malaise of civic carelessness. They say a government is but the reflection of its people. If the leaders who run these industries have no sense of social responsibility, what kind of leadership rises to the very top? That pervasive belief that 'the government should do it' persists, a sense of self-reliance and self-help for collective good has not yet come. At any rate, the sight of it made me lose interest in manufacturing! Our purpose was to locate a plant in a new, lower cost area than Bangalore, but what is the use of all the effort if you have to go to work in a nice factory built in a ditch?
Luckily, my faith was restored the next morning. We visited the India Nippon factory, a facility lovingly built on privately developed property at Kariamanickam village. It has superb equipment inside and pleasing gardens outside. Lean manufacturing techniques take care of their costs: so they can afford a nice lawn with shady trees round the factory. All round are fertile fields with green crop. The company has a policy of promoting the village that is its host. In the foyer, there is a sweet smell of Jasmine, from thin long fresh garlands on picture frames of TVS and his sons. A tradition of enjoying manufacturing responsibly lives on. We came away with renewed confidence that we could locate our new facilities in a low cost place, without compromising on workplace quality.
The French Quarter
We stayed at 'The Promenade', a new hotel on the beach road in the French Quarter. It is promoted by Hidesign, the leather company. All the design is completely European, the staff is very young and what they lack in experience, they make up with very pleasing manners and genuine warmth. The food was alright. They have not been able to get a good contractor, the whole property is a great design poorly executed; but let me not put you off, it is still a good place. When power fails the generator can be heard in all the rooms. There is no parking in front because the beach road is virtually government property. So the cars are parked some distance away, by a park. I was nervous with the risk, I love my expensive car.
The promenade by the beach makes up for everything. The traffic on the road is minimum and on Friday evening it was cordoned off. It is not allowed to swim, and they have shut out the beach with big black boulders. There were two ships. The small lighthouse does not switch on its light any more. At different times in the day I saw whites, Indians from everywhere, budget tourists walking with flip-flops, executives, lovely young girls, mischievous young men and no hawkers, no touts. The walk in the evening was refreshing. Jogging two full rounds on the promenade took exactly thirty minutes.
Two or three streets parallel to beach road complete the French Quarter. I liked Rue Romain Rolland most. In spite of the government offices they are quiet and pretty. Localized French people (or are they tourists?) pass by on bicycles and cycle-rickshaws. There are heritage hotels with rooftop cafes, mostly patronized by whites and Indians who look like NRIs (not Tamil). On the whole it does not look like a rich place. The statue of Governor General Dupleix at the end of the promenade is very ordinary. The statue of Gandhiji is the best presented and best preserved that I have seen anywhere in India. But a sense of history hangs well in the place. There is a history of changing hands between many colonial masters, fighting and reconciling in Europe. Smaller battles were fought here. But there is not a remembrance of colonial heavy handedness. Rather, the influence that lingers is that of the French 'Mother' of the Aurobindo Ashram.