The Traces of a Culture

Not being too French about it

Ever wondered how strikingly similar the traditional dosa is to the French crepe? One cannot help but wonder which was inspired by the other. This thought stayed with me on my recent trip to Pondicherry, and I hoped that the marriage of French and Tamil cultures in the town would help me answer this conundrum.

As the car steered into and past the Rues and Maisons of Pondicherry, what struck me was the smooth blend of both cultures. Tamil was the spoken language but the signboards read French. Diminutive autorickshaws and tuktuks, crammed to the limits, noisily drove past on cobblestone roads. Tamilian style households had French windows and balconies reminiscent of their French counterparts.

However, a spitting reflection of the colonial times was visible at the heart of the French quarter. The streets were properly planned with intersections at perfect perpendiculars. Lined up against the street-edges were the tall townhouses. The windows coyly peeked out from behind veils of bougainvillea flowers. Stately, rather solemn doors were flanked by high walls. Painted using subtle hues of yellow and peach, the walls exuded an air of elegance and pride.

As we were soaking in the aesthetics of the Pondy streets, the car turned onto Bussy Street, home to the famous Baker Street cafe. If the rest of Pondicherry doesn’t seem French to you, wait till you enter this culinary establishment. As we placated our voracious appetites with an array of quiches, sandwiches and pastries, it suddenly dawned on me.

It was never about the origin of the dosa after all. Pondicherry, like other cultures, has evolved over time. And like all other colonial remnants, it has adapted itself to the dominant culture. Every street and structure might remind you of the French, but from behind every cafe, church and basilica in Pondicherry hides a bit of the Tamil culture. This was a town where one could get equally well made dosas and crepes, and I relished them both!

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