A tiny Paris on the Coromandel coast

Pondicherry in south India was French territory for 300 years. You can still eat steak frites there.

It was the Gallic influences that drove me to this south-east corner of India: I'd heard about Pondicherry's French street names, the policemen who wore gendarme-style kepis and an esplanade that seemingly rivalled the Croisette at Cannes. Pondicherry was not "our" India, not part of the Raj. It was an outpost of another empire, a tiny Paris with palm-trees on the Coromandel coast. Its arcaded squares and fountains were set in a grid of graceful streets laid out by the French after one of the upheavals when the British laid siege to the town and razed it to the ground. It was French territory for 300 years off and on, until 1954.

Its Frenchness changed the destiny of Aurobindo Ghose, a young Indian political agitator on the run from the British in 1910. He took refuge in French Pondi, had a mystical vision, abandoned politics and founded an Ashram. Today it draws pilgrims from all over the world who revere Aurobindo as a divinity.

The travel agent looked doubtful when I mentioned Pondicherry. "No hotels," he said, meaning no four-star European-style hotels. There was a small French establishment: the Grand Hotel d'Europe - "but it has no telephone". I wrote and booked a room for myself. (Later, I found there were Ashram guest houses, cheap and spotless, and several Indian hotels).

Approaching by road from Madras on that first visit I saw the signpost: "Pondicherry Welcomes you - Soyez le bienvenu". The broad avenue was lined with fine houses shaded by tall trees. Elegant at first sight, but when you looked closer, you could see that the mansions of the bourgeoisie, once resplendent, were cracked and peeling.

Closer to the centre, streets became narrower, packed with people and colour, bicycles, rickshaws; the pavements lined with shops selling cloth, wooden carvings, incense, nuts, garlands of marigold and frangipani. The soundtrack from popular Indian movies - "filmi music" - wailed from loudspeakers.

We came to a dried-up canal. When the French were in charge it formed a gleaming boundary: Pondicherry was French in architecture and spirit from the surf-sprayed promenade to the east bank of the canal. At the west bank, India began.

I checked into the Hotel d'Europe (est 1891) and met its owner: frail, elegant, with the profile of an emaciated emperor. "Ah," he said, "you should have been here before Merger. Things were different then." Like Talleyrand, who said that only those who lived before the revolution knew "la douceur de vivre", he yearned for the time before Pondi became a part of India; when the tricolor flag still flew.

"Dinner is served at seven," he called, "La cuisine francaise!" The French accent was strong at the eight-room Grand Hotel d'Europe, and it personified the curious, anachronistic charm of the town.

On the long, curving promenade, the Customs House, grown shabby, is still marked Douanes and the statue of Jeanne d'Arc remains. But a figure of Gandhi has replaced that of Governor Dupleix, who first stepped ashore here one dawn in 1742. His wife, an Imelda Marcos figure, plated the walls of Government House with silver and decked herself with jewels grander than anything seen at Versailles.

There are historical ironies here: a territory that narrowly missed being Bonaparte's stepping stone to an Indian Empire, declared for de Gaulle in World War II, and was sheltered from the storms of Independence until 1954, when it became the smallest state in India. Stubbornly clinging on to its individuality, today it faces other problems, with its Tamil culture under threat from the powerful north.

There is a sense of ease in Pondi not often encountered in Indian cities: women and children linger on the sand at sunset while husbands and fathers chat quietly, sitting on the rocks. You can cover the town on foot, wander through jacaranda-shaded streets where bougainvillea glows against white walls - or hire a moped and bump along the old sea road past cotton- weavers working under the banyans, to Auroville, six kilometres away. This is the kibbutz-like rural community, an experiment in harmonious living, founded in 1968 as an extension of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. A disagreement ruptured the harmony and funds were cut off. Today Auroville is impoverished, but its idealistic spirit survives. You can stay at one of its simple guest houses and swim in the glass-green waves of its beach.

I went back several times to Pondi, immersing myself in its history, breathing in that heady Indian street smell of jasmine, spice and drains. And I began work on a novel called A House in Pondicherry. I invented a small hotel with no telephone, and, running it, a fierce old French woman: rude, imperious, a Proustian relic. By the end, my little hotel had become a symbol of the changing face of Pondi - for things are changing: the streets are being renamed, losing their Gallic ring, reverting to the indigenous. And there's a big new government hotel outside the town, for the visitors they hope to attract to this unspoilt corner of the sub- continent.

I created a fictional hotel, but I always planned to go back and stay at the original. Alas, the Hotel d'Europe has closed. The owner died and the house has been sold. But the French accents survive in Pondi: there are lectures and concerts at the Institut Francais, and at the Alliance Francaise you can knock back a bottle of wine and enjoy a dinner of steak frites and creme caramel as the dark sea softly roars below. I put that in the novel: I couldn't deprive my characters of something so enjoyable.

'A House in Pondicherry' is published in paperback by Minerva on 1 July, pounds 6.99

PONDICHERRY POINTERS

Getting there: the only airline with direct flights from the UK to Madras is British Airways (0345 222111). The lowest official fare is pounds 1,200 including tax. Flightbookers (0171-757 3000) charges pounds 501 on Lufthansa from Heathrow or Manchester. Heathrow-Madras via Bombay on Air India costs pounds 520 through Welcome Travel (0171-439 3627). From Madras, you can travel onward by bus, taking around four hours and costing about 100 rupees (just less than pounds 2).

Getting in: British passport holders need a visa. The 24-hour visa line (0891 880800), will cost you time and money in finding out the following: for a three-month tourist visa, apply in person or by post to High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA; or Consulate-General of India, The Spencers, 19 Augustus Street, Hockley, Birmingham B18 6DS. If applying by post, send an sae for an application form to the Postal Visa Section at either address.

Government of India Tourist Office: 7 Cork Street W1X 2LN (0171-437 3677).

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