Andrew Buncombe: Fresh baguettes and ancient enemies

Pondicherry Notebook: In the 'French Quarter' of this otherwise Tamil town it is clean and calm
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The Independent Online

It's been more than 50 years since the French were pushed out of this Indian coastal colonial town, but even now there is plenty of evidence of their wonderful legacies. At breakfast, for instance, we wake to strong fresh coffee and splendidly chewy bread, before strolling along wide, ocean-front streets with names such as Rue Demas and Rue La Bourdonnais. There are restaurants serving steak au poivre (albeit with buffalo rather than beef) and some of the policemen on duty wear bright red kepis on their heads. There are at least two lycées, teaching in French

In the so-called French Quarter of this otherwise Tamil town it is clean and calm. The buildings are large, ochre-coloured affairs, and after lunch it feels as if you have stumbled into the back streets of a sleepy, southern French town.

We bump into a man we assume is the new French consul, whose job it will be to tend to the concerns of around 7,000 French citizens still living in the area. He is overseeing the unloading a shipping truck of belongings at what is perhaps the most beautiful house in Pondicherry, and for a moment I fantasise of shifting The Independent's bureau here from Delhi.

Surely there'd be plenty of news to cover – new restaurant openings, the demise or otherwise of the French language – and glamorous dinners to attend at the consul's house? I ponder the different legacies of colonialism and the twists of fate. What if the British East India had lost the Battle of Wandiwash in 1760, rather than beating the French forces and thereby ending almost a hundred years of conflict over supremacy in India? Would all of India have fallen to France? Would I now be able to get decent baguettes in Delhi?

A jungle boulevard

Just 15 years after the French left, the New Agers moved in. Ten miles out of town, followers of the guru Sri Aurobindo set up a community designed to promote the "unity of humanity". The centrepiece of Auroville is a huge gold-leaf covered spherical temple, but much better are the experiments in environmentalism. Solar power is being generated and organic food is grown, while what was once a barren and eroded hillside has been returned to jungle. The pathways to the temple have been planted with large shady trees and they remind me a leafy boulevard. Perhaps the French legacy lingered here too.

India's culture is still afloat

It's the Hindu festival of Ganesh Chathurthi, the elephant god's birthday. Across the country, brightly painted statues of Ganesh are thrown into rivers and lakes. One beautiful evening, we watch a riotous celebration of god-immersion. I smile: foreign invasions, be it colonial armies or well-intentioned hippies, have not submerged India's own traditions.