I just finished reading the book “In spite of the Gods – The strange rise of modern India” by Edward Luce. I had eyed this book since a long time and had delayed buying it for some reason. Luckily, I found a second-hand copy of the book in Pondicherry. I had started reading the book on my way back to Pondicherry, and to my utter surprise (and shock), the first paragraph itself had a mention of Pondicherry and the community set up near it, Auroville. The introduction talks about the author’s meetings with people living in Auroville and how India is known mainly for its spirituality. The author seemed none too amused by this impression of India and that is what he sets out to change in the book.

The author, Edward Luce, covers all the major areas of concern for India, which include social, political, religious and economic. The structure of the book itself is such that each chapter focuses on one burning issue from these field. Luce covers India pre-independence, the timeline of the major political parties and the rise of the newer parties. Religion ocupies a central position in Indian households and he focuses on the largest two religions in the country and the problems which have arisen between them as well. He goes on to analyze India’s past relation with the US and the Soviets, and the current equation between India-China and India-Pakistan.

The book ends with the issues India faces and the opportunities the country has to become a major power in the 21st century. According to the author, India would do well not to become complacent of its newfound growth. Only if it deals with the issues in a proactive  manner will it manage to reach the level which is being expected of it. And one of the important ways is by the electorate to vote in such a way which brings the political party most capable of bringing about the change which is required. This endnote becomes all the more relevant in light of the up coming elections.

What I really liked about the book was its comprehensiveness in all the issues it tackles. Luce does not refrain from calling a spade a spade. The interplays between rival political parties especially SP vs BSP is wittitly depicted with Amar Singh again making a fool out of himself. Luce has described the rise of caste politics quite vividly. The book goes beyond slums and spirituality which is all what India is made out to be. I totally agree with the author’s belief that India is much more than a few squalid slums and some old-age Vedic literature. Luce makes the book more interesting by its witty jokes and humourous anecdotes he has come across while living in India.

The cons of this books are minor, yet I’ll list them down all the same. More space could have been devoted to the rise of IT in India. I know this industry has been written to death but in a book about the rise of modern India, IT should deserve a considerable share. Luce could also have researched more about the rise of manufacturing in India which is all set to accelerate in growth once the global economy gets back on track. Also I noticed that the author seemed to have a very critical view on Bollywood where he describes the typical Indian movie as “a blend of brilliantly choreographed titillation.” Agreed that song, dance and rain play a major role in Indian movies, but lately the film industry has also produced very good movies. If anything else, the author would have had good words for alternate Indian cinema. Luce also had a negative view of the nationalist political parties in India, which for all pratical purposes, means the BJP. The author himself admits to this bias.

All in all, I found In spite of the Gods to be a quite comprehensive read about modern India. The book goes beyond a superficial introduction to the country and dives well into some of the major issues affecting the country in recent times. It explains patiently the contradictions which India faces at each and every step of its journey. Luce has painted a masterpiece about one of the fastest developing nations in the world. Which brings me to my next question – Why do foreign nationals, be it Edward Luce, Gregory David Roberts or William Dalrymple make for better writers about India than us Indians?

I had been planning the trip to Pondicherry for a long time now. I had been there last Diwali but hadn’t explored much of the place then. My friends and I decided to take advantage of a long weekend to make this trip finally. We left IIT campus on Saturday afternoon, caught a shared auto to the Madhya Kailash bus stand. Just opposite the Indira Nagar railway station, the buses for Pondicherry halt. Just as we reached MK, there was a bus waiting. We ran to the bus, catching it filmi shtyle, almost not paying the auto driver. Luckily the bus was not crowded and we could find a seat each. Our main aim had been to save money elsewhere to spend it all on food. So we planned to economize at every opportunity we got. For around 55 bucks each, we had a one way ticket to Pondicherry. The bus ride took around 3 hours. The driver seemed to be enjoying the ECR as it normally takes lesser time than that. The blue coastline brought back many fond memories of beaches and coastal roads elsewhere. After reaching Pondicherry, we first made our way to a bike rental place. The best place to move around in Pondicherry is through such rented vehicles. You can get a geared, ungeared scooter or even a bicycle. But judging from the hot weather in Pondy, I wouldn’t recommend getting a bicycle. Get a bike, fill it up with as much petrol as you’re willing and leisurely cruise through the streets of Pondy. Even the fuel there is almost 10 Rs cheaper than in Chennai. One word is to watch out for the traffic. The streets are narrow, and people drive wild. There is no concept of two lanes, and you will find traffic coming from all different directions together.

Streets of Pondy

Streets of Pondy

After getting the means to move around, the second goal was to get some grub. We found a nice quiet bakery and fast food joint – Daily Bread. The food was quite decent though a bit expensive. But we didn’t mind. We stuffed ourselves and then hopped on to the bikes to search for a place to stay. Here too we had consciously decided to keep a strict budget. So after a few enquiries, we found a “cheap” hotel to spend the night. Hotel Ellora, nicely situated in a by-lane of Mission Street. The tariff worked out to a measly 100 bucks per person per night. But I would recommend this place only for people who have not been spoilt for comfort. A strict no no if you’re going with your family or have a female member in the group. Since we were eight carefree guys, we had no qualms about the cobwebs or the dirty linen (although we did tell them to change it) or the creaking fans. If I look back, the hotel was more of a haunted house. I wouldn’t have the guts to stay alone in such a hotel. The architecture was old colonial style with wooden beams along the ceiling and split windows. Each room was of a different shape. Somehow we managed to stuff eight people in two rooms. We left our luggage there and then made our way back to the city.

Pondicherry is divided into two parts, one is the French quarter and the other is the Tamil quarter. Both these parts are divided by the parallel running streets – HM Kasim Street (Ambour Salai) and SC Bose Street (Gingee Salai) The French influence is evident in the naming of the streets, the architecture of the buildings, especially on the beach front. Goubert Avenue (Beach Road) is the most popular hang out spot, with its beach facing promenade providing a wonderful view of the Bay of Bengal. In the evenings, throngs of people visit the promenade walking leisurely on the 1.5km waterfront. Other places of interest in the city would include the Aurobindo Ashram, the Cathedral and the Botanical Garden.

No trip to Pondy is complete without a trip to Auroville. It is located around 12 km from Pondy. Since we had rented bikes, it was a simple matter of reaching Auroville. However autos and taxis are available for a return journey from Pondy to Auroville and back which would cost around 200 and 350 bucks respectively (according to the travel guide). Auroville was established in 1968 by a Frenchwoman Mira Alfassa who was called the Mother. She named the town after Sri Aurobindo, as an example of realizing a new society where people from different nationalities and faiths would live in peace and harmony. Whatever your belief, Auroville is a place worth visiting. Its peaceful surroundings and quiet life makes you want to spend a quiet afternoon sitting under a tree (not) thinking about life’s problems.

Verite, Auroville

Verite, Auroville

The visitor’s centre at Auroville has a cafe and a few souvenir shops. The souvenirs are made in Auroville itself. Although expensive, they make for a nice gift. One of the most interesting places we visited in Auroville was an area called Verite. Situated opposite a guest-house, Verite had a meditation hall, and beside it a small pool of fish. The unique thing about this place was that you were supposed to remove your footwear and dip your feet in the pool. These small fish would slowly come and gently touch your feet and go. Soon you will find a huge number of fish gently pecking at your feet. Some say they clean up the dirt on the feet. I’m not too sure, but the experience was certainly unique. There were a few big fish in the pool too. I wonder if they’d clean up my toes as well. The Matrimandir forms the centerpiece of the community. It is a huge meditation hall in the shape of a sphere and it contains the world’s biggest man-made crystal ball. According to an information video, the sun rays are deflected through an opening at the top of the sphere and directed on to the crystal ball. Visiting the Matrimandir, however, requires prior permission so its better if you book in advance to visit the dome. After spending a few tranquil hours in Auroville, we made our way to Paradise Beach.

Also known as Chunnambar Beach, this beautiful travel spot is located about 8km from Pondy. It had facilities for water sports but we couldn’t spot any such activity. A boat ferried us across the Chunnambar river to Paradise Beach. For me this was one of the best places to visit when in Pondy. The bright blue sea and the light blue sky almost blended into each other, the white sand providing the contrast. The beach is relatively small and quiet. It is a wonderful place for a date if you’re willing to spend an hour or so walking in the hot sun and sitting on the burning sand. But then, I’m sure you won’t mind such minor squabbles.

We then drove back to the city and spent an hour or two roaming on the promenade. I had heard about a book fair in some part of Pondy when we had arrived. I am not a person to miss a book sale and so we set out in search of the book fair. We found it easily (its opposite the Cathedral for those interested and in Pondy) and luckily I found a few books at a very cheap price. Satisfied and smug at the bargain, we then made our way back to the dinner place and stuffed ourselves. The next day we were supposed to leave early for Chennai (still have classes to attend), so we slept early. The next day, we returned the same way, in a state transport bus. The return journey was much quicker, but that could be because I slept most of the way. We got down at Thiruvanmiyur and made our way back to the IIT campus. And that was the wonderful end of a wonderful journey

I found Pondicherry to be an excellent holiday destination. Many people are attracted to the place because of its inexpensive liquor (it, being a Union Territory, doesn’t attract any tax). But the quaint city (town?) has so much else to offer that the best state to explore Pondy is when you’re sober! The slogan adopted by Pondicherry tourism – Give time a break – really seems to hold true here. The pace of life is so different that you will never want to go back to the hustle of a big city.