An overnight train and early morning taxi took us to Pondicherry, where we went straight to our rooms at the Raj Lodge, a very orange block in the heart of town with charmless, cell-like rooms, complete with broken fixtures and rusty bars over the windows. The room was big and there were three beds of various sizes arranged in an inconvenient row. But the bathroom floor was elevated about 15 inches higher than the room floor, which meant that every time I exited the bathroom, I had to duck or else slam my head into the cement doorframe. What made it worse was when I did some laundry I was stepping in and out of the bathroom repeatedly to hang wet clothes on the door. Absorbed in the task at hand, I kept forgetting the danger of backing through the doorway and banged my head several times in the course of a couple hours. It around this time that I considered becoming a terrorist.
Bethany can attest that nothing makes me violently angry like bumping my head. It’s the only thing which regularly makes me see red and lose control. Indeed, this is one of my least favorite aspects of life in India. While in Nepal for activity week last year we hiked up to a lodge in the mountains with Everest views. I awoke at 3am to go to the bathroom and walked right into the doorframe which was about 1″ shorter than I am, leaving a 1″ gash in the top of my bald pate. The power was out so I had no light and couldn’t inspect the damage, though I could feel a groove in my scalp. When I felt blood trickling down my head, I decided there was no option but to walk down the hillside in the freezing dark to locate the first aid kit. Megan (the co-chaperone) seemed confused as to why I was at her door in the Himilayas in the middle of the night, but she was coherent enough to tell me that actually, she didn’t have the first-aid kit. After stumbling around a bit I eventually tracked it down from one of the kids’ cabins and got the wound to stop bleeding but I gained a prominent scar to remind me how much I hate Nepali doorframes.
Pondicherry, now known as Pudacherry, was a French settlement. At one time it was divided into Villa Blanche (white town) and Villa Noire (black town), and to some degree those distinctions still exist, though the French-speaking population is now a small minority. The Francs pulled out in 1954, but it still retains a strong French flavor, and nearly every white person we saw was speaking Francais.
The city is laid out in a very orderly grid, which is distinctly NOT Indian, but makes the city very pedestrian-friendly. Hardly any rickshaw drivers even approached us, as if they had given up trying to make a living in a French-designed city. The main canal that runs North-South has withered into a putrid trickle of sewage and trash that offends the nose from a couple blocks away. Pondicherry, for all its charm, is the only city we visited which can be navigated by sense of smell.
Three weeks before we arrived, Pondicherry was slammed by Cyclone Thane which killed 19 people and just generally pushed everything West. Walking around town we saw fallen branches, crushed roofs, and many west-leaning trees. We came upon Sacred Heart Cathedral on what appeared to be a church work day, and saw nuns and local kids working together to clean up debris.
At the entrance to the Cathedral, beggars, many of them sitting on useless limbs, held out their hands asking for handouts. We have been in the habit of resisting these entreaties because in Atlanta such donations enable a lifestyle that is unhealthy for the beggar. In India people may become enslaved to a life of working for a “pimp” who will engage in all sorts of unsavory tactics to keep beggars in the fold (see Slumdog Millionaire). We’ve seen plenty of young women with drugged babies on their hips, mindlessly moving their hand back and forth from begging to eating position and mumbling like zombies, all the while making a very practiced sad face.
But in Pondicherry, the presence of actual crippled beggars on the steps of the house of worship hit a bit close to some stories I’ve heard about Jesus and I felt some pangs of conviction. We decided we should give to adults who were physically disabled. Back in Atlanta, you fear funding the alcohol habit of someone who refuses to work. In India, begging may actually be the only way for those physically unable to work to feed themselves.