What makes Pondicherry special? The quaint French quarter? The nice beach? The well stocked bars? Yes, it has all of these. But it also has a special place in Indian history. Did you know that it was a refuge for Indian freedom fighters in the early 20th century? Pondicherry was French territory at that time, and patriots fighting for independence evaded the British police by quietly slipping into Pondicherry. The French and the British were never the greatest of friends. So, Pondicherry welcomed them in the spirit of “my enemy’s enemy is definitely my friend”!
These patriots were mavericks, each one more amazing than the other. Perhaps the most interesting of those was a poet named Subramania Bharati. He was popularly known as ‘Mahakavi’ or ‘The Great Poet’. He was ‘Great’ alright, but much more than just a poet.
India map showing Puducherry
Born in a village in Tamilnadu in1882, language, poetry and music excited him from a young age. He soon mastered English, Hindi, Sanskrit, Bengali, Telugu and Malayalam. Some say he knew 14 languages; but it was in his mother tongue of Tamil, that poetry flowed! He was briefly the court poet of a princely state, but a palace was no place for a free spirit. A chance meeting got him a job as sub-editor of the popular journal ‘Swadesamitran’ at Madras (Chennai). Journalism became his true calling ever after.
Around this same time, he almost single-handedly ran another weekly called the ‘India’. Its publisher trusted Bharati and gave him complete literary freedom. Bharati wrote about reformist ideas close to his heart: gender equality, democracy, individual liberties, inter-religious harmony, halting caste oppression and a whole lot more. These were avante-garde ideas in the conservative India of that time, and Bharati’s pen became an instrument of change. But one idea got him into serious trouble.
India was then a British colony, and Indians were second class citizens in their own land. Bharati wrote powerful articles inciting Indians to overthrow the British. The British were naturally furious. British Intelligence watched him closely, waiting for an opportunity to imprison him. Bharti outwitted them by escaping to Pondicherry, which was out-of-limits for the British police. Even today, it is a mystery how he evaded them – some say he escaped by boat.
The year was 1908, and Bharti was barely 27. Ever the optimist, Bharti soon made himself at home in French Pondicherry. He learnt to speak French, could sing the French national anthem as well as a Frenchman, and studied the works of French intellectuals like Voltaire, Proudhon and Rousseau. He found wonderful friends – fellow revolutionaries-in-hiding like Aurobindo, VVS Iyer and others. Together they were constantly making plans for a new India. His 10 years in Pondicherry were the most productive in terms of his writing. Bharti wrote on diverse topics like nature and environment, love and romance, philosophy and spiritualism.
It was no holiday, though. His revolutionary work continued. He secretly wrote revolutionary articles and printed his magazine, ‘India’, from Pondicherry. He knew he was still being tailed by British spies. So he arranged to smuggle copies of the magazine to Madras, hidden under haystacks in bullock carts.
The spies continued to shadow him. One account says that there was one inspector, 9 sub-inspectors, 45 constables, and dozens of paid informants, all keeping a close eye on Bharati and his friends. Bharati lived in and around Easwaran Dharmaraja Koil Street. For various reasons, including security, Bharati kept shifting houses in that area.
There are many lighter stories around this. On November 22, 1916 a violent storm hit Pondicherry. Bharati had just shifted his family from one house to another. The next morning, he found that his old house had collapsed in the storm. The ever-positive Bharati took it as God’s blessing for leading a principled life. One evening Mrs. Bharati was disturbed because she thought she saw a prowler in the vicinity. Bharati easily allayed her fears: which thief would dare burgle a house watched by so many policemen?
But patriotism alone cannot feed empty stomachs. The British identified Bharati’s secret sponsors in Madras, one by one, and threatened them. Funding for the magazine dried up. Bharati tried to make ends meet by selling articles and poems, but that fetched very little in small Pondicherry. Sometimes, when the landlord demanded rent, Bharati paid up by composing and delivering a beautiful impromptu poem. Once, when he had no money to pay the doctor who made a house call to treat his daughter, he sang one of his melodious songs as payment! But debts kept mounting. Mrs. Bharati woke up every morning to the abuses of the unpaid milkman. Soon, even Bharati’s charisma was no answer for sheer lack of money.
Bharati resolved to return to Madras. His loving wife and two daughters had always stoically supported him; they did not deserve this suffering! He would quit politics and direct his journalism to happier themes. An unwritten deal was reached with the British bosses. They would leave him in peace if he quit politics. So, in 1918, he crossed into British Indian territory. He was arrested by the British immediately. But now, prominent members of the society pressured the government into releasing him.
Bharati’s old employer, the Swadesamitran, welcomed him back. He returned to the life of a normal householder. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. In 1921, the temple elephant that he loved, attacked him unexpectedly, when he was trying to feed it. Weakened by years of struggle – financial, emotional and physical, Bharati died soon after. It was a tragic irony that 10 years of poverty in Pondicherry charged him, but 3 years of peace in Madras killed him.
At Pondicherry you can visit Bharati’s last house, lovingly restored by a grateful nation. What was Bharati’s greatest contribution? He had evolved a simple style of prose and poetry that was aesthetically pleasing but rich in meaning. It aroused a liberal outlook and patriotic fervour in an entire generation of Indians and galvanised them into positive action!
Even 200 years after his death, Bharati continues to capture Indian minds. Streets, colonies, Universities and educational institutions all over India are named after him. Tamil movie songs keep borrowing phrases from his poetry. The Govt of India annually awards the Subramania Bharti Award to authors of outstanding works of Hindi literature. To the millions of youngsters today, he is a kind of a poster boy representing freedom. His signature moustache and turban lend themselves easily to poster art.
Detour: Pondicherry’s rich history
Pondicherry’s heritage dates back to prehistoric times. According to tradition, this place was called Vedapuri and was the centre of Siva worship. That is why even today the deity in the main temple of Pondicherry is called Vedapureeswarar.
There is evidence of Greek and Roman trade in this port during the 1st and 2nd Cent. CE.
Between the 4th and 13th Cent. CE it was consecutively under the Pallava, Chola and Pandyan empires. In the 15th century it was part of the Vijayanagara empire. In the 17th century it was part of Gingee province. The Gingee province was under Bijapur, Mahratta, and Mughal kings at different points during this time.
The first modern Europeans to come here were the Portuguese, in 1554. It was briefly an unsuccessful Danish colony between 1624 and 1654 (Read the story of the Dutch fort of Sadras here ) . The French colonised it in 1664 and took it to great commercial heights in the next 100 years. Pondicherry was a vibrant port rivalling the nearby British colony of Madras. But successive wars with the British reduced it to a weak state by the late 18th century and early 19th century.
Yet it retained its independence and was an attractive place for Indian patriots fleeing British India. It became a part of India in 1954.]
When in Pondicherry
If you’re visiting Pondicherry, here are a few recommendations: Walk through the French Quarter of Pondicherry and explore the quaint boulevards on the ‘French Connections trail’. You’ll find incredible stories behind every charming façade.
Enjoy a ‘Fishy’ meal at the Rendezvous restaurant.
Go tipsy at the Storytellers’ bar.
And when it comes to the stay, if you’re one who wants nothing but the best, look no further than Palais De Mahe.