Perhaps at Pondicherry

Saturday, 12 May 2018

I once sat in a very cramped stall, and watched a young girl selling textiles. Quite naturally and embarrassingly, the shy eleven year old me looked at her intently. For she could have been in school, perhaps meddling with her last minute assignments, racing the pressing iron through her school pinafore or even tightening her braid. But today I watched her jaunty arms quickly fold textiles that soon became a mountain of riotous colors.  Her sinewy arms attuned to a brave composure, it painted a certain maturity. She was blessed with her mothers instincts, I suppose. Here I was sulking with how much my mom made me walk through the aisles of Dugbe* market. The aftermath of that was cornering myself in the matchbox shop with this young talent. I think moms sole intention was to teach me a lesson of hard work. But, I picked on something entirely different.

The young girl stretched out a new textile, aqua blue paired with magenta and orange bulbous flowers, outlined by emerald green. Each time the creases were unfolded, there was a surprising speckle of orange and purple. Many women streamed in, and in seconds, these textiles were flung, boisterous little allegations amongst themselves, how their jades and corals would look horrid with these textiles. In that corner, I felt I was caught in a wildfire of banters that battled quiet stunningly with the prints. Such audacity of colors, a cataclysmic run of lines looked nothing like the minimalistic clothes I used to see in European magazines. Though colonization had left its mark on the bricks, this market roared back with her rebellious prints.

My uncanny taste for flamboyant textiles hailed from a land of curious glances. Markets always stir these peckish desires in you to experiment, its the one place where you can tailor your dreams. But thats not what I loved about markets; there was a certain apathy in fashion. Women sometimes wore unflattering and mismatched blouses. There were days when their skirts were swiftly wrapped and some of them retired to an old tee shirt with a casual gele*. It had its fashionable mood swings, and I found that rather quite flattering. Many times, I used to sit on a rickety stool and watch this confusion. Amidst the entire mismatch, the market relished in colors from their stalls, to walls and all the things put out for sale. And never once these colors were washed out, despite the regal downpour of rain in my humid hometowns.

It soon became a hobby of mine to explore textiles around the world, and naturally my souvenirs would be some running laps of cloth or a striking win at a flea market. When I came back my suitcase had to bear something odd, this time it was a skirt from Gambia.  While unpacking, the skirt floppily jutted out of my suitcase, that welcomed the infamous and murderous eyebrow contortion of my sisters. Her eyes simply said, How hideous! I have never seen myself as a fashionable woman, I rather have been complimented for being whimsical at times, and often one says, quite a careless but contemplative dresser. And just before, Riya had time to comment on my cacophonous skirt, I told her I would invade her wardrobe and make her stay away from the safe solids and dive into prints. Recklessly pair her clothes and welcome her to random jewelry, whisk her away to a spontaneous city and just wear clothes for the whim of it. It took no longer than a few weeks for this to brew, we packed our suitcases and boarded on a bus to Pondicherry.

Allors! Pondy 

It was 5 am when our bus landed at Maraimalai. A flurry of auto drivers rushed to us chattering away in Tamil, Riya and I were sifting for familiar Malayalam* words in their fast paced talks. Dawn seeped in, the sun rose fairly early at Pondicherry. While walking to the hotel, the early sunshine could never compete with the yellow railway station that was complemented by the bustling auto rickshaws. It was another day of sun, but there was a sweeping wind of laziness that suddenly slowed down time.

Pondicherry was strikingly mapped out; it literally looked like a grid. While we moseyed around the lanes, there were the very stereotypical French colonial bungalows, well-crafted doors, canopies of bougainvillea, arches of lovely green fronds, of course a toss of a few homes with a fashionable dilapidated touch. The bicycles were not just picturesque props for the many avid Instagrammers. The way windows and doors abided by a classic design, I could sense the citys harmonious existence. I wouldnt say it wasn't the only city that reveled in its high gloss imagery with a shy rawness of simplicity, for Goa, Fort Kochi and Mattancherry shared this charm. But Pondicherry embraced calmness.  There weren’t the loud honks of cars or pesky scooters, rather the chirps of cycling bells. While walking by you could hear faint French music from the rooftop cafes. Though there was an inescapable tropical unease, many just embraced the heat and never seemed to be enervated. In our showy clothes, those uncomfortable gazes we expected were rather quelled by a smile, and a few laughs simply meaning, Have the time of your life. Thus I have nothing touristic to say, because our travel story turned out being a journey of meeting people who never questioned why we visited their hometown, rather assured us to be ourselves.

Ride about Town 

On our first day at Pondi, we imagined cycling through Rue Suffren till Paradise Beach, rather we found ourselves going around in circles and landing at Rue Labourdonnais. Riya and I never got our hands on bicycles, but we had a better experience with the rickshaws. It was an early afternoon, while heading back after lunch, we landed in a lane that comparatively had a lot more cars travelling though. The road was flanked by huge hoardings that looked like movie posters but turned out being wedding posters- starring the bride and groom, with headshots of family members as supporting actors. While that pretty much got anyones attention, we spotted a stunning auto rickshaw* that had blue spokes with red rims. The owner of it was enjoying a slow smoke, his faded shirt and slack lungi coincidentally blended in with the chipped off walls, but he sported the brightest blue chappals*. My aqua skirt has always been teased for passing off as a brassy lungi and I told Riya, Well hes got our concept right. Riya could not help laughing to herself, Well could I be any more shabby, Im wearing my pyjama pants? We jokingly asked if we could ride his rickshaw and he laughed off saying, Why not?

In a while, he ended up calling a gang of his friends who were amused by our little request. And there was Riya riding a rickshaw in the middle of the road. We ended up calling it the family photograph. They all hurled up and sat on one end, laughing away and wondering whether they were going to be featured in a newspaper. One of them especially, Murali, the curious one asked me for my name. Unfortunately he picked it up as Anita, and while being photographed he kept on saying, Anita, smile Anita. And in that moment my pursed lips broke into a smile and he was happy that I got rid of my straight face. In a matter of seconds, many stopped their cycles and offered theres. From a floor someone was yelling, Would you like to be photographed here? A few insightful ones were sharing directions to antique stores. But in the end when we politely thanked them, they just had one request, to see the photograph. Murali looked at me, smiled. The next day we never saw the rickshaw, it was a shame, I wanted to know if the owner painted his own rickshaw because it was truly a stunner.

Fruitful Mornings 

The auto-driver confusingly asked us not once but twice, Goubert fish market?  Riya sported a lop- sided bun and a gingham shirt while I wore some odd-looking tropical skirt, we werent exactly all set out to bring home the catch of the day. Even by 6:30 am, to our surprise the market was already on its feet. Women peeling fresh prawns, a lot of them comfortably squatted, and their wringed sarees tied around their waists. There were hints of jasmine among the pungent smells. We sifted through and eventually made our way into the fruit market. Though, the markets are well organized, Riya and I remembered our way through the stall owners- our favorites were the Banana Ammmachi and Mutta* Man. Mutta man, also known as the egg- seller, harbored us among the rush, and he didn't seem to mind us photographing away. Caringly he switched on the light, he assumed Riya was doing some high school project (Riyas 21 and evergreen by the way). I was sitting on his gunnysacks, running my hands through the hay and later found out that he was from Calicut*. In his shortest break he broke into Malayalam. He looked at me, I would have never thought, you look like a Sri Lankan. As I sat by him, he told me the market opens as early as 4 am and he told me to go outside and see them offloading the fresh produce.


And like the Mutta Man said, it was a sight to see cartons stacked up like building blocks. You stand still, and in one path theres a crisscross of rapid scooters. My favorite was the spinach vendor, who looked like he had a nuclear mushroom cloud of leaves strapped to his scooter. It was a sight to see banana bunches being thrown in the air. Resting in the shade and basking in the slatted shadows, we saw the bananas stacking up. The ladies did not mind us sitting in her spot. She asked to me buy one, I almost plucked one from the bunch and she laughed at my silliness, gently tapping my face, No you should buy the whole bunch!

Scent of a Market

The flower market was a recommendation that came in by chance. This occurred when I was crammed in the stall with Banana Ammachi. The very sprightly woman looked at Riya and I saying that we easily look like sisters and she carried on to say how her daughter in law is also a Malyali. Discerning Tamil isnt easy but she kept on asking, Do you want jasmines? I did not reply, but we ended up getting a set of directions. And somewhere during a late afternoon, we were trotting towards it, and Riya was certain that the flower market was going to be far more pleasant than my hideous skirt.

Usually during Onam, I used to see pavements lined with flower markets in Kochi. I grew up hearing tales on how flowers were transported from Tamil Nadu, but this was another world. The stalls were divided by stunning velvety rose garlands, and the bounty of marigolds immediately lit up the market. It was an art to see how many were sitting in unison and stringing the ivory colored jasmines. Unlike the previous markets, there was something more calm, a few were listening to the radio. Compared to other sweltering markets, this one was cooler. While walking through, mainly due to the awning, some of the blue sheets cast different colors on to the flowers. Passing by,I saw a stall that was filled with framed portraits, pride filled in me, these photographs encompassed the idea of bequeathing talent. For some have been in the business for over 50 years. I tucked myself into a corner watching a man making a garland, in which he said takes an average of three hours. His eyes were fixed, but he looked up, tight lipped and said, Wedding seasons are the hardest.

 Evenings to laze away 

Our evenings in Pondi were lazy, quite different from the zestful morning plunges. Just before the sun dipped in for the night, there was an awakening of rooftop cafes. One particularly caught my attention; it had a thatched roof with collection of rustic potted plants and a display of luring cocktails. We climbed our way up to the shack, and while we sipped on our drinks, the bird angle view was a lot more delectable than the Pina Colada. The balcony staged a show of flickering passerby’s, from the fiery young teenagers blazing in scooters, nuns jauntily greeting others, and a few foreigners pedaling away with their children propped on the wicker cycle carriages. But my personal favorite was the young ladies riding cycles in their sarees. Sarees folded in such a way Bharatanatyam* dancers did during their practice sessions. Its usually an uncommon sight, in Kochi, I always find a woman gingerly sitting sideways with her legs glued to each other. But here they were jovially taking sharp turns, enjoying the evening breeze on their face and when they rode into an unknown lane, my eyes finally lost focus of the bright orange garlands weaved into their hair.

Deeper into the night, the coastal breezes set in as much as the cocktails. Not too far away from the Rocky Beach, I spotted a teal colored home. A sari was hung from the balcony rails on the second floor and it covered their door. The house looked a lot different in the morning, idyllically framed with its yellowish green leaves and a rustic maroon bicycle. I still could not shake off the thought of the women riding in their saris. I saw it as a sign and smiled, Riya and I packed saris in our suitcases. Meanwhile, this thought was gathered as a reaction to drinks, partially.

The next morning, was a sight for many and us. White town witnessed a pair of waddling sari-draped penguins.  People who sat on the pavement, cheerily looked at us, a few shared thumbs up, we could have been such posers. Our favorite was a man who tipped his straw hat and said, Gooooood morning. Riya was in her regular messy bun, and she mentioned she just needed a fish basket to complete her look, whilst I put my hair up in side braids very much inspired by the market trips. Tying up our crop tops, wearing our neglected jewelry pieces, we felt free spirited and made our way to café Artika- café des artists.

Past the wrought iron gate, we moved through a narrow aisle shadowed by lush fronds. It eventually opened into a cozy space of white walls and gray marbled walls. The café had a classic Parisian café ambience with a little touch of Indian mural art. There was a chechi swiftly cleaning the pile of bougainvillea that took flight quite messily. I wont forget the smile she had when she saw us, I still could not figure what was twinkling in her eye. While I was being photographed, there was always a curious glance and smile that peeked in. Chechi was shy to say it, but when I looked back at the photo, I knew what it was, there was a joy that someone also wore a saree beyond a necessity. By brunch time, a few more people streamed into the café,  and you could hear velvety French murmurs . Under the bougainvillea shrub, in our sarees we were eating crepes and red rice salad, and from a corner, Chechi smiled. It was not a very ordinary view I assumed. Thats what it felt like, being on the other side, a passerby who struck someones attention.

Pondi wound up quite slowly. Many would say that Pondicherry is a sleepy city.  At the beach, we watched glowing balls flung in the air and a long line for evening gelatos. It was lively in one's way of seeing it.  In utter honesty, this city was kind to us. We thought of all the helpful people in the market who stopped their rickshaws for us, while we were being photographed. The lit up faces when they saw colorful us strolling along. Home wasn't like that. Perhaps home has far too many rules, and theres a joy being whimsical , but in Pondi what felt whimsical was just relaxing. Like I said, the city embraces peace. Riya and I boarded on the bus that night, very exhausted but with a newly formed memory of celebrating our clothes. We could already visualize our photographs, ten years from now, we would remember how we set off to Pondi one summer. Sometime again I suppose, I would be sauntering in eye-clashing clothes in another city, but my first one would always be Pondicherry.

I cannot say how much I enjoyed this project with Riya, the closest one in my life who can dissect my brain and keep up with every whim of mine fired by dopamine. This project was a gift to her for her graduation and birthday. We bonded over a sitcom where two closest friends, raided some clothes and went about a city and got themselves photographed. Our love for clothes, magazines and travel is severely similar, thus this was the one trip that stood out from our family trips. Pondicherry was truly an experience to shush all those fashion rules and we could not be any happier to have a weird wardrobe. Aghil Menon is one my closest photographer friends who joined in for this journey and can brave anything but understands my creative temper so deeply. His forte lies in how he visualizes photographs. Finally my dad, who made this trip happen.

Photography: Aghil Menon
Art Direction and Styling: Atheena Wilson

Here's the lingo guide

Dugbe* -  A market situated in Ibadan, Nigeria 
Gele* -  A type of head scarf commonly worn in many parts of Southern and Western Africa 
Malayalam* - The native language spoken in Kerala, India 
Rickshaw* - A wheel operating vehicle in India 
Chappal*- Colloquial term for sandals 
Bharatanatyam*-  A major genre of classical dance that originated in Tamil Nadu, Kerala
Chechi*- Colloquial term for sister in Malayalam
Ammachi*-Colloquial term for grandmother in Malayalam
Mutta* -Colloquial term for egg in Malayalam


  1. Absolute delight reading this piece. Especially for anyone who has been to Pondi and experienced it's culture and lifestyle. It's relatable on so many levels! Each paragraph packed a punch filled with so much of strong emotions. Amazing photography and a beautiful read overall.

  2. Good reading, your style of writing is beautiful, brings out in colourful words, the subtle details, that’s omnipresent out there , every where, but not noticed , does make it worth reading . Salute your mind-space that has the sight and patience to see these finer aspect of life. Take care of it . It’s rare it’s precious

  3. Good photography & styling...
    Cheers to the team... :)

  4. Great Atheena. Such a unique concept. I love the imaginative way you describe things. Some really good writing.

  5. Simple and beautiful writings. We'll framed images and great tones.

  6. Culture tht inspire fashion.. good effort ��

  7. Great job.....really creative....keep up the good work

  8. Loved every word of it. I love reading your beautifully woven stories. This time , your team also made me go 'Wow'. Photography, content,model and the thought-everything was just perfect. Congratulations Atheena and team.