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Lessons on impermanence from Puducherry

Menaka Guruswamy writes: In both life and in politics, everything has a beginning and an end

Written by Menaka Guruswamy |
Updated: November 14, 2021 8:11:45 am
As luck would have it, we were in Puducherry the day before Liberation Day. That morning, we both went for a walk along the beach and watched as the local government prepared for the next day’s celebrations. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The Diwali court vacations had my family embarking on some travel – a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, we would be taking my parents on their first trip out of the city they live in. My father wanted to go to Puducherry, and so we went. The day after our arrival, the infinitely-better-half Arundhati and I spent the morning walking along the promenade that overlooked the Bay of Bengal. The rising sun provided the backdrop to the waves lashing against the rocks, as fishing ships bobbed in the distance. In 1674, this was the setting that greeted the French East India Company which established a settlement in “Putu ccheri” — “new village” in Tamil.

Back in the hotel café, as memories of the strong waves and blue endlessness of the Bay filled my mind, I ordered a coffee and started reading, yet again, one of my favourite books, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. The author won the Nobel Prize in Literature for this work. In the book, Hemingway writes about an old fisherman, no longer able to catch his livelihood, while his worried young mentee now fishing on another boat, watches over him and provides food and shelter when necessary. As the fishing community has all but given up on the old man, he sets his sights on catching the biggest fish in the waters — a swansong to his life on the sea.

Much like Hemingway, who tells a story of aging, wisdom and the cycle of life, I sat in the cafe watching a quintessential Indian tradition. In this hotel there were two kinds of tourists — couples with young children, and adult children who were taking their older parents on a vacation. While the former is a usual sight anywhere in the world, the latter grouping is less common in the West. In India, we are a people with many differences, but one common cultural practice across our differences is our bond with the older generations, our parents, our grandparents. My family’s own episode of multigenerational travel provided us invaluable lessons – not only in the cycle of life, but also the cycle of our nationhood.

Puducherry provides a wonderful insight into the legal markers that constitute the journey from the colonial to the post-colonial. While much of India gained independence from the British on August 15, 1947, via the Indian Independence Act, other colonial territories joined our Union in varied ways. On November 1, 1954, a referendum was held in Pondicherry, and the people voted in favour of joining India, as opposed to being French. Every year, this day is celebrated as Liberation Day.

In 1956, Pondicherry was transferred by a treaty from France to India and became a Union territory with the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of India in 1962. In 2006, in a final act of erasing its colonial past, it was renamed Puducherry. This is the journey of the life, thus far, of the former colony by the Bay.

As luck would have it, we were in Puducherry the day before Liberation Day. That morning, we both went for a walk along the beach and watched as the local government prepared for the next day’s celebrations. Carpets, chairs, tables and signs were unloaded from trucks and set up under the shamianas. Soon we saw men pasting signs on the walls of the shamianas and onto each of the plastic chairs. Curious as to what the signs said, we walked up to take a look and read them. Each section of the sea of seats had been divided into seating for ex-MLAs (members of the legislative assembly), ex-ministers and leaders of political parties. Better seats, indicated with covers put onto superior quality chairs, were marked for current ministers, current MLAs and other power holders.

We both smiled at the distinctions in political power order being made clear. Inevitably there is a lifecycle for the wielders of political power, an ex-minister today may be one in office after the next election. The jump from the more basic plastic seats to the fancier ones up ahead reflected years of work.Towards the end of The Old Man and the Sea, the old fisherman does hook the largest fish around. My father, buoyed by breaking the pandemic bubble, has since set off on a caravan ride spanning a few national parks with friends of his from primary school. I went back to court. Fortunately, the seats in the courts are not demarcated in any way and all lawyers sit on the same chairs. The cycle of life has continued even at the bar, stalwarts like Soli Sorabjee and my own senior Ashok Desai have passed away. As I try to live up to Desai’s standards, I think back to the lovely morning at the Bay and the roar of the waves, as the sun shone brightly on that day in Puducherry.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 13, 2021 under the title ‘The signs by the sea’. Guruswamy is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India

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