I could hear the downpour outside as we tucked into spicy, yellow meen kuzhambu (fish curry), grilled fish flavoured with garlic and fennel, and a colourful coconut-flecked preparation of sautéed vegetables called poriyal. The dishes were accompanied by heaps of coconut rice, and finished off with creamy homemade coconut ice cream. My dad and I were having lunch at Maison Perumal, a fine heritage hotel whose restaurant was recommended by Bala, the host of our cosy guesthouse in Pondicherry’s French Quarter. The restaurant, which serves up Tamil and Continental fare, occupies the ground floor around a well-lit courtyard, sheltered from the rain, and lined with potted palms. The fronds swayed in the wind as we ate. The thrum outside quietened to a drizzle. Things were finally looking up.
It had been raining nearly non-stop ever since we got to Pondicherry two days earlier. We had big plans for our holiday. Dad and I had discussed picnicking under coconut trees on Paradise Beach, having cheesy thin-crust pizzas in Auroville, and exploring ancient Roman ruins in Arikamedu, four kilometres outside the city. I’d even convinced him to go on a cycle tour of the city though it’s been years since he sat on a bicycle. But with the rain playing spoilsport, my mood had been as dark as the overcast sky.
Then, during a small break in the rain the previous day, Dad and I—our stomachs rumbling—decided to step out. Pondicherry is easy to navigate even for a newcomer, because of the grid-like layout that defines its design. On the Tamil side, we found Appachi, a Chettinad restaurant with few frills but generous helpings of coconut in every dish. Together, we relished the mutton sukka and Chettinad-style chicken gravy. It was a hearty meal, the kind that uplifts the cloudiest of days.
My dad and I, we don’t talk a lot. I think of us as quiet people. Observers. At home, though it’s just the two of us, the Venn diagrams of our lives only intersect at familial, kitchen, or house affairs. But when we travel together, the world opens up. Whether it’s on thrilling rollercoaster rides in Hong Kong’s Ocean Park or while scouring for knick-knacks in Singapore’s local markets, there’s an enthusiastic buzz that drives our days out of town together. In those moments, it doesn’t matter that he has forty years on me. Of late, I’ve noticed that it is food that excites us the most, and packs a solid punch to my memories of travelling with my father.
On the second day of our trip, bolstered by the success of the previous afternoon, Dad and I had walked out into the drizzle to explore. The rain pitter-pattered on my windcheater and sloshed against my feet. It brought out the yellow ochres, burnt reds, and deep blues of the colonial homes we passed. Water dripped from their louvred shutters. On the promenade that hugs the city’s Coromandel Coast, and becomes pedestrian-only every evening, I watched waves crash against the rocks. Dad spotted a gelateria by the bay that looked promising, and we made a mental note to stop by later.
Pondicherry is one of few Indian cities that make you feel like you’ve entered a time machine. On the French side of town, roads with names like Dumas Street and Goubert Avenue are reminders of colonial rule. Even redeveloped buildings are designed to recall their erstwhile French-style architectural facades. On the Tamil side, open verandas, wooden posts, colourful floor tiles, and roomy inner courtyards bring to mind the rich architecture of the not-so-far-off Chettinad region. We had made our way to the Tamil Quarter—or Heritage Town—for our memorable lunch at Maison Perumal. After a meal like that, there’s no room for a glum mood.
During the rest of our rain-spattered days there, this became our routine. We headed out each day to stroll through the city, staying clear of the rain by ducking into cafés for pick-me-up coffees and sweet hot chocolates. On our walks in Pondicherry, we visited colonial churches, bookstores, and boutiques. In the newly renovated seaside Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges church (Church of Our Lady of Angels)—which stands out thanks to its bright, almost gaudy, shade of pink paint—I said a quiet prayer for leagues of travels like this. At a pop-up book sale, I scored a book of Pondicherry folktales and a pocket Tamil-to-English dictionary. Another time, at La Boutique d’Auroville, Dad purchased sticks of Ayurvedic incense, while I spotted a summery pair of striped orange culottes. We collected numerous souvenirs, but the stops we made to consider ordinary items like wooden cutlery and ceramic kitchenware were the ones that gave me pause. I realised that even the remotest mention of food makes our heads turn.
One evening, we stumbled upon a little café-cum-boutique, a street away from our homestay. Their racks held kitschy clothing that made us shudder, but the makeshift café in the back stocked organic chocolate. Flavours ranged from peanut butter and sea salt to the more adventurous chilli-cinnamon and coconut milk. It was a tough choice—one we didn’t bother trying to make. “One of each?” I asked. Dad nodded. Besides, I reasoned to myself, it is fair trade chocolate from a farm in Tamil Nadu. Even if the flavours didn’t live up to our hopes, the purchases would be for a worthy cause. Later, as we nibbled on the chocolate, it was clear that there was no need to worry. The coconut milk bar took me back to the rejuvenating coconut oil head massages of my childhood, while Dad preferred the experimental chilli-cinnamon bar. My favourite, hands down, was the sea salt dark chocolate—each time I think of it, I want to whip up a batch of sea salt chocolate cookies.
Travel seems to come easy to my father. He’s spent a lot of his life up in the air, working as crew for Air India. Jet-setting between destinations around the world, home was his only constant layover. I remember curling up in his suitcase as a tiny tot. Some mornings, I’d know just where he’d flown back from based on the goodies on the dining table. Croissants laid out for breakfast meant he had returned from Paris. Giant packets of frozen fish fingers meant a flight from London. I’d look forward to enormous boxes of sweet madeleines and tubs of Boursin garlic cheese. Not surprisingly, when we went on trips together later, food continued to make for the best memories.
On a rainy night in Pondicherry, we walked into the Hotel de L’Orient, a lovely heritage hotel salvaged from ruin by INTACH Pondicherry. While sharing a Creole curry of tiger prawns and rice, we considered the immense changes that this city has seen. In the centuries before Indian independence, it changed hands from the Chola kings, to the French, Dutch, British, and back to the French. Over that time, its heritage only grew. Like the Japanese art of kintsugi where broken pots are put together with lines of gold, what could have been cracks in Pondicherry’s history have made it richer. It made me think of the way Dad and I have pieced our lives back together since my parents separated. It’s a journey that has had its own twists and turns, but we’ve gained from our travels together. New spaces and new flavours dislodge routines, making way for spanking new memories of comfort.
Though our trips have reduced significantly since Dad retired, I’ve noticed that we are freer and much more open on the road. Stay in the moment, shop till you drop, eat your heart out—all the clichés come out. I’d never have imagined, for instance, that Dad would enjoy a decadent Ultimate Chocolate Sandwich, but at Zuka Choco-la, the chocolate shop on Mission Street, his eyes lit up when he bit into one.
On our last evening in Pondicherry, we stopped by the Goubert Market, a sprawling, old local market. Its numerous bylanes, riddled with fresh pools of rainwater, are home to tiny stores that stock everything from spices to saris. I picked up cotton dupattas from a shopkeeper who imports his indigo-printed fabrics from Jaipur. Dad purchased packets of fragrant cinnamon sticks, pungent peppercorns, and little round red chillies from a kind old grandma. Treasures in hand, we made our way to a little French bakery called Baker Street. While Dad picked out sandwiches for our ride to the airport later that night, I ordered us coffees and a chocolate escargot. The sweet snail-shaped pastry was delicious; I fed it into my mental list of Things To Learn To Bake One Day. Drinking coffee, I looked out the window to see the rain come down outside. It was washing away the old, offering everything in sight a clean slate. Taylor Swift’s Long Live came on, and Dad and I—both fans of the pop superstar—grinned at each other.
Later, at Villa Shanti, a hotel and restaurant in a cosy grey-and-white building on Suffren Street, I asked Dad what inspires him to travel. He shrugged off the question, focusing on the seafood saffron-sauce pasta in front of him instead. He tends to write off travel as something that he’s had to do for a living, as if he didn’t really care about it. But I’ve seen him in a new city. He can wander around forever—popping into tiny stores, navigating local supermarkets, and sweet-talking his way into magnificent bargains at street markets—never letting his tiredness show. I’m a little different. I take time to adjust to a new space. His eagerness gets me through my initial reservations. Together, we work well. And if, like it did in Pondicherry, all else fails, at least we have our shared love for food to draw on.
Appeared in the July 2016 issue as “Table for Two”.
Appachi A no-frills restaurant in the Tamil Quarter that dishes out wonderful Chettinad food. Try their mutton sukka (9, Rangapillai Street, M.G. Road area).
Baker Street This cosy French café stocks fresh bread, pastries, and sandwiches (123, Bussy Street, M.G. Road).
Cafe Xtasi Wood-fired pizzas come straight out of the oven. There’s no alcohol here; order takeaway to have a cold pint with your thin-crust pizza (245, Mission Street, Opposite VOC School, M.G. Road).
Carte Blanche Try Creole cuisine at Hotel de l’Orient’s lovely courtyard restaurant (17, Rue Romain Rolland).
Le Café This is the spot to watch the sun go down over the bay while sipping on a coffee. The café is open 24 hours (Beach Road, Near Gandhi Statue).
L’escale Named after the staircase that creeps up the building facade, this boutique hotel offers a French-style breakfast on a sea-facing terrace (31, Dumas Street).
Maison Perumal If you’re hankering for fish curry and rice, head over to this hotel’s courtyard restaurant. Ask for the day’s specials (44, Perumal Koil Street).
Villa Shanti One of Pondicherry’s chic eateries. Go for their Continental fare. Pro tip: Get there early; there’s always a queue for tables (14, Suffren Street).
Zuka Choco-la This bakery has a range of sandwiches—including wonderful chocolate ones. Don’t miss the 54 Degree Celsius Hot Chocolate, which is served with a chocolate spoon
(319, Mission Street, M.G. Road).
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.