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South India’s Charm

Emu Vendors In Pondicherry

Vicki and I are in south India, in the former French colony of Pondicherry, on the Bay of Bengal. Last week, walking down a quiet street, we came across an emu. We stay alert for wandering cows here, but this was our first emu.

Someone nearby pointed us to a tiny shop at the end of the block. We walked over, and the shop owner came out to greet us.

I said, “Is that your emu?”

He said, “Yes, he’s my emu. You want to eat him? Only 350 rupees a kilo. If you prefer chickens I have those, too.” He pointed to stacks of cages with live chickens.

Last month in Malaysia I’d eaten chicken for lunch in an Indian restaurant during Ramadan. Muslims fast until the sun sets during Ramadan, and Hindus traditionally refuse meat, so I figured our Indian host who served meat at lunch must be Christian. I asked him about it.

He replied, “No, not Christian. I’m Sikh.”

Now in Pondicherry after the end of Ramadan fasting, I tried again. I asked the emu vendor if he was Muslim or Christian.

“Christian,” he said proudly. “My name is John. Christian name. That emu will be delicious.”

We never ate the emu, but we’ve noticed a curious eating ritual. Moms here, or at least some Moms, pick up their kids from school at lunchtime and find a shady spot on a nearby sidewalk. Once Mom and kids get comfortable, Mom serves lunch. Home might be too far away, I figure, and lunch breaks too short. So elegant, sari-clad women with their well-behaved children in spiffy uniforms spend the lunch hour in each other’s company sitting on sidewalks.

I suppose most people, after a visit to India, remember the Taj Mahal.
The Golden Temple. Delhi’s red fort. Varanasi. Vicki and I remember emus, John the emu vendor, families dining on the sidewalk, and how cheerful they all seemed. In general we try to avoid go-and-see travel, and the long, hot, crowded, tiring, anxious days that accompany it. We’ve traveled to India three times and have always stayed in the south, this time in Pondicherry, rather than at the go-and-see tourist places up north.

Off-hand I’d guess old-town Pondicherry must be booming. At the end of the month we saw long lines at the ubiquitous State Bank of India deposit machines. Again, just as a guess—we make a lot of guesses here—locals who get paid in cash were depositing part of their pay.

Credit has exploded in the past 10 years or so, mainly to buy motorcycles. Payday requires a trip to the bank, and a deposit, to cover the automatic debit on the loan.

We’ve detected a certain rivalry between south Indians and their northern brothers. For example, our innkeeper warned us last holiday weekend that “Indians from the north will be coming. You’ll know it; they’re so loud.”

India comes to a point here in the south, and widens dramatically farther north. So most of India’s land mass, and most of the country’s billion-plus people, live up north. South India boasts its own culture, language, food, and religious tolerance. Here Indians speak English, their only common language, to visitors from north India. I’d guess—there I go guessing again—in another 10 years Hindi will probably become the national language of India. But for now English works well.

Come and see for yourself.

Paul Terhorst

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