The real thing

I was traveling last week to Pondichery and as a result had to miss out, albeit temporarily, on how your montris think your tax money collection is their personal ‘piggy bank’. Fortunately for me and writing this column, it matters little where in India you are, to be reminded about the misfortune we endure having our 42 elected peoples’ representatives working for us.

More exactly, when you are in Chennai, where for instance, you can feel how Information Technology was made to work for the people. Whereas, in Goa it took a single MLA to make IT work for him, and for his pockets only. I am talking about the Rajiv Gandhi IT Park in posh Dona Paula where real estate sharks were encouraged to park themselves.

Two more universities in Tamil Nadu, I read in the newspapers, are working micro-satellites for a possible launch by end-2009. I am told they were encouraged by ANUSAT, India’s first ever micro satellite built by Anna University, Chennai, and launched by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) last April from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota. The project’s team operated from the College of Engineering, Guindy and MIT, Chromepet, both in Chennai. Contrast this with the miserable performance of our own engineering colleges and the government’s attempt not too long ago to acquire land belonging to the Goa University, and no guesses on whom this high value land would have been sold to for mere peanuts.

Besides this, a group of students from engineering colleges in Bangalore and Hyderabad is working on an 850 gm pico satellite under ISRO guidance. Bottomline: Whereas, IT in Goa means real estate in the three southern States it means inventing the more difficult-to-make micro satellites which requires miniature technology. Just to make you squirm a bit more, do be informed that I booked my Volvo AC BUS travel to Pondicherry from Chennai online, which meant I had to make only a single trip to the bus station (to actually catch the bus). Compare this to the rumbunctious behaviour of the touts operating at Patto in Panjim, or KTC’s sleepy counters in Margao and Panjim. Or, be really crushed by this September 19 headline “First heart transplant at GH”. The story was about the Chennai Government General Hospital’s first ever heart transplant! In Goa, the last eye-catching headlines (from GMC) were about dirty linen and falling ceiling fans. I’ll say we have a long way to go, baby!

The other man’s grass is always green

But this is not to say everything is hunky dory outside. In fact, as in Goa, so too in Pondicherry (btw, official name is Puducherry), it’s a foreign takeover when it comes to business. And therefore, for instance, tourism in Pondy has made even its juice and bread cost an arm and a leg and the perpetrators of this fraud are some locals but mostly foreigners who run cafes, restaurants and are even real estate agents. I ran into this helpful young American girl who has moved to Pondy some months ago and runs a diner in rue Labordanais, serving breakfast and juice. After tramping around the Latin Quarter of Pondy – which, incidentally, is mostly clean but for some piles of garbage in certain streets – I was thirsty and parked myself in her diner and ordered a mango juice. Visions of a thirst-quenching fresh fruit juice filled my mind but imagine my shock when she returned in a jiffy with a glass of tinned mango juice!! I was awed – outraged is more like it – when she charged me Rs 60. The con job was repeated on another thirsty idiot – Rs 60 for a glass of orange juice that came from a tetrapack, the kind you see crammed in super-market shelves. Was she charging for the “ambience” which basically consisted of some easy chairs, some ethnic cushions against a glass frontage from where you could see the world go by? Or did she perchance think dollar rates were okay considering most of her clients are foreigners?


Talk of hype…

Then there is Satsangha, which is on the map of any tourist brochure on Pondy. As you walk in, there is a menu (which is fairly common like restaurants in France) with a picture of the French chef). First of, with all that tall grass hiding hordes of mosquitoes, I spent the evening scratching or slapping at my legs and arms to deal with these winged insects which carry all kinds of diseases. Second, I ordered pasta and got spaghetti. Did the French owner (who was not there) think I, an Indian, would not know the difference? Or did his Indian chef – who was supposed to show up at my table and do some PR but did not come (come on, that was not a tall order considering only two tables were occupied) – did not know the difference? Anyway, again a whopping bill for a fraud.

While India has no angels in the real estate industry – how many times have you encountered a sleazy broker in the booming real estate market in Goa? –the ones I met in Pondy took the cake. Firstly, it’s a segment cornered by some foreign women who obviously are high maintenance. So while you are used to brokers charging two per cent as a commission, in Pondy, one of them told me she charged a jaw-dropping 15 per cent! So, the poor sods who go to them looking for a long stay apartment fork out commissions that obviously pay for these women’s lifestyles.

Poetic Justice

But having said this, I must say I was floored by a bakery (they call it boulangerie in French) on the road to Auroville which had an array of mouth-watering confections for prices that can be called a steal. A big piece of pizza came for just Rs 31(yes, it’s true or c’est vrai as the French would say) and – hold your breath – true blue brown bread for just Rs 18. The irony is that a bakery in town called Baker Street (which is highly recommended in all tourist brochures) sold brown bread for Rs 90. Even a Frenchman was startled when he handed over a C note and got just Rs 10 back. Incidentally this bakery is run by a local. Talk of poetic justice!