Letter from Pondicherry, India

When I was growing up in Pondicherry, a former French colony on the south-east coast of India, I would go with my family each Sunday to the beach. Everything about the beach seemed perfect back then: warm waters, yellow sand, swaying coconut trees, and lines of soft white surf that stretched across a green-blue horizon. It was like something from a postcard.

Thus begins Akash Kapur’s essay titled Letter from Pondicherry, India, published in Granta 101, a magazine published in the Spring of 2008.

But time does not stand still. The beach as I once knew it does not exist any more. It began to die in the late 1980s, when the government built a new port to the south of Pondicherry. Politicians promised that the port would bring in investment and power economic development. Who could argue with that? Within a few years, however, as even a cursory environmental assessment would have predicted, the yellow sand started disappearing, carried away by new currents that swept around the port, starved of replenishment when natural sand flows were blocked. Today the beach I used to visit with my family is gone.

Akash goes on to describe an encounter with a woman from the village of Chinnamudaliarchavadi, about ten kilometers north of Pondicherry.  The government of Pondicherry built three groynes (stone walls built perpendicular to the coast) intended to halt erosion, but which in fact, accelerated the process.  These groynes were built without environmental permission.

Outside a thatched hut, close to the ocean, M Valli, a single mother of two teenage boys, tells me that every night at high tide the waters advance into her hut, seeping into the single room where she tries to sleep with her sons. ‘At night, the sound of waves is like an earthquake,’ she says, in Tamil, her fingers pulling at her purple sari. ‘My children want to move away, they want to go somewhere else. But where can I go?’

Fishing communities north of the town of Pondicherry have all lost homes and livelihoods.

Valli has nothing. And the future holds nothing for her. I ask how she makes a living and she says she used to buy fish from the fishermen and resell them in the market. But now, since the beach has been eroded, there are hardly any fish.

And Pondicherry has become a walled city, looking more like a fort than the fabled city by the sea where “time stands still.”  The government has plans to build a new port, 20 times larger than the existing one, which has never been viable as a commercial port.

In the distance, I can see the town of Pondicherry, its sea wall a dark blur through the heat waves. I can’t see the port from where I’m standing, but I know that the Pondicherry government is talking about building a new and bigger one, just south of the existing site. Local environmentalists have warned that a new port risks destroying a hundred-mile stretch of the coast. But the government is insistent: India is developing, modernizing, and Pondicherry can’t be left behind.

Read the full essay as well as see the video on “The Disappearing Beach“.


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