Tamil heritage

WelcomHeritage's Calve, in the forgotten Tamil quarter of Pondicherry, has its own story to tell
A wrought-iron balcony at the Calve
A wrought-iron balcony at the Calve

It&rsquos as unexpected an address as any for a swish heritage property in a town rich with Gallic charms. Just opposite the home-cum-clinic of Dr B. Rajalakshmi Sakthivel, B.S.M.S., Siddha Physician, one door away from the diffident Soucilabai Government Girls Higher Secondary School, the mansion on Old Number 36, Vysial Street, stands honourably tall. There is no sweeping boulevard, promenade or beachfront to recommend WelcomHeritage&rsquos Calve but there is, instead, a rare streetscape of traditional continuous verandahs (thalavarams and thinnais), inviting even on hazy summer afternoons. The exquisitely restored 150-year-old edifice was once the residence of Telugu-speaking Chettiars who gave its street the French name of Rue Calve Subbraya Chetty. Yet, despite its proximity to nearly everything, this part of Pondicherry is, such a pity, easily missed.

&ldquoWhen I was a small boy,&rdquo says Ashok Panda of INTACH, Pondicherry, &ldquoI would walk home from school under the thalavarams of houses one after the other, till the end of the streets, and not once leave their shade.&rdquo Today, he would have to leap over vehicles and street vendors to keep to anything resembling a straight line, except in Calve&rsquos corner. The owners of about 20 houses on Rue Calve benefitted from a European Commission-funded Model Street Restoration Project by INTACH, which meticulously brought back old fa&ccedilades. Note that even the mansion of Ananda Rangapillai, a legendary dubash of the Compagnie, famous for its Franco-Tamil styling, has been partly torn down.

&ldquoAs the building had been leased to a bank for years, you can imagine what it looked like,&rdquo says Auroville-based architect Dharmesh Jadeja, who worked on restoring Calve to its original glory. Jadeja has relied on extensive wood panelling, antique furniture, Chettinad lime-and-egg-white plastering and hand-made Athangudi tiles to &ldquonot make it [Calve] &lsquodesigner&rsquo&rdquo. The experience also led to the AinA (Artisans in Architecture) project, which works to &ldquocreate a respectable space for artisans in contemporary Indian architecture.&rdquo

The high Madras-roof ceilings, wide corridors and sunny courtyard at Calve are set off superbly by grand columns, stained-glass door arches, slatted windows and wrought-iron balconies. While duplex rooms have a curved wooden staircase leading to a bedroom on the upper level, the suites have private balconies and gleaming copper bathtubs. Elsewhere, an uneven oxide finish lends unusual and pleasing colours to generous built-in bathtubs. The flatware is stone pottery designed by Jadeja&rsquos wife Rakhee Kane.

If you are the sort of person who draws a firm line at door-less loos, bathrooms behind half-walls and rooms in attics in the name of heritage accommodation, then be assured that Calve makes no demand of its guests more strenuous than climbing a flight or two of stairs. But there is no lift and only one room on the ground floor, so ask ahead if such be your need. The mod-cons are plentiful and, at worst, you may have to go on all-fours across a bed to access the pretty, old-fashioned ceramic-backed switches, wait a full five minutes for the rather timid shower to turn hot, or use the fridge-cum-locker cabinet to hook up your laptop (the desk was gorgeously regal but no plug-point dared near it).

The restaurant, Salle a Manger, has friendly staff and an extensive menu of French, Italian and Mughlai food, with Thai and Chinese staples sneaking in as well. But American and Continental fare apart, only idli and dosai made it to the breakfast table. Seafood is well represented. The Veerampattinam Meen Kozhambu &mdash fish cooked the way a Paandi fisherman would like it &mdash is a Calve speciality. Ten intriguing Creole recipes &mdash such as an Avarikkai Salad featuring country beans, diced eggs, onions and coconut milk &mdash speak well of the chef&rsquos intentions.

Calve shares Pondicherry&rsquos robust survival instincts. The colonial history of what was but a minuscule port on the Indo-China sea route has been a rocky see-saw of French-Dutch-French-Brit-French-Brit-French-Brit-French (really) rule. Pondy still remains a resolutely laidback toss-up of French and Tamil traditions, just right for its recent years of assiduously promoted tourism. Perhaps as a consequence of these quirky destinies, fine hotels and dining are more affordable here than, say, Kerala (okay, union territory taxes are low, too). Calve is an elegant reiteration of this revival, and the first upmarket example of its kind in the largely tourist-neglected Tamil quarter.

The information

Old No 36, New No 44, Vysial Street, Puducherry 605001 (3hr30min drive from Chennai airport 36km from nearest railhead, Villupuram) 
5 executive rooms, 2 duplex rooms, 3 suites
Rs 3,555 (executive), Rs 4,355 (duplex), Rs 5,355 (suites). Bed tea/coffee and breakfast included no luxury taxes here
0413-2223738/4103, www.calve.in, www.welcomheritagehotels.com

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