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In the shadow of the twin Gothic-style towers of a church, a cluster of Tamil men play pétanque on a red-earthed field. Just metres away, locals stroll along the seafront road, which is free of vehicles. This is India, but not as we know it: a town where streets are wide and clean, bougainvillea in full bloom hangs low over lime-and-mortar walls and sari-clad women tote baguettes in their shopping baskets.

Almost six decades after the departure of its erstwhile French rulers, Pondicherry (officially renamed Puducherry but rarely referred to as such…

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