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Sunday, 20 December 2015



In late November, early December 2015, I visited the southern Indian coastal city of Pondicherry (‘Pondi’). Until 1954, this small place on the coast of the Bay of Bengal was a French colony. Now, it is an Indian Union Territory. When the French left in 1954, the ethnically Indian (mainly Tamil) inhabitants of Pondy were offered the opportunity of becoming French citizens. Many accepted. So, at present many of the inhabitants of Pondi are still French subjects, and enjoy the benefits associated with this status. Apart from architecture, there are many left-overs from Pondi’s days as a French colony. For example, policemen wear red képis on their heads and street signs are bilingual: Tamil and French.

There is a church close to Pondy’s railway station, Basilique Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart Basilica). This is an airy Gothic revival edifice, which was built between 1902 and 1907, when the first mass was held in its eastern wing. The church was completed by 1908[1]. While walking around the church, I noticed some particularly fine stained glass windows in the south wall of the nave. Each one of the windows depicted a saint, and below each saint was his or her name. To the right of each name was an inscription: “Strassburg 1908”, and to the left: “OTT Fres”.

My interest was immediately heightened. Strassburg was the German name for the now French city of Strasbourg. However in 1908, the city was under German administration. It had been since France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and was to remain so until the end of the First World War (‘WW1). “OTT Fres” was, I assumed, an abbreviated form of OTT Frères, which I guessed (correctly) was the manufacturer of the stained glass.

On my return to the UK, I looked up ‘OTT Frères’ on the Internet, and was gratified to discover that such a company existed. OTT Frères (OTT brothers) was a company of stained glass painters based in in  Strasbourg/Strassburg. They furnished windows for a variety of buildings (churches and other public buildings) in Alsace, especially in the city of Strasbourg/Strassburg during the first two decades of the 20th century[2]. A set of postcards issued in about 1920 (see below) illustrates the interior of the OTT workshops[3]. The company was founded in the 1850s[4], and by 1900 its workshops opened onto the Cour du Corbeau. The company remained in existence until 1975[5]. Clearly, as I discovered, some of its creations travelled a long way from Alsace.

It is of interest to note that the (French) builder of the church in Pondy chose to commission windows from a company in enemy (German) occupied Alsace, but he did. However, not all of the windows in the church were made by Ott Brothers. Some, which seemed newer in design than those made by Ott and not nearly as finely executed, were manufactured by a company in Grenoble.

Strasbourg/Strassburg, like Pondicherry, changed hands. The city remained under German control for about 47 years, whereas Pondy remained under French control for far longer: from 1674 until 1954.

I have some French relatives living in present day Strasbourg. They have been there for several generations, having moved there from southern Germany at the end of the 19th century. When Alsace-Lorraine was occupied by the Prussians in 1870-71, another of my many ancestral relatives, quite unrelated to those of my family who live in Strasbourg today, was a soldier in the Prussian Army. This man was Leo Ginsberg (1845-1895), who was born in Prussia (Breslau) and was the half-brother of my great-grandfather the South African Senator Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936). Leo settled in the occupied Alsatian city. One of his grandchildren told me that when Leo married, he and his wife were required by law to purchase a set of china dishes from the royal Prussian porcelain factories.  Leo had 4 children, all of whom migrated to South Africa, where they lived in King Williams Town in which their uncle Franz had settled in 1880.

We would never have visited Sacre Coeur had I not wanted to see Pondy’s railway station, which turned out to be a bit of a disappointment visually. Since the church is across the road from the station, we felt that we should take a look at it, and I am glad that we did, as doing so revealed a tiny aspect of colonial history.





[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_of_the_Sacred_Heart_of_Jesus,_Pondicherry
[2] http://www.archi-wiki.org/personnalite-ott_fr%E3%A8res-494.html
[3] http://www.hoogeduinpostcards.com/webshop/lots/59239--lot_of_9_postcards_france,_strasbourg,_vitraux_d-art,_ott_freres_(67).html
[4] http://www.cc-porte-alsace.fr/tourisme/livret-jep-2011-nfb-v4.pdf & http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/merimee_fr?ACTION=RETROUVER&FIELD_1=cmer1&VALUE_1=&FIELD_2=cmer4&VALUE_2=&FIELD_3=cmer5&VALUE_3=&FIELD_4=AUTR&VALUE_4=&FIELD_5=TOUT&VALUE_5=ott%20fr%e8res&FIELD_6=titre%20courant&VALUE_6=&FIELD_7=date%20protection&VALUE_7=&FIELD_8=DOSURLP&VALUE_8=%20&NUMBER=2&GRP=0&REQ=%28%28ott%20fr%e8res%29%20%3aTOUT%20%29&USRNAME=nobody&USRPWD=4%24%2534P&SPEC=9&SYN=1&IMLY=&MAX1=1&MAX2=100&MAX3=100&DOM=Tous
[5] https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.433426656788034.1073741843.366016053529095&type=3

Monday, 14 December 2015



I first visited the south Indian city of Bangalore, now called ‘Bengaluru’, in January 1994. About 30 years before that, one of London’s first ‘minicab’ companies, Meadway Cars, began carrying customers all over London. The minicabs were the first new addition to the existing modes of public carriage in London for many years. Prior to their introduction, the public could travel by bus, tube train, or in black taxis (‘Hackney Cabs’) – trams and trolleybuses had been phased out by 1964.

The options for public carriage in Bangalore in 1994 were: busses (often looking very battered), auto-rickshaws (three-wheeler ‘autos’), and private hire cars. The latter were operated by smallish private firms, and could be hired in advance for varying lengths of time and distance: for example for 4 hours and 60 Km; they were not metered. These cars were in general unmarked.

Gradually taxi companies such as ‘Easy Cabs’ hit the city’s crowded thoroughfares. Generally, they were uncomfortable Maruti vans, but they were metered. Unlike autos, they could not be hailed from the street; they had to be ordered by telephone.

The 21st century has seen not only the construction - albeit exceedingly slowly - of a metro system in Bangalore, but also the introduction of two new kinds of four-wheeler taxi. One of these is the so-called ‘Airport Taxis’ operated by companies such as Meru and KSTDC, and the other is the ‘computerised’ taxis such as are operated by the international company Uber, and the Indian company Ola. All of these new cabs may be ordered using ‘applications’ downloaded onto ‘smartphones’, and there the problems begin.

Before going any further, I must emphasise that I have not encountered any problems ordering Meru Taxis (by telephone.) However, this cannot be said of Ola and Uber, which I have attempted to order using their slick ‘apps’. On opening the Ola or Uber ‘app’, a GPS mechanism attempts to locate the potential passenger, and then displays a map showing where the nearest Uber or Ola vehicles are located, and also how long it is likely for each cab to reach the customer. Sadly, this is where things begin to go wrong. A cab which might be stated as being 5 minutes away might take as long as 30 minutes to reach you, or may not reach you at all! This is either because the GPS has not located the passenger accurately enough or because - and this is most likely - the driver is unable to comprehend the workings of the GPS system, or both. Whilst driver and passenger are attempting to meet, the former makes innumerable ‘phone calls to the latter, often adding to the confusion and frustration of the passenger.

If and when the cab (Ola or Uber) eventually arrives, the passenger should not begin to relax. Despite the fact that the cabs are fitted with devices to enable the driver to navigate from A to B, some drivers seem unable to benefit from them. And, as many of the drivers we encountered seemed to be ignorant of Bangalore’s geography, what should have been a relaxing trip becomes stressful because the passenger needs to navigate and issue instructions to the driver. So far, I have yet to be impressed by Ola and Uber. For long distances, I would recommend the slightly more expensive Meru cabs. For journeys within Bangalore, there is no substitute for the somewhat uncomfortable, yet remarkably nippy autos. On the whole, the auto drivers know their way around Bangalore, and if they don’t they sidle up to another auto and make enquiries.

It might be early days for Ola and Uber in Bangalore and that with the passage of time, they will live up to the optimistic expectations of so many Bangaloreans and others who have begun to make use of them and are currently putting up with their defects. 


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