Posts Tagged ‘Pondicherry’

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two roads diverged…and i took the one on the right that led to the cafeteria

“So, where are you from?”

“The UK. You?”

“Bangalore.”

“I’ve been there. Are you studying, working…?”

“Working. I am an editor with n***. But really I am still figuring it out. I am not sure if I want to get into travel writing or creative writing.”

“I’ve travelled to several countries – Brazil, Dubai, Europe, the U.S. But you wouldn’t want to travel to a country where there is war, would you?”

His face brightens and darkens throughout our conversation as we wait for someone to come and deal with the snake. I make a mental note to check where exactly his home country is on the map. (Close to Syria and Israel – uh oh. I understand why his face darkened and why he talked about war.)

Right, the snake. I am usually shy and don’t chatter about my career dilemma with strangers. Especially gorgeous strangers. But with a snake in the room, it is hard to stay shy.

One of the first things I read in the Auroville handbook was that there are lots of snakes but they are generally harmless. I had no clue there would be one in my room that very night.

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I had my doubts the previous night about travelling alone after I allowed a drunk man to chaperone me to the bus. He got me my boarding pass, carried my bags and was very helpful. He pulled out the curtains of my berth and when he saw me hesitate, assured me I was safe and there was nothing to be afraid of. With a final salute, he tottered off to see if anyone else was in need of his services.

I meditated in the Receptivity petal at the Matri Mandir, got my Aurocard loaded at the Town Hall, met a Russian doctor, a French singer, and an Indian writer, an architect couple and Vipassana meditation teachers, and an Australian couple who were planning their destination wedding.

I smiled a lot. I wrote a lot. I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – again. All in all, it was a fabulous day.

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the path connecting the center and the mandir

After dinner, by 8pm, most guests went back to their rooms and everyone starts early here. Auroville is not the safest place to go out in the late evening because the roads are not well-lit, if at all, and are deserted. I heard from my writer friend that assaults are common as we went on her moped – with headlights that turned up towards the sky instead of the road – to get a smoke the next evening.

Anyway, back in my room, I walked into the washroom and stared at my face in the mirror – I was feeling restless. Clearly, I was not the only one. I caught a movement near the door I had just walked through. There it was: a tiny black snake, a couple of inches long, wriggling. My first reaction? Oh, fuck. It didn’t occur to me that I should be scared as I watched it. I suppose it was the size that did it. I considered letting it get on with its business. But the possibility of finding it in bed with me or stepping on it were not comforting thoughts.

This required some strategy which I hadn’t anticipated exercising on a holiday that was supposed to be about self-reflection and connecting with the peace within me, which is a rather slippery feeling. The telephone was in the other room and I didn’t want to take my eyes off the little fellow, who under my penetrating and perplexed gaze lay still, a touch of wariness in his general attitude which I thought was befitting a snake.

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the backyard where babblers hopped around in the mornings

I stood at the doorway where I could both look out and keep an eye on the snake. It seemed hopeless until I saw a man heading towards the stairs. He later explained to me (and again to the guest house manager as to what he was doing in my room) that there was a funny smell in his room and he had come down looking for a match to light the incense stick. Clearly, saving a damsel in distress was not on his agenda but he rose to the occasion.

He confirmed that it was indeed a snake that we were looking at and he had seen a similar one in Brazil, and it was the deadliest snake in the world. With these reassuring words, and after suggesting I get on the bed in case the snake decides to strike, he left to find help. I was left standing on the bed, staring at the tiny and quite possibly the deadliest snake in the world with a fast disappearing incense stick in my hand.

He came back with a broom. Not the help that I had envisioned. After climbing on a chair, he gently swept the snake towards the door. The snake unfroze and sprang into action and wriggled away – not out of the door but into a crack in the door frame. We tried to smoke it out of its hideout with the incense stick. The snake liked its cosy hideout – that now smelled really good – to want to cooperate.

As we waited for the manager, we talked about my career dilemma, Auroville, and his inability to sleep…could it be all the fresh forest air? The manager, a woman of action and a sense of purpose, walked in, walked out, walked in again with duct tape, and taped the crack in the frame. Her fingers deft, not the least bit hesitant.

As they walked away, you could only hear the raucous chirping of crickets in the backyard.

© Anuradha Prasad, 2016

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© Anuradha Prasad, 2015

© Anuradha Prasad Pondicherry, Nov 26 2012

© Anuradha Prasad
Pondicherry, Nov 26 2012

Now I see her face,
the old woman, abandoned,
the moon her only companion.
– Basho

© Anuradha Prasad Auroville, Nov 26 2013

© Anuradha Prasad
    Auroville, Nov 26 2013

“How beautiful are we?” they said.
“Very,” i replied.

I felt like a peaceful island, bare but for a single snow drop bloom on a tuft of grass, floating in the sea. It is my first memory of bliss.

I was at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry on a school trip and placed my head on the samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. I promised to return on my birthday every year. And I did but only 15 years later after many chapters started and ended in my life and I felt about as good as a half written story on a crumpled bit of paper tossed away in frustration.

Where and how do I start with Pondicherry? Trite as it may sound, I fell head over heels in love with this town when I first stepped off a bus as an 8 year old. I came along with my mother, aunt and cousin to visit one of my cousins studying at the University. Namitha and her friend waved at us. They had cycled down to greet us sometime past midnight, I think. I was impressed. That sort of thing never happens in Bangalore.

From that visit, I remember greedily wolfing down raw mangoes smothered in red chili and salt while hiding in the guest house so I didn’t have to share my loot, sitting in the park throwing a tantrum wondering what all the fuss was while looking at the Governor’s house, watching my mother as she picked up a pink crab on the beach thinking it to be a shell and as she jumped a foot off the ground when it nudged her hand asking to be put back on the sand, the big black rocks right by the road and the sea that didn’t seem deterred by them at all and looked so angry like it wanted to swallow the town whole along with me (this was right after a cyclone and I was sure it had its sights set on me), following the trail of ants with my eyes at my cousin’s hostel, dried flowers the color of dried blood pressed on creamy fragrant candles, voices all grown up and hovering somewhere over my head, circling and crisscrossing like wayward mosquitoes…

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We must’ve driven through a downpour. There are shops with blue shutters downed, pink and purple houses, and vast stretches of fields – all hazy through the wet windows. At Pondicherry the sun is shining.

The auto whizzed through narrow lanes and the French quarter. I felt like I was greeting an old friend again. We arrived at L’Escale, a narrow white building on Dumas Street. Julie, an old dog, greeted us.  At the lobby, which had an arrangement of bags and other show pieces, we checked into the Mahe de Bourdannais room; it had a pillar and a half. It was in the lane behind the Promenade and we could see the sea from the café at the top, its furthest edges blurred in a mist. The pier stretched a long, lazy arm into the sea.

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At 8 in the morning, it was HOT! But that didn’t stop Tee and me from setting off down the Promenade. The sea was a glittering hot blue molten jewel. Clusters of school children crowded the rocks. I spent the morning braving the sun to walk down the Promenade past the memorial, the lighthouse, the residential villas’ high garden walls – bougainvillea escaping it like tendrils of hair from a tightly wound bun, a rickshaw on display, the pink church, the Gandhi statue and the Auro boutique where they sold candles, incense sticks and stuff made with handmade paper. Then there was the little French library/book shop, the cool courtyard at the Alliance de Francaise, a theater with a rooster over the entrance…We had lunch at Le Café gazing at the sea, tiny specks of boats at the distance and bouys, before heading to the Aurobindo Ashram. I placed my head on the Samadhi with yellow roses laid out on it and while it was peaceful I didn’t experience that intense joy I had felt the first time. But then sacred experiences are sacred because they don’t repeat themselves.

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I wanted to visit Auroville and the Matri Mandir on my birthday.  Aay found a kindred spirit in the auto driver who took us to Auroville, a good 20 minutes away past a shop selling Hanuman and coconut trees that looked like they had received a tight slap from the recent cyclone and not quite recovered and come back to their upright position. There was also a sleeping devi.

We had to walk down a path that cut through a lot of greenery and ponds to reach the Visitor’s Centre, sidestepping centipedes. The brick buildings were beautiful and a huge chime called Swaram made music. We watched the short film on Auroville and got a viewing pass to the Mandir. The viewing platform is a good km from the center.

The Matri Mandir, which The Mother declared as the soul of Auroville, covered in gold discs rose up from the garden.  Once we finished this we had to register our names to visit the Inner Chamber. We returned for a round of shopping at the center’s boutiques and book shop, and for a simple lunch at the cafeteria.

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Later, the auto driver took us to Panchavati and a Shani Temple. Panchavati is said to be the only place with a statue of a giant 5-faced Hanuman. The fifth face can be seen from behind the temple through a  meshed gap in the wall. The Shani Temple was otherworldly, like it had sprung up in the middle of nowhere. I felt like I had stepped back into another age. We had to go to a rather derelict looking building which had a well at the back with water the color of algae. With our back towards it, we had to throw a one rupee coin into it before heading to the main temple where a giant statue of Shani (Saturn) stood glaring down at us. I cowered under his stern gaze and felt I was trespassing. Outside, there were locals selling sesame seeds/oil wrapped in colorful pieces of cloth. There were trays of these diyas, with each color representing a planet. Further inside, the nine planets are represented in stone and stood in mournful silence. The disquiet within me grew louder as the silence around tried to push into me.

Later that night, we celebrated my birthday with a round of mojitos, a tantrum and tiny perfumed soaps at L’Espace before we headed to Le Club where I blew out the candles off a delicious chocolate mousse cake from Baker’s Street, a French bakery, which Ay had procured during her disappearance earlier in the evening. Topped with red, red wine, the night sped into morning.

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At the Matri Mandir, the crowd was ferried in vans and we were led by a resident to the gardens surrounding the Mandir. He explained the rules to be followed within the mandir and the architecture – the 12 petals, the size of the discs which are made of 24 carat gold fused in glass, 12 being the number of Shakti. The globe is supported by 4 pillars for each of the four directions, each of which also represents the Divine Mother – Mahakali, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Maheshwari. The Park of Unity is still under progress and a lake is being planned around the Mandir.

Aurovillians stood silently as we walked up and into the Mandir, which was incredibly beautiful and the experience surreal. We had to walk in silence and were signaled to wear socks before proceeding up a winding ramp, sailing in a daze through the soft orange glow. It could be the core of the earth, a space ship or a mother’s womb.

We sat in silent concentration for 15 minutes in the Inner Chamber that was all-white with a circle of massive pillars and white cushions around a huge crystal ball. A single ray of the sun entered from the top and pierced into the crystal and its light brushed the floor. The energy was really, really strong.  The end was signaled by the blinking of a light and we walked back down the ramp in silence.

We were then led to the lotus pond. The ray of sunlight actually descends down to the smaller crystal placed in the centre of the many petaled lotus pond. We could wander around the garden, sit by the amphitheater or under the shade of the Banyan tree around which Auroville has grown and spiraled out.

Back in Pondicherry, and after an afternoon at Madame Shanthe and a plate of coq au vin, we watched the full moon gather up in the sky, by the sea. I leave knowing I will be back in time to see dawn break over Auroville.

 

Yep, travel companions can make or break a trip. As a child, all I remember is being bundled into a matador or something by family and heading off to places with no names. Not having been kept in the loop about these travel plans, they always seemed so spontaneous. Of these trips, I can recollect fragments like mango orchards at some relative’s place,  a visit to a cousin’s village where they bred silkworms – a sluggish lot and its village pond by the jungle where we splashed around.

Otherwise most trips were to temples and more temples. And we didn’t go there to admire the aesthetics, culture or history…needless to say they were excruciatingly boring. Jostling crowds, craning our necks for a quick glance at an idol that was submerged in jewellery, silks and garlands and a snappy priest urging us to keep moving…

Nisargadhama – the origin of River Cauvery

Then there were the school trips which were far and in between. Nisargadhama en route to Coorg – big rabbits, monks running on the swinging bamboo bridge, bamboos, tree houses and the rock strewn water ringed with low hanging tree branches – River Cauvery’s quiet origin.

The samadhi at the Aurobindo Ashram is adorned with flowers and incense sticks offered by Aurobindo and Mother’s disciples

The other was the Chennai-Mahabs-Pondi route in the middle of a cyclone. Water clogged Chennai streets, the rough sea fed by torrential downpour. We tried to make the most of the beach before taking shelter in a gazebo where we could feed coins into a machine which gave us astrological predictions.

Mahabs with its lovely ruins and a clean stretch of beach was finished within the blink of an eye. Pondi was lovely – the simple yet tasty fare of dal and rice at the Aurobindo Ashram, placing my forehead on the cool marble of the samadhi of Mother and Aurobindo, the promenade at midnight, the sea crashing against the boulders and the spray of water from the inky blackness…

It was back to trips with the family that finally turned me off travel. There was the time in Karwar when a bunch of drunk men chased us and all of us women ended up in a room fearing the worst. The time our guide to Goa insisted that we eat only in Kamat restaurant and not try out the shacks because people who went to such places were not the right kind. The visit to Gokarana where we had to go only to the temple because Om Beach was a nudist beach (years later we found that it was not!!). Needless to say it killed the spirit of travel.

Golden Temple, Bylaguppe – the largest Tibetan settlement in India

Something has to be said about sterile trips with NRIs in air-conditioned cars to resorts – it was a grave injustice to Coorg. But stepping into the Tibetan Monastery in Byleguppe and there in the presence of the giant golden Buddha,  all complaints and fears were silenced.

Surprisingly one of the best trips was the spontaneous one to Gokarna with a brat who despite her admirable determination could not score any chillums in the three days that we were there and who tried to distract me in sneaky ways to make us miss the bus back home. I will save Gokarna for another day but it was that much more memorable owing to a certain Ms S and her pursuit for hippie-ness.