Pondicherry: The stillness of being

Posted: September 12, 2009 in Travel
Tags: ,

I arrive in Pondicherry again. It must be at least five years since the last time I visited. As in the case of my previous three100_5058 visits, I arrive here once again when my spirit needs reviving.

Amongst other things, my work on my book has taken me through many twists and turns, and I face a writer’s block unlike any that I have ever faced before. Will the stillness of Pondicherry help me find the answers within myself?

Day one
In the early hours of dawn, our bus passes through Auroville. My first impression is that there are many more plastic bags scattered around the place than there were five years ago. What happened here?

Before I have the time to answer that question, we’ve reached the bus stop. A horde of auto drivers descend on us and I make my way to Mother’s House, the asharam guest house where I will be staying.

An introduction to the guest house on the Internet has already told me that that it is located off the sea in rural Vaithikuppam, not too far from Aurobindo Ashram. This particular guest house has 12 single rooms that they let out, often on a long term basis. The rates – just Rs 260 per day!!!!

100_4984We arrive at the guest house even before the clock has reached 7. The watchman lets me in and takes me to my room. Each of the single rooms in the guest house are named after one of the 12 virtues proscribed by the mother. The room that I have been given is Sincerity. A small board in the room defines sincerity in the words of the mother. “Every act of sincerity carries in itself its own reward: the feeling of purification, of soaring upwards, of liberation one gets when one has rejected every one particle of falsehood. Sincerity is the safeguard, the guide and finally the transforming power.”

Is that the answer then? I have often been told that above all other things, sincerity is my defining quality. So must I only proceed with sincerity, in the knowledge that sincerity alone will be both my reward and my protection?

Outside are the fishermen’s tiled houses and the sea calling out to eternity, even as a single boat dots the horizon. I silently plumb through my copy of Mister God, this is Anna., the book that I have brought along with me for some reflection.

At the Mother’s House, managed efficiently by Regina, the day runs to a clockwork routine. After a ‘herbal’ breakfast on schedule, I head back to my room. Then I sit before my laptop and with the sea in front of me, and then mysteriously the words begin to flow. The magic of Pondicherry is clearly already working.


In the evening, I walk past the fishermen’s village at Vaithikuppam to the Ashram. This visit has exposed me to the other side of Pondy as well. The rural underbelly that lies alongside the French Pondicherry of cobbled streets.

On the way, I spot a thatched hut, which has as its roof a Congress party banner. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi stare down at me, I find myself wondering when this other India will rise?

For the first time I also visit the Asharam and spend some time in meditation near the Mother’s Samadhi, under a huge ancient tree as the evening sunlight filtered in. A moment that still brings peace within my spirit.

Later, I also meet an Asharam devotee there. The many years that Oshim have spent on this earth have put a walking stick100_5011 in his hand, but he still retains a youthful cheerfulness in his heart.

He takes me around the Asharam, while also narrating how the mother conducted his wedding at the Asharam many years ago.

Later he leaves me with a book called For those who earnestly say to the Divine “I Want Only Thee”. Did I look like one who was earnestly seeking answers? Perhaps I did… For I am 🙂 And if sincerity is a trademark attribute, I probably have the expression of ‘search’ written all over my face.

I stopped at the Ashram bookstore and picked up The Mother. This was a book on Mirra Alfassa, who later came to be known simply as The Mother. She fascinates me… A woman of Turkish Egyptian descent – who spent over 40 summers of her life in different counties across the world over two marriages and even motherhood, before she made Pondicherry her home. How did she come to be Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator, leaving the legacy of Auroville to the world? Later in the evening, I spend some time poring over her story.

But before that, I step into Pondicherry town to pick up an assortment of supplies. The town comes as a bit of a surprise. Typical of any Indian town – brightly coloured shopping establishments selling big modern brands run shoulder to shoulder, along the length of the street for as far as the eye can see. I even stop at Hot Breads to have my dinner.

Yet I can’t help thinking that these trademark symbols of modern consumerism seem slightly incongruous against the Pondicherry of old cobbled streets and French sounding names.

But I guess that is the true spirit of India – an all inclusive country that combines tradition with modernity, where all of us with our different identities still find the space to just be.

Day Two
There is something about Pondicherry that irresistibly draws you to the divine. I return once more in the morning to my100_5055 reading of Mr God, This is Anna.

But by late morning I close my book and head out in search of a motorcycle, guided by the guesthouse watchman Raju.

One hour and several wrong shops and streets later, I find myself hiring my motorcycle from a shop that is entirely different from the one that Raju had recommended 🙂

The motorcycle itself was a decrepit black Sunny, and rattled merrily on my test drive. I wasn’t sure if it would carry me through the dirt roads of Auroville, but I decided to take my chances.

It’s been almost five years since I last visited Auroville, so I wonder whether I would find my way there or need to ask directions. But when I saw that old familiar unmarked turn on the left side of the road, the doubts disappear. I know instinctively that this is it.

As in the past, I ride up to the Visitor’s Centre and the Matra Mandir. Both of them simply excuses to explore the larger 100_5030Auroville.

Once more, the path is green and the air is cool, standing testimony over time to one woman’s madness. Fortunately, I do not see too many of the plastic bags that I thought that I had seen in the morning when my bus turned into Pondicherry.

All of this is a far cry from the parched barren earth on which this township first sprang to life many decades ago. Truly, there is nothing that a group of people deeply committed to working to a common goal cannot achieve.

While for most it is the tranquility of Pondicherry that calms their spirit, for me it has always been the restless search of Auroville that calms my spirit.

Do I then shun the placidity of being for the turbulence of becoming?

There are no sights to see in this township. It is just the experience of living that you carry out with you, if you will open your heart out to it. Oh that I should always live my life with the pioneering spirit of endless adventure of the Aurovillean…

On this visit, I also notice the big banyan tree at the Matra Mandir. Ageless, bountiful abundance, one with the universe. I100_5045 am stilled by wonder for awhile.

For the first time, I also spend some time shopping at the Visitor’s Centre. Some bags and toys for the kids. Then, some tops, a bag and a hat for me… All of these difficult to find in Bangalore. Then, I am off – lighter in the pocket, but happier in the heart.

But on this visit, I miss the friend who has been a constant factor in my previous travels to Auroville. Sowmya – the friend with whom I journeyed towards so many shared dreams, and now in faraway California.

Yet on the way back, I do seek out the beach that Sowmya and I stumbled on during our first visit to Pondicherry. Even this is surprisingly easy enough to find.

At that time, a decade ago, this was an undiscovered beach, and we had fallen on it with the delight of the explorer who chances upon unchartered territory.

Later, when we returned five later, we set out to find our beach again. But this time, we had to turn back quickly. This time, the beach was covered with the lifeless bodies and overpowering stench of countless little dead fish.

So naturally, I am not sure about what to expect this time around.


On this visit, I find that the beach has been discovered by others as well. It is not crowded, but neither is it empty. Inevitably, it is also dirtier. Now white thermacol and plastic bottles also merge into what had been pristine soft brown sand scattered with shells.

Yet, the beach is still quiet and clean enough for me to stand still in contemplation for awhile. I recollect a moment 10 years ago when I had walked across the sands, and watched the waves wiping out of my footsteps behind me. I had then written a poem on our futile attempts at greatness that ended with the line, “like mad men writing their names against the sand, it is futile”.

So as I stand there again, once more Pondicherry reminds me that I am an insignificant speck against the vastness of the universe. I feel myself bowing to the splendour of life.

Day three
I wake up at six in the morning, and pull the curtains open to witness the most spectacular sunrise outside. Pondicherry,100_5076 being on the east coast, is not the city for picture postcard sunsets. But it certainly gives you a spectacular sun rise. So here, life starts at the crack of dawn.

I rush out as quickly as I can to get an assortment of morning shots… the morning sun in all its splendour against the sea, fishing rafts against the morning light and fishermen at work.

I realize then that spectacular photographs do not just happen. They also reflect the quality of the life a photographer leads. An exciting life creates exciting photography.

By 6:30 I’ve already exhausted the best light, and I’m back in my room writing. The wise man or woman who thought up the old proverb, “The early bird catches the worm”, probably lived on the east coast 🙂

As I write, I notice sparrows on my balcony, and I smile. After all, we no longer have sparrows in Bangalore. But the eco sphere at Pondicherry at least still survives.

After an afternoon spent on my b100_5144ook, I head to the town in the evening. I stop at the cafe by the pier that I first visited 10 years ago, and then re-visited 5 years ago. A perfect place for contemplation by the sea.

Later, I spend some time on photography – both at the pier and in the old city area.

There is something about old architecture that never fails to draw me in, as nothing else probably ever will. It is as if each building has a soul of its own, and my photograph tries to tell its story. Sometimes it is the lonely symphony of an existence ebbing away into the twilight. At other times, it is the proud magnificence of a life well lived. Each story finds its way into the frame, the aura of the building shaping my telling of the tale. So as I stand before a building that has made me me stand still, it is as if our souls are one for an instant, and then a photograph is born.


In this way, after many happy hours spent amongst these dwelling places of another era, I turn back home.

Now I sit once more before my laptop to complete the introduction my book. I hope that the writing of the Introduction will define my purpose and remain an inspiring mission statement in the lonely last leg of my journey.

Day four
Over breakfast, I spend some time talking to Olympia (who’s from Slovenia) and Albania (who’s from Germany). The topic100_5202 on discussion is life under socialism. Both Olympia (who’s originally from Romania) and Albania (who’s originally from Russia) have had their share of experiences that they carry with them. So they share their experiences and we laugh a lot. It’s amazing how life sometimes brings the most wonderful people your way, and your lives just cross for an instant.

Later, I return to my room and complete my work on the Introduction of my book.

In the evening, I ride down to the pier again and spend some time at my seaside cafe. Once more, I look into the sea and am simply with myself.

Later, I do something that I’ve always wanted to – visit the Pondicherry museum. But it turns out to be a small hole in the100_5241 wall, just as my friend Bindu had warned me.

It’s funny how some of the things that you blow up in your mind turn out to be not so big when you finally experience them. But the only way to discover that is to do everything that you’ve ever wanted to do. So, in life, it is important to experience everything.

Then, I am back at the Mother’s House now and packing my things to return to Bangalore. I finally feel a semblance of peace in my heart. Pondicherry has once more renewed my spirit.

This time I leave carrying a quote that I stumbled on in the mother’s biography, “If you can always smile at life, life will always smile at you”.

It’s true. I should know. I have learned to live it over these last few days 🙂

Pondy Mothers House

  1. Prashanth says:

    Nice – loved the pics – can i find bigger versions somewhere on the net?

  2. Christina says:

    Sure… Have actually posted the pics on my Facebook account… Will send you the link in a bit.

  3. Anupama says:

    I loved this post and could relate to it so well…

    I missed Auroville on my first ever visit to Pondicherry but I will make it up to myself sometime. Your descriptions just act as an additional boost…

    And the bit about wonderful people coming your way and lives crossing for an instant is something I will second and vouch for…after all, it is on one such impulsive trip of mine that my paths crossed with yours 🙂 …it is such encounters that are the real wealth of life and fill treasure of memories…

    • 101dreams says:

      Thanks Anupama 🙂

      And yes Anupama… I agree… Our meeting was one of those encounters that add to the richness of travel… And since then, it has been great to discover another fellow writer over Facebook and your blog 🙂

  4. Sowmya says:

    Ah Pondy and all the wonderful memories of it 🙂 Missing you a lot too!

    The photographs are just great Chris!!! And your blog has brought back all the good things about life – Pondy, me bicycling uphill with a puncture, our secret beach, all that beautiful stoneware pottery!

    Now I wanna come home…

  5. Raj says:

    I was planning my visit to pondy and I stumbled on this blog! Happy that this gave me most of the information that i was looking for! Thanks a lot for sharing your experience!

  6. 101dreams says:

    Thanks Raj!

  7. srikumar1234 says:

    That line ” Sometimes it is the lonely symphony of an existence ebbing away into the twilight. At other times, it is the proud magnificence of a life well lived. ” is superb. I have always felt this but I could never put it in words. Nice article , I am from Pondicherry and could relate to every thing you have said here. Keep it up!

  8. chrisbrown says:

    Awesome narration about Pondicherry. Thanks for the great article about our city. Have a nice time ahead.

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