France and India Intersect at Pondicherry

Previously a French Colony, Pondicherry is laid out on a grid, running along the oceanside. There’s no beach and surprisingly for me it doesn’t seem to matter. Every morning and evening the promenade is filled with French, Hindu and Moslem all promenading in their appropriate attire – along with a smattering of western tourists. The old French quarter – the cobblestone streets, mustard yellow townhouses, with verandahs and shady tree lined streets – are reminiscent of New Orleans. A number of streets away from the coast, the more typical Indian section begins.

Tourists are predominantly Indian; with a small showing of Westerners, mostly French. The main draw is the Sri Aurobindo ashram and nearby Auroville which seems to have more appeal to our age than the younger generation. Sri Aurobindo was a yogi who was educated in England, returning to India became a nationalist and later exchanged politics for spirituality after a few years in prison. He came to Pondicherry in 1910 and was joined 4 years later by Mother, a Frenchwoman who became his spiritual collaborator and after his death, successor. Both Sri Aurobindo and Mother have a large following primarily in India and France.

We’re fortunate to get a room at a guest house managed by the Ashram, where there are strict rules of no drinking, smoking, a 10.30 pm curfew and quiet time between 9pm and 7am – all of which suits us well. Guests are predominantly Indian and preference is given to the followers of Aurobindo. Unusually peaceful, it is the hotel with the best location and the best price. It sits right beside the sea and the sound of the surf pounding the rocks drowns out traffic and other noises. Our room, named “Liberation” (next door to “Concentration”) is simple but clean with a window facing the ocean, and huge flowering bushes similar to bougainvillea outside the door. An artfully conceived garden includes a Japanese rock garden and statues of gods and goddesses are positioned among flowering bushes, with a large lawn for meditation, yoga and “mindful walking”.

The family interaction continues: Arvind’s cousin, Swami Nathan, and his wife arrive and show us the “vital points” of town, which include a fresh juice bar, excellent veg restaurant called Surguru, and some all important women’s clothing stores! Swami’s wife manages a Montessori school, while he commutes to Banagalore. He leaves every Friday night, returning on Sunday night – a ten hour bus ride each way. It’s exhausting to think about. Meeting us a few hours after he arrives on Saturday, he seems remarkably refreshed from his night on the bus. They entertain us for dinner in their home and we meet their two smart and highly excitable daughters, one still in school and the older studying postgraduate. She sings Carnatic music after the meal. Their English is limited but we manage to understand each other, with the exception of when Gerard and I talk among ourselves. When we did this in Chennai, Mrs Mahadevan accused us of speaking in “foreign tongues”. This reminded me of when we were first married and Gerard’s mother would make the same accusation! Some things don’t change.

After a few days we decide to visit a nearby temple town, Chidambaram. The rickshaw driver takes us the most convenient route to the bus station, i.e. driving for several minutes against the traffic on a one way street to avoid having to backtrack. It’s not the first time we’ve been subjected to this risky behavior in India. Waiting at the station in the early morning – enjoying the sun rise, the friendly chai wallah, the helpful young Indian girl who struggles to speak English – I feel a rush of love for India (aided by two strong cups of chai!) But when we finally cram on to the bus, the seats and aisle tightly packed with people and start the slow drive through the traffic congested streets, I’m brought down to earth by the flipside- India’s phenomenal and disruptive population growth. We are surprised at how large Pondicherry is – but it’s the same everywhere.

At the time of Independence in 1947, India represented one-fifth of the world’s population with 400 million. Today, the U.S. is 310 million, but India which covers one-third the space, has grown to one billion. The government encourages one child per family, and there is some compliance within the Hindu community; conversely Muslims believe they should have as many children as possible to spread Islam. In about 20 years, the Muslim population is expected to equal the Hindu population in India further straining communications between the two communities.

The bus to Chidambaram must be the most crowded we’ve yet experienced in India – fortunately we have seats. Whenever we stop, the interchange of outgoing and incoming passengers defies description. How can one exit or enter when there isn’t an inch of space to move? But in typical Indian fashion they manage. It’s a long two hours, but the temple complex makes the ride worthwhile. Magnificent steepled temples wouldn’t look out of place in Mayan Central America; in the dark interior, mysterious and complex ceremonies are being performed by monks, wearing only loincloths. But disappointingly photography is forbidden and the large dancing Shiva statue we hoped to see is out of bounds for non Hindus.

Back in Pondicherry in the evening, we finally get to an Internet café to post the blog and try to finalize our plans for a three day visit to remote temple towns. But on the way home, Gerard trips in the dark and badly hurts his foot. We’re afraid a bone is broken, and for a while all our plans are jeopardized. How can we proceed if he can’t walk? I am abruptly reminded that our lives are as fragile as sugar candy and you can’t depend on anything. The good times in India I was previously taking for granted, could so easily be disrupted. But miraculously in the morning, although his foot’s sore, he’s able to walk again. It’s not too swollen and we assume nothing is broken…and we continue on.

A Christian Martyr and the Russian Occultist in Chennai

Chennai (previously Madras) is an old trading port on the east coast of Tamil Nadu where we’re only staying for a few days to visit friends before heading down the coast to Pondicherry.

Arvind’s parents generously host us in their small but comfortable home. We’d only met them a few times previously, but we’re soon familiar and space is not an issue. The temperature is between 80-85F with high humidity and the mosquitoes are rampant. Once again they’re after Gerard’s sweet blood and choose to leave me mostly ignored – although I do have two bites strategically positioned on the end of my nose. (Two days later, I have as many if not more bites than him.)

In the evening at sunset we visit Marina beach proclaimed as the second longest beach in the world. It seems at least half the inhabitants of Chennai are promenading or sitting in groups on the sand, but swimming has been forbidden since the 2004 tsunami swept people and cars out to sea. Today’s newspaper actually reports someone drowning after trying to swim against the strong rip tide. Along with others, Arvind’s mother and I paddle in the waves close to the shore. She puts her sandals down behind us and tells me to do the same. With uncharacteristic caution, I keep holding them. A few minutes later, a huge wave comes in, soaks her sari and my pants. She turns around and finds only one sandal on the beach – the other has been swept out by the wave. We search the shore which is littered with single sandals, but to no avail.

Discarded shoes are a common sight in India, whether on top of a mountain in the Himalayas, or on a path beside a rice field, or in the gutter of a busy bazaar. A year ago I had a brief idea of making a photographic study of these unpaired shoes for a coffee table book. Worn shoes have always possessed a fascination for me – they seem to absorb the personality of whoever wore them. When I was very young, a favorite possession was a tiny old-fashioned leather boot we found on Dartmoor in England. A woman who truly believed in fairies persuaded me it belonged to a boy captured by moorland fairies. I believed her – the sandal had a decidedly mournful personality.

After the beach, we visit the nearby San Thome Church, supposedly built over the tomb of the Apostle Saint Thomas who came to India in AD 52 and was martyred there ten years later. The legend is that St Thomas at the request of the king pulled away a huge log that had washed ashore and was blocking the narrow mouth of the river and causing floods. None of the king’s army could pull it. St. Thomas prayed and touched his girdle and the men pulled it out with no difficulty. Pleased, the king gave the land to St Thomas to construct a church. The church has been rebuilt over the centuries and is now cathedral size but with simple white plastered walls and an arched wooden ceiling. As we arrived, we could hear music that had no similarity to any church music that I’d ever heard. Inside, a dark-skinned South Indian priest was belting out a catchy syncopated rhythm to the accompaniment of prerecorded choir, beating his hand in time on the lectern as if it were a tabla.

It amazes me how our meeting with Shruti several years ago has drawn us into an intricate fabric of family relationships that continues to evolve. Like an epic Indian novel the size of Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy (I’m currently reading), you need family tree charts to understand the many relationships both vertically and horizontally. Each time we’re here we meet new uncles, aunts, cousins…all offering their friendship and help. And then there are the virtual families branching out from Shruti’s friends we’ve gotten to know in Boston. Vadya’s parents live across town – a forty-minute auto rickshaw ride that would be a sightseeing pleasure if not for the traffic congestion and diesel fumes. They feed us a banquet of south Indian food, quite different from the Punjabi food we eat in most Indian restaurants in the west.

One of the more attractive elements of traveling is the luxury of not being tied to a tight schedule even though the route may be planned. You arrive at a place and stay as long as you want; or move on if you don’t like it. And if you decide to deviate from the planned route you can do that too. But the consequence is you can’t book accommodation too much in advance. It takes us a lot of time to book a guest house for tomorrow for our next stop, Pondicherry. Being told repeatedly, “We’re full till February”…even March, I get panicky. Of course, we eventually find something (though the one we want most and within our budget is on a “first come, first serve basis’, which doesn’t give me huge confidence.) I realize I can’t consider myself a real traveler until I let go. And I have to remind myself why I’ve elected to travel this way. An underlying principle of traveling is the surprise of the unknown. If everything is known where’s the surprise? The more you try to control, the less the spontaneity.

On the third day in Chennai, our hosts take us to the world headquarters of the Theosophical Society. It’s situated in rambling grounds with an abundance of flowering plants and trees. A tranquil respite from the hubbub of Chennai. The air is clear, numerous bird calls…it’s like being in the country. Buried among the trees are a mosque, church, Buddhist shrine, Hindu temple and individual houses where “lifetime” members live. Madame Blavatsky’s French colonial style house has a verandah with high ceiling supported on tall white columns. It’s easy to visualize her sometime in the 1920s sitting there surrounded by tropical plants sipping an ice cold limeade while propounding her views on theosophy. The center now hosts conferences with attendees from all over the world.

From there we move on to a very large Shiva temple, back in the midst of Chennai. Its gateway tower is a mass of carved figures, now painted in rainbow colors, in part to protect the soft sandstone from the elements. Inside the temple’s bustling with activity mostly because it’s one of numerous auspicious days. Why it’s auspicious, no one can explain. A huge statue of Shiva and his wife Parvati is adorned with so many garlands that the figures are nearly obscured. The statue is carried under ceremonial umbrellas in a procession through the temple and out into the adjoining streets with tremendous fanfare and accompanied by music that is a cross between Indian and English marching music.

The day we move on to Pondicherry begins with a bit of excitement on the street. Our hosts live beside a busy exit road from the city and the bus for Pondicherry conveniently leaves from almost outside their house. But it’s a request stop and the traffic is so busy that we are unable to flag it down. Observing our plight, a group of people hail a rickshaw already carrying customers, and tell the driver to take us as well and chase after the bus. Our bags are stuffed on to the rickshaw and we push ourselves in. Five minutes later we catch up with the bus at the next stop, everyone tumbles out with our luggage, we get on the bus and they carry on to wherever they were going before our needs interrupted.

A Waving Hand

It was mid summer before the desire to go back to India was rekindled. Gerard managed to plan a new route but including two old favorites, Goa and Varanasi, and of course the obligatory stop in Delhi to see our Indian family.

The day before we left a storm dropped a foot of snow on Boston and shut down the airport for 24 hours. But thankfully, there were no problems with our departure. As we flew above the city, I understood the meaning of crystal clear –the darkness had already descended and a brilliant mass of golden lights were polished by the cold winter air, drained of moisture after yesterday’s snow.

We used frequent flyer miles to fly to Delhi via Paris. Both flights were surprisingly uneventful with no crying babies and no disturbances. The brief layover in Charles DeGaulle airport felt like a mini Parisian vacation, including cappuccino and fresh baked croissants in a little cafe! After I complained about our seat assignments on our second flight, we were upgraded to business class in the upper level of a Boeing 747 – remarkably spacious with a wonderful wide ledge next to my window seat for my sundry belongings. Secluded from the main cabin below and with our own friendly cabin crew, it felt as if we were part of a select group flying in a small private plane.

We arrived at the brand new Delhi International terminal- gleaming and orderly; so different from the chaos, dirt and confusion of our first arrival here 33 years ago. But like certain smells that bring back childhood memories, the familiar mix of aromas that is distinctly Indian is welcoming in the face of change. We both agree that is seems like we have just left – indeed it has only been nine months. We’re both very happy to be back.

Our friend Shruti’s husband Arvind and her father Bhushan have come to meet us. Arvind is tall by Indian standards and as we exit the airport into a huge throng of Indians come to meet arrivals, a waving arm above the mass leads us to Arvind’s welcoming face.

We joke with our Indian friends with what they like to call “Indian time” – what that amounts to is that they are habitually later than scheduled and for no apparent reason. They don’t defend it. But “Indian time” could also be interpreted as the manner in which Indians always have time for each other. Whether it means going to the airport at 2 am on a cold January morning to meet a friend or relative, or stretching their already confined living space to accommodate an elderly mother who can no longer take care of herself; or a daughter, son-in-law and grandchild whose lives have taken an unexpected turn and need time to relocate; or travelers from the US like ourselves who are passing through and appreciate hospitality for a night or two.

Indians often live to a very old age (perhaps it’s the antioxidants in all the chai they drink…) Shruti’s paternal and maternal grandmother both now live with her mother and aunt respectively. Shruti’s grandmother tried to communicate with us to no avail. But when I said, “Radha Soami” (the spiritual path we all practice), she smiled and touched her forehead and said the name of her Master. Something in common, something shared without words.

The Mahajan’s home may be crowded, with Shruti, Arvind and their two year old daughter Simrita staying here temporarily; but no one complains. They accept the situation and deal with it. Simrita is surrounded by three generations of adoring relatives, and with constant attention has grown in confidence. Her grandfather, Bhushan, has taught her to chant boldly, “I am brave…I am strong… I am not afraid of anything! I am not afraid of Gerard Uncle’s beard!” And she touches his chin to prove it. Six months ago, the first sight of him and his beard would send her off screaming!

Shruti is happy to be back in India where she no longer feels alone; she has plenty of help with the baby, and no longer has to cook, clean and wash. Practically, life is much easier for her than in the US. Asked what she misses if anything, Shruti says without hesitation: “The space and cleanliness. We used to enjoy driving out into the open country easily. Here any outing is exhausting. And the weather, especially spring”. Delhi goes from winter cold, straight into the broiling heat of summer. It is cold here right now – not as cold as Boston – but the concrete houses without central heating are frigid. You can’t expect to come in from the cold outside and warm up.

Delhi also has a new metro system which is changing the face of the city. Shops and businesses are springing up along the route where previously there were none. Progress was spurred on by the Commonwealth Games held here last summer, and it is now almost complete. Fairs are cheap (one rupee per km) and the trains are numerous, which is good because even later in the evening they’re still crowded.

After only two days in Delhi, we leave on the night train for Chennai in the south. I was not looking forward to the 33 hour train ride, but now half way through it I must admit it’s not that difficult and many times preferable to the long bus rides we took last year up in the mountains! Like our flight, the train is unusually peaceful with no screaming babies or even loud voices. We share our compartment with two young men who are relatively quiet and spend most of the journey sleeping. Indians have an amazing capability to pass long periods of waiting/travel in sleep. They can literally sleep through the day and following night also. Lulled by the motion and sounds of the train moving along the tracks, we also sleep and catch up on our jet lag.