12.30 la vie en pondi

pondicherry is charming.

the city has been growing steadily for 10 years. i am staying in the french quarter. this neighbourhood is marked by clean buildings and wide streets, and stretches about 15 blocks north up the coast of pondicherry, bordered by the canal to the west, and the beach to the east. driving in yesterday, i saw puducherry (the indian name reclamation process is well underway!), which i intend to visit soon.

today the vice president of india is paying a visit pondicherry. i take some time after my morning eye session to explore the city, the best way i know how - on foot. i walked for more than 5 hours.

the whitewashed walls of the buildings reflect the colonial french enclave's history; some being restored, with the blaze of bougainvillas climbing over walls. i am reminded of the decadent french quarter in new orleans (all my memories being pre-katrina). known as "ville blanche", the french quarter has many boutiques, french hotels and guest houses and even some french restaurants. much of this part of town is operated by french expats and affiliated with the city's most popular attraction: the sri aurobindo ashram, which i decide to visit today.

i may as well have gone to the moon.

after removing my shoes, switching off my cell phone and camouflaging my camera, i enter the main building where throngs of people shuffle in silent mobs toward the samadhi. the samadhi lies in a greenhouse-like courtyard within the ashram walls, the centerpiece of which are the marble tombs of sri aurobindo and his right-hand, french expat mirra alfasa (known to all as "the mother"). a large sign warns visitors: "please refrain from bringing flowers for the samadhi".

the place is full. does jim morrison's tomb at pere lachaise cemetary get this many visitors? i get caught up in the mass that is moving feverishly toward the tombs. radiating in every direction, followers from all corners of the world have scored prized seating on the courtyard floor to meditate facing the tombs. approaching the samadhi, teary-eyed visitors are lowering to their knees, kissing the marbled tops of the tombs, whispering prayers, eager to spend as much time as possible with the departed despots before being urged to move on or are forcibly wrenched free. i feel like an alien, a stranger to the mass outpouring of love and devotion to two mere humans who i know nothing about. my time has come. i walk past the tombs, more interested in people-watching than paying my respects. without muttering even a single anything, and careful not to touch the tombs or trip over barnacles latched on for dear life, i continue past, wondering what else there is to see here.

my answer came quickly: not much. i walk through the congested bookstore, photo shop (where you can buy limitless posed shots of aurobindo and the mother as personal souvenirs), and the preserved living room of the two, before collecting my shoes and emerging into the relative normalcy of the street.

i feel as though i just crashed a funeral. eager to shake off the weird feeling i have, i take in a visit to the pondicherry museum. it contained a mishmash of artifacts from excavations at the nearby ancient indo-roman port village of arikamedu, an extensive collection of french colonial furnishings from the time of general dupleix, and statues of mythic vedic gods and saints from hindu mythology.

in the midday heat, i return to the guest house, shower, change and have lunch. i inquire about organizing a car or rickshaw to show me around the larger city, perhaps go to arikamedu and auroville, the much-famed town built by the mother (this is also where the nice beach is - my real reason for going). apparently it's dangerous for a single female tourist (sft), to trust any old driver to take me outside this part of town. the young man at the ashram says he can arrange something for me but not today.

thankful for sound advice, i spend the afternoon checking out more of the city. i begin to wonder as i encounter several shops, the revenues of which support the ashram. part of the mother's vision as she took over control of the ashram and related departments when aurobindo went into seclusion before his death, was the creation of income-generating departments to support the ashram. but visiting expensive ashram shops like "aurofurn" designer furniture (very sleek and stylish stuff i got to admit!), "auroshoes" (leather shoes), "aurobati" (designer candles and incense), "aurotextiles" (designer clothes, handbags) and so on, i begin to think that the place is making a mockery of sri aurobindo's name... auro-this and auro-that.... would he be turning in his grave? or perhaps not, i wonder? we will never know. several locals tell me about the ashram, how they dislike the french, indulge me in the politics and corruption of the ashram itself, tell me of colony of locals and expats who have surrendered their lives (livelihoods) to live and devote their service to the ashram in the styled village of auroville 12 kms north. i conclude the ashram is a business after all, and has systems that make it function. in any case, i decide not to delve too deep into anything "auro", to maintain my own sensibilities.

tomorrow, however, i am going to auroville to check out the beach!

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