January 3 2010
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the Earth all one’s lifetime”. – Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad 1869.
Our decision to return to Pondy for a second visit, this time as guests of Rukhshad and Nanditha Banaji, proved to be the right one. Although we had visited the town the previous weekend with the rest of the Global Volunteers, this trip, more leisurely paced with the added benefit of local hosts, provided us with a series of unforgettable experiences. Rukhshad, one of Paresh Patel’s closest friends and his one time classmate at university, had arranged tickets for us at a recital that was held in atrium of the recently renovated Hotel Maison Perumale. The performers, a trio of Sri Aurobindo devotees, resided in Auroville, the self-sufficient New Age city cited in an earlier blog. The leader on guitar, Nadaka, was born a Grenier in Montreal but moved to India 35 years ago. His wife, Gopika, who sang and chanted Vedic verse, was the first cousin of Nanditha. The tabla player used to cut smoked meat at Schwartz’s (joke). We sat on a padded white sheet ten feet from the performers. There were thirty people in attendance who came to share what turned out to be a magic moment in musicianship, with the 2 players riffing off each other in perfect harmony and balance.
The venue was as spectacular as the concert. Lori noted that the ambiance of the hotel was reminiscent of Rick’s Cafe from Casablanca. The hotel exuded a 1930’s colonial charm enhanced by antique advertising posters dating from that era. The show lasted an hour, Lori purchased the requisite CD’s for herself and Joanne, her exercise guru, then our driver, Wassan, master of the dual cell phone, who had driven us from Chennai, dutifully waited at the venue and brought us to the home of our host where we were greeted, fed and had the opportunity to engage in socio-political conversation with various friends and family members. The talks centered around India’s nascent emergence as a world power, the role of the British in India’s legacy, the cesspool that is 21st century Pakistan, the diminishing role of the US on the world stage, and other equally charged subjects.
We took our leave at 11:00 and returned to the Sunway Hotel for two nights of high end living, breakfast included, at the usurious rate of $168 for the weekend. India is by far and away the best deal on the planet. Bring your friends, be a sport. Other than a swastika over the front door of the lobby (and you thought crosses in rooms were disturbing).
Nanditha was busy entertaining her own guests Saturday morning, so Rukhshad was stuck with us. He too is a devotee of Sri Aurobindo.
Much discussion was held with regard to the nature of spirituality. The concept is based upon seeking a higher level of consciousness by looking within rather than by seeking enlightenment for an external source such as God. The philosophy, which I intend to investigate more deeply, is based on spiritual evolution. The line goes from inanimate objects such as a rock, to plant, to animal, to man. It is the guru’s belief that man has not yet truly separated himself from the rest of the animal kingdom. With consciousness and thought comes a supra-natural enlightenment that creates the realization of the oneness of the universe. The answer lies within; concentration will result in ultimate understanding of the relationship between matter and thought. More on this as I transcend.
With a framework such as laid out in the paragraph above, the level of discussion amongst the 3 of us had little to do with how well the New York Yankees had done last year. Intensity mixed with levity, education and a frank exchange of opinion and experience formed the benchmark. We also had the opportunity to visit the various workshops populated by members of the ashram. There were fabric stores selling a uniquely designed marbled silks featuring a multi-coloured swirl. Nearby was a store selling oils and incense (imagine that!), a leather store (so much for holy cows), a bookstore, and various other enterprises whose wares helped to support the ashram.
We visited numerous shops, most of them owned by devotees of Sri Aurobindo and friends of Rukhshad. The merchants were all warm, engaging, and eager to engage in discussion and inform us as to the stories behind the products they were selling. Lunch was La Terrace. Pondicherry, true to its French colonial history has numerous restaurants, hotels, and public buildings that carry on the old linguistic tradition. The music was less traditional with Bob Marley and Eric Clapton providing the soundtrack for the salad, lhassies and pizza, our mid day meal. We learned through Rukhshad some of the seamier sides of the Christian intervention in India, (forced conversions, divisiveness within villages, attempts to discredit Hinduism, huge land grabs, surreptitious financial support for newspapers espousing pro-Christian methodologies, and all the good stuff that the Church is so famous and well respected for). We also received a first hand education as to the arrival of the Parsees into India from pre-Iran Persia, along with their rituals including a reminiscence of fire worship, leaving a tinge of Zoroastrianism in their belief set, as was Spake Thusly by Zarathustra.
A short break at the hotel and back to town for dinner in another beautifully renovated hotel, L’Orient, part of the Neemrana Chain that I could not recommend highly enough to those interested in a high end vacation throughout India at reasonable prices. The rooms are individually fitted out with antiques from the region. Furnishings, art and tchochkes to die for.
Dinner, our first non-Indian meal of the trip, was professionally served with attention to detail and cutlery. $41 covered it for the 4 of us. More discussions between Nanditha, Lori, Rukhshad and myself covering topics of i) doing versus being, ii) fatalism and destiny versus choice and free will, iii) the potential for spiritual development, and iv) the power of enlightenment and realization, made the evening one memorable for the ages.
We were dropped back at the hotel for a good night’s sleep and a great Happy Birthday chat between the two of us upon awakening this morning. To put a final exclamation point on the weekend, a photography exhibition was on display at the ashram. Rukhshad joined us there for a quick tour. Lori met one of the photographers whose work was on display and who was responsible for organizing the show. She has made arrangements to have her work displayed there sometime in the not too distant future. Pondicherry is a city on the cusp of becoming a world class tourist destination. I suggest you start booking flights and hotels since her vernissage will probably be sold out soon.
The ride home was up the ECR, or East Coast Road, a smooth well paved highway that took us past rice paddies, small villages and immense salt farms. Knowing the astronomical value of salt in the early days of colonization, seeing mounds of it lined up along the road provided a new insight as to why overseas traders would have risked life and limb. The rewards that accrued to those who survived would render them instantly wealthy. Of course today, the 15 foot high mounds are probably purchased by Sifto and Morten’s for a buck a bale.
We arrived safe and sound, pleased to have had the chance to re-evaluate a city and meet new people. Lori‘s birthday dinner ensued that evening. I had asked our team leader to pick a great restaurant and invited all the volunteers to join us in her celebration. All this stuff about people starving in India – we as a group are doing our best to offset the average.