“Travelling enhances our perception.” This is one of the frequently used quotes of one of my good friends, Jaydeep. I second his opinion because the recent trip that I undertook to Pondicherry, courtesy of our family friend, Ravi Uncle and Ettan (Elder Brother), indeed did enhance my perception. Before we start the journey, I want to issue a disclaimer. The one thing that irks me while reading a travelogue is the constant descriptions of food. I ate this, I ate that, Oh! It tasted good!, Ugh! It tasted horrible! so on and so forth. Hence I tend to omit it. So hop on and fasten your seat belts! The journey will start in THREE! TWO! ONE! & GO!
December 22. The flag off was at ten in the morning. Our first pitstop was at Zibe GRT International Coimbatore for refreshments. It was a well maintained sister concern of the Radisson chain of hotels. Since we were in her “Petta,” (the Tamil word for area or the pop culture idiom, backyard) Valsalacheriyamma (Cheriyamma – the Malayalam equivalent for aunt) along with her son Vinayak Shankar and his better half, Madhu Shalini, dropped in on a visit. After a brief chat on modern architecture (because the kids were moving to a new apartment), politics, travelling, films and binge series, they left. I needed a brief period of supine positioning, after which, we too hit the road. The final pitstop for the day was The Radisson hotel at Salem. Since Ravi Uncle had reached the hotel in the evening itself, he was waiting at the porch to receive us. The room was neat and spacious. It was my second five star experience. I reminisced about the first one I had eighteen years ago when I accompanied my grandfather to Nepal where I spent two nights at the Renaissance Hotel and slowly slipped into a deep sleep.
While I was busy with my morning chores, the kids enjoyed a dip in the pool. My brother too joined them once my work was done. We checked out around ten and started cruising when the clock ticked to quarter past ten. Edthiema (My Brother’s better half. I am not a big fan of the suffix “in law.” Hence the translation.) joined Ravi Uncle in his Mini Cooper, who served as the point man. We reached his institute where he conducts his management and skill development programmes around four. The entire set up reminded of the farm owned by Suresh Gopi (Malayalam actor) in the movie Summer in Bethlehem. During our stay, never once did we feel that we were actually in an institute and not a home. The entire faculty were very humble and hospitable. The one hitch was that of the lack of network in our mobiles. But in hindsight it was actually a blessing because ultimately it is an institute and not a resort. Secondly I was able to complete an entire book on the life and works of the visionary scientist Nikola Tesla. While I was busy reading and resting, my fellow travellers went to the beach and enjoyed the breeze, the view and a lovely evening.
Our itinerary for the day was a tour of The Auroville. Our appointment was at half past ten. Since we followed the IST (Indian Stretchable Time) we were late by ten minutes. I don’t know whether it was a retribution or coincidence but our guide too was late. Added to that, I was blessed with an opportunity to chant my Vedic Hymns on its serene premises because
I couldn’t do it before we left the institute. Hence, we kicked off the tour at ten past eleven. Our guide was a bubbly little lady named Toshita. Her father was an Afghan national and mother a Bengali. She is a post graduate who left her job in a reputed bank and now works as a wildlife tutor, specialised in snakes. She volunteers as a guide for The Auroville. She first gave an overview of the famed and revered place. Contrary to the popular belief that the Auro in the Auroville is the abbreviation for Aurobindo, the actual meaning happens to be Dawn. In French “Aurore” means dawn and “Ville” means city. When you combine it, “The city of Dawn” where according to Mirra Alfassa a.k.a The Mother “A universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity.” I am sharing a video of the same as visuals are more poignant than words. After that we visited one of the many creative, ingenious and noble enterprises run by them, named Swara. As the title suggests, it entirely deals with musical instruments made out of anything under the Sun. From rocks to PVC pipes and ropes to metal strings, the entire place is encompassed with vibrant and heavenly music. No matter how ignorant a musician you are, a strike on the granite xylophone, a twang on the strings of the Vibrating harp or a twist of the coil spring on the storm drum, everything would strike the right chord.
Our next stop was a handicrafts outlet where the women of the nearby villages make beautiful beadings. In fact most of the employees of Auroville are the villagers. In a way, Auroville can be considered as one of the pioneers of the Make in India campaign even though their practice precedes it. Instead of grabbing their lands and livelihoods, they are included in the dream envisaged by The Mother. It’s a cue that many of the cutthroat corporates could take. While the girls were busy with the selection process Ravi Uncle and I had a brief conversation with Toshita who enlightened us about the various projects that she is involved in of which the one I found pretty interesting and alarming is the threat posed by the sanitary napkins to our ecosystem. The annual waste load is estimated to be a mind boggling 113,000 tonnes! Added to that is the taboo and superstitions surrounding the menstruation due to the ignorance and incorrect interpretations of our culture. So she is actively involved in enlightening the people regarding all this and more by conducting seminars and workshops.
When the shopping was finished we went to the next section which made beautiful curios from old newspapers. Toshita once again enlightened us about a fact that the most eco friendly newspaper in the entire country is The Hindu. The ink that they use happens to be the best and harmless of all.
Once the tour was finished we had our lunch at the canteen and a bit of window shopping where we bought a pair of t shirts for the kids. Our final destination for the day was the theatre where an excerpts of the documentary titled A dream of the divine was aired.
We returned to the institute and rested for a bit before Ravi Uncle’s sister Tilakam, his nephew Dr. Muthukumar and Jodi, a research student on the feminine folklore surrounding the Chidambaram Temple, arrived. After a engaging conversation with Dr. Kumar, an orthopaedic surgeon, regarding my medical history and present status along with an automatic hospital bed for my use, I retired to bed.
Our usual plan, rather my plan, was to visit the Aurobindo Ashram and the French colony. But destiny had chartered another route. Since our Auroville visit was incomplete we had to reach there by three. If we went to the Ashram and the colony, which is in the city, we couldn’t make it on time. I was very particular that I visit the Matrimandir and the Banyan tree which is the centre of the Auroville. Hence we dropped the city.
Ravi Uncle took us on a guided tour of his institute and explained the training modalities. The entire area, which was once nothing but a barren land was now full of trees and gardens. The cottages and the main building, where we stayed, had a warm and cozy feel to it. The sea breeze made the fans and air conditioner nugatory. The cottages are meant for community living and hence are minimalistic in nature. The trainees are provided with a mat and nothing else. Those who suffer from ailments like back pain, sciatica etcetera are provided with beds and other necessities. But while training, none of them are given any perks. It’s up to them as to how they would make themselves useful. I will cite the same example he gave during his explanation because all of you can relate to it for it concerns me. If you take my case I wouldn’t be able to jump through hoops or climb the ropes. But I can keep the time, which is one thing that most of us overlook. The philosophy is simple, make use of what you have and utilise it to its optimum.
The other interesting story he shared was regarding the Indian cricket team during their training session prior to the 2007 World Cup campaign. When they picked the lot to select who would share the tents, nobody wanted to be Sachin’s mate because of his revered stature. When Ravi Uncle shared this with him, he himself was surprised!
When we reached the inauguration rock, which reminded me of the Love Rock in the second part of the movie titled The Problem Child, he explained how they moved it from the far side to the middle of the garden. It took about ninety people five ardous hours to complete the task! The institute was inaugurated by the then Lieutenant Governor of Pondicherry Sri. M. M. Lakhera.
When the tour was finished I had an engaging conversation with Jodi about the feminine folklore surrounding the Chidambaram Temple. I was in fact impressed with her thoroughness because many of them are myths or add ons by the local community. So she, an American, is staying in Chidambaram, frequents the Aurobindo Ashram and goes through the ancient texts, that too in “Thuya Tamil” or “Sen Tamil” (Pure Tamil) with a Tamil scholar! Hats off!
We had a surprise and a short visit from one of Ravi Uncle’s bosom friends, Mr. Chidambaram. He too is an avid reader on the Advaita philosophy and though the conversation was short, it was a highly meaningful one.
Once again we followed the Indian Stretchable Time and reached Auroville at 15:45. After a tiff and a long parry with the security guards regarding our visit, because it was the day off
for Auroville, our guide for the day, Nitin, arrived and we went to the Matrimandir.
Since one has to undergo an interview to enter the inner sanctum of the Mandir, that too for a span of ten minutes, I eschewed it. I was more interested in saying my payers before The Banyan Tree. I have only heard of its divinity from my friend Santosh, who too is a deeply spiritual person. When I first saw it from the distance it resembled The Stonehenge in England because the hanging roots themselves were thick as trunks! Amidst them, like a king among men it stood. When we reached its outskirts one could, at least I could, make the difference in the quality of the air and the energy around it. When my brother asked the guide whether I could touch it he gave his consent. My brother lifted me and when I touched it I felt an exhilaration which is hard to put in words! Was it the surge of life? Or was it the touch of The Divine? I don’t know. It might even be one of the countless hallucinations of my deranged mind. But for me it was pure bliss. Once I was done, our guide gave us the tour of the garden. It is still in the making as The Mother envisaged it as a group of twelve, of which only four is functional. They are Existence, Consciousness, Bliss and Light. Each has specific flowers and significance. I am omitting it because it would increase the length of an all ready long travelogue as it deals with deep spirituality and would be difficult for most of us to grasp and digest. I am providing the link for those who wish to delve deep into the subject.
Our next stop was the beach. The last time I laid eyes on The Bay of Bengal would be when Chennai was Madras. It was refreshing and too cold for my liking. After enjoying a couple of snaps and the sight of a beautiful sunset we headed home. Vimal Anna, the chauffeur of the institute bid his farewell because he was going to his village to celebrate Christmas.
The last thought that lingered before I slipped into a deep sleep was the bliss I experienced when I touched The Banyan Tree.
We bid our adieu to Dr. Muthukumar, Ravi Uncle, his sister and Jodi as they had to leave early. Not long after their departure, we too followed suit and bid our goodbyes to the wonderful personnel of the institute, who made our stay a pleasant and memorable one. Our next destination was Trichy. We clocked the maximum speed of 120km/h but still it was close to three when we reached there. Uncle and their daughter Roshni were waiting at the cellar to receive us while Sunita Aunty was busy giving the final touches to our lunch. By four thirty the kids were particular that they should have a dip in the pool. So Babu Uncle, Ettan and Edthiema accompanied them while mum and I went through Uncle’s photo albums. It was refreshing to see the old pictures of our grandfather amongst them. Another interesting part of it was that there was an air ticket pinned on one of its leaves. It was of his first journey in 1982 to Mumbai! Once we finished it, Uncle, Mum, Ettan and Edthiema started the game of rummy. The kids were busy with their games. I scrolled through my numerous WhatsApp messages because the connectivity in Pondicherry was minimal and you can pretty much guess what it was like.
Even though the city spans a 167.23 square kilometres, the hub would only be close to four or five square kilometres comprising of the prestigious universities, temples, hospitals etc. The rest is lush green agriculture land and close to one such picturesque land lies the secondary section of Sivananda Balalaya, the school which Babu Uncle is the active patron of. What once was a derisory institution, under his able patronage has now grown into one of the best CBSE accredited institutions of the city. Once the tour was over, we returned home and watched the Tamil movie titiled Ratsasan. Around two thirty, one of our mutual friends Mr. Sreedhar Nagarajan paid us a visit along with his two smart daughters Misha and Jhanavi. Our conversation addressed the topics of Chess, Politics, The failed idea of democracy, History, Culture, Sreedhar Uncle’s Chidambaram experience and we finished it off with the perceptions of the current generation. After a photo session they took their leave. Uncle and Mum too took their leave too and went to meet their teacher, Mr. Selvaraj, who taught them Tamil in Sainik School. They returned by six and by eight Babu Uncle’s brothers paid their visit. The elder brother Damodar, was mostly silent contrary to the younger one, Vilambi, who was bubbly and laughed like a Santa. He showed a picture of his granddaughter took just minutes after she was born by the photographer under the payroll of the hospital. After that the entire conversation was about the ingenious methods used by an American entrepreneur to cultivate marijuana for medicinal purposes. He built a green house inside a warehouse and started cultivating it. The watering, the ideal atmospheric pressures and changes and all the needed paraphernalia are automatically generated. It made me think about the opportunity that countless Indian entrepreneurs are yet to realise because our agriculture sector could use the help of the brightest minds and the profits would be mutual. It is one of the businesses where there wouldn’t be a dearth of customers because we need the pulses and vegetables to alleviate our hunger.
We bid our farewell to the lovely hosts who, I must add, removed all the inhibitions I had when I first entered their flat because it was a 2BHK ideal for a family of three or maximum four and we were six us! You might not be surprised if I thought we were imposing ourselves. But hats off to them! They gave us the two rooms and they spent the two nights in the living room! The parents can be proud of their daughter because they have instilled the right values of our culture of which, one is “Atithi Devo Bhava!” We took our leave at quarter past ten. En route, we stopped at the hotel named Sangam, to meet one our relatives, Ravi Uncle, who headed the establishment. After a brief catching up in the porch, we bid our adieus and wheeled towards our final destination for the trip; Sainik School, Amaravati Nagar. It was and still remains one of the most sought after Sainik Schools in India. Our plan was to reach there by half past one but, as always destiny seems to have its own agenda and it played on. The kids suffered from motion sickness and we had to break our journey thrice. At our proposed ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival) we were in the outskirts of Palani. We got a distant view of the hill and the famous temple. We conveyed a long distance prayer to Mr. Murugan and hit a vegetarian joint to conduct the mahayajna, the consumption of food.
We reached Amaravati around quarter past three. En route we saw the Amaravati dam, one of the spots my mother frequented during her childhood days. A replica of a battle tank was
displayed at the main gate of the school. We took some snaps and since Babu Uncle had arranged a guest house for our refreshments, we contacted the Administrative officer and a couple of gentleman named Mani and Aarumugham guided us there. I was desparate to remove my spinal brace and that was the first thing we did. I lay down for a while.
After much deliberation, we decided to drop our plan to visit the Adi Yogi at the Isha Cultural Centre, Coimbatore and decided to return to Palakkad. I once again wore the armour and we hit the road. We stopped by at mum’s childhood abode and finally I witnessed the premises of the many cherished memories that she’d shared with us.
Since we took the Pollachi route, the lush green fields and the numerous windmills between them was picturesque and beautiful. It reminded me of the conversation I had with Babumman (Mum’s uncle) during one of my visits to Trivandrum in 2002. He had come across such a field during one of his countless biking expeditions and he was the first one to enlighten me about this quaint scene. We reached Palakkad around seven and checked into the hotel named Indraprastha. It happened to be the worst and unhygienic one we stayed in this entire trip!
The solitary highlight of the last day was the surprise visit made by mum’s cousins Sunaina and Suvarna, her husband Nitin and their respective adorable children, Sayuj, Shreya and Nivan. Though they are technically mum’s cousins they are far younger and I address the former as Chechi (Sister) and the latter in her pet name Paru (she is younger to me). It had been a long time since we met and hence it felt good to spend some quality time with them. We started home around half past ten and reached here by one, reminiscing, cherishing, each and every one of the 691200 seconds of our journey.