By Usha Janaki
A sudden inspiration, a chance offered by a stranger, a longing to get away, a legitimate reason to go. All this led to Pondicherry. Packing was completely disorganized and it felt so odd to go off alone. I forgot the date and was ready to go the previous day. No milk, no batter for dosa and no bayee! But a lot of phone calls from cousins and friends, reminding me to take things like medicines and glasses. It felt good to have so many who care.
My new friend-to-be, and travel companion came early in the evening the next day, and we left for the bus stop ahead of time. Both of us being first timers, she was also nervous about everything – it was like the deaf leading the blind! The bus was Mercedes Benz with armchair seats and we started fiddling with whatever came in hand to somehow lean back. I was afraid of breaking off a lever and being permanently in a lean-back status, almost in the lap of the man behind. Luckily everything worked fine and we were off to Pondicherry by 4.30 pm, who would have thought of it?
The trip was fine for the first few hours, after which my back and neck started complaining; luckily we reached Palakkad before their protest got any louder. We had dinner at Hotel Aryas near Chandranagar. Back in bus with a painkiller to help sleep, perchance to dream. But my partner kept squirming and turning in her seat and waking me up. We reached Pondy at 4.30am, got into the first auto that came to us and off we flew through the empty street. Pondy University was a long way away and the distance from the main gate to the hostel seemed longer! The girls were waiting in front of their hostel, a sense of unreality came over me.
We were allowed to sleep in our daughters’ rooms and thus, a taste of hostel life at the age of 53! I was so tired that I slept for an hour or two. Early in the morning my daughter, Anu took me up to the terrace, we were welcomed with a blast of fresh air and refreshing greenery as the campus is spread over 800 acres with broad roads and shady trees everywhere. The girls’ hostels and their mess are the only two buildings in sight and we couldn’t see any other cemented structures except for green cover. Lots of boys on bikes and bicycles are on the road. Predictably all heads turn towards the girl’s hostel in synchronized movements. Some stopped in front and out would come a girl and hop behind, and they’d roar off somewhere. Ah, what it is to be young! Half -dressed girls shouting and singing all around the place and becoming polite when they see me..how would it feel to live here as a student, I wonder?
The mess served dosa and chutney; you can have an unlimited amount for Rs 20. Anu had arranged everything well. She had asked a taxi to come on all three days and asked around where to take us. My baby has grown up! The taxi took us to Auroville. Winding roads through a typical Tamil village scene smelling of cow dung led us to an unimpressive area. I believe everything is kept rural to give it an ethnic touch. Mataji’s dream was to build a society which had no barriers of caste, creed or nationality. What a wonderful and farsighted thought. We viewed the 10 minute video on Matrimandir and got passes to view the actual thing the day after. We then entered the welcome cool of a cafeteria. I tried a hibiscus juice, pronounced it cool and sweet. We then had lunch; I experimented with salad-of-the-day and found it, well, healthy, though I did feel a bit like a cow, munching on all those vegetables and greens. We then shopped for some agarbathis, handmade soaps, papers and spa items. Bought some gifts and came out of Auroville. The car took us to the town to see Panchavadi, a Hanuman temple. The statue is so tall and huge and awesome. They have kept a big stone in a large vessel of water, it is apparently one of the stones that were used during Sethu Bandhan (building Rama’s bridge) and therefore it does not sink in water.
The next stop was at the Sacred Heart church of Jesus. Stained glass windows, lovely domes and arches, it is a small church, with the usual neat garden you see in church compounds and some cute love birds too. There were notices in front, welcoming all, to the peace inside. Then we went to rock beach where there is a big statue of Gandhiji. It is like a fair ground with lots of vendors selling balloons, cheap toys, soap bubbles etc. The Promenade is one of the must-see places. We had coffee at a seaside café and sat on the rocks watching the waves. Started back at 7 pm and we were searching for the taxi, when the driver came out waving at us. What a contrast to our drivers back home, who would have just sat in the car and watched us look around! We ended up at Hotel Ashoka Beach Resort, a five star hotel, for dinner. The ambience was good as far as we could see, and there was not a single person in the dining room. We didn’t order much and therefore didn’t have to pawn anything [distilled water, 1 bottle was Rs 50 ha ha] Back in the hostel to sleep.
We were to reach Auroville at 9am and were ready at 8.30am. But the taxi was late which made us miss most of another, longer, video about the actual building of Matrimandir. Electric cars took us to the Mandir, where we were given a talk on how important it is to keep the place clean and not to touch the walls inside. It’s difficult to get entry passes so as to filter only enthusiast into the mandir. The golden globe, which is the Matrimandir, is made of a number of discs, a glass disc, a circular sheet of gold, another glass disc, all compressed to form each disc on the wall, the effect is awesome. It is a huge globe and having changed into white socks, you go up the winding slope, without touching anything. You enter a round hall supported by smooth pillars and all is white - the walls, pillars, the carpet, the sheet and cushions you sit on and even the socks you are asked to wear. There is a crystal globe in the middle, on which a ray from the sun falls through a hole in the roof. The room is air conditioned and it is as though you are sitting outside on a cool moonlit night with silence everywhere. You close your eyes and just breathe and a cloak of calm falls on you holding you in another world, but it is over too soon. When the light is switched on and off, you file out, taking a bit of that other world inside you. This ray that passes through the crystal ends up in another, smaller crystal down below around it is a lotus petal shaped fountain, you can stare for any length of time at the smoothly flowing water, completely hypnotized! Then it is back to the mundane. We went to the College and saw the classes; it is really a vast area. What strikes you most is how clean the campus is and how wherever there is a bit of land, up comes a garden or a lawn, be it in the middle of a set of classes or at the side. We had lunch at their cafeteria and off we went to Aurobindo Ashram which is a haven of peace and tranquility in the middle of the streets. Nothing much to see other than the resting place of Sri Aurobindo but the small and really lovely garden is a nice place to sit and meditate. The area around has quaint cobbled streets and buildings of French Colonial architecture. One thing we noticed was that the grills were outside and the glass pane of windows was inside. All were neat row houses reminding you of agraharams, but more stylish. Then it was on to that shopper’s place, Mission Street! Casablanca, Hidesign[it’s their headquarters] and Diva were some of the shops we visited. The rest was mostly window shopping, nothing you don’t get back home. To dine we chose a restaurant opposite the College. They were so crowded and made us wait and wait and it was when we staged a walk- out that food was served. We walked till the hostel and found that it was a long way off. It was midnight when I went to bed and there is Anu saying she is going for a walk. She left with one or two friends and came back by about 1.30- youth is really the time to live in!
The last morning was mostly packing, giving away Anu's bicycle and donating the bed and pillow. We had lunch at Pond Lait, run by the alumni, right on the campus. In the evening there was Vinayakar Koil to see, with an elephant standing in front to bless, and also the White Parish church, I expected it to be all in white, but what a pity, it was in white, pink, blue and yellow. The carvings and dome were impressive, as always. It faces the sea. Then to Bon Bakes, another hang out of the girls, for pastries, quiche, rolls etc...yummm! On the way back to College, went to Auroville Beach, the waves, the moon andthe breeze was amazing. Soon it was time to go, brought down all the bags from Anu’s room and packed them into the waiting taxi somehow. We were on time, but the bus wasn’t. So a wait of two hours and a dinner of dosa on the road was what we did to kill time. By the time we got into the bus, we were all ready to sleep. We reached home at 10am, two hours late. I never thought I will enjoy myself so much and that I will survive such a long trip without falling ill, 12 hours by bus…my goodness...will the real Me please stand up?!
Usha Janaki is a 53-year-old homemaker with a Masters in English Literature. She has always loved to write. She has not travelled much, she says, and so "everything is an adventure when I venture out!"