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Saturday, June 9, 2007

Pondicherry

As it would happen, the most direct route from Bangalore to Pondy, as it is affectionately known, is by bus, and only at night. Up until this point, I had successfully managed to avoid traveling by bus in India, but it seems that my number had finally come up.

Roads are terrible here, and they drive like maniacs with a death-wish. I’ve learned to expect anything. All means of vehicles (and of course cows) can turn onto a street from nowhere. Turns are made from any lane. From time to time, vehicles travel on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic. Sometimes they even drive on the sidewalk. Pedestrians are everywhere, as there are practically no proper crossings, and the few that exist, like traffic lights, are summarily ignored.

I was expecting the worst. And I got it.

I booked a sleeper compartment, reasoning that the less I could see, the better. I was at the back of the bus, which incidentally left two hours late, though the timing was the least of my worries. On the other side, a window was open, right above the overloaded diesel exhaust pipe. The man below me snored, sounding like he was sucking at the perpetual bottom of a Slurpee, with a dilated straw. All night long. The engine grinded and screamed, perhaps for mercy. I surmised that a good part of the road was unpaved. Accordingly, I spent eight very long hours being thrown about in my compartment like a cat stuck in a front-load dryer, breathing heavy diesel fumes all the while.

We arrived at sunrise. I was hoarse, with black bits in my phlegm. Pondicherry however is a truly lovely place. It is on the ocean with a splendid boardwalk that extends several kilometers. I selected the Park Guest House, at the boardwalk’s very beginning. It had a impressive garden and ocean view. It was owned and operated by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram
. The ashramites struck me as somewhat odd. They don’t have those idiotic smiles of American born-agains, who definitely have something to share with (or rather foist upon) you. This is a soothing place, in tranquil surroundings, and these folks are fittingly composed themselves. However, there’s an aloofness in their serenity, as if they have something they don’t want to share.

All over the place, there were quotes by, attesting to the wisdom of, Sri Aurobindo
, and his spiritual partner, The Mother, who incidentally was born in France. The quotes consisted of such Deep Thoughts as “Soar to the heights, so you can know the depths,” and so on. Having gone to her maker in 1973, The Mother could never have read The Cult. But disallowing a desire to be El Presidente, she could have written it.

In any case, the town itself is most enjoyable, with a very definite Latin feel to it. Even the policemen wore k├ępis, in a charming case of post-colonial hangover.

Alas, this was the end of the tourist season, as was the case all over South India. All of the yoga courses were on summer break. The most I could find was an hour a day of group meditation at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. As a former French colony, I was able to speak the language of Voltaire to order meals and tickets and have other low-impact exchanges. It was wonderful to speak something other than English for a change, and it surprisingly rolled off my tongue, making me feel articulate and witty. But being Tamil Nadu, no one spoke Hindi. Facetiously, I thought, just what is the point of having an official language, if you can’t force people to speak it?

To me, this signaled that I was At South’s End. On the Ganges, which I had never seen, in a Hindi-speaking environment, in which I had never been, famous for yoga ashrams, which I was craving, this was the season for Rishikesh
. Before me lay an odyssey of some 2000 kilometers. Onward and upward.

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