In the darkness, a street that runs between two French style buildings, I see stars shining. For a moment I confuse it with the sky over the sea, studded with stars that I have just seen before entering into this street. But these stars have a voice. They talk in Tamil. As the glitters of these earthly stars come closer to me I realize that they are women from the locality going to the Promenade for an evening stroll. As they cross us, they speak in musical tones pepped up with giggles. Their dark complexion merges with the darkness in the street. The main street famously lit by neon lights. They have pushed all the darkness into these by-lanes. I remember the women in the works of Laxma Goud, Totta Vaikuntham and Ravinder Reddy. They too are like these women with dark complexion and jasmine flowers on their hairs. Reddy has improvised the dark complexion into gold. Gold can reflect darkness in a deeper sheen. I feel Pondicherry in this darkness, the dark complexion of these women and their clothes with glittering sequins stitched on to them.
We come to Pondicherry by a Pondicherry Road Transport Corporation bus. Madan, our beloved driver takes us to the bus stop, waits till the bus comes and puts us into the bus. The bus is more or less empty but the design of the bus is poor. The luggage carrier inside the bus cannot take suitcases and big bags. So I push the bags in between the seats. The conductor gives me tickets and charges extra for the luggage but that amount is not mentioned in the electronically produced ticket. I understand the kind of extra bucks that the conductor and driver make in these trips. That’s an extra income. They must be justifying their act by citing the inflation of prices in the market. They too have families to run and their salaries are not enough. Corruption is justified by a humanitarian plea. We keep speaking about it. Corruption is everywhere, right from the top to the bottom. A policeman pays a few lakhs of rupees to get a posting. And he extorts the money from the poor bike riders. A doctor spends so much money to get his degree. So he does not feel the pinch to pilfer patients. Every form of corruption has a karmic justice in our country. So I don’t feel bad when the auto driver at the Pondicherry bus stand asks me for hundred rupees to drop us at the hotel which is hardly five minutes ride from there.
(Interior of the bus)
Tourism industry thrives in corruption and looting. Pondicherry is no different, I realise. Tourists are the kind of people who are in a mood to reach a destination. They are like addicts who look for some drugs. They need to get to the destination and that is where the high lies. So they are ready to pay for the amounts of money. Besides, tourism happens on the basis of ignorance. Even if you do your adequate homework before you set out, the ground realities must be different. Tourism guides and researched books give you a good picture; a picture perfect scenario, where people behave well and charge exactly what is shown in the meter. But the moment you get down at a new place you understand that you and your service provider speak two different languages. It is not about the language that we speak. It is about the meaning that we communicate. Business has only one language that is the language of profit. So they speak to you to make profit and you understand the need of the situation and you pay up.
You may recognize a place where tourism is flourishing not because of the attractions that the place provides. May be a few years back things were not like this, you think. Tourism makes all the differences to a people. Tourism brings people for shorter stays. So there springs up hotels. Hotels are the places where you stay and call your home for a few days. You tend to look for good eateries around because you want to enjoy local food. You walk along streets after streets and find no food joints except the generic ones with brands. They provide you with Indian, continental, Chinese, Taiwanese and so on. But you are looking for a local hotel where you could have some food with the local ambience. And the moment you find none, you understand that this place has advanced much ahead in tourism because when tourism flourishes they kill the local shops. They convert the local shops into ethnic stalls and push them into the certified zones of big hotels. You need to pay through your nose to eat local food. I realize Pondicherry despite the presence of the spirits of Aurobindo and Mother, has become just another tourist centre.
( A Nehru Statue at Pondy Beach)
I look at the menu of the eateries that we have visited. They all have exotic names for the food items. Mostly they are local names so that they sound French and Latin to the people who are unfamiliar with the language. They give English translation in the bracket so that you get an idea of what you are ordering. Pondicherry is at the shore of Bay of Bengal. There is a thriving fishing industry. And you don’t find proper fish dish here despite the fact that I have seen several local fish market here. The stewards explain the menu. These fish preparations are available in Delhi or Mumbai or anywhere. When they prepare it and bring, they don’t look like fish. They look like French fries or baked bread pieces. I wonder why can’t they cook fish the fish is cooked. Why do they disfigure it and make it look like battered bread. I think of tapioca dishes in Kerala. There was a time it was considered to be poor man’s food. But it was eaten by the rich and poor alike. But today you go to a Kerala hotel, they ask whether we need a special tapioca dish. If you order they charge you a bomb. Tapioca has become a part of tourism the way Ayurveda and Kathakali have become.
On the day of arrival we go to walk at the Promenade. The place looks like a Juhu or Chowpati in Mumbai. The whole walk way is designed the way Marine Drive in Mumbai is designed. Impatient waves try to break through the girdles of rocks. Patient people sit and watch them in awe. Women, men and children in rags sell toys and balloons. There is no dearth of beggars who are mostly old. The initial reaction is a sort of dejection. I had a different picture of Pondicherry in my mind. A Pondicherry of history books and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. But this Pondicherry looks different devoid of all romantic hue. On my left I see a series of bungalows that have been now converted into hotels and inns. And at the far end there is the Government Secretariat. This must be one of the most beautiful places to govern from because it is sea faced and there must be no need to have air conditioners as sea breeze would waft through the windows. But there are air conditioners because all the windows are fitted with glass panes allowing a silent view of the sea devoid of its salt and breeze.
(Promenade at Night)
On the second day morning, as per the advice of the very benevolent hotel manager, a woman full of energy and smile advices us to visit the Aurobindo Ashram first because by twelve they would close the doors. We walk to the place as it is a couple of streets away from the hotel where we stay. This is the place where Aurobindo stayed and passed away when he decided to make Pondicherry his home and ashram. This is a beautiful building. The shoe keeper does not charge any money as it is run by Ashram. Most of the people see around speak Bengali. They are very proud of their own Aurobindo Ghose. Photography is not allowed. But they don’t confiscate cameras. You enter the building and walk towards your right, that’s how they direct you. And you are asked to keep strict silence. The campus is full of flowers so beautifully kept. A gardener’s aesthetics is very visible here. At the other end there is Aurobindo Samadhi, where Aurobindo’s mortal remains are buried. It has a marble plank raised to three feet from the floor and is covered with flowers. People sit around in silence. Some people keep their forehead at the marble as if they were paying tribute to a sufi peer as seen in Mosques. People have created their rituals by replicating what they do in other religious places. I find it extremely funny. I just walk around thinking of Aurobindo himself thinking about such rituals taking place at his tomb. The eventual unavoidable institutionalization has taken place here too.
From the shrine you are led to the publication wing of the Ashram, where you find all Aurobindo and Mother literature. People browse through the books as if they were doing real research. For a moment I think I need to read all those books. Then the second thought is that I need to read any of them. I know what they are saying. What I don’t know is the finer details. I just need to learn them later when the time comes. So I buy four small books; Aurobindo’s Jain diary, Aurobindo and Mother’s views on education, their views on Women and one Jail Diary of Ratin Ghosh, Aurobindo’s brother who too was jailed for nationalistic acts in early 20th century. Why Jail diaries, you may ask. May be this is my interest in secluded life. It was in Jail Jawarlal Nehru wrote his Magnum Opus, the Discovery of India. It was in Jail Gandhiji wrote his best of communications. It was in Jail Nelson Mandela wrote the ‘Long Walk to Freedom’. Jail has been a place of contemplation for all those world leaders and spiritual people. My interest is only that. What happens to a person when he is all alone. From the book shop I walk to another section where the photographs are sold. I understand why they do not allow photography inside Ashram. They monetize Ashram through selling souvenirs. But I feel that if they allow photography the name and fame of the place would reach even to the common man’s house. But then tourism is not meant for all the common men and women.
(JML at Aurobindo Ashram)
Next destination is a few paces away. In a bungalow there is the Pondicherry Museum. While walking towards it a Police van is hit by a private car. The deafening thud sound alerts everyone. In a peaceful atmosphere that accident looks like an odd thing to take place. The Policemen come out of their Omni and walk hurriedly towards the car. I anticipate an altercation. But nothing happens. But the car and the people are whisked away to a Police station. Life goes on peacefully in a touristic way as if nothing has happened like an accident. At the museum again photography is not allowed. This museum is good as it shows the history of Pondicherry’s trade with Romans. The broken vases hold history in all possible ways. Fossils are kept in array. A Corregeo (Not Caravaggio) original , ‘Diane’ is in a state of deterioration thanks to lack of conservation. A few rooms house the Governor General’s bed room, furniture and art collections. There is no lavatory in the whole premise. I wonder what the staff members must be doing when they need to attend nature’s calls.
(Ferry to Choonambra Beach)
A silent driver who is incapacitated by ‘Tamil’ only attitude and with a very evoking name like ‘Prabhakar’ but with no semblance to the late Tamil Elam leader then takes us to Choonabra Beach. It is a salt water lake, twenty odd kilometres from the city. You have to travel around fifteen minutes by ferry to reach the beach. We reach and kids play in the water. I see a lot of young men and women drinking beer and frolicking in water. One young man was pulling his girl friend to the waves as if he were taking some kind of revenge on her. I keep looking at them and I find that in his efforts to make her drenched by sea water he does not spare any tenderness or love. Each time she tries to run away from waves his mirth finds a new level. I see women in full churidar kurtas taking bath in sea. They play in gay abandon. I wish we too had decimated our obsession with female bodies. Women, when they are at sea, are with their own selves. None tries to cover to protect their modesty. I think if the sea calls they will walk into her womb leaving their male companions to wonder what has just happened.
(At the Choonambra beach)
We have a late lunch at Anjappar, a hotel named after the name of a pioneer chef of Pondicherry. The food is abysmally poor despite the star ambience of the hotel. It reminds me of the abysmal analogies that some writers use in their writings and conversations. I smile at the food and then eat them. The fishes that swim around in the aquarium of the hotel silently look at a piece of fried fish in a plate kept before my son. I eat in silence. My daughter as usual throws more food around than the little amounts that she eats. As stereotypical parents we fight over issues and eat morsels of anger along with food. Pondicherry is a place where anger is silenced by fatigue and hopes of Auroville. What could be Auroville telling me? I am coming.