Monday, January 15, 2007

New Wine in Pondicherry

Early this morning I read the story of the wedding at Cana during our prayer service in the meditation room at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram's New Guest House, under the watchful eye of large photographs of Aurobindo and his chief disciple, the Mother. It struck me that the new wine created by Jesus from purification water was the wine of divinity, of the Spirit, that Rumi speaks of when he praises the lover who drinks to excess. At first Jesus is reluctant, for he says it is not yet time. But his mother persuades him to help the wedding party when they run out of wine. And it is this gesture of help that moved the presiding priest at Notre Dames de Anges, where we went to the 8:30 "high mass" in English, to speak of the sins of globalization and the needs of the poor.

We leave Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it is now officially called) in an hour for a short drive north back to Mamallapuram to attend the classical dance concert held outdoors next to Arjuna's Penance, the dramatic bas relief of everyday life here that was carved 1300 years ago. After the concert we return to our luxurious hotel in Chennai, the Radha Park Inn, for a final night and day in India before the pilgrims go their separate ways, most home to San Francisco, but me to Thailand and Kay back to Shantivanam. I've just received email from Sr. Barbara and learned that British Airways lost ALL their bags. Sr. Michele's missing bag turned up at the Chennai airport but her new bag with a complete new Indian wardrobe has now gone missing. The security checks get worse and the airline baggage service declines drastically. The Terrorists need not lift a finger to hasten the collapse of Western civilization!

We've had a delightful time in this bastion of French culture, taking walks along leafy tree-lined boulevards (all named "rue" this or that) past elegant villas owned no doubt by retiring French civil servants. The promenande along the waterfront, high enough to escape the 2004 tsunami's force, is lined with pleasure seekers, especially at sunset and dawn. This morning I went out for a walk at 6:30 and encountered hundreds of people at the south end of the promenade doing yoga and other exercises. People walking by greeted the rising sun with a namaste, holding their palms together.

The last two evenings we have banqueted in style, passing up the basic (and cheap) guest house fare for delicious meals in two different rooftop restaurants, Madam Santhe and the Rendezvous. At Satsangha, where we ate an outdoor lunch of omelets and veggies, we perused the "whine menu," and at the Rendezvous last night Sylvia tried a glass of the local white while Jerry, Ziggie and I opted for Fosters (usually its only the local beer, Kingfisher, that is available).

Our guide for Pondicherry, Chitra, met us at the guest house Monday morning. We soon learned that a tour of Auroville, the experimental community started by the Mother in the 1960s, was not going to be possible. The Matrimandir, a space age meditation hall where devotees sit under a huge crystal, was closed for construction and could only be viewed from afar. Residents of this utopian community do not take kindly to tourists, we were told, and that only left the visitor's center. So instead, we spent a fascinating half day in Pondy with Chitra. In addition to history, she told us of her arranged marriage to an Indian now working in the French Navy. As a seventh generation Catholic, she was married in Sacred Heart Church, a large red and white gothic cathedral we visited at the end of the tour. And in a month she will join her husband, who she has seen only a vew times since the July wedding, in France at their home in the Pyranees.

We began our tour with a visit to the paper factory operated by the Aurobindo ashram where we learned that workers made only 35 rupees a day, less than a dollar. "How do they live?" Radha asked our guide. "They have to manage on that," she replied. Then we went to an area of temporary housing erected by the government for fishermen and their families dispossesed by the tsunami. Many of the roofs had holes in them, and we were invited into one by an elderly woman and saw a large picture on the wall. It was of her son and he died in the tsunami, she said, beginning to cry. Penny wants to figure out a way to help these people and we'll see if Catholic Relief Services are involved. They apparently purchased boats to replace the fishing fleet destroyed in Mamallapuram.

The Aurobindo ashram has taken over much of Pondicherry near the ocean and we visited the samadhi of Aurobindo and the Mother, tombs covered with floral arrangements and surrounded by barefoot devotees, kneeling or meditating. From ground zero of the ashram we walked two blocks to the Mamakula Vinayagar Temple dedicated to Ganesha. A large elephant stood by the entrance, blessing worshippers who placed coins in his trunk. The temple contains dozens of friezes on the wall depicting Ganesha in various forms. The streets around the temple were filled with vendors and Chitra helped me to see that the poorest were indeed Dalits, the untouchables, and the disdain of people passing by was apparent. These are the same dark skinned (darker even than the darkest Tamil Nadu Indian) people that Russill and Ash referred to as tribals.

Our tour bus took us to Sacred Heart Church where we got into five pedaled rickshaws for a ride around the perimeter of the city, past the Botanical Gardens and into the narrow and traffic-jammed city streets.
We stopped for a journey through the Goubert Market, past piles of fish, heads of goats, an infinite variety of vegetables and through the flower stalls where garlands were being woven for different celebrations. It was claustrophobic and exhilarting, the most animated and chaotic street market I have ever seen. People were friendly, were constantly saying "hello" and "where you from?", not just to sell us something but because we were genuinely welcome.

I felt while walking down the streets of Pondicherry that this is a place where I might like to spend more time. It's cosmoplitan, but small enough to be manageable. Everywhere are signs saying "Keep Pondicherry Green" and the streets are remarkable clean. There are bookstores and cafes (the cappuccino at I had on the first afternoon was exceptional), and the promenade along the Bay of Bengal brings the familiar smell of salt air. Occasionally we hear the call to prayer from the mosque, as well as the angelus from the three different Catholic churches. I've learned that the black spots we've seen on the cheeks of babies are supposed to ward off evil spirits. And the knit caps that many people are wearing keep them warm during this, the coldest of seasons (which seems quite hot to us). I love the Ganesha temple and the spirituality of Aurobindo devotees is a bit New Agey but nevertheless inspirational. So if I return to India, this might be a good base of operations.

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