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Pondicherry sans Auroville

Skipping a visit to the celebrated commune outside the city was high on this lotus-eater's agenda, writes Rachel Lopez.

india Updated: Sep 02, 2006 02:50 IST

I told everybody, I was spending a week in Pondicherry. Everybody responded in the same way — with chin raised, head cocked to one side and eyes squeezed shut with nostalgic delight, “Oh, you must go to Auroville. It’s won-der-ful!” they cooed.

Everybody, of course, assumed I was a tourist. One who would take advantage of an East Coast holiday and wake up to watch the sunrise, photograph palm groves as if I was from the Tundra and look forward to day trips to Auroville, the Sri Aurobindo township an hour away from Pondicherry city. They didn’t know that my to-do list for this holiday held only two things: eat and sleep. I just hoped my companion’s list was short, as well.

But as luck would have it, he did have a plan. “When do you want to schedule the trip to Auroville?” he asked, “They have some exotic cheeses.” So much for my list.

Stick to the list

Pondicherry city, we discovered, is quite the place for two-point plans. The former French colony is so ordered that it takes barely a day of jaywalking to conquer. Straight roads cut each other at right angles and no corner is left without a French-style administrative building, school, hospital or high-walled compound surrounding a villa-turned-hotel. And once you get used to streets called Rue Dumas and Rue Romain Rolland, posters for an Asterix and Obelix play in French (but with Indian actors), official mineral water called Eau de Pondichery, and lost tourists asking “Parlez vous Francais?” you’ll find that you have seen everything — and still have five whole days left on your holiday.

So you take things easy. Skip the hotel’s breakfast buffet and wake up for lunch; decide whether to eat the overrated Creole, the underrated Chettinad or faux-European pizza; squint through the sunshine in the 38 degree heat till you reach the restaurant that came recommended by a magazine or a Pondy fan. A nap in the afternoon, wondering if you should risk a sunburn and take a dip in the hotel pool; dinner is a rerun of the afternoon’s plan. Except you go around the occasional dark street, and return to find that the sun has finally set and the pool is shut for the day. Then it’s time for a game of cards or dozing in front of the TV. Everything’s going according to plan so far.

The aura of Auro

But Auroville kept popping up to rock the boat. It was everywhere, giving the first half of its name to local businesses (like incense and souvenir shops) that sprung out of the nearby ashram, and establishments (like an STD booth and photocopy stall) that had nothing to do with Sri Aurobindo. “We should really book a car for the Auroville trip,” my companion reminded me as I tried, furtively, to ignore the shops. I really don’t relish the thought of being slow baked for an hour to get to a utopia that makes guests contribute towards infrastructure. But I don’t want to be a wet blanket on holiday either, so I make appropriate sounds of agreement.

Local colour

In the meantime, there’s Pondicherry’s Indian quarter to see. The starkly un-French section of the city is a few streets away from the seafront and bustles like any other small town. There’s an aroma of filter coffee at every junction and hot pakodas frying at roadside stalls. And men, who shyly avoid eye-contact when you ask for directions, happily stare at the sight of your bare legs in a knee length skirt. Beggars approach you only half-heartedly, reserving their energies for the franc and dollar-paying foreign tourists.

Maybe, I reason, they’ve meditated enough to realise that there’s more to life than money. Not something that the pricey local boutiques have quite learnt. Restaurants selling south Indian fare all advertise Bombay pav bhaji, and even though the signs don’t tempt us, we find plenty of locals queuing up for the exotic snack in the evenings. There are book exhibitions and book stores aplenty and all of them have a huge section of books on Auroville, Sri Aurobindo and the Ashram philosophy.

Everyone we meet asks us the same thing. “So, have you been to Auroville yet?” and you can tell that there’s not much else by way of tourist conversation in the quiet little town. The inactivity suits my plans just fine but furthers my companion’s resolve to get to Auroville.

Case closed

But something funny happens the next day. We decide, after several walk-bys, to finally check out Pondicherry’s only supermarket and what a happy surprise awaits us there. Tucked away, in a fridge full of exotic foods for the homesick French, are shelves full of made-in-Auroville cheese. From regular mozzarella and feta to tongue twisters like Auroblochon and Lofabu, they’re all there.

My companion looks at me. “You know, it’s really too hot for that Auroville trip...” he starts. I add my two pence quickly lest he talk himself out of it. “We’re not likely to enjoy the commune-like place anyway”, I reason, “And we’ve already been to the ashram in town”. Neither of us needs any second bidding. There’s a quick change in plans: We will drop the needless and very tiring trip to Auroville and pick up the cheese and other Auro-gifts (like indigenously manufactured incense, soaps, handicrafts and jams) from Pondicherry. The only threat to our do-nothing holiday has been safely disposed off and we can finally; rest assured, that our rest is assured.

I return, gift laden, to Mumbai and preen at my rested reflection in my mirror. There’s a boxful of pure-ghee Mysore Pak for me to dip into every time I miss those decadent days, especially when I’m back at work. I meet everybody and brace myself for the question I know I can’t escape. “So, did you manage to visit Auroville?”

I reply with chin raised, head cocked to one side and eyes squeezed shut in faked nostalgic delight. “Oh, Auroville was won-der-ful!”

First Published: Sep 02, 2006 02:32 IST