Ashram Blues

Trip Start Jan 16, 2012
Trip End Jul 11, 2012

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Where I stayed
Park Guest House

Flag of India  , Union Territory of Pondicherry,
Saturday, February 18, 2012

From our brown-flowered velvet back seat in a black Ambassador taxi, we were like two kids at a drive-in movie, the feature being "Colours of India," and it played all the way from Chennai to Pondicherry. Pink, mango, lime green, sky blue, and purple buildings brightened the landscape. Women on motorbikes cheered the greyness of the highway with their wind-whipped saris. All around us humanity was on the move, as were a number of cows. And on our slow way through Pondicherry, the streets teemed with people doing business of any kind.

We found our way past the high white gates and into the oasis of the Park Guest House, one of several guesthouses owned by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, founded in 1926 by Sri Aurobindo in close alliance with a French woman known as “The Mother.” The portraits of these two can be found all over town, but here at the Park Guest House reception, they dominated the room. The man behind the desk informed us that there was a room for us, but we would have to follow the rules. Could we please read the rules posted on the desk and agree to them. And he recited, “No smoking, no drugs, no staying out past 10:30 p.m., no drinking, no eating, no sleeping—“

“No sleeping?” asked a startled Dan.

“Only dreaming,” said the funny man, and proceeded with the voluminous paperwork. He asked for our passports several times, and wrote in a large book. We each had to fill in a full A4-size page with many particulars, including our fathers' names. The man spent more time to fill in a pass card for us, and then, thinking we were done, we got up to go to our room. But he called us back—he had yet to write out a receipt for our first night’s payment. The check-in process took about a half hour. This was our first taste in-country of the famous Indian bureaucracy.

Our room was #62, but on the door it said “Devotion” and its neighbours were “Sincerity” and “Patience.” All 80 rooms were similarly named with qualities you should aspire to, and all around the grounds and the garden were signs with teaching points, such as “Every day I am getting better and better.” And I did enjoy the garden to do some yoga and meditation as the sun rose, which may have contributed to my betterment. But temptations were there—on our first venture out to find dinner, we passed two fully-stocked liquor stores, and not having had any particular desire to drink before, found ourselves thirsty. And one night we found ourselves uncharacteristically still at a restaurant having dinner after 10:00 p.m.

We visited the ashram itself, not sure what to expect inside. We stashed our shoes across the road as required, and on entry, assured two doormen that our cell phones were turned off. As soon as I walked into the hush around the central area where devotees prayed and meditated around a large box with fresh flowers arranged on it, my cell phone rang twice. I was already an outsider, having no understanding of the hold the two sages had on the devotees, and my ringing phone just accentuated the divide. Spooked, we made a quick retreat. (I later learned that I had received two text messages from the Sri Lankan telephone company to welcome me to India.)

Posted around the guesthouse were quotations from writings by The Mother, cited in the fashion of mainstream scriptural texts with chapter and verse. In the guesthouse Reading Room, I saw this instruction second on the list of quotations titled “On Reading”: “You must read with great attention and concentration, not novels or dramas, but books that make you think (The Mother, 12:14).” She lost me right there. In fact, I found myself agitated by the perpetuation of ignorance that this directive must achieve if followed.

So I can’t say we got into the ashram culture, but instead focused on exploring the town, getting some shopping and errands done, and marveling at the simultaneous chaos and purpose of the business streets. At the end of each day we joined the perambulating Indian and other tourists on the beachfront promenade. In the heat of the day the promenade was subdued; in the evening strollers and vendors came back to give it colour and life while the setting sun enhanced the whole scene with a golden glow.
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