Last night I made it to Pondicherry and the Seaside Guesthouse of the Sri Aurobindo ashram. On the way, my flight first stopped at Bangaluru (formerly, Bangalore). The landscape below us was agricultural, orange-brown fields, bordered by palm trees, the houses of the villages mostly square concrete buildings, brightly painted in all the colors of the rainbow. The Indians have a wonderful aesthetic sense–as comes across even in the names of their domestic airlines: Kingfisher, IndiGo (blue planes), SpiceJet. Everything not yet given over to efficiency and utilitarianism.
The drive from Chennai (formerly, Madras) was harrowing! My driver for the three-hour adventure spoke almost no English, and I speak almost no Tamil. He had a small car — no seat-belts — (“No problem!”) — and was doing his best to break a land speed record. Everything going by at a blur!
As darkness fell, we were doing well over a hundred-miles-an-hour, the driver blaring his horn the entire way, flashing his lights, weaving in and out of brightly painted trucks, whose rear-ends appeared briefly in the headlights before disappearing behind us.
He was dodging motorcycles, which normally carry a man, with a woman behind, sitting “side-saddle” in a sari, often one or two children wedged in front back or middle — no one wearing helmets, the motorcycles disappearing, probably doing only 60 or 70. I got quick views of bicycles and pedestrians trudging along on the side of the road, loaded with huge sacks on their heads, on their on backs, or the back of their bikes. As we whizzed through villages, open shops and stalls were lit up by colored lights. I tried to catch glimpses of the people inside. But my eyes were mostly riveted to the highway ahead, in a condition of mild, wide-eyed terror.
As the miles clicked by, eventually, I just lay my head on my backpack, closed my eyes and repeated a mantra, surrendering to the Universe — to the Divine — or whatever you like to call it. “There are worse places to die than India!” — I kept telling myself.
Besides I’ve been reading a book by a swami who found this tactic quite utilitarian and efficient. Back in the early twentieth century, Papa Ramdas abandoned his ordinary life to devote himself to a full-time search for God. (This happens a lot in India.) He became a wandering sanyassi (like a monk, but without an ashram) and traveled all over India, to pilgrimage sites, penniless, depending on God for everything–and writing a book about it. Full of humor and inspiration, it’s called In Quest of God. Whatever happened he took as God’s will.
As you can see, dining-out was not high on his list of traveling pleasures. One meal a day, mostly fruit. Have taste only for God, he says. You can also see the radiant smile on his face that resulted.
(It’s fascinating how literature-based the Indian, spiritual/ashram culture is. Everyone recommends books to read, gives you books to read).
So, following the lead of Swami Ramdas, I resigned myself to God and tried to get some sleep in the back of the hurtling car.
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Now, this morning, just beyond the little balcony of my guesthouse room, is the Bay of Bengal.
In a little while, I’ll head over to the Sri Aurobindo ashram, see the neighborhood, and walk along the coast.