Before there were blogs, I spent a quarter studying sustainable development in southern India. I maintained an email distribution list of friends who wanted updates on my travels. Many nights involved entertainments of the herbal or alcoholic kind; there were roof-top full-moon parties and midnight swims in the ocean (the garbage floating there was harder to see in the moonlight); some evenings were spent on planting plans and composting toilet design. But occasionally, I sat down at a computer and wrote about my adventures. This is one of those stories.
For centuries, writers far more talented than I have tried, but India cannot be described. Going to India is a blind date, and your reaction to her is immediate and powerful. No amount of conscientious research can prepare you.
How can you love such a monster? How can you hate such a miracle? Everything here participates in an oxymoron. India is the disjointed fragments of dreaming that verges on nightmare, but it is still far more unreal than anything the subconscious mind could conjure. Despite its incoherence, there is no sense of the surreal, for this most spiritual of countries is entirely visceral. At every moment you are hot, or wet or itching from mosquito bites, or feeling the blessing of relief from a cool breeze. The simplest activities require great attention- going to the bathroom, drinking water, eating food. With every inhalation you are assailed by the powerful odor of sweat or dung or heavenly incense and you remember every time you exhale that you are in fact alive, at this moment, and that you may not be so in the next.
My first inkling of this came halfway through the Indian Airlines flight from Singapore to Chennai. I looked up and saw that the overhead compartment was held shut by duct tape. When we left the airplane, I noticed that several of the seat backs had broken during landing and were now resting flat on the seat cushions.
When I had retrieved my bag, I went to the customer service counter to inquire whether a group of 30 Americans had arrived. They had not. I settled in to wait for my group as I was supposed to take the bus to Auroville with them. After three hours, there was still no sign of them. I had not even left the airport, but India had reduced me to tears. Eventually I realized that I had to go on to Auroville soon, or face a night alone in Chennai.
A kind Englishwoman and her Tamil-speaking friend helped me arrange a taxi for the 2.5 hour drive across Tamil Nadu to Auroville. It was a simple task that anyone not hysterical could easily have accomplished, and probably gotten a better price. But I will be forever grateful for hearing the phrase “Oh yes, these cabs are quite safe,” in fluent English.
The taxi looked like something out of Dick Tracy. I have since found out that all the taxis here are an Indian make that has not been redesigned since 1943. I suspect that they quit making them shortly after that. There was no air conditioning, seat belts or seat cushions. The driver spoke only a little English.
Before leaving the parking lot, but out of sight of my English helper, he stopped to pick up a friend. I hoped it was to take turns driving on the long trip, or for company, but I feared something much more sinister. That fear was quickly eclipsed as we pulled out onto the road and I got my first taste of Indian Traffic.
Should I even try to describe it? I’m not sure I can. If I tell you that an hour and a half into the trip I was relieved to discover that the taxi had brakes after all, it might illustrate something. Could you picture it, if I said that in the city cattle sleep in the median strips? Or if I said that on a two lane country road, a bus, a taxi and two bicycles meet a taxi, an bullock-drawn haycart and a motorbike and pass each other simultaneously at the same point of the road, would you think that I exaggerate? No, I won’t try to explain that eventually, I stopped catching my breath when I looked up and saw two buses, side by side, coming straight at us.
Yes, it is best that I don’t describe the traffic, and stick to the details of the drive. Before leaving Chennai, we stopped for gas. I gave the driver 1000 rupees, and while he filled the tank, I dug through my pack and pulled out Jeremy’s trusty knife. I kept it hidden, though, because I didn’t want to insult or frighten a perfectly trustworthy cabby. His friend had disappeared, and I imagined that if he meant to kill me, he probably wouldn’t have stopped for gas first.
But I was still glad for the knife when the car broke down forty minutes later. By this time we were far from Chennai, and where we pulled over there was only a lonely concrete block, open on streetside. I think it was a truck stop. At least there were several shipping trucks parked nearby. But there were no women anywhere to be seen. I bought a Sprite and went back to the cab to wait. The hood was up on the taxi and some men were looking under it. Several men hovered around. They kept saying hello and waving at me. One of them tried to talk to me, but ran out of English very soon. Finally, the driver poured a pitcher of water under the hood and we were off again. We drove south through Tamil Nadu. Sometimes the Bay of Bengal was just off the left side of the road.
There were green hills and palm trees all around. We passed through tiny, filthy little villages where tiny, filthy little children, naked or in Underoos, played on the ground inches from piles of dung dropped by bony cows. Mangy, starving dogs and goats darted across the road. Nescafe billboards hung from the sides of buildings made out of cardboard & scrap metal . Women scattered hay on the road and then swept up the grain that was left behind after it had been run over.
The hills began to flatten out and trees gave way to scrub. The taxi began to knock again. My driver pulled into a village that was larger than those we had passed. Beggars swarmed around the car. We stopped and the driver shouted to a shopkeeper in Tamil. I suspected that he was asking directions.
“You are going to Auroville only? No Pondicherry?”
I was right. We were lost. He got out of the cab. A few minutes later, he came back and opened my door.
“Madame, please getting out. You getting out here madame.”
He had negotiated a local cab to take me the rest of the way to Auroville. I was to pay each driver half of the remainder of my 1650 rupee fare. He did not try to double charge me for gas.
The new cab driver was an attractive Tamil teenager with no shoes. His English was a little better, so he actually tried to talk to me. His cab was a bit nicer too- the seats had springs.
Once we left the village, the roads were much calmer. There were more haycarts and fewer buses. Even though there was not a building in sight, I breathed a sigh of relief when we passed a sign that said “Auroville”. The driver did not know the guesthouse where I am staying, or the meaning of the words reception, registration, or new arrival.
Finally I asked to be taken to the Matrimandir. The Matrimandir is the spiritual and geographic center of Auroville. It has been under construction since the dedication of the city in 1968, but is only about 2/3 finished. A giant dome covered in gold discs and surrounded by rose gardens, its central meditation chamber is the only air-conditioned room in Auroville. The solar panels required to accomplish the job compose the largest solar collecting unit in South India, perhaps in the whole subcontinent. The Matrimandir is a place devoted entirely to meditation, and before I left home I had thought the entire project was pretty hokey. Now I had to laugh to realize that within hours of arriving in India, I had pinned all my hopes on getting there.
“Ah, Matrimandir. D. Dir. Mandir is the root.”
The cabby corrected my pronunciation and took off down the dirt road, toward the heart of Auroville…