Considerations | There's a Disco Ball in the Ashram
The day is March 20, 2019, around 15:00 in Indian Standard Time, and I’m peering over a bluff on the beach in Pondicherry. Two slender men in button up shirts and short veshtis (the Tamil term for a sarong) meander across the beach toward the waves. The scene is quite picturesque. I pull out my phone to capture a quick video but immediately put it down when one of the men pulls out an urn from a plastic grocery bag. In a matter of minutes they cast off the vessel—a human life encapsulated in a little clay ship—into eternity. The sun is high in the sky and I’ve decided that I’m too jet lagged to persevere through the day, so I walk back to my aunt’s apartment two blocks away to sleep the afternoon away in her hot, dark living room.
My cousin tells me that Pondicherry (Pondichéry in French, Puducherry in Tamil) was one of four cities in India administered by the French until decolonization in 1954. The city was initially segregated into two sectors: Ville Blanche, or White Town, and Ville Noire, or Black Town. My aunt lives in an old French building that is part of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, to which she’s devoted her life and work. Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950) was a renowned yogi and anti-British nationalist from the northeastern state of Bengal. In 1908, he was imprisoned by the British for treason and in his cell he had a spiritual awakening. After his release, he moved south to Pondicherry, where he abandoned politics to cultivate a yoga practice. After forming a community of spiritual seekers, he entrusted his work to his spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfassa, a Turkish-Egyptian Jew born into a bourgeoisie family in Paris during La Belle Époque. Alfassa moved to Pondicherry in 1914 with her then husband Paul Richard, an amateur politician, and it was during this time she met Aurobindo for the first time and claimed he had come to her previously in a dream. At the dawn of World War I, Aurobindo was falsely accused by the British government of colluding with the Germans—he was urged by his French followers to seek refuge in Algeria, but refused. Alfassa and her husband were banished from India. But she would eventually return to Pondicherry where (post-divorce) she would become Aurobindo’s closest collaborator and help establish one of the most visited ashrams in India. In Pondicherry, she is known as “The Mother.” A tattered photo of her hangs above the bed I’m sleeping in as the sound of the sea lulls me to sleep.
This is all to say that Pondicherry, like many of South India’s ports, has been subject to multiple Western invaders—the Dutch, British, French, and Portuguese—and the phantom of European domination still lingers in the architecture and urban layout of the city. Faded street signs bearing names like Rue Saint Louis make me think of streets with identical names in Paris or Québec City, while the balmy ocean air, the sun and water damage on crumbling façades, and concentration of bodies undoubtedly resemble the old quarters of cities like Dakar, Vientiane, or New Orleans. My aunt lives on Rue de Compagnie.
Pondicherry has also long been a city that Westerners visit in search of spiritual enlightenment, either in earnest or out of some misguided identity crisis. The Mother was one of these people, a proto-hippie who made a life for herself in India decades before the New Age movement (due in large part to the locals’ generosity and tolerance of yet another moneyed European assuming familiarity in a foreign land and extracting its resources, even if it is in the image of “the divine”). Many of these foreigners come to devote their lives to the ashram, like my aunt. I try to keep an open mind; I’m just a visitor after all.
My aunt shakes me awake to eat. My first homemade dinner in India consists of a dry, aromatic shrimp curry with tomato rice, served with a bowl of thick, tangy curd (the Indian-English term for yoghurt). My aunt is surprised by my proficiency eating with my hands, and tells me sight, smell, taste, and touch are essential to the Indian culinary tradition. Using cutlery suggests a type of amputation. The meal is perfect; eating to the point of vomiting as one does according to Indian etiquette, I decide to take a walk along the boardwalk to alleviate my bloat.
Perhaps the most democratized public space in India is the boardwalk. Every beachside boardwalk, the same vendors selling fried foods and light-up toys, same mix of families, young couples, rowdy groups of boys, itinerant travelers...the same atmosphere of ease, romance, and awe. The Pondicherry boardwalk is no different—take a five minute stroll and you’ll hear Tamil, Hindi, French, and English. You’ll see Hindus, Muslims, Christians, people across the caste-spectrum, locals and foreigners—but we’re all miniscule against the abyss. Police strapped with machine guns in tall towers watch over thousands of beachgoers moving in mass along the shore. As the sun plunges into the sea, bathing the earth in an amniotic glow, a crisp, perfectly round, full moon crowns over the horizon. My walk feels astronomical.
The next morning my cousin takes me to a township of Auroville, which is situated in the center of a densely vegetated man-made forest ten kilometers north of Pondicherry. Auroville (which means City of Dawn in French, but is also a pun pertaining to Sri Aurobindo) is a planned city founded by the Mother and designed by architect Robert Anger in 1968. Auroville was envisioned to be a city of the future where, in the words of the Mother, “men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.” Auroville is, for the most part, a self sufficient city whose residents contribute their service toward civic needs and receive housing, healthcare, an education for their children, and other basic needs. Their budget is dependent largely on donations, as the city itself has a very modest commercial economy. The population is roughly two and a half thousand.
We pull up to the visitor center, and the first thing I notice is the color of the earth—it is the reddest soil I’ve ever seen. Offset by the lush greenery, the ground seems to blare like a siren. Walking into the visitor entrance to the town, we’re immediately greeted by a tour guide who shuffles us into a queue outside a video room. All visitors to Auroville are made to watch a short video outlining the history and mission of the city before you are permitted entry.
Initial plans to build a city of the future were originally conceived by the Mother and Aurobindo as early as 1950, but in 1965 (after Aurobindo’s death), the Mother crowdfunded both finances and human labor to start construction on the city. The site chosen was a barren plateau populated by—as described by a white American-born “Aurovillian” woman I met hours later— “stereotypical skin-and-bones-bloated-baby Indians.” A group of Westerners and Tamil laborers embarked on building what is now the city core, living onsite in thatched huts until construction was completed years later. The one living plant on the plateau was a banyan tree, that was decided to be the geographic center of Auroville; the tree still stands and has spread its roots far beyond its original footprint.
Auroville was inaugurated in 1968, commemorated by a ceremony attended by representatives of 124 nations and the then 23 states of India. In a strange Olympic-style-ritual, an ambassador from every country and state in attendance poured soil from their place of origin into a large raised marble urn. The mixing of soils was to be metaphoric of the cultural heterogeneity of Auroville and the future Aurovillians sought to foster.
After the video, we’re shepherded into a crowded bus. In front of me is a bourgeois Northern Indian girl complaining loudly to her mother in Hindi about how positively boring her experience has been thus far, as her little sister pouts into the forward facing camera of her iPhone. A group of disgruntled white people look over their sunburned shoulders and glare. The bus is bound for the “soul of the city,” which is a large spherical structure called the Matrimandir (mother-temple in Sanskrit). The only way I can describe it is as a golden golf ball, monumental in size, sprouting from the earth like a baby’s head emerging from its mother’s womb. The interior of the Matrimandir is a dizzying network of stairways and suspended walkways that web through the volume of the globe. A single beam of light shining through a skylight cuts through the center of the Matrimandir onto a small crystal ball at the base of the structure. Visitors to the Matrimandir are led in a single-file line through the structure and are asked to sit and meditate in a circle around the beam and crystal for fifteen minutes. Still jet lagged, I fall asleep as soon as I shut my eyes.
I walk out of the Matrimandir feeling quite tranquil but overall confused about the mechanics of what I’d just seen. I wonder about the notion that the Mother put forth, that it’s possible to eradicate nationality and creed in pursuit of cultivating a unified, divine consciousness. In the short time I spent in Auroville, I received a short lesson in spiritual thought as originally orated by a swami born in British occupied India, that was then mediated by a French woman to a group of Western followers that built a “global” city on Indian land. But maybe this inclination to place so much emphasis on people’s national origins, on the supposed divide between the Occidental and Oriental worlds, is precisely what the Mother was trying to undo. My reverie is rudely interrupted when I trip over a bare chested, leather-skinned white man laying in the middle of the dirt path. He looks up at me in disdain through sun damaged eyes, and I remember the conditions of where I am.
I hop on the back of my cousin’s motorbike and we make our way to Pondicherry’s premiere Chinese restaurant to meet her friend, Narayana, for dinner. Traffic in India is not for the faint of heart; weaving between cars, busses, autorickshaws, bicycles, people, dogs, and cows, there are several moments in which I internally accept it is the end. As the sun is setting, we pull up to a restaurant on the second level of a two-story building. We walk inside. When I meet Narayana, there are several things that surprise me. Narayana (legal name Steven Hugenberger) is an elderly white man, not, as his Sanskrit name would suggest, an Indian. Born in Cincinnati, he is a well-regarded historian of Sri Aurobindo’s work and one of the aforementioned westerners who built Auroville. As a horticulturist, he also oversaw the reforestation of the area surrounding Auroville, a project that planted tens of thousands of trees over the expanse of 70 acres. He has a daughter and two grandsons, all born and raised in the township.
The waiter brings out a deep bowl filled with breaded chicken pieces, noodles, and baby corns suspended in a dark, viscous gravy with a plate of momos (the Tibetan word for dumpling) sauteed in cream cheese and soy sauce. This doesn’t resemble anything I’ve ever seen in a Chinese restaurant in the U.S., and I’m sure it’s as estranged from the cuisine of China as any ubiquitous buffet peppering food courts in the malls of America. Over dinner the three of us discuss politics, as the Indian elections are on the horizon.
There are several contradictory things about Narayana that make little to no sense to me. A blissed-out ex hippie in the twilight of his life with a go-with-the-flow attitude would have been all too predictable. One might expect a Westerner to join a spiritual movement in India to extract themselves from the psychology of capitalism, but Narayana is a fierce individualist, can only speak English despite having lived in India for half of his life, and has a uniquely obnoxious the-customer-is-always-right attitude that only an American is capable of. He is quick to complain about the service, which believe me, will get you nowhere in India. On the topic of politics, my cousin and Narayana butt heads over who to their support for prime minister. While my cousin is on the left and treads into the purview of Indian Marxism, Narayana is a staunch conservative and avid supporter of India’s current prime minister and Hindu-nationalist, Narendra Modi, who represents the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Furthermore, he supports a political movement called Shiv Sena, which falls under the BJP umbrella of conservative party alliances.
The Shiv Sena, among the most extreme of fascist Hindu groups, is somewhat akin to gun-toting MAGA people defending the land “they rightfully lay claim to” against the nonexistent threat immigrant labor and Shari’a law. Much like our state of affairs in the U.S., the BJP claims to be a “people’s movement” that prioritize the needs of Hindus (in India, historically one of the most pluralistic nations and home to the second highest population of Muslims in the world). Falsely advocating for the “common man,” the BJP has instrumentalized initiatives that have totally dispossessed rural folk in India’s hinterlands in an attempt to “modernize” the country’s agrarian economy. The Shiv Sena, and Hindu nationalists at large, have also been blamed for some of the ugliest chapters of India’s recent history: anti-Muslim pogroms of 1984 in Bhiwandi, 1992-1993 in Bombay, and most recently 2002 in Gujarat–the state in which Modi was the sitting Chief Minister, resulting in the deaths of thousands. Unsurprisingly, Trump and Modi have a mostly positive relationship (or as positive as one can have with Donald).
Indian politics are deeply informed by the shadow of colonialism and the traumatic memory of religious violence; Narayana’s investment in them is confusing, to say the least. He (obviously) doesn’t come from a family affected by the partition nor its reverberations through India’s post-colonial history. He lived most of his life in India as an Aurovillian, part of an autonomous community that intentionally chose to opt out of the progress and filth of Indian politics. But believing himself to be truly Indian (as if that’s something you can choose), he carries on with mutterings over his meal he requested to have, “absolutely no spice.”
On our way back home, we stream past the twinkling lights of street vendors and late night temple processions. On the back of my cousin’s motorbike, I parse through our conversation at dinner. Maybe Narayana is a strange inversion of Indian immigrants that move to the U.S. and assimilate in the most troubling ways, whose patriotism for their new home manifests in exclusionary politics. Or is he a totally delusional Dolezal, entrenching himself in the cultural condition of another people to distance himself from the ills of Western (white) society? He has lived in India longer than I’ve been alive, he owns property in India, and his progeny are all Indian citizens. Does that trump my claim to this place through birthright? Is excluding him from the mix of what Indian citizenship can look like putting forth a sort of ethno-nationalist agenda? These are mostly rhetorical questions. I have come to no real conclusion.
The next morning we leave Pondicherry to Kanyakumari, a city 600 kilometers down the coast on the southernmost tip of India. We leave before the sun rises, and I watch the sky transition from black to red to blue before falling asleep in the heat. Upon arrival, we visit a temple that houses the city’s deity, an adolescent form of Parvati. We and the other eager devotees are herded by a priest to the darshan (a paradoxical term in Sanskrit that could be translated roughly to “glimpse of the eternal”–in temple architecture it refers the point in the front of a shrine at which a visitor can gaze upon the idol). The temple looks over the water, the geographic point at which the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and Bay of Bengal meet. Fully clothed bathers (Indian culture is one of modesty, after all) submerge themselves in the emerald waves, whose gentle undulations cradle them like infants. It’s the late afternoon and we make our way to “Sunset Point,” a bluff densely packed with tourists and vendors. Looking west with my back to the island of Lanka, I’m filled with both dread and ease. We watch the sun disappear behind the sea line as tiny fishing boats slice across the horizon with blissful synchronicity.