Entry 52 -India II: greased up in a man nappy, word to the mother, meet the cult

a tale of two towns

Once I'd had a couple of hits of espresso and got the caffeine monkey off my back, I took stock of Pondicherry. Apart from the excellent coffee, first impressions were disappointing: it looked like a typical chaotic Indian town: averagely horrendous traffic, shop signs jostling for your attention and the smell of sewage duking it out with smell of garbage. But this is because we were in the old Indian half. The town is bisected by a covered canal (now, charmingly a sewer) and is completely schizophrenic. The old 'white area', between the canal and the sea, retains much of its French colonial feel and, with its low, thick walled buildings has echoes of Hanoi.

But this is not all. Pondy has parks, garbage is kept under some control and begging and homelessness is, if not non-existent, relatively absent...almost unbelievably some of the town is a conservation area and, with funds from France and the local ashram (more of which later) has been gentrified. Now, you might point out that this scrubbed up ex-colony is hardly the real India - a sort of subcontinent lite. And you'd be right. But this is no bad thing, for while Indian cities are vibrant, lively places, unless you have a bling hotel to retire to, they are pretty hard work. In Pondy, by contrast, you can walk for at minutes at a time without being offered unwanted goods and services.

hotel, sweet

Then there was our hotel. A sympathetically renovated colonial building with massive walls and French shutters, it is probably the nicest establishment I have ever stayed at. I think it cost around £25 a night - about a third of the rather indifferent Taj in Chennai -and it had the kind of rooms that send interiors magazine editors into paroxysms of joy. Every room was individual and had been designed beautifully. The staff, especially the urbane, dapper manager, were charming; the coffee was great; and the bathrooms were casually massive. I'd really struggle to find a bad word to say about it. We did have a demonstration outside every day -government employees protesting about pay, the manager explained - but this being Pondy, it was impeccably well behaved and involved 30 well-dressed men sitting down in the street.

Pondy itself doesn't have a huge number of must-see attractions, although the formal gardens laid out by French are pleasant and on one side there is a stand up a bar selling Scotch by the cup from a whole in the wall. The results of this are visible in the gardens where, at any given time, half a dozen people (many of them pretty respectable looking) are sleeping off the effects of hard liquor in 35 degree weather. Over on the seaward side of town there is stylish, brilliant white esplanade which feels a bit like a tropical Biarritz.

To the north are a number of beaches, the best of which is predictably reached via a village rubbish dump (to enjoy India, you must learn to love rubbish), although the beach itself is clean and the sea warm. With few facilities and fewer visitors, it is a pretty hassle free place, although we were plagued by a man who was quite convinced that a rotting starfish was the perfect souvenir of our stay.

word to the Mother

After a couple of day's successful vegging, we decided to check out Pondy's other great claim to fame: the Ashram. This itself is not too exciting: a nicely designed building with a table of flowers, full of Indians and a few spiritually inclined westerners meditating. The Ashram's bigwigs - Sri Aurobindo and The Mother - now both deceased, believed that humanity is on a path to higher consciousness which will result in a new species. Having spent the evening before watching George Bush speaking on TV, I was unconvinced of the veracity of the Mother's assertions, although I will allow that the gift shop has some of the best mystic kitsch I have ever seen.

Far more interesting is the nearby Ashram paper factory where you get to see ultra-high quality paper being handmade from rags rather than trees. It's a complex process and the plant itself is worked by men stripped to the waist stirring huge vats of smashed up rags which will eventually become swish notepads. Rag paper, unlike its tree-based counterpart lasts centuries (wood paper is the bane of the modern bibliophile) and it was unexpectedly interesting to be there at the moment of its creation.

greased up in a man nappy

The following day, our schedule allowed for an Ayuverdic massage. Jane is a great devotee of these: I am not so sure, but I had a sore shoulder, so I figured what the frick and, at my allotted time, presented myself to Rashavid, the male masseur at the Relaxe Spa. He bade me strip off my strides and growlers and put on a curious kind of man nappy. Then he lay me face down on a teak bench and greased me up fulsomely. It was a fine massage and Rashavid's capable fingers skillfully worked my back and all but cured my aching shoulder Afterwards came a steaming - in a sort of glazed iron lung - all of which left me feeling rejuvenated and almost understanding why chicks dig health farms so much. The only thing that I found disconcerting was that, such was the oiliness of the experience, my Johnson kept slipping out of my man-nappy.

With Jane still being pummeled and greased, I rounded off my male pampering routine with a haircut and a shave, a snip (haha) at 60p. The latter was particularly impressive as it was expertly executed by a boy who wasn't old enough to shave himself. I guess this means that I support child labour, although I feel rather more honest about doing it directly, rather than indirectly, by wearing a pair Nikes.

meet the cult

After passing the brutal mid-day sun in an excellent local restaurant, we headed north to Auroville. This town is a real curiousity: founded by the Ashram and inspired by the thoughts of The Mother, it says it is not religious, not a cult and is an 'international township' 'dedicated to socially useful projects.' Viz: alternative technology, consciousness raising, self sufficiency, etc. If all this sounds a bit like some 60s hangover, it's because it is: Auroville was founded in 1968. I had met one of the inhabitants, a 20 year old called Camark on the beach a few days earlier and he seemed like a nice chap, pretty normal, though our ricksahw driver told us that Auroville was 'very, very strange, sir.'

Still, it is hard not to be impressed by the scale of the place and the fact that it is still going. It covers around 22sq km of Tamil Nadu, just outside Pondy and boasts 1700 inhabitants. It is funded by, among others, the EU and the UNESCO; it is the subject of several acts of the Indian Parliament and enjoys a weird sort of quasi-autonomy within India.

Pitching up at the visitor center, this all seems a bit hippie, a bit idealistic and a little strange, but not that weird. Then you visit the focal point of the town itself, a huge slighty flattened geodesic globe called the Matrimindar. You walk down a long, winding path through beautifully manicured, fragrant gardens, silence is compulsory and the cult-like strangeness is accentuated by the volunteers who silently motion you to pass them on one side or the other. If you meet their gaze or smile at them they show no sign of emotion, totally impassive.

The Matrimindar sits on a geometric base finished with red stone. It must be at least 60 or 70 metres high and is covered with metallic gold discs rather like the exterior of the Birmingham Selfridges. It looks exactly like the future was supposed to back in the late 60s; designed by a Frenchman, it belongs to the same school of architecture as the BT tower and Brasilia. Few things could look more incongrous in the middle of a beautiful Tamil garden, hard by a huge banyan tree.

After removing your shoes, you are allowed to enter via a spaceship-like ramp which then winds up, spiraling to the chamber in the centre. Inside the Matrimandir is still a bit of a construction site, although when it is finished, it will be quite impressive in a kind of Epcot meets Hari Krishna kind of way. The Indians, spiritually aware people that they are, love visiting Auroville and 98% of visitors are Indian, with the remainder largely French and a few pointlessly arrogant Americans. Many people turn into self-congratulatory pricks when they travel but young yanks are among the worst. Either that or they are the nicest people you meet - in George Bush's America, there is no middle ground.

Still, thanks to the (largely observerd) ban on talking, it was wonderfully quiet - and it is a treat to be in such a crowded place in India and have almost total silence.

After a slow procession you get to the top of the curved ramp, where you are afforded a glimpse of the inner chamber. Circular in shape this is pleasantly cool and there is a slight haziness to the air. Twelve pillars (finished, apparentlty, in gleaming white space age 'plastic') surround a central dias on which sits...the world's largest hippie crystal, a glassy sphere some 70cm in diameter. You get to gawp at it for all of ten seconds. And that's it. You walk out silently, put your shoes on and go back to Pondy. Was I disappointed? Hell no. The whole experience was as weird and opaque as I could have possibly hoped for.

October 21, 2003