by Peter Byrne
Read Part I: Pondicherry
(Swans - November 1, 2010) Mother watched me from the wall in her gilded frame as I sat waiting for Pierre in the teashop of the day before.
Pierre lived tête-à-tête with his mania, complete with all the accents. He was for French culture über alles, in his own India (which he had never left) and in the universe generally. It didn't surprise me all that much. I'd met such mavericks before, and had even been one, off and on. I'd long since given up trying to root out the reasons for such a mindset. There were too many plausible explanations. But did we need one? Let eccentricity brighten the horizon.
Now a blurry Pierre sat down for breakfast opposite me. I waited while he lit a Gauloise blonde jaune and puffed his way back to la condition humaine. I spoke softly.
"I've been reading some more about Sri Aurobindo. You may be too hard on him. He seems harmless. The idea that people should strive for 'higher consciousness' really doesn't break any bones. They can sit in the corner and reach for Bindo's 'supermental' between naps. Of course his insistence that we hurry along and evolve into another species is pushing things. That would mean pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps big-time. Still nobody gets hurt twiddling their mental thumbs."
"Pondicherry's got hurt. Where's Napoleon III's Ville blanche sur le Golfe du Bengale? Nom de dieu, Bindo's turned it back to Puducherry! He's yogified it. Why must I sit here with his old woman sneering into my tea?"
"I don't see how a splash of watery spirituality harms the city."
"Who needs their self-hypnosis? Pondicherry has churches. Just listen in at Notre Dame des Anges and you'll hear some real wide-awake praying. It rings out loud and clear and the women wear their Easter bonnets. They could be cheerleaders."
"I'd have thought Bindo's 'nobler pragmatism' would appeal to you. He claims it's a synthesis of East and West."
"Don't swallow that. The two old spooks rode the yoga hobbyhorse hard. But they saw no commercial future in sitting in a stupor playing peek-a-boo in their heads. Bindo had to soup his product up to encourage the West-to-East cash flow. The pilgrims from afar were do-gooders. They felt guilty about jerking off mentally without a thought for building a better world."
"You're saying Sri Aurobindo threw in the 'nobler pragmatism' bit to soothe the conscience of the well-heeled West?"
"Why else? Out here we're looking for a foothold in this world. Never mind building a better one."
Pierre was overdoing his Latin Quarter cynicism. Set on seeing Auroville, I humored him. It was half-dozen miles north. He suggested taking a taxi because a bus would mean waiting around. But that's what I wanted. In his murderous mood, Pierre would skewer my investigation. I had to soften him up. His Francophilia left him vulnerable.
I started as we sat on a bench at the bus stop. Naturally he'd read Charles Fourier, I said, without waiting for him to say no or lie. He wouldn't have learnt about the great sexpot from his teacher at the French Institute unless she had decided to wake the class up with some spicy details. I pointed out that the founder of the Phalanstères had like The Mother started out with family money. Fourier had also been upset by disorder in the world and was hell-bent on harmony. His answer was cooperation and an organization so precise it amounted to a prison regime.
That got Pierre interested. He said Mother's inheritance had only primed the pump. Afterwards her brainchild subsisted by milking foreigners. Seventy percent of the present twelve hundred inhabitants of Auroville weren't Indians. These residents had been skimmed off the top of the West's money-making stew. Auroville had also spawned a tourist industry. The package tours of the West came to gape at their own folk who had come to squat here.
Pierre ridiculed the freedom Mother had promised. Of course her adepts could wander in their own minds. But they had to do so in their leisure between the jobs, often two each, that she had assigned them. There was a strict pecking order. Mother had designed Auroville and called the initial tune. The music hadn't changed. Did I think that the North Americans, checkbook in hand, actually shared life styles here with some mixed-up Indian kid who had hitched a ride in from Uttar Pradesh?
I had to admit that Fourier too had his inner policeman. The inhabitants of his Phalanxes sought the freedom he extolled. But Fourier's lust for order could get in the way. He busied himself like a mad bookkeeper concocting structures that would hem people in. He was stronger on arithmetic than on diversity, and tried to tame human variety. There were, according to his reckoning, exactly eight hundred and ten types of character, a figure he felt more than generous. But what if you weighed in at eight hundred and eleven?
This left Pierre wide-eyed. I admitted that the shopping mall set-up I'd seen around the Pondicherry Ashram the day before wouldn't have pleased Fourier. He had a bee in his bonnet about the "knavery of merchants" and saw trade as the source of all evil. He'd been a traveling salesman and knew what he was talking about. Pierre perked up at this. That was the difference, he said. The Mother loved shop keeping. She knew all about banking -- was born to it. When she set up Auroville in 1968 she did so as chief accountant. Bindo had actually philosophized that money was "divine" before retiring to sit in his afterglow full-time. "Higher consciousness," he thought, would replace hierarchy. But this came down to Mother giving the orders. She claimed motherhood was "the principle of realization," which made her boss-woman. Now Pierre was going to show me what she'd realized. We got off the bus at Auroville.
I'll say this for the place: it was easier to get in than Disneyland. Pierre headed without delay for what he said was the only building in the region without photographs of you know who. But that was only because the Matrimandir was named after The Mother. We had to wade though a lot of fairground oddments and new-age unction to approach it. Pierre said that building the Matrimandir had led to a mortal duel between the Auroville house architects. Clearly the best man lost. The structure is basically a bulbous gasometer that a Kashagistan dictator would have put up to mark the great distance from his birth in a thatched hut. He would have seen the gold cladding as the icing on his career cake. But the big bulb was nobody's tomb. It was meant to meditate in. Teasing "divine consciousness" in the desert apparently didn't appeal to the Bindo-Mama regime. Pierre and I made our way through the protocol, got a seat in the inner chamber and settled down to...what?
I opened the publicity handout on my thigh and had a guilty read. We were sitting under "the largest crystal ever built." Sunlight hit it and defused, creating a "surreal atmosphere." All well and good, but I'd have liked some Surrealist art around to jazz up the well-lit emptiness. René Magritte's faceless man in a derby could have stood in for Bindo's "Supermind." And why not Man Ray's "Coat-Stand" woman to recall the ineffable Madre? But I wasn't being fair. I looked at Pierre. He wasn't being fair either. I could see him getting his rebuttal ready. I gave a pious nod and we went out.
From a bit of high ground I stood and gaped. There were twenty square kilometers of Auroville spread out before me. I consulted the handout. It spoke of farms, industries, schools. The community provided all its own services. There were thirty-five guest houses, three restaurants. Pierre pulled me by the arm toward one of these. It was another prototypal tearoom with esoteric touches. I looked around for Mother's photo and of course it was there. For Pierre's sake I found a corner near the kitchen where her gaze didn't reach.
I came back to the money. This was a big fun fair to keep going. Was Pierre sure the Indian government wasn't being tapped? Only for some very small change, he said. Nor were international organizations chipping in more than chicken feed. The Aurovillians themselves were footing the bill, in foreign currency donations if they were spiritually inclined Westerners or by their two-jobs if they were peons with shallow pockets.
What looked like one of these proletarian yogis came out of the kitchen just then. He stopped a moment to give a sharp look around and walked down the aisle. I made with the big smile I learnt as a boy selling encyclopedias and a resonate, "Good morning." Pierre murmured, "merde."
"We're visitors," I said, "and I've been reading what a friendly place Auroville is. Will you have a cup of tea with us?"
He preferred a Coca Cola. He had a wise, sinewy face, venerable beard, maybe sixty years behind him. But his voice didn't fit. It was young and contorted into a strange accent in English. Pierre came alert and was gratified to hear that our new acquaintance had begun life in Quebec.
"You've come a way. Tell us about it."
"It's a long story and it started in Montreal. You'll need something in your tea."
From underneath his plain white kurta, he produced one of those First World War hip-flasks and, proceeded to spike our cups smartly, dreamily doubling the content of his glass of cola.
"It's whiskey-blanc, Québécois homebrew."
Pierre opened his mouth in awe.
"I started as an altar boy and fell for the wardrobe. At sixteen I headed for the Laurentians and entered the Trappist Monastery at Oka. We weren't supposed to speak. They put me to work in the fromagerie. We did a pretty good imitation Port-salut. The rule called for the silence of solitary confinement. But it was 1968 and even Canada was running off at the mouth. I couldn't sit still and thumbed my way west."
"Nature was big just then, in other versions than cheese. Someone put me on to a Wiccan group outside of Calgary. A prospective warlock, I hit the road. The witch in charge found me a job in the herb garden. They had a mail order business going. I was to get in tune with the basic forces of nature by pulling weeds and pushing a wheelbarrow. They told me to study the moon after work. Spiritually something was missing and I took a bus with a cute witchette for Vancouver."
"There on the Pacific shore everyone looked east. But I didn't have the wherewithal for a ticket. Someone told me the Buddhists were hiring and I went out to where they were building a Tibetan temple in the suburbs. They had barely begun to lay the foundations and put me to work pouring concrete. It meant becoming a Buddhist, otherwise they would have had to pay union wages. So I joined the club; spiritual enlightenment still sounded good to me. There were more wheelbarrows, now filled with sand and gravel. They gave me pamphlets, without charge, on the Buddhism. I read them in bed before falling asleep. Tibetan Buddhism wore me out."
"Canada couldn't hold me. In every coffee bar in town the chatter was about silent meditation. 'Find the Divine' centers apparently thrived like toadstools in California. I felt the urge and ended up at the Self-Realization Brotherhood in Glendale. Was there an opening for an eager beginner? Times were tough, they said, and competition cut-throat. But no one with the right attitude was refused. They dropped me off in L.A. every morning with a thousand 'Find-the-Divine' handbills. The spiritual challenge was to get rid of them all by the evening rush hour. Did I spread the message? I had it in ink stains on both hands."
"I met a sailor who'd been reading about animism in the Philippines. It sounded like fun. Spirits, naughty or nice, hopped around and made for action. He also put me wise on how to earn my passage out by working in a ship's laundry. It was the dimmest spiritual job I ever had with neither the sun nor a star on show. But it got me to Manila. The bad news was that the sailor had his dates mixed. Animism was then. Now the Big Brother religions had moved in and put the spirits behind bars."
"It was a disappointment. I got into a group going to Mecca for the Hajj, but there were some doubts about my credentials and they cut me loose in Madras. I can't say I was sorry. The Saudi Arabian trip seemed to me pretty old-fashioned. So Mother's photo caught me in her gaze and I heeded her call."
"To your spiritual home," I summed up. It was time to go.
"To the kitchen." said Pierre.
"They had me climbing around on the Matrimandir with a squeegee for a while. But I cried off. None of us is so spry as he used to be, and this outfit doesn't pay danger money. Anyway, they fancy my wrist movement with a potato peeler..."
Pierre was turning snide:
"And the meditation caper?"
"You know how many restaurant meals we serve a day? I've never worked so hard since I milked Trappist cows with my mouth sealed."
"So no meditating at all?" said Pierre.
"Sometimes, sitting on the toilet or catching my breath out in the potato patch."
"Man, you're not going to evolve into a new species at that rate," said Pierre.
"Sadhna takes time," said our man. "Mother always said it was a process. I figure it's like developing arthritis for a babe in arms."
Pierre was sneering, and I wound things up in a hurry. In any case I had to get back to Pondicherry to make my connection at the airport. We took a three-wheeled autorickshaw. The put-putting made it hard to chat. I told Pierre without conviction that he should make the trip to France. He nodded nervously. Deep down he probably knew he was happier with his illusions, comfortable in pseudo-French, pseudo-spiritual Pondicherry.
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