Inspiration Over Chocolate Croissants and Filter Coffee
On the coast of Tamil Nadu lies a town that embodies the adage ‘good vibes only’, with plenty of sun, sand and delicious food. The little coastal town of Puducherry–originally, Putucceri, derived from the Tamil words putu – ‘new’ and Ceri – ‘village’, before the French corrupted it to Pondicherry)–is a place everyone must visit.
Despite its small size, there is a lot to appreciate. With broad roads that are dotted with affluent colonial architecture, modern sea promenades, historic sites, bougainvilia-laden homes, golden sand and rock beaches, it’s a heaven, if not more.
Interestingly, in the past, it passed through multiple hands (through bloody wars) and gracefully absorbed the cultures of them all: Dutch, Portuguese, French, English. You will blend into the rendezvous of hippies, photographers, spiritual seekers, history enthusiasts, food aficionados and nature lovers.
I am in equal parts a nature lover, spiritual seeker and hippie. On this visit, I wanted to visit the Auroville Ashram. In fact, whilst I was in school, I remember being taken to Sri Aurobindo's samadhi sthal on a school excursion. Despite being a loud chatty teenager, the calmness of that space instantly pervaded my being. I was able to sit quietly for a half-hour – which shocked all my teachers and friends.
Wanting to relive this memory, I went to His samadhi again and effortlessly sat in meditation. I then got up to visit their bookshop. I asked the person who ran it if they had a book about Aurobindo and as soon as I asked, the man looked up and smiled. He called his friend who was a historian and told him to speak to me.
Over two perfect chocolate croissants and strong filter coffee, I learned that Aurobindo’s father was an ardent fan of British culture so he encouraged his children to learn English and study in schools where they would be exposed to Christianity.
In fact, he sent Aurobindo to Darjeeling as it was the hub of British culture in India. Then at seven, he was packed off to England where he learned Latin, Greek and English literature. He had a sharp mind and cleared the very challenging civil services exam but didn’t want to come back to India yet.
At 20, he got a job as a teacher/secretary to the Maharaja of Gaekwad and also the Vice Principal of Baroda College. It was only after staying in India for twelve long years that Aurobindo could understand the harm that the British had done to the Indian civilisation and he slowly and gradually started showing interest in politics.
He started a political party, began a newspaper and soon enough was put in jail. Whilst he was in jail for over a year, he started diving deeper into yoga and meditation. When he was released he moved to Pondi and began his quest for learning. As he delved deeper into the mystic realms, people from all over the world were pulled to Pondicherry and thus slowly began Auroville.
I listened and reflected on how one man’s quest for self discovery soon changed the lives of millions of people. This was the same of every great saint from the Buddha to Swami Chinmayananda to Aurobindo.
As I sat listening to the historian, I truly understood a quote I had heard often as a child, 'Through individual transformation alone is world transformation possible', and also understood how much more I learned about my country through one small conversation.