By Poonam Kirpal, Guest Writer
A friend of mine and I decided to take a short holiday away from our spouses, children, and household responsibilities. Location was not a concern but the objective to “chill and let go” was of immense importance,
We decided to go around Christmas for a week and return rejuvenated after the New Year. North India is usually reeling under a cold wave around this time, so to go to a warmer place was logical. After a couple of proposals we narrowed down to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. It is a community set up by a French lady, Mirra Alfassa, where a lot of French influence still prevails. Even today, sign posts are in French and some locals speak the language. Needless to say, what clinched the issue was that both of us knew a smattering of French. We booked our tickets well in time and awaited our approaching trip with great anticipation.
Anticlimax!!! The tsunami occurred on 26th December 2004, a day before we were to depart. Amongst the places involved were the coastal areas of Pondicherry. Our families were a bit wary of the trip from the start, on pathetic grounds like: safety of two lone women traveling in unknown terrains, being away during vacation time, and now they had legitimate reasons to oppose the whole idea.
Although the devastation of the tsunami did worry us, yet we were two determined women who could not be dissuaded easily. Conflicting propositions started to pour in to help us make our decision. Some said that if the tsunami has occurred in one region it is unlikely to occur there again in such a short time, others terrified us by saying that the seismic currents can continue to play havoc much after the initial devastation. Finally, it was decided that we would go to the airport and if the flight takes off, we would go.
Here I would like to reiterate that our age proved to be the knight in shining armor. If we were younger it may have been much easier to frighten and discourage us, and we would have put off the trip. But the confidence and willfulness that one acquires in midlife saw us through this escapade. In retrospect, I am glad we embarked on this venture.
The flight was not cancelled although the plane had very few passengers and though a bit nervous, we boarded the flight keeping up a brave front.
Sri Aurobindo Ashram is located in Pondicherry, a small coastal town 160 km south of Chennai, in south India. We arrived there by air and thereafter covered the remaining distance to Pondicherry by road, along the coast, a journey which took about three hours: a dicey proposition, no doubt, just a day after the wreckage caused by the tsunami. With trepidation, we continued with our plans and on arriving in our modest room at the ashram, the sound of the sea waves were not able to raise our already plummeted spirits, rather it had the opposite effect.
However, the experience of living as residents of the ashram was beyond description. Dinner was a simple meal: basic dal and some plain rice, served in the community dining hall. We woke up early by default as the lights were switched off at 10 pm. We took a walk in the morning and came to the dining area for a minimal breakfast of a savory porridge and a cup of tea.
We would go to the Samadhi for pranam and collective meditation daily. There was no compulsion but spirituality and discipline drove us to attend the ashram activities. The dwellers in this ashram have formed a spiritual community that gives them an aura of sublime peace and calmness. The ashram consists of 2000 residents, including 400 students of the center of education. The ashram is like a mini township. It is an awesome estate of 120 buildings that serve as educational institutes and industries. It takes care of the needs of the inmates and various departments look after the basic requirements of food, clothing, and shelter as well as medical care.
The individuality of the place was really intriguing and made quite an impact on us. There was tranquility, peace, and contentment everywhere we went. Using mobile phones was improper, rooms did not have televisions or phones, and newspapers were in Tamil. In short, we were cut off from the rest of the world. It can throw some people off balance, but we loved it. We were at peace. We woke up when we wanted, dressed leisurely, and since there really was no reason to dress up à la mode, one could just wear anything and merge with the environment. Moreover, the simple food served at the ashram cleansed our system, and we felt energetic. Not to mention the whale of a time we had trying out our disjointed French with the residents!
Since there was not much distraction, we talked to each other a lot about family, friends, relationships, philosophy, psychology, art, the past, the present, and the future, thus getting rid of some of the cobwebs in our mind about various issues. During the meditation sessions, we learned how to “hear silence” in a crowd of at least 200 people. These were amazing experiences that I hold very close to my heart to date.
I remember New Year’s Eve of year 2004. After the frugal dinner at the ashram dining hall we were in bed at 8.30 pm. We read our respective books till 10 pm and said goodnight to each other. We woke up at the crack of dawn without the alarm and wished each other a happy New Year with enhanced energy to welcome 2005.
There was no music, no dance, no late night, no elaborate buffet dinner, or the noise of fire crackers. This morning was minus a hangover, headache, chill, stomach upset, lethargy, irritation, or grogginess – one of the nicest New Year mornings-after!