Travel Stories

INDIA – second venue – South to Mamalapurum, Auroville, and Puduchcheri

7. Yotam continued …

Yotam arrivedin Chennai eight years ago after accepting a three-month gig as a sound engineer because his wife wanted out for a while from living in the desert in Israel. At the time Yotam had one daughter under aged two. He and his wife now have three daughters, and the three month gig in Chennai turned into a creative and more or less successful business that has kept him in Chennai for the past eight years, although he now commutes to Israel every two weeks - and spends about half his time there - since his wife and daughters returned to live in Israel last year. At his Chennai studio Yotam has designed and built a top quality video production room and a great sound studio, which has all of the high-end sound mixing and video editing equipment someone putting out top of the line music would need. His specific interests are in recording and promoting traditional village musicians, and in producing innovative music, most akin to modern jazz. He has recently spent weeks in Kerala state in India recording villagers using traditional Indian village instruments that he thinks is cutting edge. Two of Yotam’s video music recordings have been purchased by National Geographic. He has developed great music contacts throughout India as a producer and sound engineer, and has just recorded the renowned and revered classical India singer Soubaj Mudgal doing a modern duet with an African-American singer poet from Philadelphia, which he plays for me. Soubaj’s voice is just stunning and she dwarfs the woman singing opposite her, though I love the sound and think the recording is great. At the studio, Yotam has also built a kitchen and guest sleeping quarters where visiting artists and musicians can stay while being recorded. Yotam’s beautiful and revealing website is Take a peak.
And while Yotam is a without question a very hard working, broadly traveling, singularly talented producer/engineer, he has two additional passions - aside from his work and family. They are surfing and Auroville. And it is in regard to these passions that Yotam wants to guide me. Especially inasmuch as both are on my way to what I had originally projected as my next stop, Puduchcheri, where I now know I would again have had to answer the question why had I decided to visit the equivalent of Bakersfield, California, on my tour of India, rather than going to the equivalent of Big Sur. So first the surfing.
Although born in the Sinai, and in love with the desert, Yotam also loves to surf, has done so in many of the highlight surfing spots around the globe, and has even brought his big board to Chennai. Doesn’t everybody? I mean, when you think of India don’t you right away think of surfing? So here is Yotam, son of the desert, in Chennai on the Indian Ocean with his big board looking for places to surf. And the place that most appeals to him - because of the wave action he has observed there - is a beach and cove in the small over 2,000 year old fishing village of Kovalam, just south of Chennai on the Bay of Bengal, in the Indian Ocean.
On Yotam’s third surfing visit to Kovalam, along with some Aussie friends and fellow surfers, where they regularly draw a crowd, Yotam is approached by a slight Indian man in his late twenties named Multhiy Megavan, a village fisherman, whose father was a fisherman, and whose father’s father was a fisherman, who asks Yotam if he can use Yotam’s board to try to surf, something no one in the history of the village of Kovalam, at least as far as Multhiy and his friends are aware, has ever done, or seen done, until a few weeks earlier when Yotam arrived and surfed there. Yotam, of course, says yes, and Multhiy Megavan, tenth generation small village Indian fisherman, gets on Yotam’s big board, rides as if he has been surfing for years, and falls instantly and madly in love with surfing and the surfer’s unique relationship with the sea. I watch the short video Yotam is finishing about Multhiy and Multhiy’s evolution, and, at Yotam’s suggestion, I visit Multhiy of an afternoon in Kovalam on my way to Puduchcheri.

8. Multhiy
The village of Kovalam is as prototypical a fishing village as you will find in any travelogue or ethnographic study about southern Indian fishing villages. Fish and fishing nets are drying in the hot afternoon sun, the air is filled with the smell of dead fish and decaying garbage, ancient log dories are being painted and tarred, the red sand is hot beneath your feet, naked children and their fully dressed mothers are wading in the surf, plastic waste litters the beach, there is one church, one mosque, a number of newer and older temples, a town hall, an older school, and dogs laying in the sun like Indian dogs everywhere, apparently of the universally held Indian dog view, that laying in tire tracks in the middle and at the edge of frequently traveled roadways is the preferred place to sleep. Kovalam has served as the site of Tamil fishing activities from at least the time ships and sailors of the Roman Empire explored and colonized the southwestern shores of the India coast. And as far as Multhiy knows his ancestors have always lived there and always fished.
When I arrive in Kovalam Multhiy comes down to the beach to meet me on his motorcycle and takes me back to his house on it. Everyone in Kovalam knows Multhiy, and Multhiy knows everyone in Kovalam. First we stop at his mother-in-law’s house, which is closer to the beach than Multhiy’s house, and is where he stores the six surfboards he uses and is now responsible for. He describes each board to me, the one that is Yotam’s board, the one that was broken and he has been trying to repair, the small one for smaller people that doesn’t track as well. He tells me to be careful of my head as we pass into every room, and as I stand up in every room. He remarks that Yotam and I are the same size and compares us to his size. We get back on the motorcycle and drive through lanes between houses not wide enough for an ox cart. We arrive at Multhiy’s relatively new stucco home where his very young, very beautiful, and very irritable wife is cooking lunch for us, fish, of course, and yelling at the children. A TV set is on. Cricket, of course. There is running water in their home but no tables and no chairs. We eat seated on the floor. No one washes their hands before eating, and everyone eats with their fingers except me who has been provided with a spoon. And I don’t quite eat, although I do nibble, while the kids literally grab handfuls of rice and stuff it in their mouths without the grace of the better mannered finger pinch and shovel method. Everyone washes their hands after eating. Multhiy tells me his story, how his father left the village when Multhiy was young, how he feels sad at times for reasons he doesn’t understand, how surfing delights him, how he has become the surfing “coach” for numbers of young men in Kovalam who also love to surf and how much that means to him, how he wants to start a surfing school, and a surfboard making shop, and cannot wait to teach his young son to surf.
And all the while I am treated as Multhiy’s honored guest, and I feel honored. After all, I’m a friend of Yotam’s, someone who may in some way be able to help Multhiy realize his dreams, a simple fisherman who out of the clear blue sea has had a video made of him and of his love for surfing, which has changed his life.

9. Mamalahpurum
Mamalahpurum is a seaside village in Tamil Nadu, the most southeastern Indian state, and a Hindu religious site of some significance, with stone temples and sculptures that pre-date Anghor. And although the temples are small, worn, and not well preserved, they draw very big crowds of Indian people to them. Abutting the temple sites is a public beach where the crowds also flow. The path to the public beach is lined with trinket and souvenir shops and food vendors. On the beach are small hand operated children’s rides, saddled horses to be photographed on or ridden on the beach while being led around by their handlers, and more food vendors selling everything from watermelon slices and coconuts for coconut juice, to freshly fried fish. Air pressured BB guns with real pellets are available for firing at displays of balloons attached to 4x8 sheets of plywood that people wander behind obliviously and I cannot fathom how no one appears to be injured among the all the balloon popping and balloon missing shots. The beach is crowded. The water is warm. The horses are sometimes led in a run down the beach, through the masses of people and vendors. There is a festive air about the place. Some adult men even have their shirts off, although all of the women are fully dressed on the beach whether in the sea or not.
Some of the street vendor food looks and smells delicious to me, especially the deeply friend bananas and deeply fried peppers that I studiously watch a vendor dredge in some sort of sticky deep tangerine-colored fritter batter, that she has first literally squeezed in her hands and through her fingers to mix the batter and assure its ongoing consistency after a day in the sun before dredging the banana and pepper through it, and then sliding the coated fruits into the oil. And here, overcoming all the cautions I’ve read about Indian street food, I decide to go for it. It was cooked for a long time, right? The oil was boiling. No virus or bacterium could live through that heat, right? And when the food comes out from the hot oil the vendor uses a ladle to put it onto a tray, that’s good. And before the vendor can even touch the freshly cooked food I have previously selected to wrap it in old newspaper - the famous grease absorbing newsprint method - I grab my one banana and one pepper with my recently sanitized hands, assuring the food has not been touched by the vendor after coming out of the oil. The banana and the pepper are hot throughout when I eat them. And in addition to the food looking really good, which is why I was tempted by it in the first place, the spicy fritter batter tastes great, and the fresh pepper is marvelously spicy and deliciously peppery, and days later I’ve lived to write about it.

10. Yoga in Mamalahpurum
The town of Mamalapurum has a sizable foreign tourist and guesthouse scene, mostly Europeans drawn to Mamalapurum by its beach. Throughout this section of town are signs and shops advertizing massage, Ayurvedic healing, and yoga. Most signs list the times for the yoga classes, although in an excess of caution I go into two of the studios to see what they look like and to confirm with a human being that there will in fact be a class the next morning. In both places I’m assured there will be class, but when I arrive at one and then the other, a rooftop yoga venue where I find two Indian men just waking up, there are no yoga classes, and when I say to one of the men on the rooftop, “Yoga, seven A.M?” he wags his finger at me and says, “Never once.” But I am determined to do yoga this morning and return to my room, put my mats on the floor, and begin.
One of the reasons I like to take yoga classes from yoga instructors is that I don’t have to think about what to do, I just follow their voices, listen passively to their instructions, do what they say to do, and try to focus on my breathing. This is in contrast to most times that I do yoga on my own, when I am often distracted by my need to move myself consciously through my practice and cannot surrender my active thinking mind. But this day for some reason my mind has turned off and each pose just flows into the next until I realize I am in shivasana, a crow is calling, and more than an hour and a half has passed. I like that, that I have the space to be that person.

11. Auroville
Yotam’s second passion is Auroville, He shows me a video he has made about chimes, bells and new musical instruments being produced in Auroville, which is an experimental community self described as a “township in the making since 1968” of over 2,200 people living on land spread out over 30 sq kilometers in over 100 “settlements” with names like Courage, Gratitude, and Surrender - set amidst Tamil villages named Pappanchavadi, Perdamudaliarchavadi, and Sanjeevinagar - linked by roads, cycle and walking paths, water and electric service, and having the goal of disassociating from an “old world ready for death” by working for a “new and better world preparing to be born.”
Auroville is truly amazing, comfortable, fascinating, real, and successful. As an old sixties hippie and communard I am in awe of what they have accomplished. The housing is lovely. The roads are dirt and well maintained. There is a public school system. It is spiritual and political at its core. It has integrated into the community it exists in in an amazing way and is surrounded by supportive peasant farming villages that have a decidedly symbiotic relationship to the community. In the local town are numbers of really good bakeries, small fresh food and organic markets, motorcycle and bike rental stores, Internet services, small tourist agencies, and restaurants, all owned by locals who are benefiting from the success of the community. The settlements have good purified community drinking water. There are playgrounds and volleyball and basketball courts, a kindergarten, a soccer field, a weekly community newsletter, lectures, workshops, organic gardens. What most impresses me is how many local Indian people work in and around Auroville, and how some have even become members. It delights me to see peasant men and women walking, biking, and motorcycling in and around Auroville who also share in the sense of being part of the larger community, who comfortably hitch rides, who smile back when you smile at them.
People who live in the Auroville community are encouraged to be “free of moral and social convention,” but not slaves to the ego and its ambition if they wish to find the path to inner peace, which in the Aurovillian view can only be attained in a state of disinterestedness. And while there is an immense emphasis on truly being “free,” which in Auroville is not possible without acknowledgement of the “Divine,” there is also a pragmatic commitment to working for the good of the community and each adult member of the community is asked to make tangible contributions to the collective good that are distinct from working for one’s self.
There is something very attractive and beautiful to me about the whole scene, a sense of extraordinariness, immense calm, common laughter, intentionality, vibrancy, and magic. It is seductive and comfortable. And although my current biases do not immediately draw me to want to join Auroville I do find it immensely seductive, relaxed, relaxing, clean, smog free, inspired, and committed to envisioning and realizing a new world. And it is not as if Auroville is not part of India, it is, complete with cows in the street, women in saris, people balancing great loads on their heads, holy men, beggars, barefoot children, thatched huts, and a very Indian vibe, but being in Auroville is a bit like saying you’ve seen America when you have only been to Provincetown and I feel the urge to move on early.

12. Urusala
A French couple in their fifties or sixties are traveling with an Indian woman in her late thirties. I have seen this odd trio from time to time during my stay in Auroville and the man and I have acknowledged each other with nods. When we meet “accidentally” at the beach the man tells me he is a theatre director, and yes, he has heard of Steve Wangh and Steven’s famous book, “Acrobat of the Heart,” although he has not read it. A friend of theirs in France, who is now quite elderly and infirm, adopted the Indian woman they travel with, Urusala, from a convent in South India thirty years ago. Urusala, who is quite shy and lovely, has cognitive problems, and spends most of her time in a variety of sheltered workshops in France, not really knowing who she is and having no memories of her life before her adoption. The French couple, who have four grown children of their own, as a gift to their elderly friend, have taken Urusala to South India to see if such a trip will evoke Urusala’s memories. It does not, although Urusala likes being among people who look like her, feels “at home” in India, and when she goes to visit the convent she was first raised in recognizes and is recognized by one of the young girls she grew up with in the convent, still living there as a teacher, unable as an Indian orphan girl to find a life outside the walls. Their recognition of each other thirty years after their separation brings each of the women to tears, and is described by Urusala as the high point of her trip, something almost entirely incredible were it not true, something she feels immense awe, pleasure, and joy about, although it evokes no other memories for her than that she knew the woman as a girl. Before I leave Auroville I bring out three inexpensive necklaces I bought in Mamalapurum as a gift for my granddaughter Mikaela’s dolls and place them down on a table offering the one of her choice to Urusala as a gift. The necklaces immediately draw a small crowd of Indian women, each admiring the necklaces (which together cost less than a dollar) and trying them on. There is general agreement that the most colorful one is the loveliest, and matches the yellow outfit Urusala is wearing and she chooses that one to keep. The man and I then discuss whether God exists, a perfectly reasonable Indian segue, and he shares with me that it was Descartes who proclaimed the proof of God’s existence was in the doubt of God’s existence. And inspired by the Descartes reference I tell him the joke about being and doing and Frank Sinatra, and he gets it, and we laugh together. We laugh together for a long time.

13. Yoga in Auroville– Shambhu
I arrive at a 6:30 A.M. yoga class with only two other people in it offered by Shambhu, a smallish man with a very thick French accent, who is a member of the Auroville community and an absolutely dedicated yogi, and who suggests four dollars would be a fair contribution for his class … if you can afford it. I take only two classes with Shambhu but learn an immense amount from him, things I have never known, about the sound of Om, about the movement and particularization of breath, and about the space between the postures. It is totally non-aerobic, totally not exercise as I use that word, but a spiritual practice that honors the body and focuses the mind. I cannot imagine taking yoga classes with Shambhu as a regular practice but I want to be his student, want to know what he knows, want to move with the thoughtful precision that he moves with after what has surely been years and years of practice and study. “Who is your teacher,” I ask Shambhu after the first day’s class and Shambhu says, “I am not allowed to speak my teacher’s name.” And after the second day’s class I ask, “Well, if you are not allowed to speak your teacher’s name, could you write it down on a piece of paper?” And we laugh. And he says, “No.” And I ask why. And Shambhu says, “I do not have permission,” only he says “I do not ‘ave ‘e’s permission.” And I say, “I am leaving tomorrow, Shambhu, and would just like you to know how much I have enjoyed your classes and how much I feel I have learned from you in even this short time.” And Shambhu says, “And I feel I ‘ave learned much from you.” And we laugh. And we bow. And I leave.

14. Motor scooter
Because everything in Auroville is so spread out most people who live in or visit Auroville for a while own or rent bicycles or motor scooters. It is literally many kilometers, and would be a very long time consuming walk, to get from my guesthouse, near the post office and the visitor center, to the solar kitchen, the yoga studio, or to the beach, bakery, coffee shop, and groceries in town.
And while driving a scooter in Auroville is significantly different than driving around Chennai or on the Indian roadways - slower, more courteous, fewer horns, a smaller volume of traffic, no big trucks - it is still driving in India and lanes of travel are only minimally respected.
I rent my scooter from a mechanic who stutters and speaks fairly good English. He tells me the price for the scooter will be eight hundred rupees a day (roughly twenty dollars), which seems high, but I like the guy and leave him a one thousand rupee deposit. I am happy on my scooter and it moves me around this playland with ease. We go to the beach, my scooter and me, which is as lovely a beach as you are likely to ever see. We go to the solar kitchen for late night ice cream. We go to yoga, and the bakery, and in search of the Laboratory of Evolution, which turns out to be a library.
While on the road to the Laboratory of Evolution driving slowly past the Matrimony settlement, which is right after Certitude, when negotiating a very narrow turn, I mistakenly accelerate rather than decelerate with the hand speed grip that is on the same side of the handle bar of the scooter as the rear wheel brake and graze off a small tree, lose my balance, and fall into the roadway my engine still racing, whereupon a half dozen Indian people appear as if descended from the sky, complete with iodine tincture, cotton, bandages, laughter, and looks of genuine concern.
I am fine. I mean mostly fine. Nothing is broken. Nothing needs stitching. Nothing is torn or ruptured. But I am bleeding from cuts on both legs and my toes, and I do have a significant scrape/road burn on my left knee, which is what I hit the tree with, knocked me off balance, and that I landed on. After the magically appearing team of what turns out to be Indian cement workers doctor me with great care I continue on on the scooter and have a very nice day, notwithstanding my pains, taking myself to the ocean for a healing soak, driving to a roadside pharmacy where a nineteen year old clerk sells me tinctures, ointments, and bandages and ministers to me with great care, and driving to the Kofi Café where I have a fresh cappuccino, a dosa with curried veggies, and fruit salad with yogurt, all of which costs me three dollars. (My dinner at the Auroville guesthouse I’m staying in last night with fresh homemade chapattis, rice, and a variety of veggie dishes cost one dollar.) I don’t know why I’m focused on food in this way, but I am, partly because it is unfolding in India and as such fills me with surprise and delight, and partially because I know I am dangerously pushing the edges of the envelope, the furthest edges being the pancakes Joy and I ate on the street in Mandalay, the fish and rice I ate seated on the floor of Multhiy’s house in the village of Kovalam, the filtered water I am drinking in Auroville, and tied for tops on my list, the deep friend banana and deep fried pepper I ate on the beach in Mamalapurum.
After dinner I drive to the Internet cafe, the grocery, the bakery, and only then do I drive my wounded bandaged flesh to the guesthouse, arriving before sunset, where I again tend to my modest cuts, scrapes, punctures, and bruises, consume the spinach quiche and exceptionally tasty veggie strudel I bought at the bakery, and indulge in an evening of healing, sleep, writing, reading, reverie, and comfort (make that joy actually) in my aloneness and my solitude.
I am of the belief that in this accident I am more lucky than unlucky. I am of the belief that my healing proceeds with great speed. I am again amazed at the power of the body and of the mind … and yes, of the Great Spirit. How else to explain my laying in bed with my body stinging in pain and realizing I am actually euphorically happy?

15. Sankar
On the day I arrive at Auroville I am dropped off at the town near the junction of the road to Auroville where I needed a taxi rickshaw to get to the Auroville Community. The driver of the rig who picks me up is named Sankar, thirty two years old, born in the town, married eight years, with two children, and living with his mother and sister while renting out his own home for the season. And besides wanting a good fare, over my three days in Auroville I come to believe Sankar genuinely wants to be the most helpful and dependable rickshaw driver he can be for me. Thus he waits for me at the guesthouse when I register and then takes me to a motorcycle rental place. And he discusses with me in broken English how I ought not take my rented cycle into Puduchcheri when I go to visit but will need a rickshaw, and that he wants to be my driver. And maybe it’s all an act, but my sense is of Sankar liking me and wanting me to have the very best time I can. And on my last day, when Sankar picks me up to take into Pundi to get the bus back to the airport in Chennai we also pick up his wife and young son and he shows me his house, and his mother’s house, and we take his wife and son along in the rickshaw until we drop them off at his son’s pre-school, and I envy the joking and bantering that goes on between Sankar and his wife, how they are laughing together, how she playfully punches him in the shoulder and says “No Engleesh” when he teases her about the fact that she does not speak English. And I say, mindful of the risk, “Sankar, you are a lucky man, your wife is very beautiful.” And Sankar says to me, “I am a wery lucky man, sir, and my wife, sir, is wery nice, and I love to love her.” And he is smiling, and I am smiling, although I cannot tell whether Sankar has merely made a statement of fact or if I am also being chided about my emphasis on beauty.

… to be continued