Day 2 in Pondicherry began with us donning our new Khadi shirts. Khadi, as I understand it, is a symbol of Indian independence from Britain. In the days when India was a British mercantile colony, the Brits would grow and harvest cotton in India and take it elsewhere to be spun into garments. These garments, often ill fitting the heat of the Indian climate, would then be sold back to the Indians at unreasonable prices. Mahatma Ghandi, as part of the Indian independence movement, promoted Khadi, or homespun cotton garments, made by surrounding villagers. These garments were much thinner and well suited to the hot and humid Indian summers. They are also, by the same token, rather translucent. So it was with only mild self consciousness that I left the hotel and joined Scott on our bicycles headed for his old office when he lived in Pondicherry in 2006.
The Business was called BookBox, though it was their non-profit side-project, planet read, that Scott worked on. We pedaled through the streets of Pondicherry, which where eerily empty. It was a Saturday morning at 10am, so we figured perhaps things were just sleepy. We stopped into a favorite restaurant of Scott’s, Bombay Meals, which, unlike many around it, appeared to be open. The owner, was lounging in the empty interior, but sent us away saying he might be open at 7pm, but no earlier. Somewhat confused, we decided to postpone breakfast and ride over to PlanetRead. When we arrived, I was impressed with the operation, and their admiration for Scott was clear. The office cook made some nice hot south Indian coffees for us and we retired to a comfortable room in the back of the office to examine some of the new products. BookBox creates digital storybooks in many languages, to be used as language teaching materials. We spoke also of new plans for expansion into language tools for the hearing impaired using the same technology. As we finished the coffee (which was splendid), we were asked if we wanted to sit in on the noontime meeting, and whether Scott would give a short speech (no particular topic was suggested). Scott of course agreed and we also agreed to join them for lunch (despite warnings of possibly excessive spice levels).I consider myself a hardened eater of spicy food, but I was expecting to be blown out of the water by the intensity of Indian spicy-ness. Not so. While the food here bursts with flavor and balanced spice.
It is far from gratuitous, and, in fact, more often than not milder than the raging food we used to cook back in Providence for “Sunday: Chicken and Bowling.” Though you, dear reader, cannot see, I have become choked and weepy at the mere mention…Scott’s speech was great. The highlight for me was when he quoted Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said they wanted a faster horse…” Had he asked me, I’d have said I’m perfectly happy with my 30 pound steel atlas bicycle and panama hat.The meal was splendid: a rich chicken biryani, a stainless steel pot of curry, and splendid raita. At least here in the south, raita is nothing like the thin glop we have come to know and love at Indian restaurants in the united states, rather it consists of just two ingredients: chopped onion and yogurt, each in about equal proportion, and it is thick like coleslaw. Also it is ridiculously delicious. On the streets of Pondicherry and Chennai you can see men slicing onion with such furious precision, sweeping onion after onion aside into a giant pile waiting to become raita.Also during our visit to the BookBox headquarters, we discovered the reason for the empty streets and the closed restaurants. The entire nation had been called to strike that Saturday, in protest of recent increases in patrol prices. So we set out for our wheel, unimpeded by the usual traffic and mayhem which adhere to the city streets. Our wheel took us out into the fisherman’s neighborhood.
As we rode, the road changes from concrete to sand, and the building changed from crumbling brick and cement to palm leaves, jagged sticks, and bits of plastic. Though everywhere we go we get plenty of looks (two attractive young men in panama hats and oversized sunglasses riding bicycles –also we are the only white people), but this was a new level of attention. As we rode people called our to us in Tamil and children came over to touch the bicycles and babble at us or just wave. Most of those we passed simply stared though, with expressions ranging from mildly interested to confrontational.I must admit the experience of visiting the fishing village was emotionally tiring.
And to boot, we had been riding in 100+ degree heat with no water since all the shops were closed. As we rode back into the city we passed an ashram called Sri Aurobindo.
We parked the bikes and removed our shoes in the designated area on the other side of the street and walked across the burning hot cobblestones to enter the ashram. Not a word was permitted to be spoken inside so we simply followed the person ahead of us to a large stone table upon which an intricate image had been assembled from different cut flowers. A man walked ceaselessly around the table, waving a bundle of burning incense. All around us were small gardens and stacks of potted plants. A man with two long wispy brooms wandered sweeping dust and dried leaves from here to there, so that people could sit on the stone ground.And this we did. Again, I enjoyed the experience. I am not sure if I can say that I meditated, but I certainly found the experience to have a calming and centering effect which linger some time after the experience itself. With all the shops still closed, we left the ashram and rode the city searching for water. After some time we found a nescafe stand on the beach which sold us some bottles.
The effects of the water on my system were every bit as strong as the sit we had in the ashram. And for this first time in many hours we resumed laughing and joking, while we made our way back the the hotel.