Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Pondy, as the locals call it, it a two hour bus journey from Mamallapuram, and a former French colony. Unlike other locales across Asia claiming Gallic ancestry, Pondicherry certainly looks the part. It boasts a Hôtel de Ville, a few Jesuit-inspired cathedrals, and tree-lined avenues with architecture that transports you to 'le Midi'. As a native of Adelaide, a carefully planned city of right angles and parks, I felt an immediate connection to the colonial planners of Pondy who saw fit to design their city that I might navigate it sans map. I was able to find my way around easily enough, acquiring a room for the night proved a little more irksome.

The Surya Swastika Guesthouse and a few others in the neighbourhood were booked out. The marriage of a prominent person was scheduled that evening, and with the Indian practice of inviting every man, and cow to partake of the festivities, lodging was going to be scarce.
Recognising my plight, I smoked a couple of ciggies and realised that only one creature could help me. The rickshaw driver. Omnipresent on the subcontinent, the rickshaw-wallah is perceived by me as a necessary evil used as seldom as possible. They sum up the least tolerable aspects of travelling. I long ago resigned myself to their cheating, lying and fraudulent business practices. They are good for only two things. The first is that as a lone male traveller, they can supply you with any manner and quantity of illicit substances. Secondly, some speak passable English - all know the phrase, 'You want hashish?' - and to be fair, they are the only people around who know exactly where to find you a vacant hotel room. My driver whisked me off through the streets to the Park Guest House for a hefty sum. I threw in a generous tip for not offering me drugs.

The Hotel is part of the Sri Aurobindo ashram. No smoking, no drinking of alcohol. No eating of meat. The gates close at 10:30 pm. The room was vast, clean, and from the balcony I could see small waves crashing onto the shore lined with coconut palms. A quick shower and I went out for a look around. A promenade along the foreshore, I turned inland and marvelled at the number of bookshops. Temptation was too great.

I purchased four new books, and wondered how I was going to pack them into my luggage along with the thirteen currently in my possession. I obviously have issues with books, and can rarely bring myself to discard them. The usual practice is to swap tomes with other travellers. But there are no other travellers in the south of India, or at least, it's been some time since I crossed one. The only Westerner I've spoken with of late was a fellow Australian who boasted that he hadn't read a book in ten years. I think it was more likely ten years since his last trip to a dentist, but I kept my mouth shut.

Excited with my new purchases, I put the groaning backpack out of my mind and strolled into the building next door. Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Mass was about to commence. I took my place in the pew and hoped that I didn't stand out as a Protestant heretic.
Mass was off to a riveting start. Some taped music wafted through loudspeakers, fans hummed above my head. The church was a huge affair. Built in the medieval French style, the Indians have added a dash of colour. From the cupola hang enormous swathes of gold and white ribbon. A multi-coloured heraldic banner lined the nave and transept, and to the right of the altar sits a massive Byzantine icon of Virgin Mary with Jesus, in vivid poster paint.

A splash of gold. A lot of emerald green. A lot of chartreuse. Mountains of pink and blue tulle adorned statues of the saints. Perhaps not subtle, but considerably more inviting than the stark beige brick edifice I worshipped in as a child. Catholicism has a touch of frivolous glamour, at least to us puritans. I also like that fact that Mass includes vigorous exercise. As a youngster in church, I used to fall asleep either pondering the possibilities of Lego or novel ways to taunt my sisters, but here my time was more profitably used. Sitting, standing, sitting, kneeling, standing, sitting. No time for idle thoughts, and quite a good cardio-vascular workout. The service was conducted entirely in Tamil (except for the words 'empower me' uttered sporadically by the Father). I hummed along merrily to hymns, and hoped that, should the organist break in to 'When the Saints Go Marching In', I would outdo them all. It wasn't to be, but after Mass finished and the crowd filtered out the church, the priest came over for a chat.

'Are you Christian?'

'Yes, Father.'

'You had your hat on during Mass.'


'Sorry, I forgot. You see, it's always ...'

'Who is your patron saint?'

Thinking caps on ...

'Christopher. Patron saint of travellers.'

'Do you want to go to confession?'

The crunch. Confession is not something I've ever done. It didn't exist at the suburban Church of Christ I knew as a child, and my only understanding I have of it comes from observing tele-movies about the impoverished bog Irish.


At least I knew how to start.

'Forgive me father for I have sinned.'


The floodgates opened. I don't by any measure consider myself a bad person, but what a relief to unload a whole bunch of stuff onto a complete stranger. Of course, I'm not going to detail them all here, but Father Peter took them all in his stride, and seemed to agree with me that rickshaw drivers, on the whole, are heretics doomed to the eternal fires of Hell.

Given enough time, it's amazing what you can dig up. I told him how badly I used to treat my sisters, charging them money to borrow my tape-recorder. I'm fairly sure I didn't share my Lego with them either. And I used to cheat at Monopoly when playing with my then six year old younger sister. I'm not sure he realized that these sins were twenty-five years in the past, but he seemed to think also that Lego was a marvellous invention.

We slid from confession to therapy. I recounted a few appalling things I did in my twenties, exorcised some long held thoughts about my own father (small 'f'), and rattled on about my inexplicable enmity toward junk food and indolence. I finished with a small tirade about my inability to express emotion - he disagreed and thought I had plenty of interesting emotions.
He doled out some homework and sent me back to the altar, where, for the first time in living memory, I kneeled down and prayed. Not sure I how got myself in this position (not the kneeling, that was easy enough), but it actually felt very good. I prayed for half an hour and in some way felt a lot lighter when I stood up.

I wandered back to the ashram and sat on the balcony. On the lawn below, a twenty-something neophyte of Sri Aurobindo dressed in flowing white cottons entertained me with an eclectic mix of jazz ballet, chanting, and violent aerobic movements. As a lapsed Protestant sitting in an ashram after attending Catholic mass, I smile beatifically.

India is a marvellous place. They might stare at you for wearing shorts, but you can believe in whatever you want. As long as you possess faith in something, you'll fit in quite nicely.

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