Class of 2009
The French-influenced city of Pondicherry provided a pleasant stay for one night. The streets around the French Quarter, and even in the southern parts of the more familiar Indian side, were unrecognisably quiet. The French quarter in particular contained long stretches of suburban tree-lined streets bordered on both sides by many French-style building facades. The sea-side walk was scenic and most attractively for me was filled with vendors selling an array of Indian snacks and fresh fruits. I kept stopping every few metres to sample new things, and yet more fruits.
We stayed in one of the best and cheapest accommodations so far, within an ashram (generally a place for meditation) containing clean, bright double rooms costing merely 100 rupees - just over a pound. The only draw back was the 10.30pm curfew which would ordinarily not matter for us but, as Sod's Law would predict, it happened to be the very night when we needed that extra hour of an open home. The ashram is part of a bigger complex of several ashrams and accommodation blocks in the city supporting the movement of Sri Aurobinda's teaching of meditation through yoga and self-consciousness to lead the mind towards the divine, a process not linked to any religion. This complex of ashrams has spawned a school for pupils from the youngest years to college age, teaching with a syllabus which I assume holds much more emphasis on the spiritual and holistic development of knowledge and self-awareness within the student. On that particular night of the curfew, the class of 2009's graduation produced a free 2/3-hour show containing impressive traditional and modern dances, singing, recitations and a mixed-quality array of comedy sketches. I loved the whole show, and wanted desperately to stay until the end, not just to see the entire performance but to also interact with the graduating students and find out more about their course. They intrigued me greatly somehow. Alas it was not to be.
The next day, we visited Auroville, a project started by one of the founders (known as 'The Mother') of Sri Aurodbina's movement. Auroville is a town unto itself, holding thousands of people of x-number of nationalities, with the aim of creating a unified, cohesive community of people not marred by racial or other boundaries and living in harmony with each other and for the individual's goal of reaching the divine knowledge within oneself. My little summary in this paragraph is undoubtedly erroneous, simply because the quick and limited tour makes it difficult to fully grasp the full ideologies behind the whole project. I left without being able to absorb much from it, but only with an eerie feeling when I saw the centre of the town, a futuristic and huge golden ball, the Matrimandir, for individual meditations. Life in the town seems to revolve around this ball, somehow making me envision Auroville as a self-contained occult.
We made our way to Chennai after this, via an auto-rickshaw that Eileen and I were allowed to drive. It again made me think of the rickshaw challenge that Paddu and his friend had completed, driving the humble yellow rickshaw for thousands of miles across India in a short space of time and competing against thousands of others in the race. Surely it can be a possibility for me sometime in the future?
Chennai is the current home of Navneeth, who I had only met some weeks earlier in Mumbai, via a mutual friend. His spacious penthouse apartment shared with his cousin promised Eileen and I a relaxing rest by the sea. It lived up to its promise and more. The apartment was a haven of comfort, complete with a rooftop terrace providing a clear view of the sea and a perfect cool breeze throughout the day. A perfect place to simply sit, star-gaze, read or watch life go by. I had been craving for pasta for some time and amazingly was granted my wish here via a well-stocked kitchen enabling me to cook a simple pasta dish. It felt strangely good to be cooking again, though I seldom do it even in London.
Overseeing our 3-night stay was our ever-agreeable host, Navneeth. A self-confessed nomad, he's recently spent three years travelling in the remote regions of Africa, Central Asia, India and South East Asia before settling in Chennai earlier this year. He will likely be on the move again within a couple of years. In another life, with less ties and more freedom, I can imagine being the same.
Pallavi, Ruby and Pavitra
Navneeth's work at the moment is within a 4-man NGO team that helps in school start-ups and school improvements. While Navneeth deals mainly with the fundraising side, his colleague (Pallavi), who I was fortunate enough to spend a morning with, works as an educational consultant to improve the schools that her organisation has been asked to manage. As part of this improvement, she has recommended that the school move away from the chalk 'n talk teaching style synonymous with Indian teaching and more towards the Montesorri approach of child-centred learning. This approach emphasises the need to place the onus of learning not on the teacher, but on the individual child who should be trusted and helped to dictate his/her own learning. The conversation I had with her about her work, the general educational system of India and this new approach was fascinating and inspiring. Two colleagues from Motesorri, Ruby (in charge of the programme) and Pavitra (a Montesorri teacher) joined us in the taxi going towards this school, giving me more insight into the Montesorri idealogy. After the visit to Pallavi's school, where Ruby and Pavitra were directing the pre-primary teachers on how to set up their classrooms the Montesorri way, with relevant activities and stimuli placed around the classroom, Ruby gave me a tour of her Montesorri school. The learning spaces I came across at first seemed chaotic, with individuals or small groups doing various activities all around the room, closer inspection and explanations revealed an organised set-up where teachers are constantly aware of each child's progress and current learning. I finished that morning with a new world opened to me.
The days in Chennai are characterised by walks on the beach, going to church, relaxing at home, eating good food, listening to music, dancing, playing Scrabble (woo!) and having very little sleep (5 hours the first night, 3 the second, none the next). The hours spent awake were seldom productive or worthwhile but was tranquil enough to make it good.
On the last day in Chennai, before getting on the train to Hyderabad, I finally met up with Franklin who was introduced to me by Daniel from the CSI project in Wayanad. We've spoken on the phone on numerous occasions since he's always eager to help me out in every way possible, but this was the first meeting. He took Eileen and I to a good lunch and after, I was able to give him a CD of Wayanad photos to print out for George and the family. I've been so blessed with such kind souls ever willing to lend a helping hand!
Then finally the overnight train from Chennai to Hyderabad, a journey I did not anticipate making on this trip. It somehow fell together when the timing of our originally planned 30+ hours journey to Agra did not work out. Hyderabad provided an opportunity to see a new city and break up the journey. With little sleep the nights before, I crashed to bed as soon as I boarded the train at 5pm. It was a good sleep!