Look, Ma, I’m in India-But My Soul’s in Customs

I’ve been in India a week and still don’t know what I’m doing here. “Your journey will change you in the way it was meant to,” one of the countless New Agers who come here told me before I left New York, but apart from some spectacular dreams and a close encounter with a mongoose, I don’t feel like I’m on a real journey. I brought the flu with me and spent two sleepless nights worrying about my career. My wife says I’m waiting for my soul to get here.

I invited my mother, but she said India was too squalid for a vacation, and now I’m inclined to agree. This morning in Pondicherry, I wake up itching in the Qualithé, a hotel on Governmental Square that was once a jewel of colonial India. Now there are people sleeping on cardboard on the balcony outside my room and mud colonies of ants in the bedroom wall. Silently, I curse Gandhi for liberating this place. He seems to have simply democratized the filth.

My wife and I escape the square to do yoga.

“Triangle pose,” she says.

“Sir! You are bending your knee. Must be straight!”

I look up to see a shriveled, half-naked old man striding across the grass. He adjusts his lungi and starts leading us in Jack LaLanne-type movements. Oh, for Yoga Zone on Fifth Avenue.

“These aren’t positions, are they?” I murmur.

“Why not, there are thousands of positions in yoga,” says my wife, the bliss-ninny.

Our traveling companions scored the clean hotel, Seaside Guest House, but John had to sneak Scotch into his room in a mineral water bottle. That’s because everything nice in town is run by the Aurobindo Ashram, and is plastered with photos of the late Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual sidekick, the Mother. The other Westerners we meet are devotees. I meet one in the lobby wearing a frogged white shirt. She’s 45, virginal, porcelain skin lit from within and without.

“Have you ever seen someone so beatific?” my wife says later.

“My mother would say she’s damaged.”

“Isn’t it interesting that someone so untouched seems damaged while someone in the middle of life, broken and squalling, doesn’t?”

We take a motorized rickshaw six miles out of town to Auroville, a model New Age community the Mother started in 1968 when language riots frightened her. After the Mother “left her body” in 1973, Auroville broke with the ashram in town. There were supposed to be 50,000 Aurovillians by now; there are 1,200 Westerners here in settlements with names like Utility and Gaia.

“We can’t put you up for a night,” says Kathryn at Verité settlement. “Visitors stay for a week and form a community; it would be too disruptive.”

“I want to stay forever,” says Shakti, the caretaker at the guest house we find. “That is, if Mother wants me to.”

I can’t hold Mother against them. The house is the most beautiful place we’ve stayed in in India. Heavy flagstones on a lotus pool, tea planters’ chairs on the veranda, carved stone pediments, a lovely salad at dinner.

The Aurovillians produce endless documents on their experiment that are earnest and thoughtful and signed “Janet” or “Rolf” and step past the central fact of their neo-colonialist existence; cheap dark-skinned labor. A house in Auroville costs as little as $10,000. “We are a German-Indian couple with children and dogs on a secluded organic farm,” says a flier on the wall. “We are open to long-term people who would like to start a community.”

Still, I like the Mother. She’s given me two religious moments. The first was that morning in the Seaside lobby, reading a biography of her, and thinking what a long, cool life she led. Born in 1878 as Mirra Alfassa, the daughter of a Turkish banker, she hung in Paris with Impressionists and occultists, marrying twice. Then she met Sri Aurobindo, a handsome, bearded, glossy-eyed mystic, and realized she’d been dreaming about him for years, as “Krishna.” Husband No. 2 split, and at 42 she looked 20 in Aurobindo’s presence. “Sri Aurobindo explained that a great transformation took place in the nervous system and even the physical system when the higher consciousness came down to the vital plane.”

They were two great crackpots. Mother could go out of her body to turn Stalin against Hitler, Aurobindo could cure a kitten of scorpion bite by staring into its eyes. At their ashram, Mother disdained the ascetic in Hindu tradition and exalted tennis.

As I was reading, I felt a warm gaze on my face and looked up to see the Mother, on the wall. “Do whatever you really want,” her eyes said.

The other moment was twisted. At Auroville, my wife and I visit the great temple, a 120-foot-tall concrete bubble in space age design. We take our shoes off and join a long line of visitors in single file, on red sand, past signs and volunteers urging “Silence!” On the pass in my hand, the Mother warns this is “only for those who are serious,” and after 100 yards, the path leads up Lunar Evacuation Module staircase and into the egg-claustrophobic, scary. More silence as the ramp spirals up through the air. Then, at last, a few seconds at a railing in the Temple, a high chamber hung with white satin and pierced by sunlight torching a crystal globe. Involuntarily, I pray.

Putting her shoes back on, my wife says it was a perfectly manipulated moment-anxiety, ignorance, awe, fear, then release.

A night later, we’re in Thanjavur, and I take a bye on the temple. Madly rushing from one spot in the guidebook to another; I don’t get this form of travel. At moments, I blink up from my preoccupations to see women in saris and nose rings, and I say, Oh, right, India.

“Where’s Mysore?” my wife says during a planning session.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Where’s Uranus?”

By Mysore, I better have had a journey-that’s where I hope to run into Joe Dolce, the well-known New York editor. I’m competitive about my journey.

My wife and John come back from the temple to my room. John brings me a glass of Scotch. It’s New Year’s Eve.

“How was the temple?”

“Great,” John says. “This elephant blesses you. First it takes a coin, you know, there’s that fingerlike thing at the end of its trunk, then it reaches about eight feet to give the coin to its handler, then it touches you on the head.”

“And there’s a giant lingam, you have to see it,” my wife says. “About 18 feet tall.”

“I didn’t even know it was a lingam, it was so covered in those flowers,” John says.

“I know. Diana Vreeland said pink is the navy blue of India. But I think it’s orange.”

We meet John’s friend Susan downstairs in the Bamboo Bar. I’m itching madly. We order beer.

“Did you see the way those middle-class people were praying to the lingam,” my wife says. She does some Jack LaLanne-type movements from her forehead with gathered hands.

“I don’t know if you should do that here,” I say, opening my shirt. “Hey, are these bedbug bites?”

We talk about Seinfeld and go upstairs at 11. Explosions wake me an hour later. I’ve been dreaming about Ted Koppel. He’s wearing orange and runs off with a friend of mine, making me jealous. What’s that about? Ego, competition.

In the morning, I set out alone to see the lingam. Good way to start the new year, world’s biggest lingam.

I walk out into the sun and the stink, and start railing in my mind again about the world’s biggest democracy. What’s interesting about the common man? Ignorance? Conformity? You need an elite to give things order. You need long-term devotees with a cause and community. The British Empire and the Mother both had idiotic beliefs, but at least both knew how to garden this place.

Then I hear singing and stop. Three blind beggars and two escorts are walking down the street barefoot with their arms around one another. One holds out his lungi to catch coins, another taps the beat with his cane. People come out of the filth at the side of the road to give, even a lame girl. Their voices in song seem the most beautiful ever heard. Any minute now, my soul should be getting here from New York.

Look, Ma, I’m in India-But My Soul’s in Customs