INR 1000 to 40… A food journey

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Typical road scape in Auroville….

No matter what, life is often nothing but a food journey. From one meal to another, we survive on hope and promise of the next repast! One could write a travelogue through many perspectives, but food seems like the most appropriate spoon to share this soundhidian experience with yeh all!

It is an ancient faith that the divine mother takes care of your basic needs like food. It means that the man need not worry, work and covet for the next meal. His life is for a greater purpose. The survival part will be taken care of as long as he is “useful” to run the machine of this world…as long as he is doing is first duty of evolving into a better being. It is not just a faith or mythical belief but a crude universal law of usefulness! Some call it the universal energy or the holy mother Mary or the divine mother, goddess Kali, Guadeloupe, mum, aunt, grandma….and so on. The variables in this equation change but the constant remains the same, that we are fed!!

And so was I fed for last 12 days by the many forms of divine mother! It is an interesting account that connects tummy with heart…spirit with intestine!!

During one week at Auroville, most of my day was spent in lectures, case studies, studios and a ginormous stack of books to be finished in such little time. In addition to intellectual gymnastics, I also had to spend first couple of days in trying to get the map straightened in my head, balancing a torch and bicycle at once and such other skills. There was no time to look around for places to eat, though Auroville holds a unique range of restaurants for those who have ample time to bicycle through the woods searching for hidden food heavens!

Stone-like bread splattered with butter and marmalade was my permanent dinner plan. I followed it religiously every night, sitting in a clearing carved out of books and notes spread on the floor! There would be exotic music drifting through the open windows, along with clouds of mosquitoes, I must add, since the windows had no idea of closure at all! French, Italian, Greek or sometimes Middle Eastern folk music was the only variable ingredient of my dinner!

Though when I think of that one week, all I remember is the bright library of the earth institute, quite, except the chirping squirrels and soulful cries of peacocks….soft wind rustling the foliage, sending an array of dancing shadows through leaf- filtered sunlight! The smell of rows after rows of finest books in the world, disturbed only by wafting cups of real south Indian coffee twice a day!

Lunch at the institute is crazy time when all the international pack of students gathers around an international food fest! There is dosa in coconut milk, sometimes a tamil version of chappathy, as they call it! I thought I reached the ultimate global food unity when I was served pasta and samabaram in the same plate!

Accepting that the lunch was the only time I could get a real meal, I thanked the divine mother who had then appeared in the form of “Anjani” amma at the institute! She served with a smile whatever crazy combination lunch was made for us! She would save some for me, in case I spent too much of the lunchtime in the library…

After spending a studious and hungry week at Auroville, finally I grabbed my chance to escape to Pondicherry. First thing I did was finding an authentic Tamil restaurant! Idli wada sambaram and a hot cup of kwaapi was my contemporary definition of heaven! Mere smell of curry leaves afloat in sambaram can change one’s perspective about life!

The driver was smart enough to gauge the silent foodie occupying the back seat, so he drove me to a fine French restaurant for the lunch. It was run by a French architect who, naturally hails from Auroville again! Admiring the ambiance that was casual and tastefully aesthetic at the same time, I settled in a comfortable corner cane couch! An excellent fish cooked in French basil sauce, mashed potatoes, vegetables and rice served with a glass of decent French wine. Divine mother looked very inconspicuous as a tamil server, suggesting me the best on the menu! I like her as long as she feeds me with that charming smile!

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Massive wind chime at the Visitor’s Center, auroville

My time in Auroville finally came to an end with a quick excursion through the town and the beach. It was an absolutely unplanned and obvious thought to spend my last evening in Auroville, at the visitor’s center restaurant, an elegantly structured court surrounded with boutiques and brick arches. The sun was setting beyond high masts of palm trees, there was happy bauble of diners around me, a tiny candle fluttering inside paper lantern on my table, a glass of pomegranate juice and a piece of cake to go with a book about Aurovilliean perspective of education!

Divine mother feeds not just our stomach but our spirit as well…. That evening will remain in my heart forever, like a caress of a loving mother, smile of an appreciative teacher and a warm handshake with the future!!

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A kairali breakfast is incomplete without banana!!

Her lovely care does not leave me even when I leave the mystical land of Auroville. I reach Trivandrum after a day spent with cold airline sandwiches; throw my bags in a hotel and dash to the nearest diner! A sweet mallyali lady welcomes me with a whiff of jasmines in her hair, and looks up intently at my face…. I am not sure I can hide long spells of hunger very well! When she serves a heap of rice with sambaram and typical kairali chutneys, she smiles at me again and adds two pieces of fried fish that I never asked for! We do not really need a language to communicate, my half smile and teary face says everything that was to be said…..

Trivandrum auto drivers are not so gentle though, they drive like a charging bull in an arena! But I must admit that my Laurie Baker pilgrimage in Trivandrum would have been hopeless without their unmatched skills of finding strangest of addresses! This auto driver too soon figured out that the best way to coax a good tip out of me was to drop me to the best food place he could!

On the way to Kanyakumari I slept careless as a child… too full to stay awake! The calm salty breeze from kovalam beach was adding another sedative to my brain…. Once in a while if I woke, I could see a solid wall of green passing by the car window…. Endless coconut orchards make you dream green even in your sleep, I assure you that!

Reaching the quiet serene campus of Vivekananda Kendra was like smoothly drifting from one dream into another. After a strict scrutiny of my documents and probably ancestry too, VK administration consented me to stay with them. In spite of initial strictness, eventually these people loved me and fed me like I was their immediate family! The VK canteen, GouriSankar restaurant is an odd place where all sorts of VK guests and life workers dine together. The manager smiled and showed me a table, and I felt easy, belonged, not a stranger anymore! The so-called limited rice meal was definitely more than my appetite. But the servers rushed again to offer more rice when I had managed to empty my plate with immense effort. What was the idea behind limited meal really, to overfeed?! The manager even offered me a banana, for good digestion, he said, munching one himself!

I never mind having a meal alone because it allows me to read simultaneously. Somehow everyone at VK restaurant found that very quaint. Saying that “You have a very good vibration” is their style of appreciation! Honestly, I am no expert on classifying people by their “vibrations” but the restaurant manager sure is!

I met a Malaysian lady who had grasped her Chinese New Year leave to escape to VK for a spiritual retreat, and a VK life worker who runs a facebook community for spiritual aspirants. Ticket man at the Vivekananda Exhibition blessed me that I would be a “top architect” one day, though I tried to explain to him that there is nothing like a “top architect” in reality!

Often when you speak plain, unglamorous truth, people think you are too modest. Then there is no option left to you than wearing the hat of greatness. It is not a flattering feeling, just too sweet sugary syrup that leaves a bitter aftertaste….

I hoped that it was their innocent goodwill and it need not be destroyed with my harsh frankness. It is simply good to turn deaf when your limit of endurance is reached. These people approached me with a smile and treated me graciously for no reason at all. There cannot be any motif, anything for them to gain from me. I was just a guest, who would be gone in another couple of days. But surprisingly I was not a stranger to them. Probably my “vibrations” were good!!

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VK NARDEP Campus

The main point of my visit to VK was to meet Vasudev ji, who is a secretary of VK’s Natural Resource Development Project, NARDEP, a fine man with multilingual skills who speaks about organic architecture, as a delightful life experience. Meandering through the campus of Technology Research Center, which took shape under his able hands, is a model experiment of sustainable architecture. The office in charge of TRC is a slight lady, sister Saraswathi. The moment when I met her first she was frying papadam in the backyard of Center’s kitchen, singing a “hari-song”! Saraswathi akka sent me to have a look at the campus and then ordered me to return to the kitchen for lunch. I tried to refuse politely, saying that I could go back to the VK canteen. And she turned to me with her eyes wide and yeah, quite scary, “when divine mother says you should have lunch with us, you do not object”. I had nothing to say in reply. I helped her in the kitchen, to serve plates and to clean, hoping that the divine mother would not stare at me again with those dark eyes widened with anger!

She was pleasant once I settled to stay for lunch, said that Pune was an atrocious city. I agreed instantly, wholeheartedly! She said that architects were pests! I nodded to that as well! And so we went on in perfect harmony! I even learned bits of Tamil under her rule! Kunjum meaning little, modu meaning buttermilk and podum meaning enough…. And here I must say podum to my Tamil vocabulary!

Slowly I saw her world unfold around me. Her trees, her people, her trainees, her kitchen, her birds and kittens! She loved all, including me. Saraswathi akka was the one who brought me to realize essence of this travel. It was through her words that I touched the shocking realization of how and why I was fed. not just in last two weeks but throughout my life. The meal may cost me a thousand rupees, forty rupees or just an angry look, but I am fed every day. There must be some reason to it, I wonder…..Image

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Sarang of the Water Lily….

They all said in their singsong accent that I haven’t seen the real Kerala if I haven’t seen the backwaters. I only smiled at the stranger mallyalis knowing that my tour schedule is governed by a headmaster and does not permit me to decide much!

And then the God decided to surprise me in his own country!

Our return railway tickets remained unconfirmed till the last day. Now I have no other choice but to spend a night on a house boat in Vembanad Lake, Kumarakom, Kerala, until my return commute is arranged! Yeey!!

A seen-in-pictures type “kairali” houseboat stood swaying serenely at the jetty, with its dried coconut leaf mats and a bronze plate bearing name “water Lily” gleaming in the evening light… Mr Thomas Abraham greeted us with a toothy smile and a pet name longer than his first name, “aniyan Kunju” meaning little brother.

This little brother owned a few paddy fields in the backwaters along with a houseboat (costing app. 40lakhs) his plain white mundu and modest smile did not hint about being rich!!

While we settled aboard, a silent boat crew of two burly mallyalis took the sailor wheel. I was too occupied with the coconut orchards and tiny houses tucked here and there, that were passing swiftly behind as our boat sailed away from the jetty…into the wonder filled enchanting world of the Lagoon….

Standing unaided on the top deck, feeling soft moist wind and glow of setting sun on my face….. I could almost imagine what Jack Dawson must have felt… like being the king of the world!!

These boats are highly equipped for luxurious stay which probably means a dish TV and air conditioned bedrooms with smart compact attached toilets, fine upholstery and a hidden kitchen! Dinner on a houseboat is a long event, with finest fish fries arriving at the table, wine glasses glinting and conversations that last a long time. Finally I could smile and bid a goodnight to everyone and escape from the dinner deck….

The top deck was bathed in moonlight…. I could see the entire lagoon rippling and throwing slivers of moonlight in many directions… like molten silver holding the boat afloat! There was soft mist around the silhouettes of coconut trees at some faraway shore…

Last few savory sips of wine and a book of Kairali short stories was left completely forgotten beside me. I was non-existent, molten away in the moonlight…. Flowing in the rippling lagoon….swirling in the misty horizon….There was an unexplained mysterious smile depicted in my surrounds and I smiled in reply, smiled at the way I was brought here….to this night on a deck. Knowing that the beauty of this night came not from the water, moonlight or the boat… but from something within me….

I just sat still…..not knowing if my eyes were closed or open… not knowing if I was awake or asleep… till the dawn touched on eastern horizon… leaving a dreamlike night in my misted memories for lifetimes.

The morning was fresh and strikingly alive with all kinds of birds chirping trumpeting around the boat. Ducks, herons and many water birds had started out their day. And a solemn looking bee-eater sat on a dried twig taking an apparently random unexpected flight once in a while and returning to his perch with a fat dragonfly in its beak!

The sun was glowering by the time our wafting coffee mugs were empty and taken away. It was time to head home… a painful reminder that this wasn’t a home after all!

I descended to the sailor’s deck, where our boat crew, Sajjivan and Antony had prepared the boat for its return. I asked Sajjivan the word in mallyali for the boat-driver! He replied, “Sarang”.

Sajjivan gave the sailors wheel in my hand, teaching me to move the propellers the right way, winding through the small islands of waterweeds. We chatted about the life on and off water… He loved his job and life on a lagoon. His family lived in Kottyam. His daughter “Anusree” was attending one of the engineering colleges, (which are abundant throughout the kerala!)

The “water Lily” swayed back into the jetty under expert hands of her “sarang”… And as I stepped on the terra firma, I had to smile with an effort, waving a goodbye to the smiling pair of Sajjivan and antony standing on the deck.

I was left with Sajjivan’s parting words,

“Sarang… The one who steers…”

Sarang… the one who steers me into a torrent of experiences, revealing his silvery self reflected in the vessel of the world….

No wonder saints often described God spiritual literature as,

Sarang… The one who steers the boat of spirit, from mundane of earthly life into the depths of divine love….

Divine Abode of Ambadi God’s House at Thekkady

Munnaring Tourist A Stroll through the hills of Munnar

Divine Abode of Ambadi…

Thekkady is famous for its pretty location on the fringe of Periyar tiger Reserve. Gigantic bamboo clumps forming an intricately towering canopy over roads will welcome you to Thekkady. An occasional Malabar giant squirrel scampering overhead can be spotted here if you prefer gazing into the thickets than in tourist shops!

Our next stop was Ambadi resort in Thekkady. Ambadi literally means the home of Lord Krishna. (ref: our headmaster tour guide) Though I don’t see any historical trace to it, I can gladly accept this beautifully designed hotel as Krishna’s own home!! He’d love the stone pathways, fine-carved, polished wood paneling, and excellent designs of timber-joints in sloping roofs! Warm earthy brown terracotta flooring and heavy wooden furniture with witty lights twinkling through bamboo lamp shades!

What a divine home it was!

The headmaster had whisked away every other tourist to boating and some spice garden cum shop. I bunked to stay in this divine Ambadi and took a long luxurious Abhyanga bath! My little cottage was silent… allowing only the squirrels to chirp relentlessly! There was a cozy sit-out in the front facing a wild cluster of bamboo… Lounging with a hot cup of “kaapi” I watched the sun showering its last flecks of gold for today from behind the dark silhouettes of arching bamboo….wrote notes for the blog, feeling like I was already sharing the happiness of being alive with you all, my loved ones!

Slowly the sky went dark and lights from the pathway started to illuminate the bamboo upward… Rested and “coffeed” comfortably I set out to stroll around the tiny settlement. I just walked on roads, met strangers, and made friends with little girls selling heaps of jasmine….

There were little shacks of art studios and local restaurants with excellent appam-sambaram menu! Beautiful pieces of wooden artwork lined the roadsides of a bustling market. I watched a wood artist at work, wearing a traditional white mundu wrap, his face austere with tense, intent thought behind is sharp sparkling eyes…. It was like walking into some timeless world where the artists chiseled gods into existence… I swayed back to my cottage feeling like an audience of some enchanted magnanimous movie that was being set on the world stage….. The glimpses of thekkady will always jump at me at the mere mention of kerala…. Surging like a living element inside me, never letting me succumb to a lifeless life.

Sarang of The Water Lily A night on a lagoon

Munnaring Tourist A Stroll through the hills of Munnar

Munnaring Tourist….

I had heard so much about the god’s own country that a rushed, exhausting, crammed-in-a-tourist-bus type of trip could not do justice to the description.

So after the first day of site seeing through Munnar that was in fact spent in a traveler bus, I decided to do a bunk! Our tour guide was nearly as strict as a headmaster of school for juvenile criminals! So years after my schooling got over, I got a chance to experience the thrill of bunking!

Now I had all the time and freedom to do anything I wished! So I walked through unknown roads of those unknown places… watched people… real, walking, working people who lived behind the face of a tourist destination…

I zoomed around in local auto-rickshaws, felt like a mute and deaf trying to understand mallyalam!! And I watched their buildings…. It was a painful struggle to bind a natural and rugged architecture into western definition of modernism… and hopelessly failing at it.

They build glass facades because city people like it that way… and city people pay for the tourism industry…. Through the infection like crowd of faceless steel and glass boxes of luxury hotels there would be a little shack put together in rough stone, hidden behind clump of trees…. Like a tribal child peeping curiously!

One must cross a couple of hills to leave the market and tourist area behind. There I walked through simple cobbled streets of a local settlement flaunting wonderful, graceful, old stone-wooden houses. These houses definitely outlived those who doubt durability of wood and stood there mocking the fragility of glass boxed hotels!

I watched little songbirds soaring through the valley and imagined their songs were about the elite forest that once existed where rolling hills bear a disciplined monotony of tea gardens. Ecology has overpowered my aesthetic judgment a long ago. Mono-plantation of a tea estate does not appear beautiful when my mind is trying to grope the beauty of an ancient forest that was…

Though many bollywood heroes have pranced through these gardens…. I believe the tea gardens are supposed to be beautiful to most eyes….

While leaving Munnar, I concluded that I was unfit to enjoy famous hill stations…. Though the soft fog wrapped memories of the lofty Western Ghats will stay with me forever… for the elegantly mysterious forests of Anaimudi ranges…

PS: Forgive the lack of pictures, my faithful camera is in need of battery repair.

Next Post will be about Divine Abode of Ambadi in Thekkady…