A Masala Story

I made a simple tomato curry to share with people at lunch. Trupti asked what was in it and I was scanning my brain for the ingredients…balsalmic vinegar, onion, chicken masala… “Chicken??” My table mates gawked at me in disbelief. I didn’t know what to do, all I could feel was a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach. I didn’t understand why a box of spice would have meat in it. You put it on the meat… They explained that there could be meat in it as part of the flavoring.

Having unknowingly poisoned my friends, I left lunch feeling guilty, ignorant and despondent for several reasons. Primarily, I am so thankful for how much people have done to make me feel included and welcome here and then I go and feed them meat. I felt very ignorant as I enjoy making food for others, and knowing the difference between vegetarian and non-vegetarian should be simple. And I try as hard as possible to be conscious and respectful of Indian cultural practices.

When I make mistakes that directly affect others it’s the worst. Opening the steam cooker on myself was just stupid, but at least no one else was damaged collaterally. A Titus Andronicus I was not prepared to be. (Look it up.) Then I went home and checked my spice jars. I only have two, chicken and garam masala. I realized I had used the spice I always use, my favorite jar of garam masala. All that strife had been for nothing! When I said chicken out loud unthinkingly, I then fully believed that that’s what had happened. Why did I say I had used chicken masala? Why had my memory failed me? I don’t know, but it is just one more example of how the workings of the mind are limited, at times faulty, and should not be relied on for everything.

The mistakes that we have committed…had to be…For all that happened was necessary…to lead us to something beyond what the mind imagines… It is not a question of being down-hearted or grieved or in despair if you have made a mistake, for every mistake can be corrected; from the moment you have found it is a mistake, there is an opportunity to work within you, to make progress and be very happy!”  -the Mother



Delhi Haat and Hosts

August 29, 2011

Having lasted twelve days, Anna Hazare’s fast is over, having reached some sort of compromise. I think some of his bill’s components are going to be added to Parliament’s version of the anti-corruption bill.  Last night there was a candlelight celebration, at India Gate in Delhi, attended by thousands. I wish I could have been there. If the fast had lasted another day I would have gone to sit among the peaceful throngs.


I just finished dinner with Arti and Vitsan, Maneesh’s aunt and uncle. They are such wonderful, caring people. “Ratkaana kellyay shukriya!” (Thank you for dinner!) Dinner is made up of the words night + food, literally ‘food of the night.’

I visited a lot of places today. After settling in at the Arora’s house, I hopped on the metro to go to the market Delhi Haat for lunch. It was a bit too touristy for my taste, but the food was pretty good.  Rice, a crispy chapatti, a very bamboo shoot curry, beans, dahl, and tomato and onion. Bon appetit. It is too touristy here, but at least it is quiet, a respite from the smell and fumes of the heavy trafficked-streets.

I’m not really interested in shopping, as anything I buy will feel like another millstone around my neck. Not only do I have to carry it home on the train, but having too much possessions is stressful, it starts to owns you.  Before I moved out of the Campbell Club I went through all of my clothes and got rid of everything that I don’t wear. Not just things I don’t like, but things that I never wear. I gave all of them to St. Vincent DePauls. I don’t really miss them. I do have memories attached to certain articles, but what’s the point of it sitting in your closet when it could be put to good use by someone?

After Delhi Haat I took the metro to a mogul tomb, built in the 17th century. It cost 100 rupees to get in, so I just took photos from the outside and then kept moving.

Next I stopped at Haus Khaz, trying to find the artisan village. I got a bit lost until I saw a sign reading ‘Aurobindo Market’ which intrigued me. I perused the shops and then found a copy of Hindi for Beginners to fill my desire to know all the nerdy details of tenses and syntax.  Did you know there are 400 million people who speak Hindi? Apparently the written language is very phonetically written. Perhaps I will learn to read a bit after all… As with most worthwhile endeavors, the effort of language is its own reward. Today I stopped to ask two uniformed schoolgirls for directions. I thanked them with a confident “shukriya!” to delighted giggles. Tomorrow I’m going on a whirlwind sightseeing bus tour. Photos will be back online!

Krishna’s Birthday

Today is the god Krishna’s birthday, Krishnashtami. Krishna is a beloved God. It is difficult to explain who is Krishna, as he is a warrior, supreme being, writer, lover, and prankster. It is generally accepted that Krishna was a real person, who was alson an avatar, or prophet, of the God Vishnu. Worship of a deity or hero named Krishna dates back to 4th century BC. He is a favorite subject in theatrical works.

According to the Indian calendar, the day of his birth goes across two days. Each family must decide when to celebrate, the night before, or the morning of. So, following the laws of physics, the north of India celebrates it on the 21st, and the South on the 22nd.

The traditional way to celebrate Krishnashtami is to set out a cradle for Krishna, with baby footprints leading up to it. Then you must sing a lovely lullaby to put Krishna to sleep. The idea is to invite Krishna into your home on the day of his birth. Sound familiar? It’s also common to make sweets, or some sort of special food.

Another tradition that celebrates Krishna’s mischevious side is called dahi handi, or uriadi in Tamil, where young men build a human pyramid, trying to reach a high-hanging pot of butter or curd. This event is very popular in Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry’s neighboring region. As a child, Krishna worked herding cows, and would connive to steal butter, thus the significance of the butter-stealing pyramid.

Boy Krishna, the butter thief

Baby Krishna getting a bath

Krishna’s Story

(This is the very, very abridged version. For more, you can google Krishna stories for hours.)

King Kansa, brother of Prince Duvaki, (Krishna’s father) was afraid of a prophesy that proclaimed that he would die at the hand of Duvaki’s child. Thus, the king locked up his own brother and his wife. After Kansa killed the first six of his children, Luckily, Krishna was born and snuck out of the jail to go live with his foster parents.

Krishna was raised with his cow-herder relatives, and then came back to fulfill his true destiny as a prince and warrior. And you guessed it, he killed evil uncle King Kalsa, restoring the proper king on the throne.

Krishna apparently married 16,100 maidens who were held captive by the demon Narakasura. Krishna killed the demon and then married them all. At this time, captive women were degraded in society, and were unable to marry. By marrying them all, Krishna performed a symbolic ceremony to save their honour.

Krishna dictating the Bhagavad Gita to his cousin Arjuna

Krishna is traditionally considered the author of the holy Hindu text, which he dictated from God right before he went into the great battle of the Mahabharata.

According to the Mahabrata tradition, Krishna died abruptly, given his many victories in battle. Krishna retired into the forest and sat under a tree in meditation. While the Mahabharata narrates the story that a hunter named Jara mistook his partly visible left foot for a deer and shot an arrow wounding him mortally. While Krishna’s soul ascended to heaven, his mortal body was cremated by Arjuna.

Happy Krishna Ashtami!

Delhi, ho!

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

– St. Augustine

I have been hatching a plot to go to Delhi for a creative writing workshop. Society staff member Harvinder, who used to be an IB school principal before coming to the society, will give the workshop. Now she writes curriculum that incorporates integral education for mainstream schools. Really cool stuff. Harvinder is a fiery, no nonsense poet, teacher and English major herself. The workshop is three days long, and I’ll be staying at the Sri Aurobindo ashram there. Delhi is the society’s Center for Media and Communication Arts, so I’ll be interested in what’s going on there.

After the workshop I’ll be staying with Maneesh’s aunt Arti near Delhi University for a few days. The Taj Mahal is only a day trip away!

I am taking the train almost the whole way. It takes two days to get to Delhi on the train, so I’m leaving on Wednesday. Taking the train is a trip in itself, and I’ll get about 5 whole days of train travel to read, write, and stare wide-eyed out my window.

My last stop will be in the far north, in the Punjab region, in the city of Amritsar. I’m very interested to see the differences between the north and south India, in food, dress, climate, everything. India is so diverse and varied; I love it.  Amritsar is famous for the beautiful Sikh Golden Temple, built on the water. I’m staying with my good friend Shabd’s friend, who is now a teacher at the school they both attended together.

I found this map online. I’m going north, north, north, then coming back on the same track. You can see how how far New Delhi is from Pondi, about 3/4 of the length of the country. Amritsar is on the northwest border, printed very small.

I will be back to Pondi in about two weeks. I don’t know how often I’ll be able to post, but I will definitely write about all of my adventures. I will likely find internet every few days then post a lot at one time.

Happy Independence Day!

August 15th was India’s Independence Day, and August 16th was Pondicherry’s Independence Day, so needless to say there was a lot of freedom and fried food everywhere this weekend. Thousands of people were out on the town, packing the beachside road of Pondi. There were lights strung up on the municipal buildings, the governor’s palace, and the city park. There were fireworks too! None set off in the streets like back home though; they leave it to the professionals.

The Governor’s palace, open to the public for two days only

The country of India was established at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947. The Constitution was written in 1950. Synthesized from Wiki: The flag colors are saffron, denoting renunciation or disinterestedness, as leaders must be indifferent to material gains. The white  is light, in search of truth.  The green shows the relation to the earth, the source of all life. The center wheel is the “Ashoka Chakra,” the wheel of the law of dharma. The wheel denotes the motion of life, as there is death in stagnation. “The wheel represents the dynamism of a peaceful change.

(Book recommendation: Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie is a classic, as the narrator is the first baby to be born in the new country. His fate is ever tied to the country’s. It is hilarious and very informative about family and Indian culture.)

August 15th is also Sri Aurobindo’s birthday. In fact Aurobindo commented on the coincidental date, saying it was a sign that the work of his yoga had been instrumental in achieving freedom for India. Venus and I spent the day relaxing, going to darshan in the morning. On Sri Aurobindo and Mother’s birthday they would sit and give blessings to the people. This was the only chance for followers to see Sri Aurobindo in person, as he was usually always in his quarters doing his yoga or keeping up on the thousands of letters from followers.  Darshan is when a holy person gives blessings to the people. The Pope gives darshan too. Darshan also happens the 21st of February, for the Mother’s birthday.

The atmosphere of Darshan is like Disneyland, with hundreds of families and merchants, and the air is peaceful and festive, and everyone waits in line for their turn to go into the rooms of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. These spaces still hold their spiritual vibrations. when Sri Aurobindo and the other were still in their bodies, they would stand on the balcony and give radiant blessings to the ashramites below. The Mother would pass out a message with a quote from Sri Aurobindo on it. yesterday the blessing was very moving for me. After going through the perserved rooms, I read this passage and felt a strong feeling of love and serenity come into me.

Whatever the appearance we must bear,

Whatever our strong ills and present fate,

When nothing we can see but drift and bale,

A might Guidance leads us still through all. 

-Sri Aurobindo

Also for the francophones:

Quelles qui soient les apparences qu’il nous faut supporter,

Si durs que soient nos maux et le destin présent,

Quand nous ne voyons rien que dérive et que ruine,

Un Guide tout-puissant nous mène à travers tout.

Beautiful, non?

Venus and I made lunch of  dahl with paneer, mango chutney and salad. In the evening we went for a long walk among the crowd. We also decided to wear saris in celebration (and because I’ve been dying to wear mine). I got many stares, but in general positive feedback. I realized that people are going to stare at foreigners no matter what they wear, so what do you have to lose?

Eat, Dance, Beach!

I had a wonderful weekend.

Friday morning a violinist came to perform at the school and the village of SARVAM. Paul Peabody has performed the scores of many movies and hit songs, including Michael Jackson’s song “Smile.” Apparently he’s the violin solo in that one. It was fun to hear some jazz, bluegrass, and Mozart. Nice guy, he ate lunch with us at the ashram dining hall.

A giant man with a little fiddle

On Saturday I went to a dance program at the ashram school, where the young women performed some traditional dances. The audience sat on the lawn in the school courtyard. It had been raining on and off, but I was glad that the show went on. The dances were very intricate and beautiful.

On Sunday I biked to the beach, because I hadn’t been able to put as much as a toe in the water yet.  Packing some guavas and a mango for my breakfast I took off. I biked about 7 km out of town trying to find the beach at Auroville, but I never saw the sign to turn off. I ended up riding through a small but developed fishing village and spent a few morning hours there, swimming and reading. Despite my initial reservations, no one heckled me, only a few people came to talk to me and they were all very nice. As I was biking back through the village, women and children greeted the sun-hatted American with “hi, hi!”

The ocean was very refreshing, but the bike back home on the main highway was hot, sticky and hectic.  After I showered the sea off me and took a nap, I went to buy vegetables at the market. Sundays are the Big Shopping day. The huge street market is in full swing, only the mass amount of people makes M.S.Gandhi Boulevard impossible for cars or bikes to get through.

I also found Goubert Market, which is this magical market of vegetable and trinket stalls, hidden within an entire city block. I had heard about it before, but had never been able to find it. Suddenly, it found me. The second I saw a small gateway I knew what that was it. There are small entrances to it, but if you didn’t know where it was already you’d probably miss it. Once inside, it’s a half lit, bustling underworld of tomatoes and cucumbers and rice and jasmine.

I emerged with a bag of lovely vegetables that were better looking and about half the price of a grocery store. I got about ten tomatoes for 12 rupees, about 20 cents. Gah, I sound like an old biddy blogging about the price of produce. Ah well.

Hungry, I bought some vedas and tiny samosas from a food vendor. It hit the spot, but I was dying for some ketchup to slather them in. It’s the little things, you know?

In the News… August 8, 2011

NY: From Virginia Heffernan, an Education update for the digital age. Why do students write better researched and more thoughtful web content than schoolwork for their teachers?

We need curriculum that is full of collaborative work rather than requiring isolating and uninspiring essays.  Amen to that, and I’m an English major. Reading this op-ed made me really excited, as it means that education reform is slowly creeping into social consciousness. Let’s get out of the 19th century for goodness’ sake.

Not the jobs we want

Russia: Putin called the US out, saying that we are living beyond our means. You think?  I was however somewhat shocked to read this kind of blatant bashing. Then I realized that yes, this is our new normal.  Many people in the world think this. You can bet that you definitely won’t hear about this speech on CNN.

“They are living beyond their means and shifting…their problems to the world economy,” Putin told the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi…”They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar.” 

For a good time: watch Vladimir sing “Blueberry Hill” to rich celebrities.

Holy Cow

Yesterday morning, these lovelies were standing outside my front door. I have grown accustomed to cows on the roads, sidewalks and munching the shrubbery/trash at the city park. Yet somehow it’s still a bit startling to see these giant black beasts returning your blurry-eyed stare in the predawn.

Hindus do not worship cows, they are considered sacred because they are a very useful animal. No Hindu text condemns eating beef, in fact, early Hindus were beef eaters. Their milk is consumed by young and old in liquid form of tea, yogurt and cheese. Cow dung is also a natural disinfectant, and is mixed with water by native villagers to wash the floor and walls of their house daily. It is speculated that they also serve as a reminder that all animals should be treated as sacred, as they are created and protected by God.

Sun Salutations and Tilaka Powder

Every day I get up at 5:30 am and go to yoga on the beach office rooftop from 6-7. Then breakfast at the dining hall, visit the samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and go to work around 9 am. (The samadhi is their burial shrine, where followers go to pray or meditate. August 15th is Sri Aurobindo’s birthday, so thousands of people from all over the world will come to the samadhi.)

Yoga is with my friend and colleague Kaushal, who is a great teacher. We do our sun salutations facing the ocean, literally greeting the sun rise over the ocean. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better way to start my day. I took a hatha yoga class freshman year at UO, but many terms of budget hearings instead of gym visits has rendered me very inflexible. I am excited to get my physical body back into shape.  Along with my mind and heart, it feels good to make my body stronger.

Kaushal=way more flexible than me!

For some reason, hundreds of giant dragonflies are always buzzing over our heads. Where do they come from? What do they eat? And most importantly, what do they want from us?

I am NOT a natural morning person, and I am eager to change my natural sleep patterns. When I do get up early, I feel very content and usually have a very productive day. That is, if I get enough sleep, which means in bed by 9 or 10 pm. It gets dark here around 7, so that’s not too hard.

This morning after breakfast I went to the the Ganesh temple with the elephant in front. The elephant’s name is Lakshmi and has been there since it was a baby. It is so cute but sometimes I feel bad for it. It isn’t very healthy for elephants to stand in one place so much, and once its foot was infected. One of the society’s architects, Tripte, has a father who works in leather goods. He made Lakshmi a set of giant shoes, so that his foot could heal.

photo by my friend Aishwarya

A nice man inside the temple taught me how to receive the blessing of red tilaka powder that is rubbed on your forehead. Right hand puts the rupee coin on the tray, waves over the oil lamp flame, left hand receives the powder from the priest, then the ring finger of your right hand places the powder on the forehead.

Me and our taxi driver petting a goat at Chidambaram, a massive temple, 75 km from Pondi. I’m wearing a blessing of white ash, another type of blessing powder. 

I went to the Chidamburam temple with Keri and Dan. (Photos posted soon)

Today I was self-conscious about wearing a blessing, because not many of my office colleagues go to temple in the mornings (or at least don’t receive blessings.) And Indian passerbys stared at me. Did I put it on wrong, or is it just very unusual to see a Westerner with a Hindu blessing walk around town? Will I offend anyone because I don’t identify as a Hindu? Is a temple visit contradictory to the ashram’s beliefs? But when I got to work, people just smiled very genuinely and said, “Oh, you went to the temple?” Like it was no thing, they were just happy that I am diving into it all.

Does this mean that I want to become a Hindu? No, I just appreciate the ritual of it. Back home church is where you go once a week on Sunday mornings. Here the temple is a daily place of community. Yet there is also no worship service, message, or personal relationships forged with the priests or religious leaders, at least not that I have yet observed. There is a lot of smoke chanting flowers incense statues. It’s pretty nuts.


A few days ago I moved from the Good Guesthouse to a house for more long term stays, called “Shelter.” It’s only a quick bike ride to the beach office and a block from the ocean. I have my own room, and there is a small kitchen so I can cook whenever I want. There is even a garden. My bedroom is fully furnished, although the mattress is really thin. My back has been a bit sore, but I’ve decided to overcome the pain. Shivakumar says “If it’s not the spine that is hurting then you’ll be fine. Muscles are like rebellious children.” I live with Chandani (which means moonlight) who manages the beach office library, and Krishna, a graphic artist for on the media team. Both of them have lived there for several years at least and are very nice.

Today Chandani asked me, “you are not feeling boring?” (She meant bored, of course. A few Americans in the past have had some struggles with the slower pace of life in Pondi.)

“No,” I said, “I’m great.” And I meant it.

My bedroom

the bathroom sink (spacious!)

the kitchen