Saturday, March 07, 2009

It's not what i've seen but what i've failed to see that remains most vivid in memory

Columnists Dil ek mandir
TOI, 7 Mar 2009, 0000 hrs IST, Jug Suraiya

The inveterate tourist's work is never done. Just back from Pondicherry, i'm asked by people: The meditation room, the sanctum sanctorum, in the Matri Mandir in Auroville is amazing, no? I try to steer the conversation away from the inside of the Matri Mandir by talking about Pondicherry's French Quarter with its leafy streets lined with white, porticoed mansions, jalousied windows heavy-lidded in the somnolent afternoon. I talk about Le Dupleix, the beautifully restored hotel where we stayed, which used to be the official residence of the mayor of Pondicherry. I talk about the Ashram founded by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. I talk about...

You didn't see the Matri Mandir, did you? my interlocutors say accusingly. 'Course i saw the Matri Mandir; from the outside it looks just like a great big gold golf ball waiting for Tiger Woods to come and whack it away into the wide blue yonder, i protest. Ah, but you didn't go inside the Matri Mandir, right? my interrogators nail me down. And i have to confess that no, i didn't go inside the Mandir, to see the 12 'petal' rooms, and the central chamber, all white marble with a crystal bowl in the middle which at a particular moment of the day is struck by a shaft of sun from a roof opening and bursts into dazzling radiance, like the blinding vision of a sightless seer.

There is a very good reason that i didn't get to see the inside of the Matri Mandir: i'd have had to get onto a seven-day waiting list to gain admission, and i wasn't going to be in the vicinity for anywhere near seven days. However, such mundane excuses like waiting lists don't wash. Though i'm not a devotee of Sri Aurobindo, or indeed anyone else, when one's an inveterate tourist like me, admitting that you've been to Pondicherry and not seen the interior of the Matri Mandir at Auroville is like saying you went to Paris and gave the Eiffel Tower a miss, or skipped the Sistine Chapel when you were in Rome.

It's an admission of total and utter failure as an inveterate tourist. An inveterate tourist is the ultimate voyeur, obsessed with the compulsion to go see despite the heat of summer sun or chill of winter rain, despite daunting queues and humungous prices of admission whatever it is that lies around the next corner, the next bend of the road. As an inveterate tourist i've forced myself to wake up at the crack of gloom and go to see the sun rise over the temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt; i've skipped lunch and walked 70 blocks in Manhattan to save money to buy an entry ticket to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; i've suffered leeches and worse to look at the orang-utans in the Sepilok rainforest of North Borneo.

But for all these hits, there've been even more misses. Though i've been a stone's throw away in Las Vegas, i've not seen the Grand Canyon; despite being in nearby Hong Kong, i've not taken in the Great Wall of China; i've visited Moscow's Kremlin but couldn't get to see its fabulous collection of jewelled Faberge eggs. Curiously enough, it's not what i've seen but what i've failed to see that remains most vivid in memory. Like snapshots in a dusty photo album, that which has been seen and witnessed begins to fade and blur in the mind's eye. But that which we haven't seen but only imagined haunts and teases the imagination like a mirage, an optical illusion tantalisingly close and yet unreachable.

The paintings in the New York museum have long been forgotten; the unseen jewels of the Kremlin glitter brighter than ever in my mind. And now there's another addition to my long list of sights left unseen: the interior of the temple at Auroville. It's not where we have been but where we haven't that keeps us going. Dil ek mandir and all that, as we inveterate tourists might say.