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A Monsoon Break at Gratitude
by Chanjala 

In November 2011, I was really bogged down with work and found myself sitting in a shopping mall in Bangalore trying to give myself a break, but not feeling much better for the retail therapy opportunities. Stuck in the Bangalore traffic a few hours later, thinking about the hectic almost insane work schedule the following week, I knew I had to get out of town to give myself some real time out.
I chose Pondicherry simply because I wanted to sit on a beach. That was as far as my weary mind could project.


Choosing Gratitude
Once I'd made the first big decision, I went online to look for guest houses on Trip Advisor and sifted through all the websites carefully.
When I saw the Gratitude website I loved the photos and the content. I also really like that they had 'house rules'. Especially the "No kids" one. It sounded like the perfect place to switch off for a few days. http://www.gratitudeheritage.in/reservation-procedure.html
I had emailed a shortlist of 5 guest houses and Kakoli from Gratitude was the first to respond.
Her email was warm and very personal and I immediately knew that I would get looked after. Sure enough, she was the first person I heard from when I landed at the Chennai airport. Even before my husband rang me to check if I had landed, Kakoli was calling up to see if I had found the cab they had arranged to get me to Pondy. And when I finally stepped out of the cab and made my way into Gratitude, it simply took my breath away and I'm not being melodramatic. I knew right away that I had made the perfect choice.
Week One
It literally only took two days for me to notice the physical change in myself due to the rhythm of the place. I didn't go out much, taking long afternoon naps, reading, and enjoying the monsoon weather. Gratitude has a special atmosphere, and looks and feels gorgeous in the rain.
Breakfasts around the communal dining table are a wonderful way to start the day and I appreciated the generous supply of tea & coffee to get me going. Toast and butter never tasted so good, though that might have to do with it being specially supplied from Auroville.
It was here that I got to know Kakoli, one of the owners, and Virginia who stays 6 months of the year. From behind our respective newspapers we gradually started opening up to each other and I learned a lot about how Gratitude came into being and Kakoli and her friend Jyoti's 4 year partnership with Intach, http://www.intachpondicherry.org/, to restore Gratitude.
Here I must mention the impromptu luncheons at Gratitude. It seems that insiders know this is as a place for informal discussion and if you ever get invited to lunch at Gratitude, you don't want to say "no" as you never know whom you might miss! In my case, it turned out that Vikram Seth popped by the one time in my first week when I had stepped out of my quiet cocoon. I felt quite crushed initially, but fortunately managed to "recover" and meet some most interesting local people from Pondicherry and Auroville who were gracious enough to use their own personal contacts to help me organize the rest of my stay.


Pottery Connection
Thus it was that Gratitude friends from Intach, http://www.intachpondicherry.org/, helped me to join Auroville pottery classes with Supriya Menon Meneghetti, http://www.skillpages.com/potter/auroville-india/supriya.meneghetti . It was a joy to have the time and space to learn how to throw a pot on a wheel and this turned out to be another revelation I had coming to me, namely that when making pottery one's state of mind is revealed in every hand movement. There is no fluidity, no wholeness, and certainly no creativity if you are not in touch with your deep intentions. I was fortunate to have a very wise and patient teacher who knew when to call a break and take me off for a mid-morning snack of idlies, to get me to loosen up. One of the mornings when I was feeling low because of the weather (it was bright and shiny and I was missing the rains), she even fished out her daughter's ipod and stayed playing some peppy numbers to try and cheer me up.
Supriya had studied with Ray, co-founder of the Golden Bridge Pottery which I discovered had contributed a great deal to Auroville history.
http://claydiary.blogspot.com/2008/09/golden-bridge-pottery-pondicherry.html
I know I have to return to Supriya's pottery wheel early next year to revisit those hand movements! 
Trip to Kanchipuram
On my first Saturday, Virginia at Gratitude suggested I join her for a day trip. Three of us took a chance on the weather and set off by taxi at 6 a.m. I sat up front and Virginia was in the back with a French friend, Ann, from Auroville, who turned out to be a great textile expert. The drive was fine most of the time but ominous clouds and intermittent gusts of rain followed us all day.
On arrival at Kanchipuram we decided to investigate the famous silk weaving with gold thread first. (http://tamilelibrary.org/teli/silk1.html)
Our driver stopped at the Sri Perundevi Thayar Silk House where we were given a friendly welcome as we dashed across the road, jumping over puddles of mud and weaving our way through the blaring horns.
Initially we watched a demonstration of hand weaving at the back of the shop, but it wasn't long before we were lured to the front to sit on the floor surrounded by silk saris of all color combinations. I don't buy a lot of saris but I'm certain the ones we saw there were quite unique.
Eventually the choices were narrowed down and Ann led the hard bargaining!
Once the deals were struck, our man at Sri Perundevi decided to take us under his wing and offered to arrange for us to visit the village where dyeing & weaving take place. Unfortunately, the rains were too strong that day and access to the village in question was apparently no longer possible due to flash flooding. We agreed to return to the shop after lunch and be guided to a nearby weaving district of Kanchipuram, where, despite the fierce weather we were able to see the whole spinning and weaving process taking place in various cottages and even out in the street.

Temple Ekambareswara
Satisfied with our silk purchases we decided to tackle some template culture and landed at the magnificent mango temple of Ekambareswara. http://www.templenet.com/Tamilnadu/ekamkanc.html. Here we discovered the salutary tale of Parvathi being banished by her husband, Shiva, and ending up sitting next to a earthen Lingam under a mango tree to do penance for her 'sins'. I think we could understand playing a game and closing your husband's eyes in jest, but getting banished under such conditions did appear rather a tough deal!
The main wing had a TV network running what looked like a public performance and around the corner was a busy savoury snack stand was doing a roaring trade next to a highly decorated Nandi statue.
The inner area was peppered with diligent groups of art students from Chennai sketching architectural features and there were an abundance of pundits willing to make blessings. In exchange for the blessings we were asked for donations and Virginia in particular was told they also accepted "Dollars", "Euros" and "Pounds"! Obviously, we were experiencing the Realpolitik of 21st Century tourism.
Ekambareswara delighted, intrigued and amused us alternately, as I hope the photos will illustrate.

Finding a place to eat in Kanchipuram just as the rains started again was a little fraught as we wanted to find a place recommended in the French Guide Bleue, Kanchi Kudil, http://www.indiamart.com/kanchikudil/ Our driver had very different ideas, but even he was enchanted by the place when we finally located it.
Kanchi Kudil, unfortunately only serves meals with prior notice so we peered at the local Tamil family displays, bought a few gifts and followed our driver's advice to luncheon at the Hotel Saravana Bhavan, http://www.saravanabhavan.com/restaurants.php?cn=India&cy=Kanchipuram. This is part of a large Indian chain with excellent vegetarian fare. We also saw the group of art students from Ekambareswara seated not far from us, so we knew we had landed a good value, down town venue.
Ominous thunder and lightning followed us most of our drive home. The three passengers were quite quiet as we were all concentrating on the road and trying to keep our cool as the driver honked and swerved his way back to Pondy with grim determination. The atmosphere changed immediately when we stopped on rue de Busy at Baker Street, http://www.actupondy.com/en/eats/take-away-delivery/462-baker-street , to purchase some "├ęclairs" and "gateaux au citron" to take home to Gratitude and by the time we were seated at the dining room table, sipping tea, sharing cakes, displaying our trophies and recounting our experiences we realized how glad we were that we had braved the elements, and how glad we were to be back safely with Kakoli at Gratitude.
Other discoveries in and around Pondy...
The following Saturday, Virginia and I took an auto rickshaw ride to a few new places for us both:
- First we went out to the Serenity Beach Bazaar, at Thanthirayan Kuppam,
This is a new venture run by Kasha, and is just the BEST place to go for brunch at weekends. The restaurant and gardens are enchanting and the "bazaar" turned out to be a very tasteful display of arts and crafts, well worth lingering over. Kasha also has other businesses, including a very well-presented real estate business,
Although I did not end up purchasing a property, it wasn't long before I'd started using Kasha's services to visit potential second homes. The idea of staying on in Pondy for a few months suddenly became very tempting and very real. Unfortunately I woke up and realized that I had to get back to work and my life in Bangalore but it's an option I intend to explore in the coming months.
- Another afternoon we decided to visit the Ashram Marbling & Handmade Paper Centre for some writing paper. We ended up buying a lot more, it's just very hard not to when you have such lovely range of products from folders to book marks. We then lucked out when Virginia very nicely asked the manager if we could see the actual marbling process. Despite a temporary power cut we got to see them mixing paints and carefully dropping it into each tray and then getting the color to spread and float till it was just right before dropping a paper into it. : http://www.sriaurobindopaper.com/.
- This link is a good place to visit to start discovering different Ashram units : 
- And finally we ended up roaming around the Big Market which is a bustling, cramped yet friendly place and we were both obviously in the right mood to enjoy the atmosphere. http://indianartnetwork.com/video/bazar-orchestra-by-phbme. We got some lovely deals on scarves and bags and on our way out Virginia even managed to grab "a few" items for the kitchen. We took an autorickshaw home, laden with pomegranates, bananas, fresh coriander, papaya, brinjals and lemons. A bumper harvest indeed.

In and around Pondicherry
I really enjoyed walking down Mission Street and Nehru Street. Most of it is crowded busy market area but there are some very nice stores in between. The ones I went back to a couple of times were the Hidesign store, Casablanca and Kalki.
In the two weeks I was in Pondicherry, I probably had ten meals at Hotel De L'Orient. It is another property the Intach team worked on and the ambience, staff and the food makes for a delightful dining experience. It's the kind of place where you can pretty much pick anything out of the menu and be assured of a fabulous meal. The lamb chops, grilled fish, baked chicken were all really good but the one that had me swooning was their lemon mousse. The service was fantastic, some evenings they had live music and the first evening I was there they had a firework display (for diwali) which was breathtaking and a perfect start to my holiday. The best part of it really was that they were just a few steps away from Gratitude.
In fact Gratitude is what my friend and I call the '2 minute place'. It's just 2 minutes from possibly everything - some of the best restaurants in Pondy (L'Orient, Satsanga, Le Club, Maison La Rose); two atms; FabIndia and most importantly the sea. But despite being in the 'middle of it all', once you step in through the doors of Gratitude all the noise and commotion of the town just falls away.
One of the evenings Kakoli suggested we do a picnic up on the terrace. Virginia and one of the other guests joined us as well, so we all met downstairs at 8, each of us bringing our contribution to the meal and made our way up. It was a wonderful night - good wine, great conversation and exceptionally good cheese (from Auroville) ...and a full moon drifting in and out of monsoon clouds (which appeared to have spent itself and I never noticed).