Feeling like a gush of wind, I flowed towards the jungle on my scooter. The Wanderer sitting pillion and was making operatic sounds to mock me. I kept focusing on the greens around. It was a jungle damn it. Tropical trees lined on both sides, the cool sea morning breeze with scent of the Parijathak flower enveloping me from all sides. As a child, I used to hear the story of the Parijathak flower and always had a sense that in some alternate realm of the universe when all people will be flowers I would have to be Parijathak. Little-white-petal flowers with orange miniature stems. The flower that falls off each morning from the trees. A flower that only lives one full night and then submits to the light in the morning and spreads its celestial fragrance.
I keep a look out for a canal from where I was asked to turn right. I was relying on approximation because I was to expect the canal after about three kilometers and the speedometer on the scooter was defunct and to top it there were numerous canals criss-crossing the jungle road.
It was the quest, the pull towards the Radha flower, the humungous magnetic pull that was driving me. I was trying to second guess how the Radha flower might look like. Believing what the waiter at Le Café told me, I imagined it to be blue and petite… much like a blue version of the Parijathak.
While riding the scooter, I imagined a huge garden of divine flowers where all the flowers in the world grew in abundance, layers of flower beds, a Technicolor dream of sorts, the enigmatic fragrance of all these flowers filling the air, flowers of one color, flowers of two colors, flowers with absurd combination of colors, flowers without colors, transparent flowers, talking flowers, mesmerizing flowers, flowers that told you the secrets of the universe, and then a flower that told you the secret of your beating heart – the Radha.
In my vision, I saw the entire garden as an ever expanding sphere of flower beds. Flowers spinning in spherical formation in a spiral trajectory… moving both within and without at the same time… creating an illusion of a throbbing and growing heart. Much like the orchestrated dance of the thousand divine women when I first sipped the celestial Radha drink. I slowly moved through the vast garden in my attempt to reach its centre and see from my eyes the beautiful Radha. Moving past the glorious garden filled with creations’ most precious and beautiful flowers was like risking temptation. Radha was hidden, while the consort of flowers was drawing my senses towards them, as if in a bid to disillusion me from my quest. Make me lose myself in the invigorating mysticism of the billion flowers. Make me forget Radha. While some flowers intoxicated my olfactory sense, some other just absorbed all my visual preceptors, still many flowers enchanted by mind by their occult and clandestine luring, while some of the specially gifted flowers mesmerized my ears by telling them enchanting stories against a backdrop of crystallized music, still others brushed past me drawing unexplainable feelings out of me. Slowly as I moved towards the centre of the sphere, the first time in my journey I did so, and my sense gave way and I fell out of my senses. The glorious, the senseless, the indefinable feeling of not being able to sense. Senseless idiot, the glorious senseless idiot at the brink of purity and the edge of the true universe. Yeah baby yeah! That’s how it felt.
I was just about to discover and decipher Radha that I got a pat on the back. It was the Wanderer. “Boy, you missed the turn by the canal by a good kilometer. Turn back. Let’s find that nursery.”
Pissed off at the interruption I took a U-turn, back towards the canal. I always believed, when in doubt go straight. I would have gone straight to Radha, hadn’t been for this divine jerk on my back. I took the U-turn and then took the turn by the canal into a nearly non-motorable road. The dusty road and bumpy ride led me and the freak by my back to “Yashodha Nursery”. Yeah right! Now how freaking can this further get? I bet a few more days in here and I can place the entire “Nandh Gram”.
Well the Yashodha Nursery, with its faded steel board on a swollen wooden frame, doesn’t seem nothing more than a huge farm land with barbed wire. I find the gate, park my scooter outside and get inside. I looked around and find no man or women in there. Just saplings of plants and little flowers plants tied up in polythene. Somehow nurseries are not the most beautiful of places to visit. They look shabby, uncultured, raw, unlike the exquisiteness of a tastefully kept garden but much like the way the universe was when God would have sat down with his feet deep and sullied into the human clay. Well I look around for a flower that would be the Radha flower and take it back to my little homestay room and lose myself. But to my disappointment I find nothing. Then from the eastern side of the nursery, I know it is the eastern side as the Sun has slowly made its way up the horizon from that side, I hear a man shouting at me to not keep my foot on the freshly sown soil.
Oh man! Was I delighted to see a caretaker or what? Hoping from all my eager heart that he will introduce me to the flower that was Radha. Like one of those introductions through a common friend. I was all excited, not knowing what I will say when I will see her first. Trying to fix on an opening line, a smooth delivery or a my trademark stark and from the heart fool hardy nonsense.
The caretaker came closer and started to converse in Tamil, a language that I am all too familiar with. He was not amused on my gate crashing entry. The wrinkles on his forehead pushed up by the raised brow told me that he was not in any mood to entertain a free-wheeling wanderlust that too an Indian one. A local, brown hippie. I tried to establish a rapport with him by speaking in the crude-Pondi-Tamil dialiect. Tamil spoken in this part of Tamil Nadu has a distinct roughness about it, far removed from the what is regarded as the polished and pristine Tamil-Brahmin dialect that I have grown up in. What the heck. Adapting has never been a task worth my consideration, I am a shape-shifter, moulding my way through numerous turns of life. So this was easy too. After the initial exchanges with the caretaker, I came down straight to my business. I asked him if he has in his nursery a culture of Radha flowers. He looked at me in a lost state of mind. He asked me again to repeat the flower name. I said, Radha. He nodded his head from side to side, and said – “No Saar!”. The typical stretch of the “ae” syllable when a clipped “a” would have sufficed. He further added that he was not aware of a flower named Radha. I tried to explain him that the flower was probably blue in color and is used to prepare a refreshing beverage. But that hardly helped, he displayed his ignorance and instead told me to pick some other flower that he had in the garden that was blue in color.
Oh my god! What the heck is with these people? It is like I am on a space journey to Pluto and I ask directions mid-way and some universal Pan-shop owner asks me to land in Jupiter instead as he doesn’t know the way to Pluto. Wow! What an alternative? Idiot, I am searching for Radha, not any darn blue flower. I then probe him further on where I could find someone who might know a good deal about flowers in this part of town. He directs me to Auroville and tells me that inside the Matrimandir sanctuary, there is an incense stick kiosk by the canteen and the girl who runs the kiosk is supposed to know a lot about flowers and is known to be a qualified botanist. I was thrilled at hearing this. I really wanted to deal with someone who knew this flower business. I thanked him and rode on towards the Matrimandir.
This is how you move on in your quest, following leads, clues, tip offs, until you find what you sought. I was so thankful to my Kinectic Honda, it made me nimble in a setting where public transport was absent and the distances were sizeable. It was around 8:30 a.m. now and I parked my scooter at the Matrimandir parking and walk in. I could start sensing the frantic frenzy in my footsteps. Like an eager and delirious child, I wanted to find the keeper of the flower. I ask Auroville volunteers, most of them French nationals, about the incense stick kiosk owner. They direct me left from the entrance and tell me it is a small outlet just about fifteen meters from where I was. I quickly breeze through these few meters only to find the kiosk closed. Disappointed, I looked around and found a small tea-shop-cum-tuck shop towards the right of the kiosk. So I decide to indulge in my age old quest of hunger. I see that they have an assortment of home-made cookies and croissants. I order a blue-berry croissant and a hibiscus tea. I love this place as most recipes involve a flower or two. But where is my Radha?
The girls at the tea shop tell me that the kiosk will open in about half an hour. So I restlessly loiter around. Clicking photographs of the beautifully manicured gardens of Auroville. Side play indulgence of this writer, a new hobby – photography. Writing and photography are complementary arts. Both aim at reliving the moment over and over again. Both arts master the universe by eternalizing fleeting frames of time. Both these art forms seem to be an arrogant challenge at the finicky mechanix of the illusion filled universe – a challenge that you may play your freaking overlapping and myriad tricks of Maya but an open consciousness here understands all your games and stands strong and vulnerable. A kind of dominant submission. I will love to delve more on dominant submission later on, but now it is time to move on. I race time ahead by tweaking the universal clock work to about 9:15 a.m. when a dusky girl in pastel colored salwar kameez is opening the shutters to the kiosk. I wait in anticipation for her to be done with the ritualistic prayer when one opens a shop. I have always revered this act. Of worshiping once work. The daily routine of such nature bowls me over. It tells me that there are people who are thankful for each moment that they got to make it right, and that they are ready to submit to a higher calling that their actions may bring the results that it deems fit. The belief that the first sale of the day sets the tone for the day although seems like an overblown superstition but the belief a owners of trade have on this has made me take this on face value. In fact I have been often complemented by some shops that I frequent that I have proven extremely lucky for their business when I have opened their day’s sales. In fact, one food kiosk owner near my previous work place told me that ever since I started to open his day’s sales his business had sky rocketed and on days when I am unable to make it to his shop, the sales have been pale. I remember this date clearly when the food van vendor told me this, it was 28 September 2007, the last day of my stint at my previous employment. When he said that I did not have the courage to tell him that I will not be coming to his shop from the next day onwards. I would be shifting to an office from Noida to Gurgaon. But I still remember the belief in the vendor’s eyes when he told me this and the in-your-face irony of his timing. I just pray that his business only multiplied from that day onwards. Maybe once I am back to Delhi, I will make a visit to his van in Noida and check it out first hand.
The kiosk finally opened for the day and I was the first customer to walk up to the girl at the counter. I knew I had to buy something otherwise her day sale would start on a non-starter note. I asked her the price of the various incense sticks packs that were no sale. After the initial inquiry, I bought a few select fragrance incense packs. I picked up Opium, Lily of the valley, Peppermint, Holy Basil, Ylang Ylang and Parijathak. Out of these, the only fragrance I had reserved for myself was the Parijathak. A fragrance that defines me perfectly. Then it hit me suddenly that may be the Radha fragrance is also on sale. I rummaged through the stack of packs but couldn’t find it. So here is how I started my probe with this girl who was supposed to be a qualified botanist.
I asked her if she could give me the Radha fragrance pack. She said that the flower is not usually used in the preparation of incense stick and instead asked me to look for any other fragrance that I might want to buy. I knew I should not beat around the bush and come straight to the point. No time to waste. I informed her that the caretaker in Yashoda Nursery had suggested that I speak with her as I was looking to find the Radha flower. She was taken aback by this. Why would someone search so vehemently for a flower? I told her that I need to see the flower and that I had tasted a Radha drink in the Pondicherry beach café. She could not make much sense of the frantic tone in my voice. She was puzzled and slightly disinterested. But then again when have I turned back when I am on a high ride. I persisted, this time with a wise man garb, trying to engage her into intelligent conversation of sorts. Told her that I was writer and as part of my story I need to find where the Radha flower grows, how it looks, told her that this was sort of an academic endeavor for me. I also told her that I was aware that she was a qualified botanist. Hearing this she gave me a very cautious look, as if I was stalking her. But soon as the conversation progressed she sensed that my search was really important to me. We got talking for about fifteen minutes, in which she shared the details of the Radha flower. I recall word by word the way she described the flower and in my mind the flower started to take shape, artery by artery, petal by petal, pollen by pollen, with the color slowly taking the right shade as her description became more and more vivid.
Thus the botanist spake in thick Tamilian ascent “Sir, the Radha flower is usually found as a five petal flower, with dual tone, white to purplish blue or indigo blue, with the white shade from the core of the flower bleeding into the blue tone. To size it up, you can hold up to two Radha flowers in your hand. The leaves of the plant resemble a betel leaf in color and shape with tiny sprockety spikes lining the leave ends. While the Radha flower is tender and would easily dwindle even with the slightest of pressure of the hand, its stain is quite fast and would be struggle to wash it off one’s clothes. She told me that some locals also use it as an ingredient in garment dyeing. The creeper that nests the flower grows tall and of moderate bramble density. The fragrance is mild and understated. Very hard to smell among louder smells of the forest. The flower is used as part of southern traditional healing concoction. The essence of the Radha flower in tempered quantities is used to cure skin ailments and rashes, and stomach infections. The flower’s anti-septic properties were also acknowledged in traditional medicinal streams and often infused in ayurvedic therapies to cure poisoning, dementia, and hay fever. As a juice, it is known to calm the nerves and provide calming effect in cases of insomnia.”
She went on to explain how the flower in ancient times was considered a rare and miraculous flower for pregnant women. The root of the Radha flower creeper when tied as a waistband around an expectant mother’s waist ensured a normal child birth even in cases wherein a surgical delivery was anticipated. Even in the now hugely popular practice of Feng Shui, a Radha flower growing in the house gives the home an invincible aura that transcended on to the people.
I asked her where I could find the flower. She said that it is not an uncommon flower in this part of the country and that one might just spot it along the jungle path or in the garden of some houses. She said she had seen the flower somewhere once on the highway to Chennai and growing in brambles on the jungle pathway. She added that the flower has a lot of sub species and one of the rare sub species is the three petal snapdragon-shaped Radha, often found around the back waters of ECR (East Cost Road) shore line. So both these varieties have very different physical appearance.
I tell her that once I find the flower I will get it back to her and she needs to confirm if it was the Radha flower or not. She smilingly agreed. She must be thinking “what a loony?”.
I must confess I was bowled over by the level of detail that was offered to me by this botanist girl. Wow! I couldn’t have asked for more and honestly I expecting far less. This botanist girl, or perhaps all botanists, describe flowers as a poet would describe the morning dew. So much passion and so much knowledge about flowers. I felt so lucky to witness someone as passionate taking about her craft. She clinically constructed Radha in my mind’s eye with near surgical precision. She seemed to me like a flower doctor.
After all this information soak up, I introduced myself and told her my name and asked what her name was. She was named Neeraja – “Neeraja the flower doctor”. I take her leave and tell her that I will be back with the flower or its photograph.
I head out with the Wanderer floating around at my back further into the jungle. Searching for my Radha. I stop anywhere I spot flowers growing on the sides, special indicators being blue flowers. But for the next few hours or so I keep stopping my scooter every few hundred meters only to feel disappointed that I am unable to spot what I was looking for. I ask the local people who are doing their daily chores in their mud house gardens, drying laundry, cleaning utensils, that if they know where the Radha flower might grow. Mostly I get rude or indifferent responses and every once in a while I will get no response at all. As if I am speaking to thin air. Not the most encouraging of moments but I carry on. Looking for the indigo blue beauty in the thick green of the jungle.
I have drifted too far and I slowly get the sense that I might not know the way back from this far into the jungle. But I am confident and follow the same old dictum of mine “when I doubt go straight”. I look at my watch and it says that I have gone without food for good four-five hours now. Wow! No food for that long while being awake. It is 4:00 p.m. and the sun’s intensity is not relenting although I am shielded by the heavy foliage and closed out canopy of the trees. I am slowly becoming cranky, it is the hunger and the realization that I have been that far away from food. The water bottle is empty and I had not spotted a single shop in the last six or seven kilometers. I decide to retreat for the time being and wrap myself in the arms of Annapurna – the goddess of food who is the source of the ability to render infinite food to the infinite mouths of the universe. The goddess of food symbolizing the divine enactment of nourishment and motherly care provides the travelers the energy and verve to aptly follow their destiny. They say, my mother used to say, when food is cooked with purity of heart it becomes alchemy and when served with care it becomes as potent as a mother’s caress.
Well I take a U-turn and ride back on the same path and it is likely to be good forty minutes before I hit civilization again and indulge in food. The heat started getting to me, my face dust ridden and sweaty, neck-line itchy and rashes started showing up. I rode back intuitively on the dusty path, and in my mind the images of Radha flower were super imposed over food. Glorious food. I didn’t knew that if at this moment I spotted the Radha flower would I admire it, sense it, smell it, feel it, photograph it or simply pluck it out and eat it. Lucky me I didn’t spot it then. I rode on.
And came out of the bend that led to Auroville… the first land mark of sorts on my way back. My cottage was a good eight kilometers from Auroville towards the East Coast Road. Just two-three kilometers from Auroville I spotted a eating place to the right. It read “Kofi Bar” and from the outside it seemed like a nice joint, done up with Kane and Bamboo furnishing. I parked my scooter and entered inside.
The next moment I realize that I am inside a hippie joint. Whoooopie! I must share at this moment that it is here in this Kofi Bar that I met some amazing people over the next few days and spent sizeable time here writing, deliberating, discussing life with people from all parts of the world.
I sat inside the beautifully and artistically done up joint and look at their menu. It is an all-organic food joint. I spot an interesting item – “Raagi Dosai” and order one along with Hibiscus tea. Soon the food arrives and I am again teleported to the arms of gods and goddesses. My energy meter started slowing climbing up like a fuel level indicator of a car.
Now at ease alongside food I started to reflect deeper into the gracious goddess Annapurna. According to Hindu mythology, Mr Shiva once in his super pensive mood shared with his wife Parvati how the universe is an illusion, a maya, and how food is another of the illusion. Parvati, who is the force behind all material things, including food, became infuriated and disappeared. As a result of her disappearance, time came to a standstill and the universe became a barren place with no food to be found.
However, being the mother of all mothers, she could not hold herself back on seeing all the suffering. She reappeared on earth in Kasi and established her divine kitchen. Shiva, when he came to know of this, presented himself in front of her with skull bowl in alms. Parvati smiled and gave food to Shiva, thus absolving the hunger of life and giving the energy to the manifest world to transcend the maya. From that moment, she is revered and worshipped as Annapurna, the Goddess of Food and Nourishment.
The best part I like about Goddess Annapurna is her depiction. She is depicted adorning glorious garments made of finest silk and golden-silver zari, with numerous jewels of precious stones, with a golden ladel in one hand and bowl full of food in another and Lord Shiva in his near Wanderer garb on his knees extending his skull bowl begging in alms. This completes one core truth of existence for me.
Having thought all this, I reel back to my quest, the quest of Radha flower and I plug in my earphones and start listening to Metallica on my cellphone. The song “frantic” plays out loud in my ear — “Keep searching, Keep on searching, This search goes on, This search goes on, Keep searching, Keep on searching, This search goes on”.
I eat, then eat some more, and still more. I pen down some of the thoughts that come rushing from the sea of my life. I capture them in my brown diary. Give the abstract some shape and release. I take a walk outside the Kofi bar and realize it has been a while that I have been sitting here eating and writing. It had started to get dark and the birds were on the way back home in this southern sky. I too felt an urge to go back to my cottage and retire for the day. I was tired, and disappointed. Suddenly I felt I had nothing to do but to search for Radha and with the day gone by I was nowhere close to spotting her. I felt like a sad and disappointed child, and it is then that the Wanderer hushed into my ears – “Look Bala. This is what you need to learn. Learn to pursue when the world tells you through all its channels that it is not attainable. Learn to flow into it even when all you see is an inpregnable stone wall. Learn to believe in your vision even when all hope is lost. Learn to love even when you love an empty canvas. Learn to love even when all you can hear back is your own echo. Learn to love and let love create the reality. Love not what you see, but see what you love in the heart of your universe. Love the flower and create its creepers around you, like an old mansion let the Radha flower bramble swallow you, let all realities fade into naught and let only the Radha remain your only consort. Let the fragrance reach you before the flower blooms, taste its juice even before it has been plucked, feel its petals before the seeds of the plant were even sown. Then you will know what love truly means. Boy, you have come this far and know this that you are the knower of all this. But let it not remain as some background static, let it be the amplified fog horn of your ship. Give not a chance to the universe to manifest any other way but the way your heart beats. That is the only dharma. Perfect sync between the creator and the creation, the music and the musician, the writer and the story.”
I came into the Kofi bar to pay my bill. On the counter said a European lady and we got talking. I introduced myself and got to know her name. She was Kate from the Netherlands. She had been living in Auroville for the last seven years and is a perma-vacationer. Perma-vacationers are people who live life on permanent vacation. Living from country to country, moving time to time when they feel like. She seems to know a lot about Auroville and Pondicherry. I tell her a bit about my quest for Radha flower and she tells me to look for the flower around Chunnambar beach and backwater area. The backwater area is about thirty kilometers from Auroville towards Cuddalore. She advises me to go there in the afternoon it I need to spot a Radha flower, as locals who use Radha flower for juice and fragrance might pluck it very early in the morning. So the ones that bloom in the morning would be gone by 7:00 a.m. The ones that are slow to bloom would make it through the day.
I make a resolve to find Radha the following day. I head out of the Kofi bar and pack myself a whole grain pancake and yogurt pie. I ride back on the jungle lane, which is now dark with no lights except the dim headlight of my Kinetic Honda. I reach my hotel room and it is 8:30 p.m. and it seemed like the whole town was already fast asleep. I quietly eat my dinner. Call home and talk to mom and dad. Inform them that I am safe and things are going good. I move to the terrace and I see a faint outline of the moon coming out no moon phase – a waxing crescent… a beautiful sight. I look into the sky and the night scorpion shines her light on me. The scorpion of the night sky flashing her star filled eyes on the tenacious Cancer. The star-lit sky and the buzz and creak of the insects fill the night air and I slowly walk down to my room and sleep. As I am slowly drifting off to sleep, I get faint images of the Wanderer working his magic, manipulating the mechanix of the night, pulling the invisible strings of the universe, and drawing the picture of love that I wish to see in the morning. The Opium incense sticks I lighted before going off to bed, fill the air with sweet smoky fragrance and the light at the tip of the sticks keeps the universe ablaze and I sleep like a tired child.