I want to be there, in the land of writers and singers and dreamers. Where the nights float away against a bonfire as the gentle strumming of guitar strings lets me step on the moon. Where colourful people sit against pale stone walls and tell each other stories of surreal survival. Where hope rises like a phoenix from the ashes of sorrow, and poetry lights up our souls with each other’s glow. Where magic lurks in the corners of strangers’ smiles, and we drown out our collective insecurities with thumping heartbeats. Where the spirit of a lost song forms from our silences and lets its lyrics fall on our barren tongues like raindrops.
Alisha Pais’s voice rises boldly from the screen.
Shine your shoes it’s time to go
Let’s take a trip to the end of the world…
We can waste away the day
Oh, just waste away today
But when we find the things we love,
We’ll have wasted nothing at all..
– Alisha Pais, “Up” | (Sofar Bombay)
I watch her sing and imagine myself as one among the crowd, tapping my fingers to her rhythm.
Some of the best nights of my life were spent in a cultural alcove by the name of Adishakti, a theatrical arts research laboratory that lies in that point where the bustling town of Pondicherry converges with the hidden world of Auroville. There is a visceral hurt when I recollect how I came to know about them only in 2019, my third and final year in Pondicherry. The discovery of the Remembering Veenapani Festival, conducted in the memory of its founder Veenapani Chawla, was a delight unlike any other. One week of enchantment. Some evenings featured plays – Adishakti’s own Bali, the mesmeric Perch Collective with Mondays are Best for Flying out of Windows, and The Gentlemen’s Club by Patchwork Ensemble whose catchy tunes still spring at me from time to time. Another night was an immersion in the world of Simon and Garfunkle. We danced to the dynamic beats of parai and sat spellbound by the sensual moves of lavani. I lived impatiently from one night to the next, willing the daylight to fall away faster into darkness.
The week flew by, and all too soon it was over. I can still taste the freshness of those moments spent in the quiet amphitheatre, a surreptitious gathering of perhaps a hundred people, enthralled by incredible art and beauty. People from all around India, and even outside India, forged together as one in the magic of those nights.
Even after I moved on, I vowed to return to Pondicherry every year in April, if only to be a part of the festival again. The dates of the shows were marked bright on my calendar in 2020 as soon as they were announced, and the excuses for availing long leave from work were ready as well. I could hardly keep my excitement in check.
But then the pandemic struck. The world went into lockdown, and the festival stood cancelled.
Now in the midst of the second wave, yet another April has gone by. We could never really know when the world would go back to the way it was. Uncertainty, suffering and loss loom around us. Words wander without company; songs echo in sober baritones; dreams wilt against the embers of grief. We slip from solitude to loneliness as our worlds shake and collapse around us.
But some day, people will come together in vibrant hues, and they shall sit in circles or against pale stone walls and let their stories emerge from the ashes of their grief. Some day we shall let our loneliness give way to the collective voices of survival, and the stars will shine just a little brighter above the dark green canopy. Some day, a hundred odd strangers shall gather in a wild open amphitheatre to celebrate the sheer essense of humanity, and they shall laugh and laud and let the moments trickle into eternity.
Whenever it might be, I shall meet you there – in the land of writers and dreamers.