Published in The Weekend Independent (Bangladesh) on 27 May 2011
Ashram Guest House was getting on my nerves. I had to be “home” each night by 10:30pm, and I wasn’t allowed to smoke or drink alcohol once inside my cramped, windowless room. The other guests seemed happy enough to meditate their nights away, but I felt like I was in boarding school. While passing another dreary night by idly flicking through a Lonely Planet India guidebook, I paused to smile. Auroville, an “experimental universal township” was just 12 kilometres south of my ashram abode in Pondicherry. I read on: “At the spiritual and physical centre of Auroville is an astonishing structure called the Matrimandir, looking something like a cross between a giant golden golf ball and a NASA space project. It contains a silent inner chamber lined with white marble and houses a solid crystal (the largest in the world) 70cm in diameter. But you won’t actually see this; the Matrimandir is not open to casual visitors.”
I made up my mind then and there: I would get inside that golden ball by becoming a faux Aurovillian. Afterwards, I would write a Gonzo-styled expose on its weirdness, and that would be my break into journalism. Of course, life is never so straightforward – four years have passed since my visit.
I woke earlier than usual the next day and rented a battered bicycle. After dodging trucks and ox-carts along the hot highway, it was a relief to wind my way through Auroville’s ochre paths, and to breathe in the forest’s scents. I chuckled as I passed a hand-painted sign pointing to an area called “Fertility.”
When I walked into Auroville’s information office, its female administrator was on the phone, speaking in fast French. She apologised for the wait after hanging up with a sigh, and told me that an Indian villager had committed suicide that morning. He’d been accused of theft (by whom she didn’t say). Though I hadn’t checked it at the time, Auroville’s website is clear on how it handles “differences” [their quotation marks] or clashes within their community – which may have included this incident. “The use of law courts or referral to other outsiders is considered unacceptable and to be avoided if possible.” Instead, Auroville’s Executive Council handles them.
Auroville’s philosophy is fascinating in the sense that it is truly disengaged from the “outside world” – and makes several allusions to it being an inferior place. Here is an example: when Auroville uses it website to rebut the “criticism in recent years… that there is an obvious, and in some cases fairly major, disparity of wealth between its inhabitants,” one of its odd justification is this: “Aurovilians are not using their personal wealth for selfish ends or as a means to acquire yet greater wealth, as typically happens in the outside world.” Another response to the money question does more to demonstrate Aurovillians’ blind faith in their spiritual leaders: “Sri Aurobindo and The Mother never said that there was anything wrong with being rich or poor.” And that’s that? Well no, there’s more. In Aurovillian, the notion of poverty is sort of inversed, as these few sentences from its site reveal: “There are people in Auroville who no longer have any money of their own: all their personal resources have been exhausted and they now depend totally on the community for everything. The beautiful thing about Auroville is its complete acceptance of responsibility for such people, and its financial support for them.” Sounds sweet huh? As I understand it, the Free Aurovillian Fund [not it’s real name] raises money in several ways – from mandatory monthly “contributions” from permanent and guest Aurovillians, over-priced meals and guesthouses, and sales of Auroville T-shirts (mine was pale pink and I wore it for months), water bottles, mugs, soap, incense, shampoo – you name it. In addition – a rather large addition – are the “tens of millions of dollars sent over the years from abroad.” Some of this money, its site boasts, has been “poured into the bioregion”… hopefully not literally.
Auroville also owns approximately 430 hectares of land, and is gradually purchasing the other half from the Indian government. Its 2,000 residents are spread across a massive 189 hectares of land (in 1968 The Mother envisioned a population of 50,000), and many have built houses. However, “It is the Foundation, not the inhabitants, which own the houses.” This surely grates against its primary ethos, that: “Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole.” Up until The Mother’s death in 1973 (which crushed a fervent Aurovillian belief that she would never die) she “repeatedly warned against the danger of Auroville falling under the control of Government of India…” Fortunately, life in Auroville has continued almost unchanged since the Indian government took over some 35 years ago, but Aurovillians, now not owned by no one, “are actually very vulnerable, always at the mercy of the Indian authorities,” states its website. India’s (hopefully merciful) Ministry of Human Resource Development appoints Auroville’s Governing Board who, in turn, appoint key committees – such as the “buck-stops-here” Executive Committee.
Had I known all these things before I lived in Auroville, I would have found it much harder to find its funny side. But I didn’t know, so there I was, chatting away politely, feeling eager to begin my stay. But even as early as then, I felt a bit tense. The conversation was turning into a screening test – and I was probably trying too hard to pass. Auroville’s website spells out the “required psychological conditions” for acceptance, and its FAQ section states:
“Q: Can anyone join Auroville?”
“A: Yes… Provided they come with the right motivation… However, if… it becomes apparent that someone is not yet suited for life in Auroville, they will usually be asked to wait for some time.”
In some ways I felt bad about creating a false impression. I was a hedonistic long-term backpacker, yet here I was cooing at a notice board offering “Dolphin Dancing Lessons” and “Full Moon Walks Through a Magical Forest.” But, I say in my defense, simply being the ordinary person that I was would not have cut it in Auroville. It is a place “free of politics and religion” (subjects I love to discuss) but adheres to a very specific, yet simultaneously vague, spirituality. Like-mindedness is required, and thus tourists are out of the question. Its “Casual Visitors” page says this: “Auroville is not a tourist place, despite being referred to in travel and tourist literature, and does not devote as much time and energy to welcoming tourists as sites established specifically for that purpose.”
Anyhow, after 15 minutes of lying like a vixen, I was in.
I celebrated my first victory with a soy latte at Solar Kitchen, which was just outside the administrator’s office. Before my coffee had arrived, a 30-something Tamil man, dressed entirely in white, introduced himself as a yoga teacher and sat down. My eyes glazed over when he launched into the joys of centering himself through yoga. He offered me lessons but I mumbled a no-no.
While stopping at a roadside tea stall some three kilometers north, I realised my camera was missing. I cycled furiously back to Solar Kitchen, while keeping one eye out for it on the track.
“You’re in luck!” said the administrator as I burst into her office with an ashen face.
She handed over my little black camera and said, “You’re lucky a Westerner found it – he handed it straight in. Things could have been different if it was an Indian.”
“And another thing,” she said, before I staggered out in shock. “Avoid that yoga teacher. We’ve had a few complaints from women.”
Click HERE to read Part 2