Published in The Weekend Independent (Bangladesh) on 4 June 2011
The night before I moved to Auroville was a sleepless one. As it was my six-month travel anniversary, I wasn’t keen on spending it in Ashram Guest House. Dusk fell as I made several unsuccessful attempts to find rule-free lodgings -Pondicherrywas made famous by its spiritual guru, Sri Aurobindo, so ashrams have sprung up all over the place since the 1920s. I eventually dumped my backpack on a concrete floor and headed out into the balmy night to celebrate the half-way point of my trip.
I accosted a handsome English backpacker on a street corner, and we toasted my travels in a bar with blacked-out windows and a big-boned live-in rat. Though Mark was just as psychologically unfit to inhabit Auroville, he agreed to join me the next morning, “For a laugh.” This was definitely something of a relief.
But when I returned to my new quarters that night, I felt perturbed by the footsteps and murmuring of male voices outside. It went on and on. I quietly tried to cover the barred window above my door with scarves – only to spend hours anxiously watching the gaps between. I smoked a lot – in between tossing and turning on the single bed, cringing under its stained sheets and glancing at the fan clunking ominously overhead. Though it obviously wasn’t comfortable, I’d stayed in worse places. So I couldn’t understand why, as the hours wore on, I felt so intensely disturbed. When the morning eventually arrived with merciless punctuality, I stumbled out of my room to clean my teeth at a communal basin. In daylight, even the bleariest eyes could see that I’d just spent the night in a jail. After checking out and confirming the building’s original purpose with the taciturn manager, I peered up at the blocks of cells on four landings. The only discernible difference in the jail’s present appearance was its inhabitants, who rushed off to work (or look for work) in lungies. Dazed, I felt that the walls had been trying to talk to me all night.
The bizarre theme of crime and punishment endured a while longer, as I briefly attended a trial inPondicherry’s district courthouse before lunch (another idea snatched from Lonely Planet). As a recent law graduate, I was curious to watch another country’s legal system in action – even if I could barely understand a word of the proceedings.
Happily, the first thing to jettison on arrival at Auroville is money – or at least all reminders of its physical existence. After setting up a temporary Auroville account that could be used absolutely everywhere, Mark and I looked around for our first reason to make a withdrawal – accommodation. A bearded German with jingling anklets summarised our options as “pricey.” He recommended a tree-house, but nullified the advice by adding, “If you are comfortable with spiders.” We opted for a no-frills seaside shack in “Waves”, partly because it was on the outskirts of Auroville’s residential area, and perhaps, we figured, a little less intense. This assumption was incorrect, but more about that later.
We made a bee-line for the Matrimandir’s viewing area and drank in its golden golf ball-ness from a postcard perfect distance. According to Auroville’s website, “It was conceived by The Mother as a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s inspiration for perfection.” It was under construction for decades until it was completed in 2008, 35 years after The Mother’s death. Though I cannot corroborate it, I subsequently heard on the grapevine that the Matrimandir is structurally unsound.
In any event, there was no such suggestion in the film we watched as part of the initiation process to enter the golden ball (others probably saw it in less calculating terms than that). Melodic voices synced to swirling light beams explained that The Mother chose the Matrimandir’s location by pointing to a spot on a map – not randomly, but because she believed something special was located in the hitherto unseen area. When her sources confirmed that the spot contained a banyan tree (may I respectfully point out that the trees are indigenous to the area), the heart and soul of Auroville was born. Mark covertly filmed the film and pulled it out whenever he was feeling blue – it never failed to amuse him.
Unfortunately, getting ourselves inside the big golden ball didn’t appear as straightforward as choosing its location. It was a blow to learn that we had to stay in Auroville for five days and attend various yoga and “learning” sessions before we could qualify for entry (though I cannot find any reference to this on the internet). Life in Auroville was a tad expensive for our budget, but we pushed that issue to the side for the time being. We spent the rest of our first afternoon searching for loop-holes to accelerate the process, which mostly consisted of blatantly befriending every security guard we met. Nothing was working.
At 9pm, a large group of Aurovillians, including two faux ones, gathered at the edge of the magical forest for a full moon walk. I didn’t use inverted commas in the previous sentence, because they didn’t either. Our leader asked that we maintain total silence for the three hour walk, though it soon became apparent that farting was excluded. After 45 minutes, we stopped at a clearing, stood in a circle, and gazed at the full moon. We repeated this act of moon worshipping another three or four times, and once I turned around to see a middle-aged European woman hugging a tree. I was thrilled – I’ve only ever seen someone do that on TV.
We were woken the following morning by the sounds of chanting that mingled with the crashing of small waves. Mark and I peered over the thatching to watch a large group of men and women perform strange exercises on the sand. After a long group hug that was followed by louder chanting and the wiggling of fingers towards the sun, the chanters began to remove various pieces of clothing. Some were virtually naked. The exercises, performed in pairs or threes, resumed with greater vigour. Sensing a tantric scene was about to erupt, I took a few sneaky pictures and went for a wash. Perhaps it was “rituals” such as these that prompted a blogger called Api to write on Lonely Planet’s travel forum, “I have visited [Auorville] and have friends there, and they also have some problems with it. E.g. Westerners not respecting many cultural traits ofIndia.”
I’d like to add one further comment about that beach. Although Auroville’s website states there is “no general policy of separation or exclusion between local Indians and Aurovilians” [my italics], a large section of the beach – the prettiest – was roped off to prevent locals entering. In all my years of traveling, I’ve never found a concept more repugnant than to turn locals (the poor ones, of course) into potential trespassers. I sincerely hope that the Government of Bangladesh does not follow through on its plans to set up an “exclusive tourist zone” on Saint Martins Island – particularly as a government spokesperson said it would be modeled on Auroville.
Furthermore, though Auroville hotly denies accusations of it being neo-colonist, “There’s no way foreign Aurovilians could afford to live out any sort of colonial fantasy here, even if they wished to do so, which is definitely not the case,” (it’s almost self-parody!) there have are repeated claims that villagers are being exploited by wealthy Aurovillians. Servants are not allowed to reside in Auroville – for reasons still unknown. Most gravely, aBBCinvestigation that found Indian children had been sexually assaulted in Aurovillian schools. After losing its battle against theBBC’s claims, Auroville launched a sexual abuse awareness programme.
After three days, Mark and I had hammock-back and itchy feet. We didn’t take part in the activities, though we did make a couple of friends, including a German couple who missed the second leg of their flight toIndiaafter passing out in an airport bar. The German woman was a striking beauty with waist-length dread-locks, and I was enchanted by her flair for night fire-twirling. In a drunken attempt to impress Mark, I asked if I could try. Within half a minute I was sitting down again. It was fortunate that by the time I hit myself in the eye with the end of the stick, the fire was already out. The grease was relatively easy to wipe off – much easier than my companions’ teasing smiles.
At the time, there was only consolation regarding the failure of my first Gonzo mission. I had at least kept my secret identity intact, and thus I didn’t fall into the last part of this post on a Lonely Planet travel forum:
“People who have lived [in Auroville] are either i) very fond of the place and still there or ii) hated it and left or were thrown out.”
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