Category Archives: India

Mission Impossible: Entering Auroville’s golden ball (Part 2)

Published in The Weekend Independent (Bangladesh) on 4 June 2011

The goose’s golden egg? Auroville, India

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.

Mark reading the newspaper, “Auroville Today”

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.

Auroville beach shack with tantric excercisers behind me

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.”

Click HERE to return to Part 1

Mission Impossible: Entering Auroville’s golden ball (Part 1)

Published in The Weekend Independent (Bangladesh) on 27 May 2011

Matrimandir, The Big Golden Ball, Auroville

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.

A signboard for Tenderness Guest House, Auroville

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.

Funking up the Big Golden Ball with Photoshop

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

A Day in the Life of a Bollywood Extra – Jessica on the set of Ta Ra Rum Pum

Published in The Daily Independent Weekend Magazine, 23 April 2010

Child star Angelina Idnani on the set of Tara Rum Pum with the film's sexy director
Child star Angelina Idnani on the set of Tara Rum Pum with the film’s sexy director

“It was the chicken neck.  I know it was. That stupid, stupid chicken neck…”

Those were the last words I heard from my travel companion before leaving him in a dingy hotel room for the next 14 hours.  I was about to spend the day as an extra in a Bollywood film.  We were supposed to be going together, but Mark was in the grips of a terrible case of food poisoning and he wasn’t capable of making it down to reception, let alone a film set on the outskirts of Mumbai.  His decision to have a dalliance with cheap meat in India could not have been more poorly timed.  I could see in his sorrowful eyes that he knew it.  The missed opportunity was a double blow to Mark – he’d already been turned away from an all-male Bollywood casting because he was wearing cheap sandals.  As they say, the world of show business is cruel.

I tried to shrug off the feeling that I was abandoning a fallen comrade on the field.  It was putting a dampener on the excitement of witnessing the happenings of a film industry that fascinates and mystifies me.  Mark and I had deliberately loitered around the Colaba Causeway in Mumbai for a significant portion of each day, hoping to be spotted by a talent scout looking for foreigners to work as extras.  I thought my hopes were dashed until we were finally approached, just a couple of days before we were due to leave the megacity.  A young guy with gelled hair and tight jeans had flashed his business card at us – we flashed our best smiles back and expressed our deep enthusiasm for a 12 hour shoot the following day.  We would be paid 500 rupees – but I would have done it for nothing.  In actual fact, I would have happily paid a fee and walked over broken glass to be a part of it.

When I turned up at the designated meeting point around 7am, there were masses of other foreigners already there.  I was instantly deflated – how would I get my face onto the screen amongst all this lot?  As I boarded one of two large buses, I resolved that a strategy to achieve fleeting “stardom” would have to be formulated on the spot.  I knew it wouldn’t arise through my acting skills, because I didn’t have any.  Even the most gentle of high school drama classes had made me cringe, and I’d quit them at the earliest opportunity.  But this was Bollywood, and I was prepared to act as though I enjoyed acting.

Bollywood churns out over 900 movies each year, so I was very fortunate to be cast in Ta Ra Rum Pum, which became the eighth highest grossing film in India in 2007.  It stars Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukerji, along with child actors Angelina Idnani and Priya Singh.  Ta Ra Rum Pum follows the up-and-down-and-up-again career of racing car driver Rajveer Singh or “RV”, as he becomes known to fans.  After becoming the number one driver in the United States, RV has a serious accident and thereafter loses his courage.  His performance drops, his manager fires him, and shortly afterwards he’s out of a job.  His family struggles financially, and when RV’s son swallows glass after eating out of a garbage can, the hospital tells RV and his beautiful wife that $65,000 is required for their son’s treatment.  With no other option to raise the cash, RV returns to racing.  He beats his nemesis in a thrilling race, taking the number one spot.  The gorgeous young family live happily ever after – The End.

Happy to be getting closer to the action – and the movie stars!

The majority of the film was shot in the USA, but for whatever reasons (possibly financial – extras come much cheaper in Mumbai) the scenes involving the racing car spectators were shot in India.  After a two hour journey through Mumbai’s choked streets, we arrived at a huge set comprising a partially painted racing car track and a set of bleachers.  We filed into a huge white tent and were handed either red, yellow or green caps and a matching flag.  Some of the luckier ones were asked to change into something from the wardrobe – unfortunately my yellow singlet top fitted right in with pre-existing requirements.  A thrill of excitement passed through me as I saw the racing car outfits of various sizes hanging on a rack.  I munched on some snacks and took in all the showbiz bustle.

Hanging about was a mistake.  By the time I ambled over to the bleachers, the front and middle rows were taken.  I made my way up to a rear stand, feeling like I was a kilometre away from the cameras.  The director was a handsome man who looked like a star in his own right.  He addressed us with a megaphone, explaining that we were about to film the scene when RV wins a big race.  We were told to clap, to cheer and to chant “RV.”  Optimum enthusiasm was essential, we were told rather unnecessarily.  The excitement was palpable.  And then the words that every Bollywood wannabe loves to hear – “Lights.  Camera. ACTION!”  After about 12 takes, our hands were clapped red raw.  We then feigned sadness and despair when RV crashed, and cheered up again when he won the race of his life.  I realise that this doesn’t sound particularly complicated, nor time-consuming – I’m not really sure where all the hours went.  There was also a lot of standing around in the sun – but I wouldn’t expect anything less from a film set.

We were given regular breaks, and I used each one to return to a seat slightly closer to the action.  By this stage the big stars had appeared – Rani Mukerji emerged from a pastel coloured trailer, with a man carrying a sun umbrella hovering close behind.  Wearing jeans and a tank top, with her long thick hair in loose curls, Rani looked every inch the mega starlet.  Her beauty was over-powering – almost shocking.  The child star, Angelina Idnani, looked as cute as a button in a red racing outfit and didn’t appear to complain about the heat.  She took her place in the middle of a row and was handed a pair of bongo drums to beat.

A surreptitious shot of my proximity to Angelina Idnani. Please excuse my stupid expression.
A surreptitious shot of my proximity to Angelina Idnani. Please excuse my stupid expression.

The director looked around, laconically scanning our “pick me!” faces.  Eventually he pointed at me and said, “You – in the green singlet.  Come down and sit here.”  Full of exhilaration, I glided down a few rows and realised “sit here” meant occupying the vacant seat next to Angelina.  I was beaming like an idiot – which was presumably a perfect expression for the RV’s victorious finale car race.  After a few takes, I attempted to make small talk with Angelina. She was very polite but it was the first time in 15 years that I felt intimidated by a 10 year old.  I wondered how many multiples of a hundred (??!) her bank account exceeded mine.

I was still travelling in India when Ta Ra Rum Pum was released, so I bought a pirated copy on a street corner.  Before watching it in full, I skipped to the scenes I thought I might see myself in.  It was proving fruitless and I was consigned to having been relegated to the cutting room floor.  And then I spotted my toothy smile and crooked cap.  Yes, it was me. In Bollywood.  For three whole seconds.
I’m wearing a green singlet, left of Angelina Idnani (in the very last part of the finale scene below).