by Heidi Watts
||Heidi Watts is a professor of education at Antioch New-England graduate
school in Keene, New Hampshire. Her connection with Auroville began
Miriam Eckleman, a kindergarten teacher there, spent several months
classes at Antioch and visiting local schools. Miriam invited
Auroville to give workshops to any interested teachers. Heidi
been to India, but after reading Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on
and realizing how closely their pedagogy corresponded to her own,
accepted. She traveled with her friend Peggy Leo, who has also been
the Auroville-Antioch teacher exchange.
December 18: Departure Day
It's come, the day of the big setting off. It furthers one to
great water. I hope so.
December 19: Madras
Tania recommended the Broadlands Hotel and gave us their card while
in Lewes. We rang them from England, got through, managed to be heard
the echo, made reservations and here we are. And, there is a lot of
water between then and now.
The descent into Madras was also not as bad as I feared, perhaps for
been warned, certainly for having Peggy to share the tasks, and for
a driver was waiting. It reminded me of some of my landings in the
Caribbean-rather grungy amenities, but all there. In fact, our trip
Mexico keeps coming back-I have been in a third-world country before.
Broadlands is reminiscent of the hotel we stayed in in Guadalajara,
dirt streets in that city or in Barra de Navidad are as crowded and
Peggy waited for the luggage; I got the money. If you are fearful of
leaving your place or your luggage unattended traveling in twos is
As we came out of the concrete damp and dark of the baggage room at
airport into the intense sun and heat and a clamoring line of prospective
guides, drivers, beggars, there was indeed a taxi driver just for us,
holding a sign which said "Watts." He led us through the swarm, helped
pay off two beseeching and unwanted helpers, loaded us and all our
into his taxi and shook his head uncomprehendingly as we tried to indicate
the hotel we wanted.
"Yes, yes, Auroville-tomorrow. Today hotel. Broadlands hotel."
"Yes, yes, hotel. Broadlands Hotel" We waved the hotel's card at him.
So we set off through the incredible chaos of a city street in India
a few minutes he pulled in triumphantly through the portals of a large,
white anywhere-in-the-world, smells-of-money hotel. The Trident. Could
been the Hilton or The Grand View.
"No, no, Broadlands hotel. Not this hotel."
Much pointing to address, sign and gesture language back and forth.
He got back in the taxi, drove out through the portals and back into
confusion. After about ten minutes he pulled up by the side of the
indicating a long row of shops across the street selling or not selling
everything imaginable to passing bicyclers, children, old men, saree-clad
women and cows. In a little more broken English and much arm waving
indicated his intention to get something to eat and marched off, leaving
in the taxi. Wide-eyed we opened the doors, and I stepped out, right
pile of cow dung. Welcome to India.
Sign on Hotel room wall:
To be CAUTIOUS
of Strangers at Hotels Around
Who Coax you for
A Dance-Party-or-Something Like
They are Troublesome
December 20: Auroville
Peggy sits astride on the blue wicker bed in our room in our house in
Samaste and I sit nearby in a blue wicker chair. The wind has been
boisterously through the room, cool, fresh and noisy, rattling curtains,
blowing papers, making itself felt. There are almost floor-to-ceiling
windows in this room on two sides, and even on a third side the top
wall is a strip of windowing, under an overhanging roof. The large
slide to open in front of a fine mesh black screening; there are venetian
blinds of the hanging variety as well. In the fourth wall we have the
room's entrance, a nine foot door painted the same glossy blue as the
furniture and the two closet doors set into the remaining section of
divided by a teak-edged dressing table. The floor is composed of large
black tiles, smooth and cool to the foot, and covered with a tan and
striped grass rug at one end, where also are the two blue wicker chairs
a small wicker table. The wall space which remains-not much of it-is
painted a soft blue-green and is unmarred by pictures. The ceiling
a modified four-paneled tower shape to a small skylight, now covered.
the closets on the inner wall there appears to be another built-in
with teak doors. We are on a second floor, looking out over lawn, and
gardens, into trees. Everything about this room is pleasing: light,
comfortable. What a wonderful place to land!
This morning we awoke in the Broadlands hotel, in a room perhaps a little
larger, but less gracious. Two beds, high-ceiling, painted an orange
with a large fan revolving in the center, the walls an institutional
two small tables, one panel of light switches for the fluorescent lamp
the bed and a few other small yellow bulbs. Our two beds, next to each
other, look into the concrete box which is the toilet, shower and washbasin
room combined in one. No windows. The double doors which open into
room, high, wooden, green, have louvers and lead us in off a balcony
runs around a central courtyard containing a rubber tree higher than
living room and other large green things; there are rooms similar to
off the balcony all the way around on this, the second floor, and on
floors above and below.
We ordered tea, which comes strong, white and sugared in a thermos from
passing boy-5 rupees and drank it in bed, gathering strength for the
Around 8:00 a.m. we gathered our forces and walked to the beach
had located on the hotel's map, then back to sign-out and take off
faithful taxi, which waited for us through the night. I presume the
sleeps in the taxi for its protection and his shelter.
India-the roads of Madras, the road from Madras-is it possible to describe
it all? In Madras the main roads were paved but all the side roads
dirt and in any case, there are few sidewalks so that the road sides
dirt. Shops and people spill out onto the streets, not so much selling
hoping to sell, not so much buying as on the move. On the streets,
streets, are people of all ages on foot, cows and bullocks wandering
will, rickshaws pulled by bicycles, a few pulled by horses, small yellow
three wheeled taxis, a few larger rounded fendered taxis like our own,
buses and quite a few large trucks. The traffic wheels around
replacing caution with reliance on the horn or bell. The bicycles have
mirrors, fortunately, as no one gives consideration to anyone else
forced to-wherever you can push to or into, you do. The roadsides are
littered with garbage and feces, human and animal, by the end of the
but appear to be swept and cleaned in the morning.
At 8:00 this morning there was much less traffic than at 8:00 in the
evening, shops were setting up, some people were washing out of pots
described in The City of Joy, women were sweeping their dismal patches,
a crew with a truck was doing major clean-up, the men scooping up trash,
feces, food leavings, etc. in baskets. The author of The City of Joy
Indians are the cleanest people in the world. They wash thoroughly
morning as part of a ritual purification, even those who live in the
abysmal situations. Perhaps this contributes to the fact that in spite
all the overcrowding, dirt and dust, the people are so beautiful.
The Auroville kindergarten starts at 9:00 with all the children in a
on mats in a large rectangular room with a vaulted ceiling of wooden
and thatch. The room [This description is of the old kindergarten
buildings. Since then, a new building has been erected-Ed.] is cool
rather plain. There are a few children's paintings mounted on
bulletin boards above our heads, and three large white metal cabinets,
locked. There are also a few shelves, and at one end two low tables,
perhaps, but most of the work here, and in Miriam's room happens on
close to the floor.
There are 8 teachers. Miriam says there were 10 but in conversations
the design of the new kindergarten and about curriculum they were always
disagreement with the others and eventually decided to leave. (To my
8 teachers for 30 - 40 children is still a very good ratio.
The group then splits in three, going off to separate buildings with
teachers. We follow Miriam to one of the nearly circular thatched-roof
buildings where the children sit on cushions in a circle and Miriam
introduces us and asks them to tell their names to us. Once the tables
produced and the children are given a choice of working in their books
drawing they settle down very well, and work with pretty solid
concentration for over an hour, even, or perhaps, especially Geo. The
books are big plain-paged notebooks in which Miriam has written work
each particular child. Today most of them are doing writing exercises,
making loops and circles etc., but some are connecting numbered dots
make stars, and in some of the books there are math problems. Those
not working in the books make simple books by folding and cutting paper
then draw. I go out and when I come back Peggy is writing sentences
them to go with the stories. They draw boats, a Christmas tree-this
one of the little Tamil boys-a tree that was laughing and a tree that
crying, laughing because the birds came and sat in it and crying because
didn't like anybody. Dyvila drew a person swimming.
After about half an hour of this table work, Sanjeev begins reading
boy on the floor. He reads in a wonderfully soft, mellow voice
child resting against him, and gradually others begin to join in with
conversation about the book or drift over to listen, until by 10:30
the children are clustered quietly around him, engaged in the story.
After snack, while all the children ran out to play on the swings or
sand, the teachers talked for awhile about the morning and about what
would do next, because after snack there is another rug meeting, followed
by cross group divisions-some to sports, some to gymnastics, and the
choosing clay or a color song with Miriam. So for the first half of
morning-the academic half? they are divided into age groups, but in
second half by activity or interest. Each teacher decides what she
for the activity/choice and they arrange it then and there.
Later in the day-after Peggy and I tried to find the post office and
off the bike-Li came to visit. She spoke very well and intelligently
her work with the children. She does "topics" theme work with her group
12 eight- to ten-year-olds, half boys, half girls, and a similar mixture
cultural backgrounds but she has, she says, one child who does not
English at all. The topics they have done this year include Egypt,
and the one they are now engaged in, fish. Her descriptions of all
doing with it, for over three weeks, sounds like classic integrated
shall be interested in seeing it tomorrow when I visit.
Li had no training but liked so much working with the children that
went to the Ashram in Delhi to learn more, but there she was given
work to do with ten-year-olds which did not prepare her, she says,
on the initial teaching of reading and writing. She seems to be interested
in learning more about that, and about English phonics so as to be
teach the sounds to the children correctly.
Today we rode our bicycles to the Transition School and visited four
classes. What I have seen to admire: In Ruth's class-the aquarium
with different kinds of fish, and the mosaic trees. Art here seems
strength. With Mary and Josselyn's class-children's writing displayed,
colorfully written and illustrated and some of it very literate.
play rehearsal, children working seriously and creatively and
In Li's class-the whole lesson with the poem from beginning to end,
evidence of the fish project. With Miriam's classes-the songs
motions, both the river song and the color song, and the table work.
admire the teacher-made lessons, which can be varied to the needs of
child and avoid the cultural stereotyping, and I admire the way the
children worked with concentration. I also loved Sanjeev's reading
flow of conversation, so respectful and engaging with the children
went on around the reading. With Patricia, everything about the clay
out there under the trees. With Adele, being reminded again about the
usefulness of the game pick-up sticks, the teacher made workbooks again,
and most moving of all, the ceremony for A.
In general I admire the physical arrangement, the buildings inside and
the freshness and spontaneity of the children, the comfortable relationship
between the children and the adults, and the arrangement of the schedule
which seems to flow between teachers, buildings and types of activity.
On the roof overlooking the garden. Have I described the
gardens of Samasti? Lotus growing thickly like overgrown
water lillies, leaves like huge nasturtiums, in a curving water bed
little fishes, tadpoles and insects swoop about. A mortar bridge off
ocher dirt from here sculpted in a fashion reminiscence of a Japanese
garden rises over a part of the lotus pool and leads one onto a path
large rocks set in the green grass. Before and after are planted beds
things we try to raise as house plants which here grow thick and lush,
white, or yellow, or pink flowers at different heights. Although
too small to see from here, when one walks on the grass one can see
the grass is flowering with tiny pink or blue floweretts.
Lunches at the Guest House consist of a buffet which always includes
rice and at least six other dishes. Several of these are vegetables
until soft and delicately flavored, a salad of green leaves and lettuce
with a yogurt dressing, and something else like tomatoes cut up or
carrots-always carrots. There is usually also an Indian bread-chappattis
a pancake-and of course some chutney. These tend to be sweet chutneys
none of the food is very spicy, though the gentle blend of unusual
in the soups and on the vegetables is always delicious.
Lunches at New Creation [a school/community which works with children
the nearby village of Kuilapalayam and withTamil Aurovilians-Ed.]
cafeteria-style, though less genteel are much the same. We hold out
shiny metal plates and get a large spoonful of rice, then a ladle of
but tasty sauce made with dal, vegetables and Indian spices like cardamom,
coriander, cumin, and/or cilantro, next raw carrots grated or sliced
dressing, finally a "chutney" which is another sauce, spicier and hotter,
and occasionally a sweet-some flour and sweetner confection. Filtered
is the drink. (They have had tea mid-morning and will have tea again
mid-afternon, the strong, cardamom flavored sweet milk tea which one
all over India. We Westerners eat with a spoon but the Indians all
us eat with the right hand, with enthusiasm. After lunch at New Creation
file into the kitchen to run our plates through a basin of hot soapy
and another of rinse water. They are then stacked in the sun to dry,
perhaps to sterilize.
For breakfast at home we rustle up cereal and/or toast, and for supper
bread, cheeses, salad, soup Soups again, yummy. Ammas do the washing
the house cleaning and laundry, and much of the cooking. So Western
helps to support the economy of Indian villagers. There are worse ways.
S. had a lot to say about the discrepancy in wealth, and about the
non-teaching of Tamil in the Auroville schools. I don't know
yet about the
rich/poor split, but it seems to me sensible to concentrate on one
for common use with this international community. And they do teach
in the schools. The trouble is that the Tamil students remain
English and the Europeans remain weak in Tamil. Well, for heaven's
what happens to them outside of school, the more than 70% of the time
aren't in school? The Tamil children are not speaking English at home
the Europeans are not speaking Tamil. So...
A lovely Christmas. Immediately following dinner we attended the sacred
dances in Pitanga until dusk, when we finished dancing on the roof.
it! The last event of the evening was a children's homemade performance,
based on Miriam's colors tape at Illa's house. Five medium-sized little
girls and one younger one, skipping around and around, with or without
scarves, to the gentle mellow voice of an American folk singer, taking
their cue from the music. Very well-organized and seriously intent
On Boxing Day we went to Pondicherry on the bus, leaving at 8:30, returning
at 12:30. After lunch and a quick siesta we were about to set out for
Matrimandir when, fortunately, Li arrived and offered to accompany
There were so many tourists we would never have gotten in without her
presence as guide. After a walk through the rose garden and the nursery
went into the Matrimandir, sat in the meditation room for 20 minutes,
then Li escorted us through the larger nursery. I walked home through
sunset, Li and Peggy rode their bicycles. We got home to discover Miriam
had arranged moped rides for us to the concert of her choir at Bharat
Nivas; I rode with the wind rushing through my hair, the air soft and
a sliver of silver moon riding in the deep dark sky and the outline
Eucalyptus trees against the horizon just barely visible.
December 28: visit to New Creation
Sylvie appeared and invited us to roam at will, beginning with her class.
Sylvie's class has about 15 Tamil children, ages 11 to 14. They
sitting at desks, working on an exercise from a math book on place
Each child has what would be called a rough book in England, or an
book and they copy the problems from the workbook into their own books,
doing the problems as they go along. Sylvie circulated, asked children
different times to demonstrate on the board the solution to a problem,
checked work, offered explanations, etc. Some children were clearly
understanding and doing the problems, at least one boy, to the right
front row, was looking confused and uncertain, but dutifully copied
problems into the book-without doing the exercise at all.
From this room we were commandeered by Roy who then led us to each room,
talking the while, gave us a chance to peer in, and led us on. When
discovered I was the Expert of whom G. had talked he became much friendlier
and began insisting that the teachers must come to an workshop with
it was agreed, over the teacher's tea, that we should return on Wednesday
and Thursday this week to do workshop sessions with the teachers-this
their normal time for such work, and that in the holidays we would
afternoon session from 2-4, and beyond that all teachers are also welcome
to come to the sessions at Centre Guest House if they wish to join
teachers from Transition and the Kindergarten.
All classrooms need books, but New Creation needs them most. I will
encourage the teachers to make their own books. Perhaps we can
children's book exchange between the schools.
I am weary, tired, faintly depressed, thinking of the pleasures of living
alone, of being at home. All these people! Three meals a day with a
of people who must be talked with. Streams of people to meet and chat
Children to see and talk to. I'm ready to go into hibernation for the
Last day of the new year. We managed the second day of workshops
New Creation teachers and, when we got into making books they had a
time. They were very proud of their own accomplishments and pleased
their books home. The materials we gathered from the Auroville Press
very nice books. The memory of all those brown feet and bright saris
mingled together on the floor of G's room with paper, scissors and
flying about will be vivid in my memory for quite awhile. Those shy
friendly puzzled dark faces-the men particularly unguarded and cheerful,
the women shier, quieter, obliging.
Sacred dancing on the roof of Pitanga-the sun already down when we climbed
up, but the whole horizon suffused with soft muted strands of color
slowly turned to glowing red and then faded into a blue, a darker blue,
near black, black. As the red diminished, first the moon, then one
star and soon another appeared. The next time I looked up Orion
his friends were points in a darkening sky. We swayed, put right foot
left foot back, right, sway, right together round and round until the
pattern came from the body not the mind and I could stop thinking about
feet in favor of breathing and taking in the night. We were a
tonight, but in tune, swaying in a circle with a small bowl of flowers
the center of our circle and only the roof of the world us.
Part Two of this essay.
Since her first trip in 1993, Heidi Watts has returned to Auroville
December to give workshops, and Auroville teachers have come to
the USA to
stay in her New Hampshire house, take classes at Antioch- New England
graduate school, and teach and visit in local classrooms.
exchange has also included Antioch graduate students who have done
internships in Auroville at the New Creation school.