Auroville journal

This is the first part of "Auroville journal." The conclusion is here.


Indian statue

by Gordon Korstange

Author's note: I went to Auroville on December 15, 1995, and stayed for three weeks. What follows are some of the "moments" that I experienced during those three weeks in Auroville.

December 19, 1995

I am in the van going to Auroville. Outside the sun is going down and the world is crazy. Exhaust fumes are beating against the windows like a black snowstorm. I push the windows closed against the stuff, but I can feel it coating my lungs.

There are vehicles on all sides: buses, lorries -- a lorry with water buffalo stuffed together in the back -- rickshaws, bicycles; all of us pushing and bluffing our way through Tambaran, and the markets overflowing with people and noise, all seen through the smoky windows, the smoky carbon exhaust, the smoky dusk.

I am dazed, just off a 747, just off Apollo 13 come back from the cool moon to hot chaos. Like a turtle the van crawls through the maze of traffic, the cacophony of horns, film music, vendors, and then we are out, in the country and I see the big curving bridge that means freedom from the smoky tentacles of Madras.

December 22

I am zooming into Grace on the road that used to be a confusing web of paths. I follow the van tracks.

On the first night we pulled in here, branches brushing the van windows, pulled into the Auroville darkness. We couldn't find the interior lights of the van, and there were no flashlights to be found. After the rumbling, mumbling van, the silent darkness of Auroville was disconcerting. Various Europeans appeared out of the night to greet my fellow travelers who were from Germany. Finally one of the kids located the interior (solar) lights.

As I motor into Grace now, in the rapidly cooling afternoon, it seems as though there are housing projects on all sides, mud brick clusters coming out of the trees.

* * *

Auroville is having a building boom. Suddenly it seems that everyone wants to stake out their inner city piece of turf, and there is no shortage of westerners with the six lakhs (600,000 rupees, about $18,500) necessary to put up the minimum shelter -- three to four rooms, a kitchen and a couple of terraces -- hopefully surrounded by a canopy of trees.

The new townhouses at Grace are particularly graceful, linked to one another by common walls thick enough to insure a measure of quiet; and constructed so that no one is looking in your bathroom window. Unfortunately, the would-be residents ran out of cash so their upper terraces have no cover. Summertime will be hot up there.

For some people on the edges, many of them Tamil Aurovilian, the building boom presents a problem. How can they ever come up with the money to build a house in the inner city? "I've asked the housing group for money," I hear over and over. But like the USA, the common fund of money available to those on the edges is given out grudgingly. Some of my friends have been in Auroville for over 20 years. It galls them to see someone with outside money waltz in and set up housekeeping so easily.


L ater, I am walking up the Matrimandir information booth to find Dhanalakshmi, my guide into Mother's Temple. The parking lot is full of cars, motorcycles, a bus or two, and jeeps. Uniformed drivers hover near their vehicles. Tourists are getting their photos taken under a banyan tree. People all over the place.

There is a line of visitors (those staying in Auroville guest houses) waiting for Malika to give them their entrance chit. I talk my way into the booth, and, after chatting, after getting my own little chit, I'm walking through the gate.

The path is long. On my right the gardens are grass -- cool in the early evening, the roses fading into twilight. Finally I turn a corner and see it -- the Matrimandir, like a deep-sea diving bell, cement-white in the last caress of the sun. The huge red petals sweep away from it and the round bubble windows embedded in the cement cover remind me strangely of a huge soccer ball.

I walk down the incline to the entrance, and there is A, an old friend from the early days of Auroville. Once he was on the blacklist of Satprem's fanatics, hounded and reviled; now he is at the center of the city, checking passes, making gardens. It's like that old Indian game, Snakes and Ladders. You hit the right square and up you go to another level.

* * *

He tells me stories about trying to regulate the flow of visitors into the inner chamber, and how, for some Aurovilians, the possibility that they can't do what they want, when they wanna, causes noisy breast beating. He muses on his climb up the ladder like one who keeps an eye out for the downward snake. But his smile is broad and genuine for each one entering, balm for the frustration of endless chit-showing.

Inside, a huge dark cavern, a maze of sawhorses and blind alleys through which I stumble like a drunkard. Indeed, by this time, after two days of jet-lagged existence, I am having trouble focusing.

I end up on the other side of the barrier from where I should be, backtrack, and then find the "Leave Shoes Here" place. There is the not-so-faint smell of bat scat in the air, just as in the big temples of Tamil Nadu. I walk up the inclined circular ramp, put on the white socks and go in.

* * *

Silence and light flood the crystal. Distant hum of air-conditioning from the vents at the top of the room. Someone has mentioned that the monthly AC bill approaches 11 lakh rupees and, of course, I think of it now, and see dust on the crystal -- or what seems like dust (actually it's the white reflection of the walls).

All this whiteness. White marble walls. White pillars shooting up to the ceiling, like albino redwoods in a circle. White carpeting. White cushions, white skin . . . There is no escape in here for the senses. They start to shut down. The gaze rests upon light only; nothing for the mind to start juggling . . .

On the way out I again take a wrong turn, go out the back entrance and pick my way around the channels and footpaths that circle the Matrimandir. This is still a construction site (for how many more decades?), but inside there is a room of Her own.

December 23

I am at the information center for the Big Splash, Fertile Johnny and Co.'s annual Christmas fair for the Auroville community. It's 2:15 p.m. The sun is not hot, but intense. An AV rock band is set up in the courtyard and beyond is the fair: something like your local firemen's fund raiser, very homemade. A dunking machine with a pint-sized AV kid perched in the sun, waiting for the splash. For three "whoopies" you get to hurl three balls at the lever with the painting of a demon on it.

Then there's a cloth stretched across a wooden wall that one can paint on and a "used objects" sale that doesn't seem to have many customers. For another few whoopies you can swing a sledgehammer to ring a bell, a feat most manly men can't seem to do. There is a tea stall, face painting, and children's games. Overhead, regularly, people of all sizes swoop down a zip wire.

* * *

The first event of the fair is a small circus in the dust of an impromptu ring. Circus music by sax and trumpet leads in the performers, most of whom are acrobats. The first act, however, is Johnny himself, bare chested, dressed in his familiar colored dhoti and tundu tied around his head. He plops down in the dirt and begins to "play" a snake charmer's flute.

From out of a bucket a writhing black and yellow "snake" starts to rise (after some coaxing). If I look closely I can see the fishing wire that's pulling it. The snake rises higher and higher, Johnny's playing and swaying grows wilder and suddenly the snake strikes him and won't let go. There is a struggle, but the snake's bite makes him grow rigid, his eyes glassy. Attendants rush in, pick him up and carry him out of the ring as the audience applauds with gusto.

After the acrobat family has performed, people just mill around. I find myself sitting with Francis Neemberry in the middle of the whole show, drinking tea, listening to him expound on the incredible complications of trying to get Aurovilians working together on land and housing.

* * *

I look around. A quintessential AV gathering, with a mixture of attendees from all sides: greenbelters in dhotis and tundus; Tamil AVian women in bright saris and the men in dark shorts or pants with short sleeve shirts or t-shirts; western AV women in pants or pedal-pushers; other Indian women in Punjabis, the long, flowing kurta-dress that is worn over pants; lots of kids, western and Indian, in shorts and t-shirts.

Francis says that he really likes the intensity of AV at this time of year: this fair, Christmas, New Year's day, the February with Darshan and AV's birthday. He just wants to sit in the center of it and feel the intensity all around him.

Later I find myself on a dais to help judge a cake contest (why cake? It's Christmas, after all). There are eight of them, ranging from very tasty orange-chocolate to greenbelt chewy varagu to a green-frosting-smeared one that I pretend to run away from. We, the judges ("objective" visitors) give the two top prizes to children-made cakes, and then all the cakes are raffled off to the large crowd.

Almost dusk. The fair will go on, but I start my recalcitrant moped and head back to Aspiration.

December 25

C hristmas at Aspiration. The community has been cooking, decorating, and cleaning since yesterday. A large casarina tree that almost touches the ceiling is set up at one end of the dining hall and all the presents are underneath. Everyone drew a name, including those of guests.

The huge dinner is in two courses and in between the gifts are given out and everyone goes around to admire them. There are well over 100 people here. Aspiration puts on these extravagant parties from time to time, at Christmas or Pongal, the south Indian harvest festival in January.

It is a community of mostly young people, many of them Tamil AVians, and they love to spend time together in the dining hall, chatting and making fun of each other. Even though the predominant language is Tamil, there is always room at a table for just about anyone and the language can switch to French or English instantly. Aspiration prides itself on being a "real" Auroville community and tonight they are demonstrating that claim.

December 26

The body stretches out, cell by cell, and the tropical air seeps in to fill spaces that two weeks ago were contracted, stiff, holding tight against the cold.

"We can warm up in 10 minutes here -- not 30," a dancer tells me. The sciatica on my left side begins to lessen, the knot in my right shoulder has dissolved, untied itself. Easy to enter a state of semi-languor, going with whatever breeze blows, in which one can spend hours on the verge of lassitude, whereas in the USA I seem to go forward full tilt and coiled through the day, then collapse at home in the evening.

December 27

A list of what I saw on and near the road going to Madras and coming back: two puppies, butt-to-butt in the morning sun; a bus without a driver, parked in the middle of the road; people walking; a rooster; crows; craters; a man, woman and boy (standing) on a bicycle; an old man hunkered on the edge of the road, clinging to the pavement like a bird on a branch; people walking; rice paddy;

three men squatting and peering under a lorry (truck); women walking to a well, holding brass pots in arms and on heads like garlands; a naked lorry with only a bed and without a cab, the driver sitting on a wooden platform in a wooden seat, holding a steering wheel completely visible; an ABT Parcel lorry nose-down in a ditch, the picture of Hanuman flying through the air on its side now pointed straight towards earth;

bullock turds; people walking; a boy wheeling a lorry tire; a standing lorry surrounded by a pond of glittering broken glass; a bullock cart with overflowing hay, a man high up in the middle; a sudden rain shower coating the road and air with coolness; a lorry full of rocks with men sitting on them; a man herding ducks with a long stick; a dead water buffalo on its side, the right legs stuck up in the air exposing its entire reddened underbelly;

a sign reading "Accident Zone Proceed Slowly"; a standing lorry, its driver's side agape, its windshield broken out, nose-to-nose with a tanker ("Highly Inflammable" written on the side) cab, neither vehicle the winner in their game of chicken; people walking; people squatting on the side watching the road as though it were a stage and they the audience;

women dressed all in red saris, with shaved heads, walking toward the large Adi Parashakti temple near the road; a toll booth for the divided highway with seven attendants who want our five rupees; people walking; people walking; people walking.


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