Four weeks in India saying "amazing!" (Part One)
See also Part Two of this essay.
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 when 
Miriam Eckleman, a kindergarten teacher there, spent several months taking 
classes at Antioch and visiting local schools.  Miriam invited Heidi to 
Auroville to give workshops to any interested teachers.  Heidi had never 
been to India, but after reading Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on education 
and realizing how closely their pedagogy corresponded to her own, she 
accepted. She traveled with her friend Peggy Leo, who has also been part of 
the Auroville-Antioch teacher exchange. 

December 18: Departure Day 

It's come, the day of the big setting off.  It furthers one to cross the 
great water.  I hope so. 

December 19:  Madras 

Tania recommended the Broadlands Hotel and gave us their card while we were 
in Lewes. We rang them from England, got through, managed to be heard over 
the echo, made reservations and here we are. And, there is a lot of great 
water between then and now. 

The descent into Madras was also not as bad as I feared, perhaps for having 
been warned, certainly for having Peggy to share the tasks, and for knowing 
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 to 
Mexico keeps coming back-I have been in a third-world country before. The 
Broadlands is reminiscent of the hotel we stayed in in Guadalajara, and the 
dirt streets in that city or in Barra de Navidad are as crowded and dirty. 
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 an 
enormous help. 

As we came out of the concrete damp and dark of the baggage room at the 
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 us 
pay off two beseeching and unwanted helpers, loaded us and all our gear 
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 and in 
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 have 
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. Sigh. 
He got back in the taxi, drove out through the portals and back into mass 
confusion. After about ten minutes he pulled up by the side of the road, 
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 he 
indicated his intention to get something to eat and marched off, leaving us 
in the taxi. Wide-eyed we opened the doors, and I stepped out, right into a 
pile of cow dung. Welcome to India. 
Sign on Hotel room wall: 

Guests Are-Advised 
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 blowing 
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 of the 
wall is a strip of windowing, under an overhanging roof. The large windows 
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 wall, 
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 and 
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 rises in 
a modified four-paneled tower shape to a small skylight, now covered. Above 
the closets on the inner wall there appears to be another built-in closet 
with teak doors. We are on a second floor, looking out over lawn, and 
gardens, into trees. Everything about this room is pleasing: light, airy, 
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 pink 
with a large fan revolving in the center, the walls an institutional blue; 
two small tables, one panel of light switches for the fluorescent lamp over 
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 the 
room, high, wooden, green, have louvers and lead us in off a balcony which 
runs around a central courtyard containing a rubber tree higher than my 
living room and other large green things; there are rooms similar to ours 
off the balcony all the way around on this, the second floor, and on the 
floors above and below. 

We ordered tea, which comes strong, white and sugared in a thermos from a 
passing boy-5 rupees and drank it in bed, gathering strength for the day. 
Around 8:00 a.m. we  gathered our forces and walked to the beach which we 
had located on the hotel's map, then back to sign-out and take off in our 
faithful taxi, which waited for us through the night. I presume the driver 
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 were 
dirt and in any case, there are few sidewalks so that the road sides are 
dirt. Shops and people spill out onto the streets, not so much selling as 
hoping to sell, not so much buying as on the move. On the streets, in the 
streets, are people of all ages on foot, cows and bullocks wandering at 
will, rickshaws pulled by bicycles, a few pulled by horses, small yellow 
three wheeled taxis, a few larger rounded fendered taxis like our own, many 
buses and quite a few large trucks.  The traffic wheels around madly, 
replacing caution with reliance on the horn or bell. The bicycles have 
mirrors, fortunately, as no one gives consideration to anyone else unless 
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 day, 
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 as 
described in The City of Joy, women were sweeping their dismal patches, and 
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 says 
Indians are the cleanest people in the world. They wash thoroughly every 
morning as part of a ritual purification, even those who live in the most 
abysmal situations. Perhaps this contributes to the fact that in spite of 
all the overcrowding, dirt and dust, the people are so beautiful. 

December 22 

The Auroville kindergarten starts at 9:00 with all the children in a circle 
on mats in a large rectangular room with a vaulted ceiling of wooden beams 
and thatch. The room [This description is of the old kindergarten 
buildings. Since then, a new building has been erected-Ed.] is cool and 
rather plain.  There are a few children's paintings mounted on some 
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 or 
close to the floor. 

There are 8 teachers. Miriam says there were 10 but in conversations about 
the design of the new kindergarten and about curriculum they were always in 
disagreement with the others and eventually decided to leave. (To my mind, 
8 teachers for 30 - 40 children is still a very good ratio. 

The group then splits in three, going off to separate buildings with their 
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 are 
produced and the children are given a choice of working in their books or 
drawing they settle down very well, and work with pretty solid 
concentration for over an hour, even, or perhaps, especially Geo. The work 
books are big plain-paged notebooks in which Miriam has written work for 
each particular child. Today most of them are doing writing exercises, 
making loops and circles etc., but some are connecting numbered dots to 
make stars, and in some of the books there are math problems. Those who are 
not working in the books make simple books by folding and cutting paper and 
then draw. I go out and when I come back Peggy is writing sentences for 
them to go with the stories. They draw boats, a Christmas tree-this from 
one of the little Tamil boys-a tree that was laughing and a tree that was 
crying, laughing because the birds came and sat in it and crying because it 
didn't like anybody. Dyvila drew a person swimming. 

After about half an hour of this table work, Sanjeev begins reading to one 
boy on the floor.  He reads in a wonderfully soft, mellow voice with the 
child resting against him, and gradually others begin to join in with their 
conversation about the book or drift over to listen, until by 10:30 most of 
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 in the 
sand, the teachers talked for awhile about the morning and about what they 
would do next, because after snack there is another rug meeting, followed 
by cross group divisions-some to sports, some to gymnastics, and the others 
choosing clay or a color song with Miriam. So for the first half of the 
morning-the academic half? they are divided into age groups, but in the 
second half by activity or interest. Each teacher decides what she will do 
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 I fell 
off the bike-Li came to visit. She spoke very well and intelligently about 
her work with the children. She does "topics" theme work with her group of 
12 eight- to ten-year-olds, half boys, half girls, and a similar mixture of 
cultural backgrounds but she has, she says, one child who does not speak 
English at all. The topics they have done this year include Egypt, birds, 
and the one they are now engaged in, fish. Her descriptions of all she is 
doing with it, for over three weeks, sounds like classic integrated day. I 
shall be interested in seeing it tomorrow when I visit. 

Li had no training but liked so much working with the children that she 
went to the Ashram in Delhi to learn more, but there she was given project 
work to do with ten-year-olds which did not prepare her, she says, to work 
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 able to 
teach the sounds to the children correctly. 

December 23 

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 mural 
with different kinds of fish, and the mosaic trees. Art here seems a 
strength. With Mary and Josselyn's class-children's writing displayed, 
colorfully written and illustrated and some of it very literate.  Also the 
play rehearsal, children working seriously and  creatively and creating 
something delightful. 

In Li's class-the whole lesson with the poem from beginning to end, the 
evidence of the fish project.  With Miriam's classes-the songs with 
motions, both the river song and the color song, and the table work.  I 
admire the teacher-made lessons, which can be varied to the needs of the 
child and avoid the cultural stereotyping, and I admire the way the 
children worked with concentration. I also loved Sanjeev's reading and the 
flow of conversation, so respectful and engaging with the children which 
went on around the reading. With Patricia, everything about the clay work 
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 out, 
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 where 
little fishes, tadpoles and insects swoop about. A mortar bridge off the 
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 of 
large rocks set in the green grass. Before and after are planted beds of 
things we try to raise as house plants which here grow thick and lush, with 
white, or yellow, or pink flowers at different heights.  Although they are 
too small to see from here, when one walks on the grass one can see that 
the grass is flowering with tiny pink or blue floweretts. 

Lunches at the Guest House consist of a buffet which always includes soup, 
rice and at least six other dishes.  Several of these are vegetables cooked 
until soft and delicately flavored, a salad of green leaves and lettuce 
with a yogurt dressing, and something else like tomatoes cut up or grated 
carrots-always carrots. There is usually also an Indian bread-chappattis or 
a pancake-and of course some chutney. These tend to be sweet chutneys and 
none of the food is very spicy, though the gentle blend of unusual spices 
in the soups and on the vegetables is always delicious. 

Lunches at New Creation [a school/community which works with children from 
the nearby village of Kuilapalayam and withTamil Aurovilians-Ed.] 
cafeteria-style, though less genteel are much the same. We hold out our big 
shiny metal plates and get a large spoonful of rice, then a ladle of a mild 
but tasty sauce made with dal, vegetables and Indian spices like cardamom, 
coriander, cumin, and/or cilantro, next raw carrots grated or sliced with a 
dressing, finally a "chutney" which is another sauce, spicier and hotter, 
and occasionally a sweet-some flour and sweetner confection. Filtered water 
is the drink. (They have had tea mid-morning and will have tea again in the 
mid-afternon, the strong, cardamom flavored sweet milk tea which one gets 
all over India. We Westerners eat with a spoon but the Indians all around 
us eat with the right hand, with enthusiasm. After lunch at New Creation we 
file into the kitchen to run our plates through a basin of hot soapy water 
and another of rinse water. They are then stacked in the sun to dry, and 
perhaps to sterilize. 

For breakfast at home we rustle up cereal and/or toast, and for supper 
bread, cheeses, salad, soupŠ Soups again, yummy. Ammas do the washing up, 
the house cleaning and laundry, and much of the cooking. So Western money 
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 language 
for common use with this international community. And they do teach Tamil 
in the schools.  The trouble is that the Tamil students remain weak in 
English and the Europeans remain weak in Tamil.  Well, for heaven's sake, 
what happens to them outside of school, the more than 70% of the time they 
aren't in school? The Tamil children are not speaking English at home and 
the Europeans are not speaking Tamil. So... 

December 27 

A lovely Christmas. Immediately following dinner we attended the sacred 
dances in Pitanga until dusk, when we finished dancing on the roof. I loved 
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 their 
charming production. 

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 the 
Matrimandir when, fortunately, Li arrived and offered to accompany us. 
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 we 
went into the Matrimandir, sat in the meditation room for 20 minutes, and 
then Li escorted us through the larger nursery. I walked home through the 
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 cool; 
a sliver of silver moon riding in the deep dark sky and the outline of 
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 were 
sitting at desks, working on an exercise from a math book on place value. 
Each child has what would be called a rough book in England, or an exercise 
book and they copy the problems from the workbook into their own books, 
doing the problems as they go along. Sylvie circulated, asked children at 
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 in the 
front row, was looking confused and uncertain, but dutifully copied the 
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 he 
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 us. So 
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 being 
their normal time for such work, and that in the holidays we would do an 
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 the 
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 effect a 
children's book exchange between the schools. 

December 29 

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 group 
of people who must be talked with. Streams of people to meet and chat up. 
Children to see and talk to. I'm ready to go into hibernation for the 

December 31 

Last day of the new year. We  managed the second day of workshops with the 
New Creation teachers and, when we got into making books they had a great 
time. They were very proud of their own accomplishments and pleased to take 
their books home. The materials we gathered from the Auroville Press made 
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 glue 
flying about will be vivid in my memory for quite awhile. Those shy round 
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 which 
slowly turned to glowing red and then faded into a blue, a darker blue, a 
near black, black. As the red diminished, first the moon, then one bright 
star and soon another appeared.  The next time I looked up Orion and all 
his friends were points in a darkening sky. We swayed, put right foot back, 
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 my 
feet in favor of breathing and taking in the night.  We were a small group 
tonight, but in tune, swaying in a circle with a small bowl of flowers in 
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 each 
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.  The teacher 
exchange has also included Antioch graduate students who have done 
internships in Auroville at the New Creation school. 

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