Thursday, April 26, 2007

The City Of Dawn

Although Talia and I had planned to meet up in India, she notified me of her conclusions about the place shortly after she arrived in Chennai, the capital city of India's most impoverished state, Tamil Nadu, via email: “I fucking hate India!” was how she put it, and off she flew to Nepal. I arrived there around 10pm a week later, and as I scanned the city map next to the baggage claim, I had to admit that I wished I carried a Lonely Planet: I didn't have the energy reserves to put everything together myself, and I couldn’t decide what to do with the last few weeks of my trip. The Theosophical Society has a branch in Chennai that I was vaguely interested in seeing, there is a place two hours south that I had heard was worth a visit, there is a place four hours south called Auroville, and there is a bird sanctuary a few hours inland. I was torn between two routes: I could spend ten days in the south, making a triangle ending up back in Chennai to catch a plane to Delhi for my departure, or spend a few days in Chennai, then take the two day train ride to Calcutta, stop there for a few days, and then travel two more days by train to Delhi. Not having crucial information like seat availability on northward trains, I decided to get a room near the train station and go there the morning.

I was watching the baggage emerge onto the conveyor belt when a tall, intent man with a thick French accent struck up a conversation. It turned out that he was familiar with Chennai from previous visits: the hotels near the train station were usually full, and he recommended another neighborhood, so we agreed to share a cab into the city. I was reflecting on the strange way that things and people come along when you really need them as we walked out of the grimy, glass doors and into the loose-limbed entanglement of people waiting for relatives, friends, customers, or victims. As we drove into the hot, many-colored-night, I was happy to be back: I realized then that I loved stinking, chaotic, incomprehensible, miraculous India.

Jean was a student of Buddhism on a break from his studies near Kandy. After taking rooms in his usual hotel, we went out in search of food. Once we found it, we discussed Auroville, where he had recently spent three months. He told me exactly how to get there and recommended a place to stay. Auroville had been lodged in my mind for eight years, ever since an Indian exchange student in college told me about her stay with a community of potters there; and from my Jean's description, it sounded like an ideal place to hunker down and reflect before launching into the next episode of my life. So there it was, my plan in a tidy, self-evident package, almost as if it hadn’t been my decision at all. The next morning, we went to buy plane tickets, I from Chennai to Delhi on April 1st, and he for Sri Lanka around the same time. Then, we shared a rickshaw to the bus station. Jean pointed out my stop, shook my hand, and disappeared into the crowd.

Four hours later, I stepped down onto a tar road glossy with heat, spotted an arrow shaped sign reading “Auroville 8km,” and was immediately approached by a rickshaw driver asking what I assumed was ten times the fair price. I told him "maybe," and asked a western woman passing by if she was an Aurovillian. She turned out to be a long-term guest, and she confirmed my suspicions, so I offered the rickshaw driver 50 Rupees instead of 500. He replied, “you walk,” and to his surprise, I followed his advice. Not more than three minutes after I’d started down the road, a delicate, tanned man wearing a red bandanna and red, silk shirt open to reveal the hollow beneath his sternum, slowed his black motorcycle beside me and asked where I was going. I answered “Auroville. Do you want to give me a ride?” He agreed, and I hopped on.

As we drove along I told him the general outlines of my situation; I didn’t know anything about the layout of Auroville, but I had a recommendation for a place to stay, although I didn’t know where it was, and I couldn’t remember the name, which was written on a piece of paper buried in my bag. I strained to hear the Frenchman, as we drove along, his accent often competing with the wind in obscuring his meaning. I asked him to repeat his name at least three times, and I finally made it out to be Rajananda, obviously an adopted Indian name. He decided to take me to the visitor center, and on our way there he pointed out places of utility and told me about himself. He had come to Auroville ten years ago, married a local Tamil woman, and now had three children and a home in a community just outside the official borders of the township.

The visitor center is a grouping of clean, modern buildings that house a café, several boutiques featuring Aurovillian handicrafts, two rooms providing an introduction to the Matrimandir (a golden globe that is “the soul of Auroville”), an information desk, and an exhibition on the township’s past and present. Rajananda and I went to the information desk where a well-spoken, friendly Tamil Nadu native recommended the same guesthouse as Jean had. We browsed photos of Aurovillians working, playing and meditating arrayed on the glossy, white walls, and then we followed a brick walkway across to the café where I bought apple juice for Rajananda and coffee myself.

Refreshed, Rajananda offered to take me to the guesthouse recommended at the visitor center, and 5 minutes later we dismounted in front of a long, three-story brick building surrounded by a dusty clearing demarcated with bicycle racks. The available beds were about 85 Rupees a night and included two meals a day, but they were in a large, concrete room with mattresses lined up on the floor. I told my new friend that I didn’t mind sharing a bathroom, but I needed some private space; he thought for a minute, and then we drove off. Several haphazardly connected roads later, we made a left at a small, wooden sign reading, "Pony Farm," continued along a rutted lane bordered with trees and then parked. On the right horses and ponies snorted and shuffled in a paddock, and on the left squatted an open stone structure with bridles and combs lining the walls and a blackboard listing work to be done. Three dogs barking around our knees, we entered an open stone courtyard through a narrow gap in a low, plank fence. To the left of a black, iron table sat a one-story building with a thatched roof, and on the right was a decrepit, two-story wooden building with a crowded, covered porch.

The Matrimandir

Nobody appeared, so Rajananda called out the name Lea several times. Eventually, a skinny teenager with purple crescents beneath her eyes wandered out of the door hidden at the back of the covered porch. The Frenchman asked her if any rooms were empty and she motioned toward the peaked, thatch roof above the building across from her. She mumbled that her mother, Lea, was sick, so she couldn’t ask her, but she thought the rate was 250 or 300 Rupees. I followed her up concrete stairs spiraling around a water tank to a triangular rooftop space crowded with a bed in the center, a shelf on the right, and a chair on the left. She showed me the bathroom next to the base of the water tank and told me that I could use the kitchen beneath my room. The room had thatched doors that swung open towards the interior where they could be tied up for a view into the bramble-choked woods behind. The place had its charm, so despite the uncomfortable introduction (it was if I’d jarred Pony Farm from a long, enchanted sleep) I unloaded my bag and Rajananda showed me the nearby bakery and store. We had some chai and when I thanked him for all his help he explained that he’d just been looking for something to do with his day when he happened across me. I promised to pay him a visit at the café next to the sleek Town Hall, where he works a few days a week from noon until two, and he sped off.

Seconds after finishing the parotta I’d ordered when he’d left, Rajananda returned. It was about 5pm. He’d just been to the Matrimandir, and “the feeling was so amazing,” that he had returned to get me. What I really wanted was to shower and recover from riding a motorcycle over bumpy roads with 28 lbs strapped to my back, but he was so intent and excited that I agreed to go. The Matrimandir is a golden sphere with golden disks attached to the exterior. Around its base are twelve skate-ramp shaped brick structures called petals, each housing a different colored room: the petals and the golden ball together are meant to symbolize both the lotus flower and the Universal Mother. The structure was envisioned by Auroville's founder, The Mother, a French woman who was a "spiritual collaborator" with Sri Aurobindo, the father of Integral Yoga, who founded an ashram in nearby Pondicherry. Pictures of her, an old woman with a large, solemn face, hang on walls all over Auroville: she died in 1973, and she is thought to have been an embodiment of the Divine Mother. Next to the Matrimandir lives a huge, old banyan tree, which is the geographical center of Auroville. The story goes that The Mother, who conceived Auroville as an articulation of Sri Aurobindo’s teachings, was at his ashram when she was asked where the township should be built. She closed her eyes and put her finger on the spot where the banyan tree stands. A ways off from the ball and the tree lies a large, red stone amphitheatre, steps on the inside spiraling down to the center. There, a white urn, its form derived from the lotus bud, holds handfuls of soil from each of the Indian states as well as 121 countries, placed inside by their representatives at Auroville’s founding ceremony in 1968.

A Tamil guard swung the iron gate open for Rajananda without question, and when we got nearer to the lawn surrounding the Matrimandir, he told two women standing beneath a tree that I was a visitor who hadn’t had time to get a pass yet, asking their permission to bring me in. They agreed, and we proceeded to the banyan tree where a sign requested silence beneath its limbs. It’s a venerable tree, and banyans are a symbol of immortality in the east, but even becalmed by the hush beneath its shelter, I couldn’t refrain from inward eye rolling when several women wrapped their arms around the trunk, solemnly resting their faces against the bark for several minutes at a stretch. After a while disconnected tones floated from the speakers of the amphitheatre, and Rajananda signaled me to follow him to the steps. We sat there for a while and then turned to go. As we walked toward the exit, I saw a group of four people, probably in their late 60’s, scrutinizing the grounds. The man they gathered around poked and pointed fiercely with his cane, and as we approached, my friend informed me excitedly that they were VIPs. He introduced me to the man with the cane, the architect of the Matrimandir, and the others in the party. They were polite but not friendly: the architect generated an air of irritation, and the group took up their argument as soon as we walked away. The finishing touches will be put on the Matrimandir this year, and the grounds, which will one day be surrounded by a lake and sectioned into gardens, are still mostly grass and dust. These people being leaders in the community, I was struck by the conflict between their agitation and the stated aim that Auroville be a place where “men and women from all counties will be able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.” Oh well, I’d be irritated too if a project I’d designed 40 years ago was still incomplete.

Back at Pony Farm, there is no symbolic architecture, only charmingly mismatched structures in various states of disrepair. On my first night, I sat at the table in the courtyard filling out the required visitor form with Mahi, a 27 year old Brazilian-Aurovillian who teaches riding at the farm and arts and crafts at the primary school. Her parents moved to Auroville when she was a young child, and she lived there until she went to The American University in Washington D.C. Somewhere during that time, her parents split up and left Auroville, but she returned. Rita, a petite Finnish guest, the lower half of her bob black and the upper half grown out grey during the time she’d been traveling, joined us at the table. It was Tuesday, the night Mimi, the teenager who’d shown me around, made pizza, so the voices of Friends issued from her portable DVD player as she worked in the kitchen. The next morning, delighted to have a place to make the organic, Aurovillian coffee I’d bought, I was trying to stay out of the way of the Tamil cleaning woman while I waited for my water to boil when a heavy, grey-blond woman entered the kitchen. I assumed she was another guest until she remarked pointedly, “Oh, someone in my kitchen! I haven’t had that for a long time.” I introduced myself as a new guest and asked if she was the woman who’d been sick yesterday. She softened, introduced herself as Lea, and informed me that she had allowed guests to use her kitchen in the past, but they were often couples that cooked all the time and left a large mess, so she couldn’t use the place herself.

She reconciled herself to my presence, and over the next few days, our interactions became comfortable, even amicable as she tried to apologize indirectly for her initial crabbiness. She’s been an Aurovillian for 13 years, and she has two sons in her native country, fathered by her first husband, also a Belgian. Her oldest daughter, who was 8 months pregnant and stopped by Pony Farm with her husband for several hours each evening, has a father in Switzerland, and her youngest, Mimi, has a Punjabi father who’s been in and out of rehab and jail for heroin use and trafficking. Children from the township, eager to talk to any adult with the inclination to listen, flitted around Pony Farm all day long, and I gathered from them that Aurovillian parents are often single mothers with very complicated personal lives. One dark eyed ten-year-old girl with an American mother and a Tamil father, neither of whom I ever saw, said resolutely that she wasn’t speaking to her father because he was leaving to start a resort in Kerala somewhere. As soon as she made this declaration her two friends started up a giggling fit about the compost toilet in her house and her mother’s “weird, old” boyfriend. One of the giggling girls had a German mother, Ambalika, who had moved to Auroville a few years back after her communal house in Berlin burned to the ground. The little girls laughed hysterically as she recounted all her mother’s cash being incinerated. One Sunday Ambalika came for a visit. After a long discussion about her entanglement with a man whose wife had just spent three weeks in Italy with a married man, Lea remarked that Auroville is like a soap opera, as if I hadn’t noticed yet.

Auroville was established on a desiccated plateau, but settlers have planted over three million trees, maintaining them through soil and water conservation technologies. The city was envisaged to hold 50,000 inhabitants within four zones radiating from the Matrimandir, or the Peace Area. Those four zones would be the Residential Zone, the Cultural Zone, the Industrial Zone, and the International Zone, and they would be surrounded by a green belt for food production and biodiversity. The International Zone would be something like a permanent World Fair, housing pavilions for each nation grouped by continent. Now, there is an Indian pavilion that isn’t finished yet, an American pavilion that was just completed, a Tibetan pavilion, and a few others underway. There are about 1,500 people drawn from 30 countries who are officially Aurovillians and 10,000 local people interspersed throughout the area. So, the soap opera unfolds in small communities with names like Fertility, Aspiration, Existence, and Invocation scattered throughout the woods and connected by sun-baked, narrow roads.

Innovation Unlimited

and their product

Despite its stated objective “to realize Human Unity,” Auroville is not a particularly friendly place. Communities are placed far from each other, and even relatively near neighbors are separated by a dense screen of brambles and foliage. Because the area is large, most people get around by motorbike, and there is no central gathering place. Lea claimed that her first year in Auroville, with two young girls in tow, was the loneliest of her whole life. I wasn’t lonely, but I didn’t meet many people besides the denizens of Pony Farm. Rita left at the beginning of my second week there, so I took over her cottage, which was away from the central courtyard and had its own kitchen. I was happy with this arrangement: I had plenty to think about, and an Asian Paradise Flycatcher, some Drongos and a cacophony of Brain fever Birds in the woods kept me entertained. The only thing I really wanted to do was see the inside of the Matrimandir. Although the place had roused my sarcasm with its awkward, dated attempt at symbolism and the aimless music piped out over the lawn, I was intrigued by it, too. After all, how many visions ever become reality. But visiting the Matrimandir again, or even its grounds, turned out to be difficult. Guests who want to visit the grounds are required to watch a 10-minute introductory video at the visitor center before being issued a guest pass. The woman who issued my pass told me to go that evening after 4:30, but when I turned up at 5:30, the guard told me I was too late. Frustrated, I didn’t make another attempt until the day before I left. I watched the video again, obtained another pass, and showed up at 4:31. Once I was in, I found out that I could sign up to enter the Matrimandir, after another introduction, the next day at 5:30. I wasn't leaving until 3am the next night, so I put down my name.

I arrived on time the next day, and a radiant Indian woman with close-cropped grey hair and loose linen garments greeted a group of about 15 visitors from around the world. After a brief introductory speech about the concept of the Universal Mother and the founding of Auroville, she asked us to wait beneath the banyan tree. We all walked over and sat silently. A few people stopped by to caress the tree, and then our guide came and led us down the ramp to the entrance at the bottom of the sphere, where we surrendered our bags, lining them up in a long, forlorn row. There is a meditation chamber at the top of the sphere, supported by four pillars which face the cardinal directions, and the main interior of the Matrimandir is gleaming white and salmon pink with a smooth ramp winding up to the sanctum. The glass of the railings and some of the shiny white surfaces were covered with newspaper, but other than those details, the structure was finished. I was the last in line, so by the time I was on the bottom of the ramp, the first of the group were halfway up. As I saw this solemn line of people rising up the sci-fi interior, a kind of joyful laughter spread through me. Any noise would have been irreverent, but I couldn’t suppress a broad smile: what a thing to see, this odd vision in physical form.

We had been asked to leave our shoes at the entrance, and before entering the meditation chamber we were given white socks. The chamber is entirely white marble, supported by twelve pillars guarding a central crystal that captures a solid, cylindrical beam of light electronically guided toward it through an oculus at the top of the Matrimandir. We ranged ourselves out on the white cushions around the room and were left to meditate for about 10 minutes. Concentration came naturally there, and I didn't want to move when a light was turned off and on as a signal to leave, but I deposited my socks in a bin and filed back down the ramp. My bag waited outside to return me to the clutter and complexity of life.

This is Auroville's charter:
1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.
2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realizations.
4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.

Auroville has so many problems, just like the rest of the world, that it's tempting to scoff at these lofty aims. It was conceived as a cash free, self-sufficient society, but at this date, most revenue is generated through tourism and outside donation. Aside from some impressive central buildings, much of the rest looks ramshackle and half-assed, and there are "innovations" scattered around that look like ridiculous hippie attempts abandoned at a crucial stage in favor of a new impulse. Personal relations also appear confused and bereft of commitment, and the fulfillment of human unity is really questionable. Locals perform the lowest of the manual labor, in the kitchens and on the farms, while the western transplants pursue their interests. But as our guide said at the beginning of the Matrimandir tour, "Auroville is a vision. Obviously we are far from it. Auroville is an attempt." In the end, no matter how absurd attempts may sometimes seem, I'm glad folks are still trying.


Blogger doczapper said...

Dear desiree,
I find it rediculous in which way you spread, very private talks with people,
over the world wide web,with names and location.
And how you judge without knowing the back grounds.
Thank you for advertisment - The Zapper.

12:20 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Desiree said...

You may be right. It seemed fair to write what I observed and say what I thought about it at the time, but a superficial perspective is one of the drawbacks of traveling. After being on the road for almost a year, the lives of people around me began to look like puppet shows, and it's in my nature to create morality plays.
Anyhow, you're welcome for the advertisement: I always encourage people to visit Auroville. And sorry if I spilled your beans.

12:54 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Vikas Nag said...

nice posts :)

12:46 AM GMT-5  

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