Allen, one of Auroville's 'old-timer' residents, looks back at those
very first years, and smiles... She tells us here about life in
'Fertile', a large settlement in the north-eastern part of Auroville's
Moving from beach
to inland, '73
I remember so well: it was 1st April 1973 when my little daughter
Aurojina and I finally arrived in 'Fertile' - to stay. Having sent
our belongings ahead by bullock cart, we made the journey from Pondicherry
by cycle. It was a cool morning for April, and as I was fuelled
by a sense of new beginnings, the journey was memorable. Jina travelled
in a wicker seat on the front of the cycle, and we brought with
us a little black kitten that rode calmly in its basket at the rear.
This inland living was to be a leap from our beach house in Quiet,
where I had spent the first years in Auroville viewing the experiment
from the edge. Aurojina was four and a half months old. Shortly
after Jina's birth, the November cyclone of '72 had driven us into
Pondicherry to take shelter in a solid brick house near the Arumugan
I had no doubts about this next venture. We were to be part of a
community of eight which would include Johnny, our son Jonas now
six years old, Christianne and Denis, and Rose and Boris. We were
representing America, France and Australia, and I felt a loving
appreciation of all these individuals who had mysteriously come
together to this odd outpost on this desert plateau in close proximity
to the 'Seven Banyan Trees' settlement.
In those days there was the wide peripheral sweep of the
the sun rose, shone down relentlessly and set, and the
most obvious in all its phases, for we were without the
and camouflage of tree cover. Boris had come from
where he had been under the influence of
Mercier, a fervent exponent
of organic gardening from New
Caledonia, and had already acquired
the knowledge and skills to
create what would become an impressive
vegetable garden, and
begin the first orchard in the area. Denis
was the interface and
fundraiser; he knew how to negotiate with
the world at large, writing proposals and fine articles about Auroville.
Johnny looked after the practical details, eventually installing
the pump maintaining the Kirloskar engine, involving himself in
agriculture, and interacting well with the local villagers. The
women's work was all encompassing, as it tends to be. It was my
maternal year of surrender - so my energy mainly went to Aurojina,
who grew into a fine specimen fueled later by the ragi porridge
which came from our first ragi crops.
In these first months our water was delivered each day by bullock
cart from a tank in Aspiration. It was poured into two great barrels
and had to be judiciously used. We developed a series of rituals
and unspoken rules about this scanty water supply. Our meals were
regular and unvarying - ragi and curd for breakfast, rice and dahl
for lunch, bread and left-overs for dinner. All meals interspersed
with man-size mugs of steaming tea, but chicory in the evenings.
Later there were the seasonal fruits from the young orchard.
We took it in turns to cycle the 15 kms into Pondicherry and buy
the basics, transporting them on cycle saddlebags. In those days
we were still entitled to 'prosperity', which would be distributed
at the Banyan tree at the Centre each month by some dignified Ashramites.
Through this arrangement were available bed linen, towels, soap,
(always black) umbrellas, and an almirah (small steel cupboard)
on a sort of a ration basis. We managed so frugally, and yet the
days were full and our spirits high. There were the occasional care
parcels from home… Johnny referred to them as 'the cargo cult'.
How we would delight in their luxurious contents and send waves
of gratitude and love to the senders, usually our dear parents.
It was the Mother's last year. We were living out her dream cradled
in her care, and we trusted in the moment; halcyon days.
Then there were the key periods. One of them was initiated the day
the diesel engine began to pump water from the bore well; it flowed
through the elaborate system of pvc pipes and into the waiting tanks
and on to the thirsty earth. This was something to celebrate indeed.
Then there was the first lactation of the milk cow after the thrilling
arrival of the baby calf. And the successful harvesting of a peanut
crop and the first bounty from Boris's vegetable garden.
There also were the hardships: the thieves from the village, the
endless ever-so-hot days, the bad spacing of the monsoon for the
dry crops and hence their failure, and the occasional inevitable
disputes with our neighbouring Aurovilians. There were the interminable
run-ins with the villagers over marauding goats and orchard raiders.
'Our' water also had to be shared with an ever-increasing parade
of people, especially during the cashew seasons and in the height
of summer. So despite this outlying existence in the then wilderness,
it was sometimes difficult to find some peace.
'Fertile' began to expand after a time. Boris and Rose moved out
to the east and started their own place (the present 'Nilatangam'
settlement), and Denis and Christianne moved a little further away
to the west (now 'Dana'). Vijay was a colourful addition to the
group, and he and began his 'Fertile Windmill' community with a
plantation of Mango trees. Every day we continued to use the central
Fertile for a communal lunch. Further down the road towards Aspiration,
there were Jean and Colleen with Asha, George and Gabby, and later
Patrick and Heidi at Fertile East. Aurogreen was to come later.
castle of bamboo
Johnny had begun his work with roof-maker Ramu and his men. Together
they built the first bamboo dome, and we moved into it as a family.
At last our home was a dome, but despite having paid tribute to
all Buckminster Fuller's ideas and utterances for many years, we
found it ever so difficult to live in. There were no cozy corners,
no private nooks. Jina, taking her first steps, would hover precariously
at the edge of a sunken storage area in the centre. Trying to get
settled, we moved our bedding around the perimeter week by week
and then finally out OF the door again and into what we called the
Big House near the kitchen, that Denis and Christianne had vacated.
And this became our true home for the next ten years. It was a great
rambling castle of bamboo, casurina, pakamaram and keet, which was
constantly added to and subtracted from according to our needs.
The dome became a meeting place and PLACE where music was performed
and where the Auroville children gathered for their games.
In the meantime the project I had drawn up for our besieged forest
came true, and money filtered in from the Tamil Fund which enabled
the acquiring of a fine bullock cart, a water tank, money for growing
seedlings and fencing. Fertile's Forest was now able to expand.
In a way it was a learning experience and a testing ground. Now
I can see the forest that might have been. Far too many exotics
were planted; advice was given from all quarters. Too much use of
the seedlings from the nursery. A huge exotic forest was projected,
like a great extension of the nursery itself. But it wasn't practical
or possible. The 'Avenue of Passion' (Spathoda Campanulata, named
'Passion' by the Mother) was the first to suffer. Too many journeys
of the vandi/bullock cart with the water tank were required to keep
them erect - one by one they withered. The interspersing of Work
trees (Acacia Auriculiformis, named 'Work' by the Mother) saved
the day: the indigenous trees could gain roothold in their shade.
Help from Indian
A year or so later, with advice from inspired Forest Officers, we
began to make forays into local scrub jungles, as in nearby Marakannam
and then further afield, to gather seeds. And in a year the seedlings
were ready to plant out in the next monsoon. Joss from Pitchandikulam
was the overriding inspiration for these adventures. This interface
with the Indian Forestry Department found us in all sorts of remote
regions with uniformed men in jeeps. Some wonderful friendships
were formed, and important seeds were collected and the forests
Auroville was growing apace. There were now older children hungry
for information, who often ended up around the circular table at
the Fertile kitchen listening to Johnny's marvellous stories. Johnny's
patience with children and his inventiveness beguiled enough disciples
that a regular school evolved. It began, of course, with our immediate
family, which now often included Jesse and Luke, Johnny's sons,
visiting regularly from Australia, who brought with them the sophistication
from their city life and their burgeoning dramatic skills. It was
to stimulate these abilities that the first plays were written and
performed in Fertile.
'The school' soon expanded, and graduated from the old round table
to a regular classroom by popular demand. Our old chicken house
was converted, a grand colourful skylight installed, and the children
set about making their own desks from available timber. A blackboard
was constructed on request, and over the months there were visiting
notables, including Eleanor, who was able to present a living history
of the Second World War from her experience on Life Magazine. Prem
Malik would occasionally appear for a rallying on the spiritual
level with some of Sri Aurobindo's philosophy for junior consumption,
and even a torrid account of the Vietnam War from a sensitive veteran.
Kalya came regularly for mathematics and introductory information
about computers, and then, for light relief, Judith the Puppeteer
would wend her way weekly from the Far Beach. Together with her,
from accessible materials incredible characters would be created,
and soon the travelling Puppet Theatre evolved. There was also the
rather unorthodox examination of magic, and there were soon several
Friends and family
Some parents left India and their children stayed with us for a
time. Notable and more permanent among them were our beloved Nell
and Isaac. Nell had such an avid appetite for mathematics that Johnny
would have to hone up his skills to stay a jump ahead of her, and
we had to find more books for her insatiable reading lust. Isaac
and Jonas inspired the younger ones with their acquired knowledge
of constructing traps and their familiarity with the ravines; they
also kept diaries that they illustrated, and they filled up many
Stefanie, a nine year old German girl, came one day for afternoon
tea, nestled into our hearts, and stayed on for six years or so.
Occasionally Llewellyn (Nell and Isaac's father) would arrive with
marvellous tales to recount of his adventures on the Seas. He was
also an authority on the Arthurian legends, and so there were spellbound
nights in the big house with the children in their various beds
falling asleep to the stories of the knights and their ladies, their
trysts and their battles. I think Llewellyn may have invented more
characters as these stories continued, thrilling and interminable.
Time of innocence
The children at this time were stimulated by simple things and satisfied
with their interaction with nature. Perhaps it helped that there
were only one or two motorcycles in the whole of Auroville, and
there was no television or videos, only the occasional film at Aspiration.
This must have given some pertinence to the immediate, for it was
innocent fun. Make believe, with wolf games, hiding treasure and
making maps, creating bows and arrows, lots of drawing and painting,
dressing up, riding and maintaining their horses, which were more
often ridden without bridles or saddles. We could spend an hour
or so watching the major tragedies of a Mynah bird couple. The invading
snake, the inquisitive monkey, the mongoose's journey up the Palmyra
for an attempt on their eggs, their ultimate survival. It was always
such a delight seeing Stefanie emerging through the Banyans with
her long golden hair streaming in the sunlight, and at the helm
of a little one-bullock vandi/cart which she plied from Fertile
to Discipline and back.
heroine of early days
I must say it would have been impossible to cope with so many without
dear Aliamma from Pillaichavadi village, who would arrive punctually
at 8 each morning, a little high on betel nut, and throw herself
wholeheartedly into sweeping and cleaning. Her face would light
up with the more the merrier for lunch, so it was in those days
that the open house policy evolved. In low times, with Aliamma's
help, we could find all sorts of edible wild spinaches in the garden,
and with a magical concoction of spices prepare delicious meals
which became renowned in Auroville. It was Amma who perfected the
dosai with varagu, a sort of hybrid vadai, and her famous version
of appalam; she was always ready to experiment. She was an inspiration
and a delight, a woman of limitless energy and the unsung heroine
of those early days. Then there were our Tamilian mainstays, Kadival
from Bommaiyapalalam, Govindraj and Manjini from Pettai, a series
of bullock cart drivers. And dear Moonaswami from Kalapet, with
his smooth brown legs and his staff, who for so many years despite
his age was a constant vigil in the forest. He also had the uncanny
ability to determine the existence within - and sometimes gender
of - a chicken egg: he did this by holding it to his eye and twisting
it while holding it to the sun.
So it was a time
of innocence and sweetness. Drugs were an impossible evil, and that
generation of children even discouraged beedie smoking. Motor traffic
was a distant curse. Fertile was a smoke-free zone, a home away
from home, a paradise of endless delights and a haven of peace.
I am delighted to have been a part of it all.