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Auroville Adventure

Aug 2001

 

A true fraternity?

Is Auroville living up to the Mother's vision? Perceptions of Tamil Aurovilians

- by Shanti Pillai
based on interviews
by Ann Riquier, Pooja Triveni, and Shanti Pillai

From Auroville's inception, Mother encouraged the participation of local Tamil people on equal footing. Illustrative is her reply to the question of whether at that time the houses of the Westerners were to be different from those planned for Tamil people.

"No, those who cannot accept to have the same houses are not ready to live in Auroville. The stinginess must stop. It is not only the houses but the condition of the soul which must be built in Auroville." (1)

And she wrote a message to the inhabitants of Aspiration about the need to develop a true fraternity with the villagers:

"A relationship that is not only cordial but friendly with the inhabitants of the neighbouring village is absolutely indispensable. For the realisation of Auroville the first step is to establish a true human fraternity - any shortcoming in this regard is a grave mistake which can compromise the whole work.
My blessings are with all sincere effort towards harmony." (2)

SyamalaSyamala, who was one of those asked by Mother to speak about Auroville in the village of Kuilapalayam, remembers that the response to the idea of Auroville was at times negative, due to the fear that outsiders would appropriate scarce resources. Mother was well aware of this inherent mistrust. In July 1972, she wrote to someone who had offered to help clean Last School:

"It is all right. But while putting things in order, be very careful not to offend the people from the Tamil village. It has been very difficult for us to win their confidence and nothing should be done which could make them lose this new-born confidence which is of capital importance.
Take with you someone who knows and speaks Tamil fluently so that you can talk with them and explain things to them.
They are your brothers in spirit - this should never be forgotten." (3)

The villagers, however, were receptive to Auroville's spiritual ideals. Syamala observes, "Collectively, their psyche was 100% ready for the manifestation that was to take place." With Mother's approval some local families and individuals integrated into Auroville. Six families began to participate in agriculture and to work in the kitchen or health centre. Their integration took place under the conditions of a moneyless economy. Like everyone else, they received no cash, but had basic needs met, including a school for their children. They were Aurovilians, there was no discrimination. Indeed, many Tamil people who lived through this experience feel that at that period there was a greater sense of fraternity than today. Youth especially did not feel separate from others growing up. During Auroville's conflict with the Sri Aurobindo Society (1973-1980), however, most of the original integrated families, uncertain as to where to pledge their allegiances, returned to the village. Several re-joined Auroville later.

What brings Tamil people to Auroville now?

Whereas few Tamil people became Aurovilian at first, as the community grew their numbers increased, and today they constitute a large percentage of applicants to become 'Newcomers' in Auroville. While some come from elsewhere in Tamil Nadu and are well-educated and knowledgeable about the community's philosophical base, the majority of these applicants hail from the surrounding villages, where they had little opportunity to receive a proper education. Many come into contact with Auroville first as workers. Others are family members, including newly wedded husbands and wives, of those who are already Aurovilians. A new category are the young adults who have been educated at New Creation or at After School.
The reasons for joining Auroville are varied. According to an Entry Group member, some come because of their contact to Mother and Sri Aurobindo, ex-pressed less as knowledge of their teachings than through bhakti [devotion]. Quite a few emphasize that they like the quiet of this place, as compared with the strife of village life. Many are attracted by the idea that Auroville is a place for people to live as equals.
Along with these statements delivered to the Entry Group, however, there are in some cases other motivations. The opportunities that Auroville provides for a better material life cannot be overlooked and it is only natural that villagers, like people anywhere, seek out Auroville as a means for improving their standard of living.

This situation is not only upsetting to some Westerners. It also upsets some Tamil Aurovilians, who feel that more should be done to ensure that Auroville is not used as a conduit for economic advancement.Surya-gandhi Surya-gandhi, for example, who plays an important role in the dental clinic, stresses, "Auroville is not a place of assistance. However, economic aspects are often what attract local people. This mentality must change and they must learn to follow what Mother established for becoming Aurovilians. They must realize that life here is not as easy as it seems. Coming here means dedicating oneself to the aspiration of Auroville, and this demands many sacrifices."

Dealing with people who join Auroville for motivations other than those set forth by Mother is not a problem restricted to Tamil people, but can be said of individuals coming here from anyplace. As an Entry Group member states, however, members of the Entry Group, most of whom are not Tamil, have difficulty evaluating a Tamil applicant because of cultural differences. "Its easier for me to read Europeans," tells the Group member. "Shared culture makes it easier to communicate and discern someone's intentions." Resolving these ambiguities may happen in time. At present there is a move to involve more long-time Tamil Aurovilians in the entry process. Such people would play an important role in communicating Auroville's goals and helping Tamil Newcomers to participate fully in communal life.

Economic concerns

Not so long ago the Entry Group closed Auroville for a while, as there was a substantial lack of housing for Newcomers causing many of them to live in unacceptable conditions such as in sheds and storerooms. The Auroville Economy Group warned that the community was unable to build free houses for those without their own financial means. While Auroville has again opened its doors, the housing situation has not substantially changed. Although many Westerners with limited resources are caught in the same dilemma, the situation is particularly acute for those who come to the community from the local region. This remains a serious handicap for many aspiring Tamil Newcomers.

Unfortunately, there is also no easy solution, as the maintenances earned in Auroville are, in the best case, sufficient to make a living, but insufficient to save to build a house.

It may not be surprising that some Tamil Aurovilians supplement their incomes by running side businesses, often profiting from skills and contacts made in Auroville. Money earned in these ways may go towards building a house, and fulfilling the many economic obligations that several Tamil Aurovilians have with their families both within and outside Auroville. Living frugally and using benefits provided by the community, such as free education, subsidized clothing and house repair maintenance, some families manage to do well financially.

Some even invest in "chit funds" (group organized loan pools) that allow them to amass considerable wealth, that is then used towards educating children outside Auroville, or, as it is rumoured, investments in immoveable property elsewhere.

The growing materialism of some Tamil families has garnered the disapproval of some other Tamil Aurovilians interviewed. Manifesting as gold ornaments, or elaborate childrens' birthday parties, these new forms of wealth often remain hidden to other Aurovilians, sometimes leading to situations in which people who have sufficient resources of their own still seek support from communal resources. However, this is not a problem restricted to any one population. Any increased emphasis on financial gain must be read within the context of the growing materialism in Auroville as a whole.

Education

Although Mother has said that Auroville is to be a place for "unending education," at the level of adult education little has been done. Many Tamil people underline the importance of education to help in orienting themselves towards Auroville's ideals and concur that the process of explaining the significance of Auroville must begin the moment an application is given to the Entry Group. Some believe that the creation of special programs for Tamil women would be efficacious in the development of the community as well. As one woman explains, "It is not easy for a Tamil woman to integrate. While they may find work in an Auroville unit, at home they are dedicated to family life as if they would be living anywhere else in Tamil Nadu. Some form of education is necessary to broaden their experience, to integrate them in the society of Auroville on their own merits instead of as an appendix of their husbands, allowing them to take more initiative than they are used to."

But education is two-sided. While understanding the aims and ideals of Auroville should be mandatory for any Newcomer, so also should be a basic understanding of local culture on the part of those who come to Auroville from other places. Many Tamil Aurovilians interviewed feel that Westerners should receive instruction in Tamil culture and language, and also in Indian history. Many concur that several misunderstandings might be avoided were Westerners more sensitive to the "do's and don'ts" of local custom, let alone if more had a minimal knowledge of Tamil. Some are hopeful that the situation will eventually change. In a promising development, a new Entry policy attempts to provide education on the ideals of Auroville to Newcomers, while other groups are promoting more than ever language classes in English, Tamil and Sanskrit.

Cultural identity

Auroville is a place in which the best elements from all the world's cultures should contribute towards the future. In light of this, the position of Tamil culture is ambiguous. Some Tamil Aurovilians remain tied to their cultural identity in ways that do not permit them to gain a broader perspective. Because family is such a central part of anyone's life in India, many Tamil Aurovilians regularly visit extended family living outside the community. These interactions reaffirm ties to the customs and religious beliefs that give meaning to daily life in Tamil Nadu, in addition to involving some Tamil Aurovilians in local grievances and politics. Jothi, who grew up in Auroville, sees this situation as partially problematic. "Quite a few Tamil Aurovilians live no differently than in the village. This prevents them from focusing time and energy on Auroville's progress and from orienting their thinking towards human unity and a moneyless economy."

At the same time, some Tamil Aurovilians express feeling a sense of loss of cultural identity. Interacting with an environment that is ostensibly Western, some Tamil people have a tendency to forget
Raman the value of traditional practices. Raman points out how neglecting the beauty of the past may not be in Auroville's interest. "Auroville made me lose and then rediscover the value of my roots. When all Aurovilians realize the true wisdom of their own cultures, then the collectivity will form better. And when you appreciate the value of the past, you aren't so into modern consumerism."

So far, there is little interest in Tamil culture in Auroville. Sporadically, Tamil cultural events are organized, such as Tamil New Year and Deepavali, with dinner and fireworks. While such activities are well attended by Tamils and Wester-ners, a majority of Tamil Aurovilians may not participate. As for classical or folk arts, apart from some bharatanatyam dance performances, surprisingly few events are organised that express the incredible richness of Tamil culture. Most Tamil Aurovilians interviewed acknow-ledge that they have only little knowledge about their own literature and art and therefore do not or only marginally contribute to the organization of cultural events. Many Westerners, on the other hand, do not seem overtly interested to learn about Tamil tradition or language. In this context it is not surprising that plans for a Tamil Heritage Centre remain unfulfilled.

Discrimination?

In asking Tamil Aurovilians to describe the difficulties they experience in Auroville, the terms 'racism' and 'discrimination' are often used as an emotionally charged way of describing the treatment they sometimes encounter. Few people reported of incidents of physical violence, but many gave examples of subtle forms of perceived discrimination.
One of the hallmarks of racism is that people are not seen as individuals, but rather as part of an undifferentiated mass. Some of the people interviewed here cited the fact that many of the Western residents never learn the names of the Tamil Aurovilians, even those with whom they interact regularly, which is experienced as arrogant discrimination. Alternatively, Tamil Aurovilians are even misidentified as either someone else or as 'workers.'

Other forms of discrimination are experienced at the workplace. Though quite a few Tamil Aurovilians have become unit executives or hold other positions of responsibility, many Tamil Aurovilians work at the lower ends of work-place hierarchies, often with western Aurovilians as employers. As Raman points out, "This worker-boss relationship makes it easy for those with more capabilities and power to feel superior to those with less. Just because a person did not have the circumstances that allowed him or her to come up in this world, does not mean that they do not have the same spiritual aspirations." The ways in which this false sense of superiority gets expressed is often unacceptable. For example, many of the interviewees expressed their frustration over being yelled at by Western Aurovilians, or generally reprimanded in the workplace as if they were children, in the presence of co-workers. "I wonder if any of these Westerners would behave like this in their own country," observed one of the interviewed. "These instances affirm the fact that some Westerners do not understand Tamil culture, and have not yet cared to learn to communicate better with Tamil people. It also demonstrates their tacit assumption that Tamils should always accommodate them." Such arrogance contributes to Tamil people's common perception that foreign Aurovilians believe themselves to be superior. As one Tamil woman forcefully puts it, "Foreigners come here and think they can do as they please. Half the time they don't think that a Tamil Aurovilian is capable of doing anything." Such a comment reveals much about the experience of Tamil Aurovilians. At the same time it demonstrates how stereotypes exist on both sides.

Being treated with unfounded suspicion is another form of discrimination. Raman explains, "In the past, when there was less theft, everyone moved freely and received a warm welcome. These days Auroville is not a free city. Whites enter places easily, while we must answer many questions. Our own people, who work as watchmen, respect foreigners more!" Other examples display some Wester-ners' fears that only selfish interests motivate Tamils. Hari, who grew up in Auroville and runs the Transport Hari Service, cites a time a couple of years ago when some Tamil Aurovilians called a series of meetings with the aim of discussing how to encourage Tamil Aurovilians to take more active roles in Auroville's decision making processes. "The response to these meetings was mistrust," relates Hari, who explains that few Westerners tried to find out what was truly going on and to support the effort to involve people in Auroville whose participation is often marginal."

Towards integration

But integration is in progress. For example, the number of young people living in mixed race relationships, Tamil and Western, has increased. How to promote youth integration, however, is still a difficult question. At Transition primary school, for example, where more than 50 percent of the children in the lower classes have Tamil or mixed Tamil-Western parentage, it is observed that Tamil and Western children tend to form their own respective groups, even though they may learn and play side by side. Similarly, the list of names of those who attended this year's annual Berijam summer holiday camp would lead one to conclude that western youngsters are associating with western kids, while Tamil children are hanging out with other Tamil children and that not much is being done to integrate them. But this may be a misleading conclusion. Says one teacher: "I find that the Tamil children are more independent and even assertive in this current generation. The children are clearly much more tolerant of cultural diversity than adults are and the learning and playing side by side is serving to widen the tolerance. The grouping is natural and not disturbing and helps them connect to their own culture."

Coming to terms with social and cultural differences needs to become part of a conscious process along the road to achieving Auroville's goals. Under-standing the challenges Tamil people face is one step towards solving some of the many institutional and everyday obstacles.

As Mother explained to some Aurovilians in Aspiration, "For the realisation of Auroville the first step is to establish a true human fraternity - any shortcoming in this regard is a grave mistake which can compromise the whole work." (2)

Thirty years later, this human fraternity is beginning to be realised.


 

(1) March 4, 1968 (Auroville in Mother's Words p. 134)
(2) November 23, 1969 (Auroville in Mother's Words
p. 230, Collected Works Mother Vol. XIII, p. 249)
(3) July 1972 , (Auroville in Mother's Words p. 438, Collected Works Mother Vol.XIII, p. 251)

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