“Before 30, the energy goes out in a spendthrift way because of the play of impulses. After 30, there is a settling down and one is expected to have a plentitude of energy. At 50, blossoming begins. At 80, one becomes capable of full production.”
A light breeze carries the songs of birds through the otherwise silent room I stand in. It is a simple triangular space with low white washed walls and a keet roof. The only permanent presence is a statue of Ganesh, his trunk curved to the right, shining prosperity on the community being built before him. When I arrived an hour before to interview on the project of Arka, I thought I was going to write about the ins and outs of building a housing complex for senior citizens. To my great surprise, Arka is much more than a housing project. It is a research centre to discover through experience the needs of seniors. “Meaning ‘ray of light' in Sanskrit, ARKA wants to become a self-sufficient centre for senior Aurovilians who wish to continue living an active, integral life in spite of possible physical challenges that may occur with age,” says Arka's brochure.
Stepping outside Ganesh's meditation room, I find myself standing on a sunlit path that curves in and around the up-and-coming gardens. Though the gardens have just begun to show life with their small saplings and beginnings of green, they hold a presence of their own. Babu, a long time Aurovilian, has dedicated himself to these gardens. When his wife Rosa passed away last year he thought he was destined to leave Auroville, but he was instead drawn to this work where his love and devotion do not go unnoticed. He has many plans for the trees and plants that will eventually provide food and shade for the community. As with each aspect of Arka, detailed attention has been given for sustainability. A waste water system will allow the gardens to flourish. Solar panels will generate sufficient electricity to run the pumps and other aspects of the community, such as lighting and computers.
The story of Arka goes like this: Arka was a man who visited The Mother and Sri Aurobindo Ashram regularly for many years. After he passed away, his wife, Ginevra, and long time Aurovilian Maria Grazia wanted to do something in his memory which would be in the long term interest of Auroville. While examining what already exists in Auroville, they realized that little thought had yet been given to the needs of the steadily increasing number of seniors in our community. They commissioned an architect and found a manager to oversee construction. A wonderful two acre plot, in walking distance from the Matrimandir, was allocated for the project which was inaugurated on January 1st, 2002 . Krishnan Myer, another Aurovilian who managed a senior housing project in Chennai six times bigger than Arka, joined the management team of Arka in March last year. He met with SAIIER, (Sri Aurobindo International Institute for Educational Research) and it was agreed that the project of Arka would come under the umbrella of SAIIER which then took over the distribution of funds.
Questions from Auroville began to arise when it became known that some non-Aurovilians who have contributed to the project would be allowed to stay in Arka. Delicately approaching this topic I learned that, as per Auroville's Charter and the Housing Policy, no donor will have any claim on any of the fixed assets of the project. However, as a return gesture to donors who contributed to the building of the guest units, the Arka management would like to offer guest facilities to them during their visits to Auroville. Moreover, as and when a donor would join Auroville through its Entry Process, and become an Aurovilian, Arka would be happy to house them permanently, if they prefer so.
I also learned that no Aurovilians have yet come forward to live in the residents' section, but that may be just a question of time. Resident or not, Arka invites all senior citizens to participate in its daily activities and will make a van available to pick up those who do not reside in Arka.
Being a person who does not typically become enthusiastic about unfinished buildings, I find that as I leave the gardens and enter the later phase of Arka's construction I can actually visualize what will come to be. The architectural aspect has been clearly planned with great care as one room sweeps into the next, each embodying unique qualities for the activities it will entertain. The buildings have been divided into different zones; private, semi-public and public. Among other things, the private zone will have the resident's quarters, a dining hall, a dispensary, a nursing centre, and a massage room. The semi-public zone includes a swimming pool, therapy and massage area, a beauty salon, a gymnasium, a first-aid shelter equipped with convalescent facilities, a library, guest rooms and a meditation hall. The public zone will have a restaurant and herbal tea room, an office, an internet centre, a boutique, a pharmacy, and a multi-purpose hall. Plans also include staff quarters, laundry facilities and parking areas.
Though residents of Arka should be over 65, numerous activities and programs encourage all ages to participate, whether it is through management, health care, workshops, garden work, arts or children's theatre. The restaurant will provide healthy homegrown food. Ginevra works as a publicist and will be working with those who want to write and publish. There will be a place for pottery and other forms of artwork. The library and internet room will provide access to all forms of information. On a very practical level, great consideration to aging bodies has been given. Specially designed equipment meeting international standards has been purchased for bath and shower areas. All doors and walkways are designed to accommodate wheelchair access and ramps will connect one building to the next.
Yet what is it about Arka that makes it a special project? The Mother spoke about many aspects of youth and aging which have built the spiritual foundation for Arka. Amongst other things she says, “Old age does not come from a great number of years but from the incapacity or the refusal to continue to grow and progress. I have known old people of twenty and young people of seventy”. Maria Grazia recounts “I had an experience with my father where he was old and very sick for ten years and I know what this means. I read about what Mother said on the topic and I could see that she wanted us to plan for something different in Auroville. At least we should try to do research.” Krishnan tells of how the centre he worked for in Chennai tried to integrate different age groups by bringing in young children to interact with the seniors, but this did not work.
Arka is not a retirement home or a senior centre where staff will try to keep their clients entertained and occupied. Arka is a place of interaction and activity, of “unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages”. It will provide facilities for personal growth, both physical and spiritual, while recognizing and focusing on the lifestyle one might choose to live in later stages of life. As Maria Grazia put it, “When you reach a certain age in your life, you may not be interested in the material world or mundane tasks like balancing your cheque book, as you once were.” Arka is an opportunity to take the years of gathered experience and knowledge and put one's energy toward exactly what one chooses.
The project of Arka was scheduled to become wholly operational by 2007, but through dedication and enthusiasm, those involved look forward to an early completion. Though only in my thirties, I find that as I leave the grounds I am filled with happiness that such a project is being added to the larger experiment of Auroville, and our future.