In a candid conversation eight ammas from two Auroville communities open a window onto their world and what it means to work in Auroville. Ammas, literally ‘mothers’, are, in Auroville parlance, female household and community workers.
This is not easy. At first, shyness prevails when questions are asked: about their work, their relationship with their employer, about Auroville. Then one of them throws caution to the wind and starts speaking openly. With increasing courage, the others join in. And soon the discussion gets lively and touches not only Auroville and their work, but their lives in the village.
Their day starts, on average, at four in the morning. This is the time they have for themselves, when the men folk and the children are still asleep. It's time for some personal care. A short while later, they go to the community tap to collect water – if they're lucky, there isn't a long queue of other women. Back home, they light the firewood stove, and the cooking begins: breakfast and lunch for all. Soon the husband will wake up, and his tea must be ready. By seven, the children are prepared for school. Shortly afterwards the ammas cycle to their work (a journey of up to an hour) , which starts at at eight or half past eight. The cycles are loaded with their tiffin of food and, often, the family's laundry, which they do during their lunch hour. Few Auroville employers object (some Auroville communities have even collective washing places) as they are aware of the water shortage in the village and the fact that, if the laundry isn't done during lunch break, the ammas would have to do it in the evening.
After their Auroville work is completed, the ammas cycle home. Then comes the cleaning of the house, the cooking of dinner, looking after the children and all the other household chores – the men never do work in their homes. The ammas' day normally ends at ten or eleven.
They compare the interaction with the Aurovilians to entering another world. All the ammas come from villages around Auroville, though not all were born here. “Some of us got married off to husbands who come from here,” says Bhagyam. Of the eight ammas I spoke to, only two had some schooling and could read and write Tamil; Gowri in her early twenties, and Pattammal who had the opportunity to study at New Creation bilingual School. Pattammal is the only one who can converse and read and write in English.
So how do they get along with their employers? A burst of giggles follows. “Oh, we manage. We understand what they say. Some vellakaras (foreigners) even speak a bit of Tamil.” More giggles. Obviously, the Tamil spoken by the non-Tamil Aurovilians could do with some improving. But are the women motivated to learn English? Yes and no. Classes are being offered in Pitanga for ammas and gardeners, but only the men attend. “We are too busy,” says Kumari. “We have to work here as well as at home, while the men have nothing else to do.” But some probing reveals they are afraid of entering the classroom and showing the men their ability to pick up another language.
For an amma the move to Auroville is usually momentous. It is not the work, but the different expectations they have to get used to. “Work is part of a Tamil girl's life from the time she is very young, especially if she is from a poor family,” says Maragatham, who is in her mid forties but appears much older. “We all have learned to understand quickly after being told just once how to do something. That's why most ammas, even if they come to Auroville to work for the first time and do not understand the language, pick up work easily.”
Sometimes they confront radically different expectations from their employers. Like what? The unanimous answer is noise. “Vellakaras are very sensitive to sound,” says Pattamal. “They don't like it when we work noisily, or speak too loudly, for example when we do the laundry. For us noise is never a problem; we can do anything, even sleep soundly, when there is thunder outside!” The discussion shifts to temple music that, during festival times, blares from village loudspeakers as early as 4 a.m. “We have heard that the vellakaras are very annoyed by such loud music, but it doesn't really affect us. We've grown up with it,” they say.
Kumari, who has been working as an amma for over 6 years, gives another example of a different cultural pattern: harsh judgements. “When I first started my job, I noticed that the lady of the house had kept some pebbles on a table. One time as I was cleaning, a pebble rolled off and fell on the floor. “Stupid!” she said, and I was very upset by that response. I thought to myself, ‘After all it is a stone and nothing is broken, then why should she be so harsh?' Since that day, I made a firm resolve – never to do any cleaning in the house when she was around.” The others nod in agreement; and admit that they too follow a similar policy. “I get so tense that I may disturb my employer that sometimes even my legs begin to shake and I can't move!” says Shankari. The others laugh.
What do they know about Auroville and why so many vellakaras came to this place? It appears that there is little knowledge about Auroville. None of them have ever visited the Matrimandir. “Of course all of us have seen it as we come to work,” says Shankari. How about special gatherings and bonfires at the amphitheatre? “No, there is no time for that. Perhaps our children have been to those, but we have our village festivals to observe, many with strict fasting, prayers, and cooking. Plus on the days we are off, we spend the time with our family and relatives.”
Even Sangamam, the yearly celebration that Auroville organizes for the workers, is not well-attended by the ammas. “Only the men go for those functions; they bring the rest of the family along, but not us.” Shyness may also be something that keeps them away. “In these functions, there are so many strange people we do not know,” says Kumari. Would it make a difference if their Auroville employers came along? There are some giggles but, says Kumari, “it would help.”
There is sometimes a discussion in Auroville about the ‘correctness' of employing people to do one's housework, something The Mother was opposed to, instead of doing it oneself. Having a househelp is seen by some as ‘colonial'. But the ammas are quick to disagree. “I am not educated,” says Shankari. “And it's only because of this job that I am able to live with dignity, provide special things for my children, and have some respect in my village. If we were not allowed to do this job, what would we do?” The other ammas speak out as well. All of them, it appears, are fighters and survivors. Most have picked up several skills along the way in a varied job history in Auroville. Some have worked in craft units, a few have developed cooking skills in a community kitchen. “But we prefer to take care of a house,” they say. “Outside work might pay more, but it offers less in terms of social environment and security,” Meenambal explains. “The women who take up work in a unit are generally those who don't like to work in someone else's home or whose family don't permit it.”
Maragatham adds another perspective. She feels that Auroville is obliged to employ her because it bought the land that belonged to her husband's family. “I got married into a family in Kottakarai which sold all its land to Auroville in the early days. Then 20 years ago my husband passed away, and the family responsibility fell on me – I had to take care of my in-laws as well as my children, and there was no land to feed us. So this job is helping my family out.”
Asked about the employment conditions, the ammas answer that the current wages – the minimum is Rs 65 a day for a ‘beginning' amma – could do with some improvement, apart from the yearly increase of about 5%. For, in quite a few cases, the salary of the amma runs the entire household. But all of them are very smart when it comes to managing their salary. They join the sangham, or small savings scheme in their village. “All of us belong to one sangham or another,” says Meenambal. She explains that the concept of sangham has become very popular in all of their villages.
“There are hundreds of these groups made up of 16 to 20 ladies,” she explains. “We join together and put whatever we save from our weekly salaries into a common pool. This becomes the ‘bank', and when one of us needs money for some emergency, she can borrow from this. And we charge a very low interest of 2% compared to the 10% that the money lenders charge.”
One area of conflict with their employers is the frequent need to take leave. “The vellakaras accept that we take leave for official festivals, but many don't understand the importance of family functions where we have to physically be present. Tamil society has many ceremonies: at birth, death, ear-piercing, puberty, marriages. We must attend those not only in our extended family but also of our friends. If we did not show up, we would antagonize our relatives and friends and that would give many problems,” says Kumari. “I often had to miss such an occasion,” says Kokila. “And that really angered my husband. I had to bear a lot of bad talk afterwards.” Adds Shankari, “I just tell my family that I will lose my job or that my salary will be cut – what else to do? Then they sort of understand.” However, absence due to illness is usually never a problem and most employers do not cut the salary.
“Quite a few Auroville employers help out in other ways,” says Margatham. “I was living in a hut with a leaking keet roof. My employer paid for a pucca house for me.” The other ammas recount similar stories about being cared for by their Aurovilian employer. “There was this vellakara lady who was temporarily taking care of the house I work in; and she was the kindest person I have ever met. Once she saw that I looked unwell, and she personally took me to the hospital on her scooter and bought me medicines. Even now, if she sees me on the road, she never fails to greet me,” says Meenambal. Almost all their employers, the ammas say, also provide interest-free loans especially when emergency expenses come up in the family.
What they like about Auroville
Are they happy to work in Auroville? The reply is unanimous. “Very much so.” They all agree that it is one of the better things that has happened to them. Why? “Auroville is such a peaceful place to work in – we have mana nimmathi (peace of mind) when we arrive here to work every morning.” “Here we have our own space to take care of, and we treat the houses we work in as our own houses, taking great care with things, sometimes even making kolams or arranging flowers,” says Gowri. “Sometimes there are children in the house, and the job becomes even more enjoyable,” adds Meenambal.
“There is job security here that is not there if we work outside. In the village, there may be work one day and no work the next. And the regular salary that we get gives us an inner strength and confidence that we can do something extra for our children or meet a sudden expense without fear. We may take a loan, but we know we will be able to pay it back.” The attitudes of their Aurovilian employers, with respect to bonuses, severance pay, the health care scheme and the pension scheme is also much appreciated. What they do view negatively is too close an intimacy with Aurovilians. “There have been a couple of instances where some amma became intimate with her vellakara employer, and even moved in with him.” They mention a case where an amma was ostracized by the entire village after she abandoned her husband. But such relations between employer and employee, they say, are exceptions.
Watching the ammas go about their work, one cannot miss the special spirit of joy about them despite their circumstances back home. “ When we meet in Auroville, we can unburden ourselves and share our difficulties.” There is an openness in their conversations, and everyone knows each other's family life inside out – when their daughters are having their manjal neeru (puberty) ceremony; when there is a marriage or a death in the family; which one has the drunken husband who has beaten her the previous night; whose in-laws are difficult, and so on. It is like a sisterhood. In communities where several ammas work together, often coming from different villages and belonging to different castes and communities, it is their workplace in Auroville that brings them together. “Otherwise we would hardly have the opportunity to meet socially or interact with each other in the way we do here,” says Bhagyam.
(To protect identities, names of ammas have been changed.)