Jan 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 Greenbelt.
Moving from beach to inland, '73I 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 temple.
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.
FertileIn those days there was the wide peripheral sweep of the
horizons: the sun rose, shone down relentlessly and set, and the
moon was most obvious in all its phases, for we were without the
protection and camouflage of tree cover. Boris had come from
Gerard's Orchard 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.
Halcyon daysIn 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.
Memorable momentsThen 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 community expanding'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.
Rambling castle of bambooJohnny 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.
Fertile Forest expandingIn 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 Forestry DepartmentA 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 benefited.
Lively educationAuroville 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 amateur magicians.
Friends and familySome 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 drawing books.
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 and sweetnessThe 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.
Aliamma, unsung heroine of early daysI 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.