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February '03

The day the balloon went up

- (name withheld on request)

The flag of Auroville and some of the plackards of the participating countries and states of India


It was like this, wasn't it? A long-time Aurovilian tries to remember

One of my earliest memories as a child was being held out the window of a railway carriage as the train wound its way along the side of a valley, revealing first one end of the train and then the other, my grandfather twisting me first one way, then the other as he sang out, "There's where we come from; there's where we go."
Forty years later I had a similar experience as I came onto Auroville land for the first time for the inaugural ceremony. The bus in which we travelled had turned the corner near Hope and suddenly people were standing up, pointing. There were no trees then, remember, and the views were long. Some people pointed way across the barren fields to an orange meteorological balloon tethered near a distant banyan tree; some pointed behind to all the buses that followed us, while others were pointing ahead to all the buses going around the next bend. Everyone started to laugh.

Kiran Poddar (left) carrying Mother's flag and Vijay Poddar with the stainless steel container with Auroville's Charter

We had arrived at the Ashram four months earlier. The first we heard of Auroville was when Mother told us we were to work for it. And although in the meantime we had been given work in Ashram departments we had started to involve ourselves in the preparation for the opening ceremony.

Over the years I've been trying to recall it as a glorious time when we all worked harmoniously together under the directions of the Mother. But it wasn't like that. It was a mess.

For four months everyone disagreed, argued, contradicted each other, worked at cross-purposes, fought for their own version of things. In mid-February, for example, we were still undecided how even to identify the country whose representatives were going to walk up the spiral pathway with their samples of earth to put in the urn. The man who wanted flags, knowing that we now lacked time to get them, stormed out of one meeting in search of an Ashram artist who would agree to silkscreen 124 different flags. "Have you seen some of those flags?" someone shouted after him. Before the reverberations of the slammed door had faded away someone else came up with another idea: how about making a gigantic jigsaw puzzle of a world map, so that everyone coming up to the urn could be able to fit his country's shape into the general picture? I got up and quit, right then and there, but I realized before I had even got out the door that no one had invited me to be a part of that committee in the first place.

On the 27th February I went to bed convinced that the next day would bring about the biggest shambles the world had ever seen.
I awoke at first light to a fantastic day, Crows in the palm trees, kites in the sky, a faint shushing of small waves breaking on the shore. We left the house early, clad in white; everyone that day seemed to be wearing white. The buses were lined up in the streets between the Ashram and the sea-front. I rather think each one had a number for I remember looking for a particular bus, suddenly filled with a keen apprehension that if I wasn't careful I might miss out on something fundamentally important. Looking back I always fancied I wore some kind of badge identifying me as something or other, although that strikes me now as unlikely. On reflection I think it must have been some symbolic tribal feeling I was experiencing, the badge perhaps a declaration of some inner commitment.

I suppose it was catching, this apprehension, for it resulted in a bit of scurrying to and fro with calling out to children and wayward aunties and old grannies. But finally everyone was on board and the buses, in convoy, moved off. Still it wasn't until we'd turned onto the dirt road that we realized how many of us there were. I'm tempted to say that there were a hundred buses but that couldn't be, could it? All I know is that it seemed that every available vehicle of every conceivable description had been put into use that day. And if it hadn't been for the fact that the road had been watered before we got there we'd have raised a cloud of dust to rival the one caused by the eruption of the Krakatoa.

The road sort-of ended near the present-day Matrimandir parking lot. How could they all fit in there? You're forgetting that there were no trees, none at all, except a scraggly grove of palmyras and a young banyan giving shape to a wide open space.

We all descended and began to shuffle our way through the sand across perfectly flat ground to what looked like some raised earthworks topped by a temporary structure of casuarinas and cloth. Blue, I think, the cloth. Closer we could see it was the lip of a circular depression in the earth, the covered shelter circling the rim. Down in the depression, off-centre, clearly significant, was the stylized lotus bud, the only thing with any look of permanence to it. Settling without speech some sat in chairs, some on mats in the shade, some out in the sun. A section had been reserved for the people from the nearby villages, and although it was a large enclosure already you could see it was going to be inadequate. You could see people coming from every direction across the fields.

Red earth, green from the tree, people in white, orange balloon against the blue sky, the billowing blue cloth giving an occasional explosive clap above us..

You know I could be making all this up. For really I don't know; I'll never be sure. It could all be merely a striving to put myself back into a place the significance of which I shall, I suppose, never be able, fully, to comprehend. I'm tempted to put down the names of people I know were present in the belief that there is safety in numbers. But I don't actually remember who I sat next to. I don't know to whom I spoke. I don't know who I met. Something I wonder what part of me was present..

It was all so simple, really, so splendid.

As 10:30 approached silence fell. There was, I think, the sound of a gong. And then The Mother's voice. It was transmitted live, directly from her upstairs room in the Ashram, a fact which seemed to add immediacy to the message.

Have I given the impression, earlier, that laughter, that day, came easy? Well I'll tell you, the day had changed. What was going on now was no laughing matter. If there was a suggestion behind the words it was this: Listen to me. Listen. And listen we did. as if our lives depended upon it.

The newspaper said the ceremony lasted 75 minutes. I'll accept that. After all it's their business to measure things. Certainly a lot seemed to have happened by the time it was over. I do remember Mother's flag with its golden wheel resplendent on a blue field being carried up by Kiran in the beginning just when they started the reading of the translations of the Charter into the different languages. And near the end I remember Fabienne and Kalya with the Auroville flag - it was the first time we'd seen it; we didn't even know it existed. In between I remember something of the procession of young people, some of them in their national dress, the boys with their packets of earth, the girls with the signs, beribboned in their national colours, which announced their country. I particularly remember the Russian participants for they were little children which somehow seemed most aptly to embody the spirit of the occasion.

When the last young couple had come back from the urn Nolinida went up to seal the lotus. He seemed to be up there an awful long time. I got the feeling that Mother was supervising his masonry work. At last, I thought, she's finally got someone who will do what he's told.

When he came down I suppose we all came down. Sunil's music ended. The crowds dispersed. We wandered off to the exhibition around the banyan tree. We got fed, every single one of us. We looked up at the balloon, and around at the bleak landscape, and then we got back on the bus. (Isn't it amazing how it always takes more buses to get people home after an event than it does to get them out in the first place?) And so we went back to Pondy, not to come back, any of us, for six months.

So that's the way it was, was it? Well I wouldn't actually swear to it. After all it's a long time ago. And I've got a terrible memory. And I have this habit of what I don't remember I make up. But only in the details. I think. But surely you can tell it was something, can't you? You can feel it was something real, momentous?

You must also have realized, as we did ourselves much later, that while we were squabbling away The Mother was getting things done. Would it have been better, do you think, an even more glorious day, if we had stayed out of her way altogether? Perhaps. And perhaps not. I suppose she knew what she was doing when, in her infinite wisdom, she did something foolish. and let us participate.


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