The day the balloon went up
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.
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
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
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
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
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.