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March '03

A forecomer looks back

In conversation with Carel

Bob and Deborah Lawlor are remembered as the first settlers in the area known as Forecomers. They left in the early seventies. When Deborah visited Auroville in January, Auroville Today asked her about how it all began.

The Forecomers canyon in 1968

It began by Bob coming upon the Ashram in 1965, and staying there for a little over a year. Then Mother told him on his birthday to go back to the USA and wind up whatever was there. I met him in the USA, and wrote to Mother asking if I could come with him. Her answer was a bit of a shock. She wrote to me, "When the need becomes imperative you will be welcome." Bob came back in 1968, in time for the inauguration ceremony of Auroville; I came a month or so later, in time for the April balcony darshan.

Shortly afterwards we asked Mother if we could settle in Auroville. She sent someone with a jeep to show us all the plots that had been purchased. The one we felt most attracted to was the most dramatically beautiful, though by far the worst farmland, the area around the canyon that Mother then named Forecomers. That name was not only given to the area. She also referred to us as 'the forecomers'.

Extract from one of the letters from Forecomers.

Concerning a person who wanted to give up and go back to his home country: "He asked Mother. Her last reply was 'Those who stay here know that for them there is no other place in the world they could be. If that inner certitude is not with you then do what you must. I will always be one with you in your aspiration.' "

November 1968.


We fell so much in love with that land - Bob was an artist and I was a theatre person and a dancer trained in arts. We used to make long walks to gaze at the land from different sides, sometimes calling each other to "come over here and look at the contour of the canyon from this angle!!" The palmyra trees, the vast plains, the deep canyons, there were so many aspects of nature to be worshipped and honoured.

The first Aurovilians dug, planted and watered

So "Adam and Eve" went around admiring the landscape. There was a little mango grove there - it is still there - and between that and the canyon we built a storeroom which also served as our 'house'. We slept under a keet overhang in the open, and felt very isolated. I think we were the first people this side of Promesse who settled in Auroville. Later, others settled in the Certitude area and after some months the 'caravan' arrived from Europe to settle in Aspiration.

We had the fortune of finding a man from Edayanchavadi named Sellakannan who became our watchman, accompanied by his little boy Dhandapani. The boy must have been 9 or 10 years old then [Dhandapani later became one of the trustees of Aurelec, eds.]. We were of course objects of great curiosity, being the first non-Indians many villagers had seen. Before Auroville came into existence, these villages had been very isolated. Though Sellakannan and Dhandapani worked wonders for our acceptance, we were still stared at constantly. For me as a woman it was particularly uncomfortable, but I learned to deal with it. As a theatre person I was used to an audience. But here there was an audience for everything: If my bike had a flat tyre I could be sure I would be surrounded by a crowd of onlookers watching how this 'different' person was solving the problem. We cycled a lot. All our food shopping came from Pondicherry, so I would cycle from Forecomers through the gully to Kottakuppam - where children would tease me by throwing stones and calling 'vellakachi,' meaning white woman - and then to Pondicherry and back with the big shopping bags dangling from the cycle, then pushing the cycle and bags through the hot sand of the gully back up to Forecomers. That was quite rigorous. Also, in the beginning we had no water and once every couple of days a jeep would come from Promesse with a big milk container full of water. One of the first things I learned in Auroville was to take a bath with a quarter bucket of water. But if uncomfortable, it was also part of an exciting adventure. I was 28, Bob was 29. And if sometimes you got more than you'd bargained for it was still.it was still so wonderful that those first three years we never ever thought of leaving for a holiday. There was something in the air.perhaps it was due to the fact that we were learning that the state of one's consciousness was influencing one's work. There was a kind of magic in that. Everything felt more intense than ordinary life. There was that conscious attempt to do everything with reference to The Mother.
As soon as we were 'established,' Bob hired workers and started bunding the fields and planting ragi, sesame and other monsoon crops. Bob was working with the workers, dressed as they were, doing the same work, spending as many hours in the sun as they did, and that was highly unusual. We lived from my allowance of a US$ 100 - 150/month, which supported 7 or 8 Tamil workers. The relationship with the Tamil people was very friendly. They understood sincerity. We learned a lot of from these people who knew how to live on that narrow margin of starvation, still working with ancient tools - for example the wooden plough - and using an ancient technology, such as the bullock cart with wooden wheels. Bob had the first one made with rubber tyres, a wonder for the area!

We brought Mother a map of the land and asked her to put her finger where we should dig a well. She did that and we dug the well and then there was no water. Also one of the workers lost a tool down the well and it was a mess. So we figured Mother did not want it to be easy. Some time later we consulted a local diviner and made another well and that one was successful. When we finally got a well and had a bit of a garden, we offered the first fruits of the harvest to Mother and brought them to her room. Her smile was radiant, She was just wonderful, and said "Continuez!" Those meetings with Mother, on my birthday and in the context of Auroville, are amongst my most profound and cherished memories.
And then there was reforestation. Shyama and Frederick had started planting trees even before moving to Auroville. We planted as many as we could and when Francis joined us we began the Success nursery and were able to plant trees on a larger scale. This was not only a question of digging a hole and filling it with good earth, compost and the tree sapling, but also of watering the tree during its first years and guarding it against goats and other livestock. It is staggering to realize that now two million trees have been established in that way.

Bob got the idea to make a check dam across the Forecomers canyon. He got a grant from some friends in the USA - US$ 500 - and in 1970 we erected the dam across the main area, 60 feet wide and 60 feet high. We covered it with cement and did everything the German engineers who visited us said we should do. However, it broke during the first June rains and washed down the canyon. Luckily, nobody was hurt. Then we started a smaller dam, using stones and cement, and that one still stands today, although silted in. It made a wonderful swimming hole for some time.

Besides doing the cooking and maintaining Forecomers, I started to teach modern dance at Aspiration and do theatre. Theatre was very much appreciated. We did a performance in the Forecomers canyon itself in 1969, which I created on the basis of a poem called 'Praise' from a 18th century English poet, Christopher Smart. In this poem, Smart praises everything. People came by bus from Pondicherry to see it. Bob and the workers had to make a road to get the bus to the edge of the canyon, and we guided people into the canyon. A tour guide took them around and from various nooks and corners in the sides of the canyon little performance pieces would be presented. Dhandapani and some of our workers were among the cast members along with Janet, Shyama, Dutch Lisa (with baby Grace on her hip), Austin, Frederick and others. And there was music. That play had a spirit that resonated with the new Aurovilians, in other words there was a sweetness and hopefulness about it that said something to which people responded. And that's why it is still remembered, I guess.

This all happened during the time Mother was still in her body. Bob and I used to write letters to friends in the USA about what we did and why we did it. Those letters were unexpectedly returned to me later and photocopies are now in the Auroville archives.

In 1972 we left for a year. Bob wanted a break from the constant demands of the land and the community to read Sri Aurobindo for example, and study sacred geometry for which he had developed a great interest. We came back in early 1973 and we stayed till 1975, doing the chorella (algae) project. When, after Mother's passing, the so-called civil war started, things got very rough. We were dismayed. For we had always felt that excitement, that vision, that we were part of something that was radically new and important. And then it was broken.

Four years ago I returned to Auroville for the first time. Forecomers has become unrecognizable, with perhaps one or two trees I remember having planted. The plains have gone, the shape of the land has disappeared, a beautiful forest has come up. That that aspect of our work has so fully matured gives great joy.

Auroville has changed enormously since we left, for better and for worse. But I am hoping to come back and join the play again.

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