Toshi Malik was still
only in her thirties when her husband Prem, a top-ranking executive
in Hindustan Lever, announced one evening in their elegant Calcutta
residence his desire to settle down in the Pondicherry Ashram.
She wondered if he was serious. Their frequent short visits to
the ashram in the sleepy seaside town had been fine, but living
there for good would be an entirely different story. And what
was the wife of a corporate executive expected to do in an ashram?
It would mean giving up going to clubs and eating at fancy restaurants,
doing without cars with chauffeurs, expensive saris, and jewellery.
It would mean giving up not only the luxuries that Toshi, an upper-class
Punjabi Hindu originally from Pakistan but brought up in Delhi,
had become used to, but also mean a stripping away of a certain
inherited approach to life that she wore like a second skin. An
attractive and vivacious woman, Toshi couldn't imagine herself
clad in a white cotton sari like the other ashramite women, riding
on a bicycle to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram where the mingled scent
of tuberoses, rosewater, and incense hung like a diaphanous, magnetic
curtain all day. Or eating the same austere food at the ashram
dining room everyday.
Toshi had seen the Mother
for the first time from a distance. It was Darshan Day, the Mother
stood on the balcony gazing at the many devotees gathered below.
Toshi's doubts had not lessened. "I was full of scepticism.
But when I met the Mother in her room I prayed for her to show
me her vision, her power, so I could understand. That meeting
changed my life. No words were spoken but something was communicated.
I remember nothing except being touched in the core of my being."
And thus began the story
of Toshi's change of consciousness and altered lifestyle when
she arrived in Pondicherry in 1968. She was 42, her enthusiastic
husband 48. The same year they attended the memorable inauguration
ceremony of Auroville. The couple lived first in the ashram under
the Mother's physical presence, both teaching at the ashram school.
Ten years later they joined Auroville. If living the structured
life of the ashram meant surmounting several barriers, some real
and others imagined, moving to Auroville was a bigger challenge.
"It took us ten years to prepare ourselves to come to the
ashram, and then another ten prepared our spiritual foundations
to be able to live in Auroville."At its inception the "city"
was an endless expanse of eroded red earth, dotted by stringy
palms swaying in the wind. When Toshi and Prem moved there in
1978, it was still a struggling township, going through economic
and political hardships.
Within a short time
Prem threw himself into the formulation of organisational guidelines
according to the Mother's wishes, clearing the way for Auroville's
economic self-sufficiency. Toshi took on the role of nurturer,
cooking, along with a few other women, meals for up to 100 people
everyday. "Those days were not easy. Auroville's resources
were scarce yet miracles took place. One day I was told that there
was no money for the noon meal at the Aspiration community kitchen.
Not even for a simple meal of varagu porridge. I was disturbed
and so were many others. Adults could make do, but what about
the children? And then suddenly, out of the blue, some money came.
The food we ate that day tasted like a feast."
Eager to experience
Auroville in its varied, evolving hues, Toshi experimented with
different kinds of work. She worked at the Pour Tous grocery stall,
taught Sanskrit to adults from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds,
and in the absence of guesthouse facilities provided hospitality
to the many VIPs that visited Auroville in the early days.
Today, at the age of
75, Toshi continues teaching Hindi to five of her adult Western
Aurovilian friends who have shown remarkable progress over the
years. Her main work, however, is at the Information Office at
the Visitors Centre, where every morning she satisfies the curiosity
of the many tourists who wish to know more about Auroville and
its spiritual centre, the Matrimandir. "I enjoy this work
very much as it gives me the opportunity to meet a diverse range
of people sincerely interested to know about the spiritual aspects
of Auroville and the Matrimandir."
Despite severe back
problems and chronic high blood pressure, Toshi is an active member
of the community. Since the passing of Prem Malik two years ago,
she has been managing the Auromodele orchard which is located
not far from the little house that she and her husband lived in
for close to twenty-two years. A prominent member of the Bharat
Nivas Group, Toshi helps to arrange various events relating to
Indian culture and philosophy. Recently she, along with her colleagues,
gathered resources and organised a very successful Deepavali celebration.
It was attended by over 500 people and greatly enjoyed by both
adults and children. Toshi also helps the community by having
young, single people in need of accommodation live with her until
they find more permanent housing.
Toshi still visits her
relatives in Delhi every summer, and also spends time at her little
mountain cottage in Ramgarh, near Nainital. Every year her concerned
nieces and nephews pressure Toshi to give up her life in Auroville
and join them in Delhi now that Prem has passed away. But despite
the feelings of loneliness that threaten her at times, Toshi's
choice is clear. Every morning at 8:45 she walks down the tree-shaded
path to the main road of Auromodele, and waits for the van to
take her to the Visitor's Centre. The van arrives full of good
humour, with other senior Aurovilians like Toshi setting out for
work that they continue to enjoy and cherish.