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January '03

Toshi's choice

- by Abha Prakash

Toshi Malik

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.

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