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September 2002

Negotiating Newcomerhood: Highs & Lows

- by Abha


Does one choose or is one chosen to be in Auroville? What is it like to be a newcomer? How do Aurovilians respond to newcomers? Do factors of nationality or cultural perception count at all? These issues are examined through the experiences of three recent newcomers to Auroville, one of them being myself, writes Abha


Doris and Abha

Before joining Auroville formally, I decided to sound some Aurovilian friends and acquaintances about it. In a brief visit to Auroville last October, I went about spreading my message of cheer in the midst of pre-monsoon showers. Most people smiled indulgently at my enthusiasm, urging me on. Others, more sober, congratulated me on my resolve, which had taken eight years to shape. A few, with a wry twist of their mouths, asked me why, Auroville being amongst the most difficult of places to live in, did I want to be here?

I remember that question throwing me off. It seemed unfair that one could be asked to explain the most important decision of one's life, beside an assortment of motorcycles parked outside Pour Tous. What does one say? That I am here because of an unspoken, wordless beckoning that has been getting stronger over the years? That sometimes, when I walk here at night, gentle shadows stalk ahead, stepping carefully over the trees, against the luminous sky? That the breeze here actually lifts up my spirit like on no other place on earth? That I believe this is the only place where my inner being can be manifest? That I feel connected to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo? That I'm willing to join hands, however different and tenous that they may be? That I am here for maybe the same reasons that you are and which cannot be explained?

I had first heard of Auroville in 1992 while completing my higher studies in Canada. Surprisingly, even today, not many middle-class people, particularly in North India know of the place. When I came to Auroville briefly in 1993, I experienced a strong state of déjà vu twice in the space of one week. Feeling came in exhilarated rushes -- I felt in touch with my child self. The sense of belonging deepened when I came to settle in November 1994, but within a few months contrary forces were at play within my personal life. I moved to Pondicherry soon after, with still some measure of love for Auroville in my heart.

Joining Auroville in May this year was a turning point in my life, yet it seemed the most natural thing in the world. I ended my last day of work as a lecturer in English at St. Stephen's College, Delhi, and bought a one-way ticket to Madras. While most of my extended family in Delhi thought of the move as nothing short of "crazy," my parents, with their selfless love, wished me luck as I boarded the train. With my old laptop nestled precariously under my tennis racquet in the suitcase, and a lot of goodwill, I finally arrived. Everything that needed to be done happened quickly and quietly in the space of two weeks. I found work, a place to live, filled the forms, and got the go-ahead from the Entry Group. Even in the unrelenting heat of the summer, life seemed wonderful. I happily cycled my way up and down between Certitude, where I was staying, and Aspiration for my essentials, and to Surrender for the AV Today meetings. A colleague and friend offered rides to Bharat Nivas where I worked three mornings a week. When I received my newcomer status, I gladly made the rounds, like last year. To become a newcomer was a badge of courage and faith, a symbol of my entry into an infinite, boundless journey that I had struggled hard to reach.

The magic of Auroville was still palpable but had it really become a more "difficult" place to live in? Had things changed from 1995 when at the age of twenty-nine, I had left Auroville due to my broken marriage and had chosen to live near the ashram for the next three years? Some things were indeed different. Auroville had a greater international diversity than before - there were newcomers from Israel, and Kazakhstan, for example, -- but also a degree of possessiveness about people's personal space had crept in. Owing to the economic crisis, housing and land had become contested, problematic issues. There was a better organization and communication network in the community, but more rigid rules had come into effect. Many things had become more commercialized, and more expensive.

How were these changes affecting other newcomers? I decided to ask some people about their experiences here, both positive and negative. One of the first persons I approached did not want his views aired at all. "It will change nothing, so why bother?" he said. Another wanted only her positive views on Auroville to be included, not the rest. Finally, I met Valeria and Doris who were both willing to share their experience of arriving in Auroville, along with the ups and downs of newcomerhood. It would be fair to keep in mind that their views are necessarily rooted in the personal and coloured by their specific cultural and social backgrounds. Also that they are related to the present moment, and therefore, not unchangeable or absolute.

Valeria and her daughter Monica

Valeria, an Italian woman in her mid-forties, had an interesting life before she joined Auroville. After completing her major in Psychology in Italy, she travelled around the world on a yacht, visiting 25 countries in the space of 8 years. A trained Ikebana teacher, Valeria has lived with her husband Kenji for the last fourteen years in Japan. Last November, they and their little daughter Monica joined Auroville. Presently, they live in Franca's house in Auromodele.

Valeria has a strong sense of belonging to Auroville in an individual, spiritual way. She realizes that most Aurovilians have intense characters because they choose to be here and because "it takes courage to be here." She feels part of the community, but sees little meaningful interaction and supportive networking between Aurovilians and newcomers. Aware that her responses to Auroville are filtered through her experiences as a person with hybrid cultural traditions with their roots in Italy and Japan, she makes the strong claim that living in Auroville as "an Italian woman" is fine but as a Japanese, life is "very difficult in Auroville. A Japanese person finds it hard to adjust in Auroville given the high level of respect people give one another in Japanese society. Many people are friendly in Auroville, but some are not very polite. One expects educated people to have a more civil manner of speech especially if they are working in a service unit in Auroville. Basic terms like "please," "excuse me," or "thank you" are rarely used by some individuals here."

Having studied the Mothers's experiences in Japan before she began her work of spiritual collaboration with Sri Aurobindo, Valeria believes that people in Auroville have a lot to learn from Japanese customs and culture as these had a special place in the Mother's heart. "Many people in Auroville ask me about Japan. When I tell them I miss the level of the respect people give to each other in Japan, they ask me why we have come here!"

Valeria wanted to live in India since her first visit at the age of 21 in 1978. Still that did not prevent the wave of culture shock she encountered after moving to Auroville last year. "Newcomers from outside India have to deal with many new things on different levels. A new country, a new culture, a new community, a new orientation . . . one needs a buffer, a support system which can help newcomers participate and feel integrated in the community life. Newcomers should not be made to feel stupid. We may not know too much about Auroville, but most of us are coming with some life experience that is as important. Including newcomers in responsible work activities will boost their self-confidence and feeling of oneness with the community."

In addition to her future plans of doing Ikebana workshops in Savitri Bhavan, and the ARKA residential centre, Valeria hopes to be a contact person for newcomers one day. "It takes courage to live in Auroville. I want to be a support for those who come here," she smiles.

Doris, a German layout designer in publishing, heard about Auroville thirty years ago when she was working as a flight attendant with Lufthansa Airlines. Through the "flying network" of international tourists, and airline staff, one could know about the most interesting places in the world. "At that time, around 1969, only two places in India were the most talked about - Pune and Auroville." When Doris heard about the Auroville Charter she was interested but thought at the same time that, "it was an outrageous dream, which seemed difficult to manifest." Her marriage to a pilot and their hectic work lives kept Doris busy for the next couple of decades. Auroville receded into the background, becoming nothing more than a distant, unlikely dream.
Last year, however, when Doris and her yoga teacher were deciding on a place to visit together, Auroville suddenly came to mind. It seemed the one place that Doris had not been to. Having traveled virtually the whole world, and having ended her marriage, Doris felt ready for a new experience that would offer her the freedom to "start from scratch." Before visiting Auroville in December 2001 for a period of three months, Doris went through all the information on the Auroville website. After a wonderful time in Auroville during which Doris made the decision to come back for good, she went back to Germany to arrange the final move. Before returning to Auroville in April this year in order to begin the newcomer process, Doris went through a detailed study of all the website information available on the Auroville housing situation. Excited by the prospect of being able to secure accommodation within a few weeks of her arrival, Doris was surprised at the discrepancy between what was on the net in the year 2001 and the actual situation in Auroville. "The housing policy had changed completely! Also, there are still no clear-cut guidelines as to exactly how much a newcomer needs to pay for the total cost of a house. There are various percentages that are added on to the basic costs, and then there are the other costs that are not listed at all and that come as a nasty surprise for the person who is expected to pay."

As a response to her own somewhat difficult experience of getting a house, Doris, with the help of Charles, a long-term guest, and Volker, who works with the Housing Service, is compiling information on the basic steps to putting a house together in Auroville. In addition she is also researching all the experimental housing which have been constructed in Auroville. These results will be posted on a web page. Doris is also working as a layout designer for AVToday, in addition to teaching quilt-making to young Tamil children in New Creation school. "Organising an improvised hand-sewing class with incomplete materials to a group of enthusiastic children has been really rewarding," she says. "It is like making the best out of nothing."

For newcomers and Aurovilians alike, that is one of the joys of living in Auroville, despite it being a difficult place. There are limitations of all kinds and yet new dreams continue to manifest themselves, sometimes, virtually out of nothing.

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