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June-July 2004

The Solar Kitchen is my school

- by Alan

Vijaya at the Solar Kitchen booking stationA snap-shot of Vijaya


“Hello? Solar kitchen here.” The voice is warm, confident, exactly the voice you want to hear when you're telephoning to work out a knotty problem with meal bookings at the Solar Kitchen. And when you meet her, Vijaya is very much the smiling, open-hearted person predicted by the voice.

Vijaya was born in Auroville to Aurovilian parents. However, for her initial education her parents sent her to a primary school in Pondicherry . “Some of my Auroville friends were there with me, so it wasn't a problem. But then somebody said that Auroville children should be educated in Auroville, so our parents put us all in Transition School . That was really difficult at first. We didn't know English well and we were all so shy – for a long time I was too scared to even speak.”

She went on to Last School but there her formal education abruptly ceased. “I was married to Dhanapal.. It was a traditional arranged marriage: in those days we didn't think in any other way.” However, she didn't immediately take the next traditional step for a young Tamil wife. “You're expected to get a child very soon: it's automatic. Even if young wives don't want this, they're often scared into it by pressure from their husband or their families. But our families didn't put any pressure on me, and my husband has always been happy to let me do as I wish. Also Suzie, my teacher at Last School , said that as I was so young it might be good to wait so that I'd have a chance to do whatever work or activities I wanted to do first. I agreed and waited 8 years before my son was born.”

Vijaya worked for some time as a supervisor at Auromics workshop, but it wasn't really what she was looking for. She began helping Dhanapal with the paperwork of his construction business. But then the business ran into major difficulties. “We were really suffering. So I felt I must find work elsewhere and get a maintenance.”

Dhanapal and Vijaya had agreed that one of them would always try to work in the service sector of Auroville, so she went to work in the Solar Kitchen, preparing salads. After two years she became pregnant and took maternity leave. “When I returned there was a surprise waiting for me – Ilse asked me if I would like to look after the booking of meals. Without thinking I said ‘Yes'.”At first, it was like changing schools all over again. Vijaya lacked the computer knowledge needed and felt shy about having to deal with so many people she'd never met before. “But Ilse encouraged me a lot, and soon I felt happy to be learning new things every day and meeting new people – the Solar Kitchen is my school. When you're at home, just looking after the house, you don't learn anything.”

But isn't this the situation for some young Tamil wives who marry into Auroville? “Yes, and this has been happening for years. Maybe what's needed is a school where they can go every day for two hours a day and communicate with others while learning about Auroville and how to speak English because a lot of it's to do with lack of confidence. There are plenty of opportunities in Auroville, for women as well as for men, but you have to move out, you have to try for them, not stick in your own corner. This is one of the biggest lessons I've learned. If you want something, or if you want to clarify something, you have to go and speak with people directly.”

Vijaya is very happy that young Tamil Aurovilians have none of the inhibitions her generation suffered from. “It's a total change. In our class most of the girls were shy. We'd never dare dance, for example, in front of the boys. But now the girls are very bold, very frank. They say and do exactly what they like.” How do their parents feel about this? “The whole relationship is different: parents and children are more like friends now.” So would she, for example, be happy to allow her son to marry whoever he pleases? She pauses, laughs. “It's a little too early to answer that question because my son is only four years old!”

What about the husband-wife relationship? Who takes the decisions in her family? “We take them together. This is typical of most Tamil families in Auroville.” She thinks, however, that in the villages it's different. Here there have been changes – it's normal for even younger women to go out to work now, something which was unheard of 20 years ago – “but the changes are outer. I don't think the basic attitudes regarding marriage or the relationship between men and women have changed. That's the difference: in Auroville the attitudes have changed.

“At the same time I think there is a real lack of understanding between different cultures in Auroville. It's important we learn to understand each other well, and working together is one of the best ways of doing this. There should be no divisions between us because we are one family, one soul.”

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