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Auroville Adventure

December 2004

Our man in Pondicherry

- by Carel

Bhoominathan runs the Auroville Boutique in Nehru Street

“I’m an old-timer.” Bhoomi is not referring to his age, for he is only 40 years old, but to the fact that he is one of the longest serving business executives of Auroville – and that he joined Auroville when he was only six. “Must have been 1970 or 1971,” he muses. “An international school had started in Auroville, and they wanted a few boys from Kuilapalayam to study together with the other students. Bhoomi in the Boutique d’Auroville in PondicherryAs my mother worked in Auroville they asked if her kids wanted to join and so my two younger sisters and I got our first education – which lasted till about 1975, when the school stopped. Some of us – Selvaraj, Rathinam, Hari – were very unhappy about that. We decided to find our own teachers and continue. After doing this kind of schooling for some three or four years we took the initiative to restart our school in the Last School compound. At the time the school building Swagataham had been turned into a guesthouse. We talked to the guesthouse manager, who welcomed our idea and vacated the place. And school started again. The teachers followed.” Bhoomi stopped school when he was about 19 years old. He had started to work a few hours a week assembling computers in Aurelec and Altecs. “Then I had a chance to go the USA, participating in the Peace Tree programme. It was a great experience, meeting lots of different students and experiencing a completely different country. When I came back I worked at Pour Tous for some time, and then joined the Boutique d’Auroville in Pondicherry. I started as a part-time worker, but became its manager about 14 years ago.” The Boutique d’Auroville, situated in the beginning of Nehru Street, is a narrow shop. From its inception, the shop was intended to sell products from all Auroville units, which has led to a rather cluttered display of articles. “It looks like a storeroom,” says Bhoomi apologetically. “We should have three times the present size to properly display the products. But to rent a good place in Pondicherry is very expensive and our means are not sufficient to buy one. But we need a place which not only displays the products, but also has a coffee shop and a proper office where we can give information on Auroville.” For providing information about Auroville is the second important function of La Boutique. “We get many people with questions about Auroville. In my experience, to do a good job you need at least ten minutes to handle each enquiry. It is time I often don’t have.” Asked what type of questions come up, Bhoomi replies that many deal with the ‘what is?’ and ‘where is?’ Auroville, but that increasingly questions have a malicious undertone, like ‘why are there so many foreigners in that place?’, and about the social conduct of Aurovilians. “I can’t answer all the questions,” says Bhoomi, “and sometimes I have to duck and dodge them, in particular if I feel that the questioner is needlessly aggressive. But it worries me that these types of questions are being asked.” In order to protect the brand recognition of Auroville, Bhoomi is also careful checking product quality before it enters the Boutique. “We cannot afford to lose our good name. An inferior quality product from one unit could affect the reputation of the other products.” Asked why the turnover of the Boutique is lower than that of the Boutique in the Visitors’ Centre in Auroville, Bhoomi points at the large number of nearby shops that sell comparable products. “Auroville’s products are good quality but expensive. The Boutique in Auroville doesn’t have that kind of sharp competition.We depend on the tourist seasons, so this is actually a six-months per year business, the other six months are a bit dull. But we are doing well, and are happy to be able to contribute to Auroville.” His work in Pondicherry makes it virtually impossible for Bhoomi to be active in a permanent Auroville working group. “I was involved in the Auroville Council and the Entry Group, but the last five years I had no time to participate in permanent groups. I am only part of an ad-hoc conflict resolution group that tries to resolve a problem with three Tamil Aurovilians accused of embezzling money. But as soon as my children become older, I would like to join a permanent working group again.” Bhoomi is married to Valarmathi, a qualified nurse who works at the Auroville Health Centre. Their two children attend a school in Pondicherry. “I would have preferred them to go to an Auroville school, but there was no place for my oldest son when, some years ago, the Mirramukhi school suddenly ceased its activities. I took him to a school in Pondicherry, and my second son automatically followed. But this decision would have been different if I had my work in Auroville.” But the stationing in Pondicherry is ideal for another activity, that of organizing competitions for Pondicherry and Auroville basketball teams that lead up to the national basketball championship. “Pondicherry has thirty teams, each consisting of 12 players; Auroville has eight, six men and two women teams. They play against each other. The best players are selected to represent Pondicherry in the national basketball championship. We have managed to include a few Aurovilians in that team,” he says proudly. Asked about the relationship of Tamil Aurovilians to other Aurovilians, Bhoomi says he hasn’t experienced much of a problem. “Only when I started to build my house I met some opposition. I had been living in Aspiration for 15 or 20 years and was a bit tired of community life. I got married and wanted a family life. With my own money and some I had been able to save from the Boutique I started building my house and was suddenly confronted with some community members who argued that my house and my plot were too big. But they themselves were living in similarly-sized plots.” Bhoomi admits that his lifestyle does attract envy of people living in Kuilapalayam. “The village looks at us Tamil Aurovilians in a different way even though we come from the same village. We lead a better life and that causes resentment. They expect us to help them, give them a job. But our influence in the village is not large. For example, by ourselves we cannot do much to solve the problems that led to the recent murders.” Talking about village politics Bhoomi reflects a moment on the increase of politics in Auroville, such as became evident when the management of the Matrimandir changed hands a year ago. “This is a very disturbing development,” says Bhoomi. “We need to get out of that. We can no longer expect a leader to come forward to tell us what we have to do. Instead, the manifestation of Auroville’s vision is the responsibility of each working group, each unit and each Aurovilian on the basis of The Mother’s guiding principles. We have to work together, and solve our problems by meeting together. It’s the only way to go forward.”

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