A portrait of Thillai
Thillai was born in a small village six
kilometres north of Auroville. “My childhood was not happy. My mother and father quarrelled and my father often ran away for long periods. At first I was top of the class at school, but gradually the family problems got to me and I couldn’t concentrate so well on my studies.”
Thillai’s first ambition was to join the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). As a first step towards this he obtained a B.A. in History from a college in Madras, “But as my father was not supporting my mother and I was the only son I realized I had to give up the IAS idea – it would have meant many more years of training – and look for a job.” He heard that a sociology degree would lead to good employment opportunities, so he enrolled for an M.A. at Annamalai University. Meanwhile he managed to obtain a part-time job with All India Radio, Pondicherry. “For two years I did interviews and presented programmes on family welfare. It was here that I developed my writing and editing skills.”
Having obtained his M.A. in Sociology Thillai discovered that it did not, after all, open many doors. He took a number of unsatisfactory jobs before, in 1982, he met a poet who introduced him to Meenakshi. “She was very interested in me because I was a sociology graduate from the local area and she and Bhavana wanted to promote development in the villages around Auroville.” As they lacked information, they asked him to make a socio-economic survey of the local villages. “Most of the questions related to the villagers’ socio-economic status, but we also asked them about their attitudes to Auroville. At that time people were overwhelmingly positive, mainly because Auroville was providing employment but also because, compared to village landlords and farmers, Auroville employers were generous and gave more freedom to their employees. Yet very few villagers wanted to join Auroville then. They didn’t really understand the ideal and the culture was too different from their own.”
While Thillai enjoyed working for Co-Evolution (the forerunner of Village Action) Auroville was going through a difficult period. Among other things, this meant that his salary was not always paid. He decided he had to look for another job. Through a series of ‘miracles’ he was awarded the dealership of a petrol station but this didn’t work out well: he was cheated by his partners and ended up heavily in debt. “It got to a point when my relatives would run away when they saw me coming because they were afraid I would ask for a loan!” Meanwhile he had married. So now he had a family as well as his mother to support.
“It was then that I thought of Auroville again. I’d been very inspired by what I had seen while doing my survey and I thought it would be interesting to find out more about how the villages were changing under the influence of Auroville. I sent Meenakshi a one page summary of my idea. She liked it and subsequently SAIIER sanctioned a one year study. I discovered that the villagers who benefited most from Auroville were the farmers who had sold their land at premium prices, enabling them to buy good land elsewhere or go into business, and the many villagers who learned skills through working in the community. On a broader level, I learned that the traditional power groups in the villages had lost influence and caste had become less of a dividing factor. Today this is happening everywhere, but it happened earlier in this area due to Auroville’s influence.”
One day, after completing this study, a friend took him to the Samadhi. “I’d been there before, but this time it was different. I felt a tremendous peace inside: suddenly all my worries and troubles meant nothing.” He began studying Sri Aurobindo and Mother. At the same time he decided to commit himself more fully to Auroville. He didn’t want to join right away so he decided to look for work in the community. Somehow, in the midst of all his difficulties, he’d managed to complete a B.Ed. degree and now Andre agreed to take him on as a teacher at New Creation.
“I liked the work very much. It was everything – the students, the teachers, the whole atmosphere – and I was inspired very much by the principal ideal of Auroville: to realize human unity and peace. I realized I had a deep inner contact with this place and suddenly I understood why, as a young barefoot village boy, I’d been present at Auroville’s inauguration in 1968. I’d been too young then to understand anything – I remember only a big balloon floating over the Banyan tree and all these strange vellakarras (white-skinned people) dressed in white – but now it all fell into place. I realized this was my home, that this would be my home for the rest of my life.”
In 1997, soon after becoming an Aurovilian, Thillai became the representative for rural schools on the Representatives Group. Soon afterwards he joined the Executive Council. “It was a very interesting experience. I always felt able to express my point of view although the others didn’t always agree with me, for there were certain issues where I was aware that I came from a different background from the rest.”
In this context, he mentions that joining Auroville was difficult for his wife at first. “People are so open and frank here, it’s quite different from the culture outside. But slowly she learned to adapt, to be more tolerant.” Thillai’s wife, Kalaiselvi, now works as a kindergarten teacher in New Creation School.
The Council often appealed for feedback on specific issues from the larger community. Thillai soon became aware that very few Tamil Aurovilians participated in this or attended larger community meetings. “I realized there were a number of reasons for this. The General Meeting process tends to be long and drawn-out and often doesn’t have a clear outcome. Most Tamil Aurovilians work hard and don’t have the energy to attend such meetings, but there is also the fact that all the meetings are conducted in English, and many Tamil Aurovilians lack language and communication skills.”
Today Thillai works for Auro-Traductions, the main aim of which is to make the four languages which Mother specified should be taught in Last School – Sanskrit, Tamil, French and English – central to our community process. “For the past three years I’ve been translating selections from the weekly Auroville News (now News and Notes) into Tamil. As my target group is the whole Tamil community I don’t go for a literal translation but try to use as simple a language as possible: it reads more like a Tamil newspaper. Every week it goes out to every Tamil household in Auroville and this has really had an effect. Now there’s a feeling among Tamil Aurovilians that Auroville is beginning to take care of them and to consider them important participants in the collective process.” Thillai would also like to bring out a monthly newspaper which introduces the ideal and activities of Auroville to the people of the bioregion for “communication is an essential step towards human unity.”
This is very fine. But doesn’t human unity also imply transcending one’s particular cultural background? How far have Aurovilians succeeded in this? “I think in the early days there was more success – the first Western Aurovilians mixed very easily with the local people. Today Aurovilians are more...territorial, individualistic.” And what about Thillai himself? “When it comes to something like marriage for my children I certainly won’t take the traditional Tamil route: I’ll advise them, but the choice of partner will be theirs. At the same time, I don’t feel I’m here to set an example to others. The whole atmosphere has to change first and then things like caste and cultural traditions will disappear automatically: you can’t impose anything.
“Our ultimate aim here is to go from one stage to another: I’m trying for that. At present there is a tendency in the community to approach things very intellectually, but this only brings confusion. We have to concentrate more on spirituality, on Mother’s vision, and to try for perfection in our work, whatever the work may be. And everybody who is working in this spirit should be treated equally: there is still too much inequality in Auroville.
“Ultimately, I feel the Divine Force is here. If we all call upon this Force it will change everything. I’m
the proof of this: because I trusted in the Force I managed to come through all