Although there are many examples of collective living in the world, Auroville is unique. The ultimate goal of Auroville's efforts towards collective living is to hasten the process of evolution on the whole earth. It has now been over 37 years since Auroville began and it is a project that is yet far from complete. This is so, because Auroville is not simply about constructing a city, but also about working towards human unity; a unity with diversity. It is through experiments in collective living situations that people in Auroville are trying to work towards human unity because, there are no models on earth of the kind of unity we are seeking to bring about: it is only through experiments that we can try to progress.
In Auroville we talk a lot about collective living. But we usually talk about it as an aspiration. We do not spend much time examining or evaluating what we have done so far. I want to share what has happened in a particular instance of collective living in Auroville – the Aspiration community – which represents the longest standing collective situation in Auroville and one that I have been participating in through different phases over the past 32 years. It is a fascinating experiment, and there are many lessons to be learned from collective living in Aspiration. They may be relevant to other endeavours in collective living.
My experience in collective living actually began before I joined Aspiration. Around 1974, I participated in a project called Udayam. Udayam was a collective housing project for the Tamil children attending schools in Aspiration. Gordon and Jean, who joined Auroville after completing their Peace Corps Work in Cuddalore, initiated the project. There were about 18 of us girls and boys, all coming from the neighbouring villages. A few of us got involved in helping with completion of the construction of Udayam. We carried bricks to the masons, created the gardens and laid the pathway to Udayam.
Training in communal living
It was here that I, for the first time, participated in a collective. The experience of working for a common project was fun, because our attitude towards work was to create something beautiful for ourselves. So working together for Udayam was joyful. The other responsibilities we had to share on a regular basis were the more mundane activities of sweeping, watering the plants, washing our clothes, and, on Sundays, preparing our own meals when there were no meals served at the kitchen.
Two years later in 1976 when I moved to the Aspiration Community, I realized that the practice of washing, keeping things clean, and all the many tasks I did in Udayam came in rather handy. Each resident in Aspiration was expected to take up many responsibilities to ensure the functioning of the community. In addition, all the adult members of Aspiration also took turns to cook meals for the community and clean the dishes at least once a week. Had I not had the earlier preparation at Udayam, the whole concept of common space and working for the community might have taken me by surprise. This experience made me realize that one cannot expect people to immediately understand what is required or expected of them in collective living situations. Like everything else in life, education and practical experience are necessary to know what it means to live with others.
During the meal times at Aspiration, the dining hall would be full. Aspiration was ( and still is) the biggest collective community in Auroville. As the majority of people living in Aspiration then (1976) were French, the common language spoken was French. Even the few Tamil boys coming from Udayam to take their meals in the kitchen had to be able to express things in French. Naturally Aspiration came to be thought of by many Aurovilians as a French community although there were a few Americans, Germans, Australians and Indians residing there too. At some level I think this shows that collective living situations can fall into a kind of ‘majority rules' scenario, as happens in most human societies. The interest of the dominant group gains priority. To me this is an important lesson. Just calling something “collective living” does not mean that it supports all members in equal ways, especially when it comes to things like language and culture.
Minimal level of resources
During the years of conflict between the Sri Aurobindo Society (SAS) and Auroville residents, I felt a very deep sense of brother-hood among the residents. It was the most difficult period in Auroville's history. It felt like one had embarked on an uncertain adventure that might come crumbling down any day. Thugs beat up Aurovilians and some residents were taken to Tindivanam prison on false charges. The SAS also withheld funds, claiming proprietorship on Auroville. This brought many projects to a standstill. More specifically, it affected life in Aspiration. There was not much food to eat even for the young people. Soya milk instead of cow milk was served. On some days, there simply was not enough food. I remember days when I had to drink water to fill my stomach. As this condition was prolonged for some time, those of us from Kuilapalayam would visit our families in the village for meals. Others who had money would visit the neighbouring tea shop or go to Pondy. To me this situation clearly demonstrates that only when there is a certain minimal level of resources available, can a collective function properly. Ultimately when push comes to shove, individuals tend to fall back on their social ties and resources that exist outside the collective. This is still an issue in Auroville today, as many people rely on family savings or ties in some way or another.
Everyone's best interests
From 1974, when the schools were shut down, to the time when SAIIER was created in 1982, there were no formal schools set up for the young people in Auroville. As a result, many young people were left alone to do as they pleased, with the exception of a few children, whose parents took the trouble to help with their education at their homes. As a result, many of us took to a wide range of extracurricular activities like hunting bats, exploring the canyons, playing marbles, gilli-danda, wolf games, ping-pong, basketball and swimming at the beach. While this might sound like a young person's dream, in retrospect I can say that the situation seriously limited our mental development. Gradually, the young people themselves began to seek out willing adults who could teach them some maths and English. Our efforts gradually led to the re-establishment of the schools in Aspiration. When few resources are available even for basic survival, how can the collective be concerned with aspects like education for its young? So collective living situations do not necessarily lend themselves to the fulfilment of everyone's best interest. Those especially vulnerable are the ones who might not be able to articulate in public forums what their needs and best interests are.
By the early 80s, the situation had become more stable in Aspiration and there were many communal events taking place. There were the famous French theatrical performances and dance parties staged in the Last School building, Charlie Chaplin's movies were screened on the lawns of Aspiration and sports and games played at the playground – basketball, volleyball, and even including kabaddi. Almost everyone participated in these events. People from other communities would also turn up. These group activities, artistic and recreational, were essential for a healthy collective living arrangement, and gave a feeling of well-being, and helped us enjoy one another's company. What I feel is important to remember today is that collective living is not only about decision-making, conflict resolution and the like, but also about having fun together, and playing.
Like a family
Fast-forwarding in time to the late 90s, when I was still a resident of Aspiration, I had the unique opportunity to discover and treasure some of the greatest dimensions of collective living. In 1998 I was hospitalized with kidney disease. The immediate outpouring of support, care and help from the entire community of Auroville for me was something I had never experienced before. It was amazing how things were organized for my care. There were shifts of two people sent to Chennai to care for me every few days for over a month. Efforts to raise funds needed for the operation, and post-operative care along with the medical expenses were also organized. Residents of Aspiration particularly went out of their way to accommodate me in so many different ways, and to this day they still do. Without this spontaneous and overwhelming show of love and support from the collective of Aspiration and all of Auroville, I can honestly say that I would not be here to share this with you today. The great advantage of a collective system is that not only do people operate like a family, they actually work together even much more than a typical family.
The heart of the affair
by Priya Sundaravalli
The community kitchen is the soul of Aspiration – people come in and out, it is busy, alive, noisy around meal times, and quiet and peaceful in between. Late afternoon on Thursday, the ‘Thursday team' is preparing dinner, producing a cacophony of warm kitchen sounds: chopping, cutting, bubbling and sizzling, and smells are curling up into the misty evening. It is an example of community alright – around the butcher-block of a square table, a gaggle of adults and children chop onions, dice tomatoes, peel carrots, and grate cheese. Tamil, Israeli, Russian, Dutch, and British. The wood-fire oven outdoors is blazing. Someone loads in trays of potatoes with cheese. The Thursday team shares how impossible it is to meet all the eating demands of 60 people. “Someone wants light soup, this one will only eat organic; the Tamils have to have white rice and something spicy.” Today's menu is a root vegetable soup, fresh salad, the potato dish, and the staple white rice and a daal swimming with extra-hot green chillies.
The dining room next to the kitchen feels like a long log house, its high slanted ceiling criss-crossed with white rafters supporting red terracotta tiles. The place of honour is taken by a large photo of The Mother with the word ‘Aspiration' in her handwriting. Over the photo hangs an orange satin canopy; underneath is a display of miniature teapots made by Aspiration children. In the corner is the notice board carrying a complaint by a resident; a helpful note from The Mother on psychic self-control; and letters from guests. Orchids grow on the tree in the courtyard. The place breathes sweetness.