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January 2006


A coolie of the Mother

Claudine looks back on her adventure in Auroville

- Priya Sundaravalli

“Once you saw the Mother, you couldn't leave.” – “You wanted to understand what was going on; what was that special atmosphere we were breathing in Pondicherry – that Force, that Supramental.” – “Then we were invited to build a town with the Matrimandir at the centre and start a collective experience with no circulation of money!” – “I wanted to experience all that. I wanted to be part of it.” Claudine eyes shine and dart with life while an enigmatic smile hovers around the corners of her mouth.

Claudine. Photo by Coriolan

Claudine has been in Auroville almost from the very beginning. “I came in July ‘68 to the Ashram and to Auroville in September ‘69. I was 22 years old. I had asked the Mother for permission to go and live in Auroville on my birthday and Shyam Sundar gave me Her o.k. the next day.” Claudine's journey to India was a search for peace and it was strangely tied up with Egypt . “I had no idea of coming to Pondicherry . I just wanted to be in some ashram, I did not want to meet people or see anyone. The small charter plane bringing us from France was delayed in Cairo for a week, we were put up in a big hotel and we started to talk to each other. There was Michele, Carmen Baron and her son Jean Marie. They were all coming to Pondicherry and they invited me to join them.” Thus Claudine not only discovered Egypt but also the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. “Michele was the pen-friend of Tulasi, the typist for Sujatadi and Satprem. When we got to the Ashram, the first person we saw was Satprem. Sujatadi was the one who took me to see the Mother for the first time. It was my spiritual birthday.

“I had been allotted a room in one of the Ashram buildings with three other girls. It had an asbestos roof with simple partitions for walls and like everyone else in the Ashram I had a bed, a cupboard, a chair and a desk. It was all I needed, the perfect cell. The Mother asked me if I was comfortable and of course I said, ‘yes'.”

During the first weeks at the Ashram, Claudine lost herself in the Mother's Entretiens, alternating between her work at the dining hall and her books. “I could not put them down, it was all so captivating and they were made of such beautiful paper!” The beauty of the books moved Claudine to go to work at the Ashram Press. “I loved the smells of the paper and the ink. I learnt binding. It was a very inspiring work. It was a beautiful time.” Claudine's affection for paper and books continues as she helps manage the rapidly growing library at Future School .

After a day's work at the Press, she would join Dr. Sen's team and travel to the new dispensary in Aspiration, working until 9 p.m. before returning to Pondicherry . “In those days, there was no drinking water in the village, the women had to carry water uphill in beautiful earthen kujas. In the dispensary my job was to attend to mothers and children with dry cracked skin and bad sores; I changed dressings, applied zinc oxide and dispensed medicines. There was so much work to be done!” Claudine was so happy with the work that she asked the Mother if she could move to Auroville. She describes the feelings she experienced everyday on reaching the bottom hill of Auroville – “It was like I was inflamed with some special joy…”

“Life in Auroville was not easy,” reminisces Claudine. “When we had problems, we would ask the Mother. Once She told me, “If you want peace, Auroville is not the place” and She sent me to Tiruvannamalai for a short rest. We were young, we were going to make it. In the community kitchen, food was poor and hardship was normal. The land was bare, walking to Pondy was common. We also walked to the villages for the local functions – it was so colourful – and being welcomed with such warm hospitality, we were discovering India .”

Work soon became a way to serve, the Matrimandir construction was her next step. “Here, we wanted to be the coolies,” she says, “the coolies of The Divine Mother. We were all young, idealistic and working day and night, carrying cement, loading wheelbarrows, digging pits, doing whatever needed to be done. At night we would sit near the rising structure doing watchman duty, I remember being alone there, walking around the steelyard and the workshop in the cool air under the shining stars.” Claudine worked for 9 years at the Matrimandir, then she moved to other jobs, learning accounting in the process. “Every three years I would change my job. I wanted to mix with new people and be in a different environment.” A preference for working for Auroville services emerged.

“I have been working for 30 years from 8 to 4.30. How can I be here and not work for the Mother? She was so sweet to say: “Let the Aurovilians work at least 5 hours a day.” So fulltime work in Auroville has come to mean 5 hours a day! What a joke! How human beings can play with words! Some people even think that it is enough to pay their Central Fund contribution and not work at all!”

Now, at the age of 60, Claudine has reduced her workload. “I now work at the school, still with my books and my accounts and there I find myself happy with our big kids.” She also baby-sits her granddaughter Asmara and does Matrimandir duties in the evenings. Explains Claudine, “Mother had said that if you are free and don't know what to do, you go to the Matrimandir. So that's it.”

Her work in the services has conditioned Claudine's outlook towards a simple life. “When I was in the Ashram, I was one of the last Europeans whom the Mother put on Prosperity. Today I receive an Auroville maintenance.” Is it enough? “Well, I manage. I go to the free store for clothes and for entertainment, I attend every activity in Auroville, the meetings, exhibitions, movies, performances and seminars.

“But living on a maintenance has become very difficult, we have so many children and it is so lovely to give birthday presents... Time to change the economy!” she adds with a grin.

In the last 36 years, Claudine has managed to travel to France four times to see her family, each time personally fund-raising for the tickets. “If there is one place I'd like to see, it would be Ulan Bator . I would travel by the Trans-Siberian Express and visit the empty spaces of Mongolia and Siberia ...”

For Claudine, much has changed since the early days. What she finds the most worrying development is “that so few people seem to have trust in the inner protection…That the thing uppermost in people's minds seems to be security and that means money. Money for building the city, money for individual projects....” She asks softly. “Tell me, what can happen? Mother never kept money in a bank, it was always circulating.

“We have to live in the present, all and everything happens now, forget all the planning and hoarding, we build the future now…After 37 years, I see us making the same mistakes. We still work too much with the brain, trying this and trying that. This is endless. There is no way out. Where is the adventure, the joy, the energy?”

She continues, “We don't see enough devotion and aspiration and we do need that in Auroville. Do we understand that when we have a problem we can call the Mother? And when we call, we may start learning how to pray …and then we can smile again…”

On her overall Auroville experience, Claudine has this to share, “Well, about the experience of the beginning, you want to keep that close to you – it's your secret. Let's just say that I was lucky to have been there at that time.

Today anyhow I feel better than 20 years ago, yes no more expectations! Is it the beauty of age …? I am still learning to accept the present, who am I to understand what is going on ? But I long to see people with big smiles…like before. I long for harmony!”

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