Charlie talks about how he arrived in Auroville and struggles to farm here.
“My job is to bring the farm back to life.” Charlie grins. This 54-year old American national built Aurogreen from scratch, then battled through its collapse, and now, in an uphill struggle, is trying to bring it back to its former glory. With more time on his hands, he developed a passion for Mac computers and today is Auroville's Mac expert, helping Aurovilians solve their computer problems. “It's satisfying work, but I am frustrated because Aurogreen, situated as it is on the outskirts of Auroville, can't get good internet connections.”
Charlie's story starts on Long Island near New York City . He was 18 years old and just out of a Christian military boarding school. The experience gave him a lasting dislike for both religion and the military. It was the end of the 1960s, and youth from Paris to Berkeley were in turmoil. “I had been brought-up in a conservative, super-Christian family, and my parents feared that I might join the agitation. Without asking me, they decided to send me far from America , to India . That country wasn't the ‘in' thing for me, but my father offered me 500 bucks with the ticket and I thought ‘what the heck, if I don't like it I'll be back',” says Charlie.
He went to Jaipur, where distant relatives of his stepmother enrolled him in a Jesuit-run school. Charlie dropped out within the month. “But someone there had told me about the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Centre of Education and of Auroville, and I decided to check it out.” He discovered the Ashram library and spent months studying Sri Aurobindo's works. “I got really taken by it. I also had a few Darshans of The Mother, but I was not particularly touched by her. I'm probably more philosophically inclined,” he reflects.
It soon became obvious that the Ashram school was not Charlie's future. But Auroville exerted a strong attraction. “It was a desert and I like deserts, I like emptiness. There was nothing on the land. Even at the ‘idea-level' there was hardly anything: we knew only about Auroville's Charter and some of Mother's ideals of what Auroville was to become. Everything was unformed, and that gave one an indescribable feeling of freedom. The stark sun, the physical hardships, it all didn't matter. We, the few Aurovilians, worked the land in daytime, and in the evenings talked about the imminent supramentalisation–– which, of course, would happen within the decade!”
Charlie had found his place. But his parents despaired, considering Auroville worse than anything that might have happened at home. “They sent me an ultimatum: return or we cancel support. I chose the latter, and this ended all contacts with my family for more than 15 years. Soon I was broke, but it didn't matter. My next meal was always provided.”
From Forecomers, the place where he had landed, Charlie moved to a few empty fields on the other side of Auroville. He baptised them ‘Aurogreen'-invoking the dream of the early Aurovilians of greening the desert. Aurogreen had two very deep wells, drilled by the Indian Central Ground Water Board to investigate the area's hydrology. The 500 metre well yielded sulphurous smelling water and was soon capped. But the other one, 390 metres deep, was used for the farm since electricity, as per the policy of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB), was provided free of charge to farms.
“With hindsight and looking at it holistically, I think it was a mistake to draw water from that depth,” says Charlie. “The area should have been used for forestation and dry land farming. But we were tempted to start irrigated orchards, grow animal feed products, have chickens, a large dairy, and produce eggs, milk and Auroville's first cheese.” Charlie also discovered his fundraising talents and bought about 30 acres. Aurogreen expanded. The farm became a running concern.
But then the TNEB decided on a policy change. While private farms continued to enjoy exemption from electricity fees, farms belonging to institutions such as the Auroville Foundation were now charged the highest tariff. To minimize electricity consumption, Charlie installed drip irrigation systems and solar powered pumps. But the pumps yielded too little; competition with local farmers increased, and financial reserves ran out. The TNEB refused to change its decision.
Then the dreaded moment came: the TNEB connection had to be cut off. It was one of the most difficult decisions in Charlie's life. “I don't like letting living things die. But there was no choice. I turned off the water. The orchards died. I fired people, many of whom had been working for me for years. I sold most of my cows–– the good ones, of course, as I could not send the old and weak ones to be slaughtered. Economically, that didn't make sense. But emotionally, for me, it did.”
Charlie switched to dry land orchards and planted mangoes, jackfruits and chickoo trees. The saplings are now young trees, but they will take another 10 to 15 years to mature. Today the farm sells eggs, cow grass and other animal feed products. “It's a boring business,” says Charlie. “But the farm survives, if only just.”
In January this year the TNEB reversed its decision and now once again provides free electricity to all farms. For Charlie, however, there is no going back. “I don't intend to make use of it now that the irrigated farm has gone ,” he says. “Also, on a more holistic level, I think that using as much power and water as we did in the past was a mistake that should not be repeated.”
Asked to look back on 36 years of life in Auroville, Charlie reflects that many Aurovilians, himself included, tend to get absorbed by practical work, forgetting ideals. “I am happy that some Aurovilians keep reminding us of them. Even if I think that proposals such as the Unity Fund or the new Pour Tous Distribution Centre may be flawed, I'll still support them. For they try to manifest some of the ideals for which we came.”