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March 2006


Living with optimism

- Priya Sundaravalli

Intense, dynamic and earnest – meet Elumalai of the Auroville bakery

Elumalai. Photo by Coriolan

It is 3.30 on the dot when Elumalai sails in on his white racer bicycle. There had been a note of efficiency in his voice as we set up the time for the interview. “I hope you haven't been waiting too long,” he says as he walks up, settling himself briskly in a chair.

There is an earnest and intense quality about Elumalai, who for the past five years has been one of the executives of the Auroville bakery. “That's just a title for convenience. I work just like the others,” he says with a disarming smile. A picture of efficiency behind the bakery counter, he exudes a quicksilver energy, seeming to be everywhere at once. Ready to help before the asking he recommends the day's specials, wraps orders up and prepares the bill – all in a blink of an eye.

Elumalai has been with the bakery for the past 9 years and has seen it all – accounts, production, sales and even baking. He takes pride in the place. “I would easily rank us amongst the best in India ,” he says. He hopes that one day he can visit some other fine bakery in the world, “to see how people work differently and learn new things” to bring back to Auroville.” Already we're very good, but I am sure we can be better,” he adds.

It's not just the bakery that occupies Elumalai now. Recently he became a father. He and wife Sarasu have a baby boy, Maneeshwar. “I never knew I could be this happy; it's something I can't express. I was happy before, but this is a different happiness.”

Elumalai comes from the neighbouring village of Kuilapalayam . His mother still lives in the village. “I was probably 5 when I first came to New Creation School ,” he says. “My sister was working at Fraternity, and I was curious about this school on the other side of the road.” After a few weeks, little Elumalai returned to the village school.

“It did not offer certificates,” he explains, “and my mother wanted me to study well to be able to go to college. So I left. Then the Government school got more expensive and I saw that mother was suffering, going out to work for me. And that was unacceptable – I love my mother too much.” Determined to reduce her burden, Elumalai decided to go to the ‘no-certificate school' at New Creation, and make a success of it.

He vividly remembers his first day. “We had English in the first hour and Mani was the teacher. He told us that we had to introduce ourselves.” Not knowing how to speak English, Elumalai panicked. “I could read and write a bit but to speak was impossible. I prayed that my turn wouldn't come, but it did. I don't know what happened – I got up and blurted, ‘He don't know English,' and the whole class began to laugh. But Mani was kind; he told them all to be quiet and gently corrected my mistake.” That experience made Elumalai even more determined to work and learn as much as he could.

And he did at New Creation School , Last School and After School. “I had some very caring teachers in Auroville and it's because of them that I am happy today.” he reminisces. “Especially Jothi. On Sundays I'd be playing marbles by the temple trying to hide as he passed by on his cycle, but he'd always catch me. He would bring me to Last School , open the library for me, and select a book for me to read. He insisted that I speak in English everywhere I saw him – and I am grateful to him to this day. He was more than a teacher; he was my Guru.”

Elumalai went on to pass the 10th and 12th standard examinations from After School. “Without the help of After School, I'd never have made it to college,” he says. Elumalai qualified for a Bachelors degree in Business Administration from Chidambaram University . “The day I got my degree, my mother was so happy. It had always been her dream that at least one of her children should be educated,” he says. “I wanted to continue my studies but I felt I needed to concentrate on work in Auroville.” He became an Aurovilian along the way. “I didn't have to go through the entry group or attend any meeting. When I finished After School, one of my friends came and congratulated me saying I'd become an Aurovilian. ‘What is an Aurovilian?' I asked. He told me about Auroville, the Charter, my rights and my responsibilities… it all came naturally.”

So how has life been in Auroville? “Very busy!” he replies smiling broadly. “It still is. And now with the baby, it is even busier.” Regardless, he is lookout to occupy the time he is free in the afternoon with another job.

But it's not all work for this dynamic young father. He still finds time to play the hoops at the basketball courts, and also indulge in some adventure cycling. “If you do anything good here, you will always find the support,” he says. He narrates an experience that his team of cyclists had in Auroville. “Five of us had planned a 35-day long-distance trip to the Ellora Caves ; it was to cost us about 30,000 rupees; but we had only a quarter of the money between us. So we decided to fundraise. Everyone was pessimistic but I said ‘Sure, we'll get it, and we were.”

Now he cherishes the dream of cycling all the way to Nepal and back. “One day when there is more time…”


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