Johnny is unique. Playwright, actor, carpenter, singer, architect, builder, teacher, tree-planter, farmer, odd-job man, since coming to Auroville in the early 1970s he seems to have done it all. Recently Auroville Today asked him to share his thoughts on a wide range of topics.
I initially came to visit my runaway family. Jan, my first wife, left Sydney for Auroville with our child, when he was three because I was such a hopeless case. Almost as soon as I arrived in Auroville I fell in with a group of young Tamil men building bamboo houses. In every village you'd have a group of men, or several groups of men, who were house-builders. There was one particular Tamil guy, whose name was Ramu, who was roughly the same age as me. He felt like a Tamil version of me. He had a really good comprehension of geometry, which is actually unusual in a village.
At that time there were about hundred and fifty people in Auroville, many of them trying to build houses without really any experience. I had experience with building things with my hands. So I suddenly found that I was fully employed as exactly the sort of architect I enjoyed being, which was a bamboo-and-rope architect.
Fertile was the first reforestation camp in Auroville. The idea was that you would have a camp and you would plant in the area you could reach and water from a single well, and than you would move on, leaving a watchman, and set up another camp. But that didn't happen, because Auroville wasn't purchasing land fast enough. Moreover, we suddenly had four children and other children were attracted to our children, and we suddenly had a kid's community here. There used to be a huge, three-storey bamboo house here stock full of children!
When we first came we had really no knowledge of afforestation, and all we wanted was shade. And so we planted any possible tree we could find. We didn't know what to plant. As you can imagine, a lot of them died. Paul Blanchflower, who lived here for ten years, brought the know-how. He has a degree in tropical forestry or re-forestry. So he and a group of really qualified botanists that Auroville now contains put together the current planting policy – to replant the initial tropical evergreen forest that existed here when we came. But if you look at Fertile forest as it stands now, it is just higgledy-piggledy, the exotic and indigenous mixed together. You wouldn't consider it to be very good reforestation, whereas the quality of reforestation that goes on now in other parts of Auroville is, I think, among the highest quality in the world.
When we first came we had a lot of trouble keeping what we planted from being cut and traded off as firewood. Many times I had to wrestle with a guy with a sharp axe in his hands over trees. And they are tough guys. It's totally the other way round now. We don't cut green timber at all but we are constantly cutting this Australian acacia, the Work tree, that grows rampantly all through Auroville. We cut them in the forest and we leave the branches lying, and sometimes the villagers won't even take them away!
The Tamil people
I live here with this young Tamil guy, Elumalai, who's a Tamil Aurovilian. He first came here when he was fifteen. When he married, his wife didn't want to come to live here. I mean, when you look at the situation in a village and the situation in Auroville, you can see that Auroville is very encouraging for men, with motorcycles and volleyball and nice jeans and cell phones. But the women aren't interested in that. What the women like is the support of other women that you have in a village, especially when you have children. Of course, you do have Tamil families living in Auroville and Tamil women happy here, but it takes a particular type of a Tamil women that likes to live in Auroville because it requires a sense of social adventure.
Elumalai doesn't actually sleep in Fertile but he's here at six o'clock in the morning and only goes at six o'clock in the evening. I can leave Fertile for up to four months at a time and when I come back not only is everything correct and in place but everything's improved. He's a special guy with a very special skill. I couldn't do without a guy like that. And it's the same with all these guys really. Once you get to know them, and get to work with them, you realize that.
Because the thing about the Tamils is that they have a sort of ethics: if they enjoy what you give them to do, then they do it really well and they don't really care how much you pay them. But if you ask them to do something they don't enjoy doing, they won't do it very well and they want a lot of money for it.
India is very much a culture built on people doing what they like to do, even if it's living on the street. I know that people decry poverty in India but the irony of poverty is that it contains a lot of very simple pleasures that a lot of people miss out on by living on the twenty fourth storey of a skyscraper somewhere, with a flat screen television.
I was originally schooled in what was called organic architecture in the 60s and 70s. The understanding then was that you acted in a way that was invisible in nature. Even in an urban context it never drew attention to itself, it always tried to fit in with the environment.
When I came here we tried to make a low impact on nature. We had no right to take electricity or food or services from India . My personal feeling is that it's possible to be autonomous, which means as much as possible you generate your own needs and also deal with your own waste. All our toilets are composting and we have a motorcycle but we try to only use it for bringing building materials; mostly we travel by bicycle or bullock cart. I also like to use low-key building materials, because it employs villagers. People don't realize, when they are putting up a concrete house, the impact of cement on the Indian environment.
The village as a model for Auroville
I think a village is a wonderful institution. We have this Western arrogance, we come to India with a solution to all their problems, when in reality they have a solution to our problems because they know how to live together. Actually in many villages they deal with their own problems, they don't involve the police, the government at all. Like in our local village, Mathur, they never go to the police. Every dark moon they have a meeting in a temple, I've been to it several times, where they deal with any sort of social unrest in the village, theft, adultery, violence etc.
Politics in Auroville
What would I change in Auroville? There's no point in having any idea about change if you aren't prepared in some way to facilitate it yourself. Each of us has limited energy anyhow, and by the time you are my age you know what you can and can't do. And you know what you enjoy doing and what you don't enjoy doing. My general philosophy, and this is what I'm constantly preaching to the kids, is that you fix as your horizon the world as you want it to be.
And the world I want to live in is one where people make a much lighter imprint on the planet than huge concrete buildings and exploitative situations. So everything I do is in that direction. I'm not trying to change people at all, I'm simply trying to build a world I enjoy being in. And my main pretext is to have fun. It sounds very self-centered but I think if enjoyment is the prime concern in your personal life, a shared enjoyment with your children and other children and people in a community, it's going to help make a joyful community. If people are constantly dealing with stressful problems and regulations, than you're definitely going to end up with a lot of worried people and a slightly paranoid community.
Politics, frankly, I look upon as a form of theatre. And I think theatre is essential not only as an entertainment but as a form of dealing with collective psychology. I do respect the skill of somebody who can deal with complex problems and who is able to comprehend a problem and somehow calm people down. That's not a definition of a Western politician, but it's sort of a definition of an Auroville politician. Because Auroville's politics is functional. It's a group of people who are honestly and earnestly trying to solve problems in the community.
For many years all the politics in Auroville was completely voluntary. And so you had to want to do it. Now if you are part of a group that meets regularly and tries to deal with problems that aren't yours personally, you receive a maintenance. And so you take it a bit more seriously, you say “We'd better make some serious decisions here”. And it can often reach a point when people take themselves much too seriously…
Auroville doesn't really work by force. It's like a river, it follows the easiest course. Despite the fact that there are very adamant and militant people here, everyone respects each other to some extent. There is a lot of hot air about authoritarianism, what you should do and shouldn't do, but it gets down to live and let live.
I can have a major conflict with somebody over some issue. But then I can sit down with them and say ‘ok, ok, let's agree that at least what we are after is this. You do it your way, I do it in my way, but let's at least agree that we are heading in the same direction'. Of course, it might take a bit of talking to get to that point…
If you have a centralized authority it disenfranchises the individual. And so if you have somebody who takes it upon him to tell you what you have to do with your land, or your house, or your field, or your whatever, than he's taking away your rights as an individual to think intelligently about your situation or to think collectively about your situation. This is important because as a community we've reached a critical point. We're around 1800 people now, and that's an interesting number which requires a certain technology to resolve problems. What we are trying to do now is to develop a slightly more complex management system in Auroville. And it's quite fascinating watching all these different groups trying different approaches. The encouraging thing for me really is that no matter what's happening, the awareness of what's happening is growing.
Of course, when you've got a small community of people whose main goals are self-sufficiency and solar panels, then you are going to have a harmonious and autonomous community. But as soon as you start to get to the next level, when you start crochet workshops, carpentry workshops and get computer manufacturing, then you are going to have very different sets of demands and criteria. But they are all just a part of a growing society. It's like a broad mind. A broad mind, for me, is one that can accommodate major contradictions. What you don't want is a totally fanatical mind that says: “I'm only this and I won't even think of being anything else!”
The broader we become socially, the more successful I consider we are because we should accommodate more and more diverse people.
It's not something I think about very often. But I've always been fascinated by the concept of finding yourself. For example, my only way of dealing with somebody who is mentally deranged is to relate to the being inside that I know, the part which I would consider to be the spiritual soul of that person. In a community like Auroville – because you have access to time and space, and you do have absolutely freedom to do what you like, money is not a constraint, really – you have a freedom here to become whoever you want to become. And I think the natural tendency is to become who you are. The thing that you see in children and the thing I like in working with children is that they know who they are. They might not be likable, but they are who they are.
I don't really see spiritual growth as a separate thing. I believe it has very much to do with your personal development of who you are. Auroville is a terrific opportunity not just for spiritual growth on an individual level but spiritual growth in terms of consideration and cooperation and relating to the rest of the community.
In Sri Aurobindo's writings, there is a volume of work which is mostly about The Life Divine, which is actually a guide for the spiritual sadhak. That's information that you don't approach simply out of curiosity. If I am having some sort of spiritual difficulty, I suddenly find that that sort of literature speaks directly to me, to my need for spiritual sustenance. I have been in situations when I felt like on the borderline of sanity, and then I found that if you reach into these spiritual teachings, they are an incredibly powerful food.
Everyday life in Fertile
I don't think I've done the same thing two days running. At the moment I'm doing theatre with the children, I'm building playgrounds outside Auroville, and this is all just voluntary work. The only regular thing in my day is a good cup of tea, ten o'clock, and a good solid breakfast based on grains we grow – I like the old traditional fermented grain breakfast that the villagers like called kuzhu.
I enjoy all the different aspects of this life. It's enjoyable to farm, to plough, to harvest, to thresh, to deal with grains, every stage of this process is totally enjoyable. It's such a land of opportunity. As soon as one thing finishes there's the next one waiting, it's like a chain effect, things just keep coming. At the moment we have taken on three other children in the community, who are having problems fitting in, so I do some schooling with these children until 10 o'clock in the morning. Then I do some woodcarving for a few hours. At the moment there's also some plumbing to be done. The minute it starts to rain we'll start planting trees again, we've got an idea to plant a whole field behind Jana's house with trees that attract different sorts of butterflies. This is her dream. She knows every butterfly that is specific to a different tree.
At full moon we used to take a group of children and climb a hill somewhere around Gingee. Or we'd go to the beach.
On weekends I do have something of a routine. On Saturday I always make this dosai, idly mix. On Sundays I bake all day – biscuits and bread and cheesecake and whatever we can put together. Because Sunday is an open day when people come, it's always totally different depending on who turns up.
I haven't been to Australia in four, five years, my feeling is that it's much more productive for my children to come here than for me to go there. When they come here they are relaxed and they can view life from a little bit of a distance, whereas when I meet them in Sydney, I get five minutes between coffee and telephone and their work: it's just a major distraction what goes on in a modern society. I had a laptop for a while, but I gave it away, it became too much of an imposition on my life. We used to have a small television set and watch Tamil movies sometimes at night, but I gave up on that also. Frankly, by the time you get through a normal day here, it will be nine o'clock at night and you are exhausted and it's enough to sit around a fire and talk with whoever might come by.
And that's my definition of a pleasant lifestyle.