Gillian first visited Auroville in 1974. She came to stay in 1977 and now lives in Aurodam. For many years she has been the creative force behind Bijou, a bead workshop, but she's also a kind of trouble-shooter-at-large, picking up the pieces dropped along the way of our community process.
Gillian (left) and Mala at the Bijou bead workshop.
“I seem to be attracted to the things that nobody else wants to deal with. Basically, my work is damage-control. If I see something which is dangerous or stupid or not working, I usually go and try to make it work. I don't like seeing things which don't function properly because nobody bothered to think them through or tried to make them work.”
It sounds as if she'll never be out of a job. “True. Most of my projects are never-ending. Take Kuyilapalayam. I started getting involved in Kuyilapalayam village in 1992 and have been trying to clean up the mess there ever since. When I started there, it was a real village – the village elders came to lay a foundation stone of any new construction I was undertaking, everybody was willing to cooperate – but that era is over. Now, nobody is in charge and the growing urban atmosphere has covered over the sense of community. This makes my work much harder.
“I worked for many years on my own, organizing street-cleaning, beautification projects, garbage collection, community toilets etc. At one time a group formed, the Kuyilapalayam Development Council, and a lot of good work was done in collaboration with the village leaders. Then something shifted and the group fell apart. I seem to have staying power – or maybe I'm just the cat that can't retract its claws – because I'm still hanging in there. I know if I stopped garbage collection along the road in no time it would be like another tsunami aftermath. I also keep the public toilets maintained and functioning.
“The next step which is really needed is to give every house in the village a toilet. I have not found the power to achieve this.”
Gillian mentions that a few weeks back she woke up early one morning, crying. “I'd read in the News and Notes that Auroville had just got three crore rupees [about $ 740,000] for housing and I remembered that almost nobody in the villages has a toilet. Where are the three crores for them? Why isn't the government doing more for them concerning basic things like sanitation and clean water? The present mess could continue for another 50 years if something doesn't intervene.
“I also feel the time has come for Auroville to grow up, to take a leap into a new level of operation. Auroville is 40 years old now, and all we've got is dust in our eyes. We need to deal with things when they arise and to deal with them practically – I'm a very practical person.
“Now take the road story.” Gillian is warming up.
“A few weeks ago an earthmover [hired by a telephone company to lay a new cable] made a total mess of the road from Certitude to Matrimandir. It rained just after the work was done creating a very dangerous situation for everyone. Did anyone go and fix the road? No. Did anybody feel responsible? I wrote letters to the Working Committee, the Council, to L'Avenir d'Auroville, to the Road Service coordinator, asking if any of them felt they had some responsibility for fixing it. Only Martanda of the Road Service replied. He told me he was waiting for the next big rain before he would work on it. Unbelievable. We're trying to build a city and we can't even repair a road.
“We need a Municipal Council to field these kinds of things, to ensure they are taken care of by people who are responsible.”
But Gillian's frustration is also directed elsewhere. “One of the issues I have at present is with some of Auroville's important working groups: when something important has to be addressed they're not there. Take the Visitors Centre, where I'm one of the executives. One day we received a letter from the Secretary stating he was taking over the running of the Visitors Centre Parking, that he was installing his own staff and that our watchmen should be fired. It seems that somebody had given him a distorted version of what was going on at the Centre. Due to the Working Committee's much delayed response, this became a crisis situation. They couldn't figure out that their allegiance was to the Visitors Centre. They felt they had to support whatever the Secretary wanted.
“Later the entire Visitors Centre team met with the Working Committee and answered all the doubts that the Secretary had raised. After hearing from the 10 representatives of the Visitors Centre, all heading different departments, it was clear that the place is functioning at a very high standard. It was a very good meeting. But when we received the minutes of the meeting they didn't reflect this and finally it took the Working Committee months to reply to the Secretary. That's pathetic.”
So does she feel there are too many theorists, idealists, in Auroville and not enough people getting their hands dirty?
“Well, I'm the kind of person who works out in the field and I don't meet a lot of other Aurovilians there. But that's OK, we all have our individual calling.”
No rays of light then?
“Yes, some good things are happening. For many years there has been a deep polarization around Matrimandir and the Master Plan which made most Aurovilians step back and not want to be involved. I feel that some of these things have been resolved now. What's happened at Matrimandir, for example, is magnificent. It's an inspiring sign that in the end the true Auroville does manifest.”
She feels, however, that there's still a lot more work to be done regarding the Master Plan. “Recently there was a push to get the Crown Road completed and L'Avenir d'Auroville set up a sub-group to make a proposal to the Secretary about how to spend the grant he had received. They invited me on to the group. For weeks we discussed, amongst other things, cycle paths to be included in the proposal. When the first draft of the proposal was presented to the group there was not one cycle path. When I asked what had happened to the cycle paths, I was told that the Secretary only wants roads. I said, ‘But what do we want? If you don't ask for something, you don't get it. Put them back in and if he says no we can discuss it further with him.'
“Then I missed one sub-group meeting. The next meeting I attended there's a new proposal for a paved road from the Solar Kitchen to Bharat Nivas, but no cycle paths! It's unbelievable. Finally they were included. Phew!”
Are we talking about a clash between two radically different visions of the city?
“It could be one way of expressing it. Actually I feel that the Aurofuture team have been overwhelmed for a very long period of time. They have been trying to look at the city plan as a whole and have not been able to focus on anything in enough detail to see it as a functioning living reality. I also feel they got stuck on certain ideas that really haven't evolved and kept pace with cutting-edge developments around the world, particularly in regard to traffic movement and regulation. The present plan to build a Crown Road which virtually creates a wall of traffic circling the inner city is a classically outdated example of this thinking.
“In the process of making a proposal a subgroup, which includes both members of the L'Avenir team and other Auroville architects, came up with the idea of designing and building a stretch of urban environment that will be the Crownways, instead of the Crown Road . The idea is to create a traffic-free development hub, essentially a pedestrian environment with non-polluting public transport and bicycles, which is just what we want the city to be.
“The sub-group, led by Gundolf and David Nightingale, have drawn up a plan for a beautiful urban environment using the original Galaxy concept as a base but they have made it come alive. This is very inspiring and one of the pivotal movements that can deeply nourish our collective aspiration and will to manifest Her City.
“The Master Plan and the idea of the city have not been a powerful source of inspiration for the majority of people due to the polarisation it has always created. I feel the concept of creating a long-awaited urban environment can bridge the different visions of the City the Earth needs, as it infuses the original impulse of the galaxy envisioned by Roger into a living micro-reality.
“I also feel that a certain bureaucratization is spreading through Auroville, particularly in our economic policies which are increasingly administered with a cold corporate hand. Many of us feel this is far from Mother's vision and the Auroville spirit.
“Yet, if we can keep in mind that we are all involved in a huge, long story, things always look better. I remain committed to Auroville and ready to go on facing all the difficulties and enjoying the victories that will come.”