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“We can't afford to eat at Auroville restaurants”

- Priya Sundaravalli

Asking three women who have grown up in Auroville to talk about the present day's reality in an hour was unrealistic. Even after two hours there was still much to tell...

Lakshmi, Amudha, and Pushpa. Photo credit: Photo Coriolan

“In all my years in Auroville, I have never eaten at Auroville restaurants. I can't afford it!” It's a shocking statement in today's Auroville, and it comes from a young woman who was born and grew up in Auroville: Pushpa, a teacher at Nandanam Kindergarten. “You shouldn't complain,” interrupts Lakshmi, who also works at Nandanam and a member of the Auroville Council, “not if you are wearing gold jewellery!” All three laugh out loud.

Pushpa and Lakshmi, who have been teaching in various Auroville prep schools for the past 17 years, are two of the three Tamil Aurovilian women who talk to me about the changing Auroville. The third is Amudha, who has been teaching at the Kindergarten for over 25 years.

All of them grew up in Auroville. Amudha is the oldest, “the big sister of the others,” as she says. She joined Auroville at 16, leaving home against the wishes of her family. Pushpa is of bi-cultural heritage, with a Tamil mother and an Australian father. She grew up in the beach settlement of Sri Ma. Lakshmi's parents are Aurovilians; she grew up in Aspiration community.

So what is this gold jewellery story? Lakshmi explains. “When Tamil Aurovilian women complain about Auroville products being unaffordable, many non-Indians take a look at the jewellery we're wearing and tell us ‘What! But you are wearing all that gold?” “They don't understand that the jewellery is our savings,” says Amudha. “In times of emergency, we sell it to cover expenses.” “Also people don't know the difficulty we go through to save a 100 or 200 rupees every month,” adds Pushpa, who has a few gold trinkets adorning each ear. “Foreigners deposit their money in a bank. Tamil women buy gold,” she sums up matter-of-factly.

Issues of education

Is life tough for the Tamil women of Auroville? There is a silence before one of them speaks out. “There are quite a few problems which are probably unique to us. We do not eat at Auroville restaurants, and we won't buy many of the Auroville-made products because they are too expensive. We have to be very economical, because we have to meet expenses which others don't.”

A major expense, it appears, is education. This is a touchy subject. While they all agree that “primary and middle school education in Auroville is great,” they are concerned about the education the Auroville high schools provide. “The focus is on foreign certificates (British system) which are useful if you want to send your children abroad for college. But we want our children to study whatever they want right here in India . And education for that type of certificates is not given importance. We have to send our children outside Auroville. But though Auroville's higher education is free within Auroville, Auroville doesn't pay for higher education outside. And that doesn't sit well,” says Amudha. All three have their children studying outside Auroville. “People here don't understand that most of us came from families with little or no education, so this is very important to us. Instead, those of us who put our kids into outside schools are accused of betraying the ideals of Auroville,” adds Pushpa.

“It wasn't an easy decision,” says Lakshmi. “I wanted my daughter to do all her education in Auroville. But she decided otherwise and wanted to study in a regular school in Pondicherry . I was embarrassed; it felt as if my daughter was turning her back on Auroville. On top of it, it was a going to cost a lot of money and demand many sacrifices from the family. We were not sure how we'd manage as both my husband and I are working for Auroville services and receive only a basic maintenance. But my daughter insisted because she wanted to learn Bharatanatyam at the Kalakshetra dance school.” The family gave in. And as time went by, Lakshmi viewed the experience more positively. “It is not as I feared. My daughter's connection to Auroville has not disappeared. On the contrary, she has become more focussed and disciplined and maintains strong contacts with her Auroville friends.” And now I am happy that she'll have the opportunity to experience the world.”

She makes a comparison with her own situation. “When I grew up, I had no one asking me what I wanted to do. I had a good education, but whatever I did afterwards came from my own initiative. But all the Western children I grew up with had a chance to go out; we local kids stayed back because they was no one to show us what more was possible.”

So how do they manage to pay for their children's education?

“Not easy!” says Amudha who has put both her boys through college and now through an MBA programme. “We save in many different ways; squeeze here, there and everywhere. Sometimes I feel I am drowning.” A 2-year MBA programme in a regular university in Tamil Nadu, she says, costs over Rs 100,000 a year. “This is not counting the boarding costs that can add another Rs 40,000.” Amudha got a loan from the Auroville Financial Service, but as of today, 80% of her maintenance goes towards paying off this loan. “Maybe Auroville is easy for people who make money outside and bring it to live here,” they say. “But for people who work here, earn here, and want their children to have a good education, it is like swimming against the current.”

Fighting for basic care

Growing up in the Auroville of twenty and thirty years ago was ‘very different'. “I still miss those carefree days,” says Lakshmi. “I had no idea that things cost money; I never knew what money was. If we wanted to go swimming, we could go. If we wanted to ride a horse, we could do it. But today, when my daughter wants to take riding lessons, I have to think twice if we can really afford it.”

“One can't compare Auroville then and now,” says Amudha. “Then, the word ‘community' carried meaning and warmth. Now the word has no meaning. People are living more self-centred lives, and money has become important.”

Lakshmi narrates an incident. “A close friend of mine who is a teacher, recently became a mother. She and her husband both work for Auroville's services and do not have an easy life. They live on their maintenance. When the baby arrived, she had to stop working. She was told that Auroville's so-called Bridging Fund would provide for her for the time she was out of school. But the Bridging Fund only paid Rs 2,500 – half the maintenance. How can a mother live on that? If anything, she's going to need more of everything and not less! It was ridiculous. Auroville policies have to be designed by people who can understand what it means to live from a maintenance alone.”

The story, however, ended positively. Lakshmi pursued the issue and successfully argued for her friend and the Economy Group subsequently changed its maternity policy. Now mothers who work for Auroville's services are entitled to a full maintenance for 6 months as part of their maternity benefits. “It is like this for everything,” says Amudha. “One has to fight constantly, and try to educate people and to make them see with their hearts and not their minds.”

The fate of the elders

Another issue close to their hearts is the fate of long-term Aurovilians or ‘old Aurovilians' as they refer to them. “This is a serious point. For example, there are those Auroville women who worked for the Matrimandir construction; they did manual labour, carrying cement up and down for years. Now they are too old to work. But what they get as support is only a little cash every month: Rs 1,000 or Rs 1,500.

“What can that money do these days?” they ask. “If it were not for us children, their fate would be terrible.” All three feel that Auroville should begin to think more broadly. “As a community we cannot ignore this population. We have to offer some basic shelter for them, take care of their food requirements, and provide health care – for this is the time when they need it the most.”

“The old people are not shining anymore,” says Lakshmi quietly. “They have given their shine and become worn out in the process. They helped to build the Soul of Auroville. Now they are almost forgotten.”

It is a bitter reflection. “We have to remember that these people chose to become Aurovilian at a time when it was not fashionable to be one,” she continues. “They stepped out of the village and joined Auroville against a lot of opposition from their families. And we hardly acknowledge this population. A year ago, it was so heartening to see these old Aurovilians being honoured at Savitri Bhavan. We need more of this.”

Amudha nods in agreement. “There is an expression in Tamil about the banyan tree. The original root of the banyan dies after giving its strength to the tree. And then it's the other roots that come down and provide the new support to the growing tree. This is symbolic of how the Auroville family should be. We leaned on our old people when they were younger and strong. Now it's our time to provide the support. It's not for nothing that the Banyan tree is at the centre of Auroville.”

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