Two years ago, Auroville's youth hostel Mitra was inaugurated. Now Mitra, which in Sanskrit means ‘friend', is a vibrant and happy place bustling with students, interns and young volunteers from all over the world.
“When Sanjeev asked me if I would like to be the manager for the Mitra Youth Hostel I said, ‘Give me a few days to think about it. But where is the hostel?' When he told me it was just behind the Town Hall and 200 metres from the Matrimandir I could not believe it.” Usha has been the manager of Mitra for five months now and loves her live-in job.
She is responsible for up to 48 students, (or more if they are willing to adjust, the brochure says). It provides comfortable budget accommodation for interns and long-term volunteers between 16 and 30 years.
One might expect a Youth Hostel to be a bleak space with overcrowded dormitories and grubby washrooms, but Mitra is really like a good Indian hotel – elegantly designed and simply furnished with quality materials. The reception area welcomes the guest with a bowl of Auroville flowers and a dark polished table with a built-in chess board. Architects Anupama and Sonali have designed a structure which with its gently-curving exterior wall and railed balconies above, is reminiscent of an ocean liner. The building is oriented in such a way that a constant breeze flows through each room.
“When I first started the job, I found it really difficult,” says Usha. “Although I had worked for 10 years in Pour Tous and 2 years in the Financial Services, this sort of work was completely new to me. I was given full responsibility for running the hostel and caring for a lot of youngsters.
“In the beginning there were many students who had already been staying at Mitra for quite some time and they resented me wanting to change things. They used to cook their own food and make an awful mess of the kitchen – food was being wasted as well as gas, and then they'd cook fish that made the whole building smell bad. On top of that, the loud music and smoking were other problems that were difficult to change, but slowly all these naughty boys and girls left. So now I make sure the new ones who come in are very clear about the rules.”
Usha has spruced up the place. “I bought lots of new vessels for the kitchen and smartened up the bathrooms so the place is always clean now. The other day an American who stays here asked me if I had studied management as the place was so well run. I felt so proud!
“By nature I have lots of energy and very clear ideas about things. This makes some Tamil people say I have a ‘big head weight' (a ‘big head' in English), as I often follow my own ideas. I have always felt my opinion is as good as anyone else's, so why listen to others?” she asks. “In the beginning, the gardeners and workers didn't like taking orders from me as I am a woman, but I try to treat everyone in the same way and now they are beginning to see this.”
Usha points to a group of men digging outside. “We are putting up a fence to keep the cows out as I've got so tired of being woken up at 3 in morning and having to chase the animals out of our garden.” Eventually, she says, she would like to have a proper fence around the building with a guard who can sign the students in and out at night. “It is a big responsibility to care for these students. Some are only teenagers and it is their first time away from home, so I feel they are my children. Who else will look after them if I don't? Sometimes they knock on my door late at night complaining of mosquitoes and not having any repellent, but often I think they just want to see a friendly face.”
A big, bearded young man munching a large bag of chips passes by. “Hi, Usha, howzit goin'?” he bellows in an American accent. A tiny Korean girl wanders in asking for some pegs to hang her washing on the clothes-line. Ammas are busy sweeping the stone floor and chopping vegetables in the kitchen. There is an air of quiet and happy activity.
We walk up a flight of stairs past a spacious area with well-tended potted plants. There are a couple of single rooms but most are doubles with attached balconies. On the second floor are the dormitories. There are mattresses on the floor, a few guitars and rows of oversized shoes outside.
We go up to the terrace where I notice a scarlet punch- bag. Usha explains that a resident used to teach boxing and now classes happen twice a week. She shows me the roof where the students practice yoga and tai-chi and where they like to sleep in the summer. The view is stunning. Matrimandir twinkles from behind the Town Hall and there are trees on every side. “Citadines, the latest housing project, is going to be built on that field,” she says pointing to the right, “And I hear there are plans for a college over there; that is why the Hostel was built here.”
Usha is called away so I go down and join some youngsters having a late breakfast. I ask them how it feels, living at Mitra. They are all enthusiastic about the place and full of praise for Usha and her caring ways. However they all complain about the cost. “When we first came the prices were low, and Usha tells us she raised them so that we can get a better quality service,” said one disgruntled long-term resident. And what is the price? “A single room is Rs 300 (€ 5.5); a double room, Rs 150 per person, and a mattress in the dormitory Rs 100 per day – and this only includes breakfast; plus there's no hot water.” This is too expensive they say, for those who are doing volunteer work for Auroville. Another adds, “We also have to pay the student guest contribution of 30 rupees a day, which is unfair.”
Otherwise they say, Mitra is a great place to stay as it is so central, quiet and safe, and brilliant for meeting young people from around the world. Indeed, there is an international feel about the place. “I see that this is a place where one can develop lasting friendships with people we meet here. It is wonderful really to be able to experience Auroville in this way,”adds a young woman.
As I said my goodbyes to the youngsters, I thought how privileged they are to be cared for by such a good soul as Usha and stay in such a lovely space when many newcomers, and even Aurovilians, have to live in much less pleasant surroundings.