‘Turiya' is the name in rose wood letters on the wooden gate that protects a private estate on the road from Edaiyanchavadi to the old Madras road. It is home to André Viozat, a Frenchman who came to India 38 years ago and who now feels more Indian than Western.
“Actually, that's not exact,” he corrects. “I do not really feel I belong to India or France or even to Auroville. I do not ‘belong' to anything. But I have a soft corner for Auroville, and whenever I have some money, I send it to the Matrimandir. Yes, you could say I feel close to Auroville. And for those who will understand, I am not a businessman either…” He looks at me with piercing blue eyes, a red baseball cap worn backwards on his head. Meet André Viozat.
How he came to India , he says, is a story too long to tell. “I was never fully satisfied with the West – I was always looking for ‘something', from a very young age onwards. When I was 20, I did my civil service in Laos teaching mathematics instead of the compulsory military service. On the way back to France I met Pierre Legrand who told me about Sri Aurobindo, The Mother, Auroville and The Adventure of Consciousness of Satprem, which he more or less pressed upon me. I was not all that interested, even felt irritated with sentences like ‘all is in all', but started to read it out of politeness – it was the turning point. The book went with me to Africa , where I taught math for another two years. And I started imbibing Sri Aurobindo. After that period I wrote to Satprem, asking what I could do for Auroville. He gave my letter to Vincenzo, who sent me a long list of materials to be brought to Auroville, which had just started two years before. I bought all what I could, and then Jean Pougault and I drove two vans through Iraq , Iran , Afghanistan and Pakistan into India . It was a remarkable experience. We passed through the border in December 1970. Few days later it was closed. The war between India and Pakistan had started.
“We landed in Auroville in January '71 – it was raining cats and dogs. We asked for a room – no room was available. We had come with Rs 25 lakhs of materials, we had expected a bit of a welcome. There was none! We decided to continue to sleep in the van for the next months.
“Auroville was fascinating in those early days. Soon I got involved in building the new hexagonal Aspiration huts, under Piero's daily guidance. There were already some small huts, and the foundations for a hexagonal ‘superhut' had been laid. But because of some financial scam, the work had stopped. Shyam Sunder accepted my offer to construct the new huts, and in less than a year and under half the budget, I finished five double huts. The first one, of course, was occupied by Jean and me. But I didn't enjoy it for long. Jean got himself a girlfriend and needed more space. Again I was without a roof.
“By this time I had started to work in Fraternity; the water tank became my bed, the starry sky my roof! Shyam Sunder wanted me to continue construction work, but amongst the materials we had brought was a kit to make an electronic organ. As electronics was my second passion, I asked for permission to quit construction to finish the organ. It was refused. I then applied to Mother. Actually, I never received a reply in writing, but it was understood that Mother had accepted my proposal and that I would now start an electronics unit. I finished the organ, a huge thing, which went straight to the Ashram musician Sunil-da. He truly mastered it and I am proud that all the recorded music from that time 1972 – 1975 was played on my organ – I personally feel that it may have been the best music Sunil ever did.
“A problem of the time in Auroville was the scarcity of food. I was given one cup of milk per meal, which was my staple diet, and I couldn't go back for another one. As I am a worker by nature, I felt this rationing of sorts a little frustrating. I decided to start a poultry farm, next to my work, at least I would get some eggs! I went to Navajata, who readily agreed to release Rs 10,000.
“Those were busy days. You could say that I used to give all of me to Auroville. Early mornings I started for foundation work at the Matrimandir. Then I cycled to Pondicherry to teach math at the Lycée Français – to finance the new electronic unit – and in the afternoons I would return to Fraternity to work in the workshop. At that time, there were no tar roads, so I was always covered in dirt and sweat when I arrived at the college and later in Fraternity. In between, I managed the poultry farm and built a solar pump in Fraternity with Dr. Chamanlal Gupta, a project funded by the Union government. I worked non-stop from 6 a.m. to well after 10 p.m.
“When the organ was finished I realised that I should do something to make some money. After sometime of making electronic gadgets including a wonderful metronome, Vincenzo advised that I should make a measuring machine for animal hides. Many people in India were importing and exporting leather, and the measuring of it gave problems. I partnered with Kalya, whom I pulled from the ashram school. We started Auroelectronics, as a unit of the Sri Aurobindo Society, and we slowly developed a leather-measuring machine. But it was a difficult start. We struggled with Indian laws and with import licences. You couldn't do anything without prior permission from the government, and import was almost impossible or only through payment of 250% duty. I had to run to Cuddalore, Tindivanam, Villupuram, Madras – and every time I got stuck because I could not sign the documents as the unit belonged to the Sri Aurobindo Society. I went to Navajata and requested him to give me my independence. He got the committee together, and they passed a resolution that Auroelectronics would be separated from the Society, and the assets and liabilities transferred, which practically amounted to zero. That was in 1976. We were on our own. It is due to this resolution that Auroelectronics was never taken over by the Indian Government and never became part of the Auroville Foundation.
“While Auroelectronics was involved in electronics, another unit of the Sri Aurobindo Society, Toujours Mieux, headed by Vincenzo, was doing the mechanical work. They worked from a keet-roofed shed in Aspiration. One day, in March 1972, it went up in flames, and with it most of the tools I had brought from France . The shed burnt like a torch. The sky was dark red.
There was also a severe cyclone around that time. In both cases we felt that adverse forces were at work. Mother scolded us that it was due to our lack of sincerity and of real aspiration for the Divine that such things were happening. These messages were addressed to all of us and were taken seriously though I could never find what I, personally, had done wrong!
“Like most Aurovilians, I had hardly any physical contact with The Mother. It happened only once, on my birthday in 1972. To be frank I felt shy sitting at Her feet. Then She put Her hands on my head, and She gave me flowers. I felt quite awkward holding this bouquet. I didn't quite understand The Mother at that time. It's only recently that I've started to grow more intimate with her. Before, I felt close to Sri Aurobindo only.
“Auroelectronics gave birth to many offsprings. One was Aurelec. Kalya, together with Ulli, developed an interest in computers and at some time on their request, we separated amicably. I had meanwhile set up a manufacturing unit in one of Pondicherry 's industrial estates to produce the leather measuring machine, with good standards.
“Gradually, Auroelectronics expanded. We designed more microprocessor based machines. The most successful is a seven ton 30 metre long automatic plant to spray-paint leather. We sell it in India , Bangladesh , and in some African countries. By now, we've sold about 1,500 measuring machines, and over 650 sprayers. Our machines must have saved India more than 150 million dollars in imports, and allowed leather-finishing units to set up shop at half the cost.
“My latest baby – I owe the initial idea to Silvio who passed away some years ago – is AuroZon. This unit manufactures powerful high concentration ozone generators. The ozone gas is used to eliminate pollution and clean the hazardous sludge produced by dyeing factories in Tirupur and Perundurai. I expect this unit to grow fast. Now we are building a factory to mass-produce this machine.
“Over the years, my work came to occupy me completely and my involvement with the building of Auroville diminished. In the early days of Auroville I attended a few political meetings but soon realised this was not my cup of tea. I am a worker, interested in practical results, with an allergy for politics. I have been striving for 40 years to work efficiently, yet without the desire for the fruit. It's my only objective actually. But I don't feel that I ever went ‘away' from Auroville. Turiya's 14 acres are in Auroville's greenbelt, and I've done my part towards greenwork – I have planted a few thousands trees, I think.
“No, I don't belong – I don't want to ‘belong'. But I have my own soft spot for Auroville. I have faith in our ‘Ideal' and in the ‘Project'. I guess I never really ended my old love affair with anarchy”…
In conversation with Carel