In 1999 an animal shelter and a veterinary dispensary were built opposite Aurorchard, off the Pondicherry – Tindivanam road.
This new book is not primarily about Auroville's physical beginnings and development. It's about how the pioneers were drawn here and what keeps them here today.
Christine, the editor, asked 24 Aurovilians the simple yet profound question: How did She catch you and bring you here? The answers are as varied as the Aurovilians. Jocelyn Shupack (‘Big Jocelyn') was sitting in a room in Arizona looking at a painting when it disappeared and she heard a voice say, “Come to India now!” Tim Wrey and family set off to explore Africa and India . They covered 25,000 kilometres without a hitch. Then their Land-Rover broke down…under the Banyan Tree. Francis came to Pondicherry looking for a good French restaurant. Charlie was virtually deported to India by his parents. Patrick initially stayed on because he was attached to his partner, Heidi, who was attracted to the Ashram.
While differing outer circumstances brought them here, most of the people interviewed were looking for something different. Andre Hababou was unsatisfied with his work in France . “I sensed there was a greater Truth, something in life to discover more important than the petty things my friends were talking about.” Vijay, whose colourful background included fighting Franco's forces in Spain explains, “I could not live without a meaning in my life”. Janaka wanted to be free “from the prison of myself”. Paul Vincent wanted “to get hold of something worth living for – so that it would give me the strength to avoid being a bad person; so that I could transform my inner revolt into something positive and constructive”.
So what did they find? What kept them here? It was the freedom to experiment, to create something from scratch, to be pioneers in a unique endeavour. Above all, it was Mother. The most interesting portions of this book describe the interviewees' meetings with her. What makes these accounts so moving is not just the overwhelming nature of the experience – the feeling of being known, accepted and unconditionally loved for the first time in their lives – but the fact that some of the Aurovilians initially struggled to resist it.
But Turning Points is also about what it meant to live in Auroville in the early years. Andre Hababou saw an illustration of the Galaxy and thought the city was already built and that its inhabitants were transformed beings. The reality was somewhat different, as Vijay discovered. “I put up a hut, it cost me two hundred rupees at the time. There was nothing else. From here you could see the Banyan. Everybody thought I was mad. There was no road, no water, no fence, no nothing. I had a few books, a mat, a kerosene lamp (which was stolen the first day) and I lived there for a year.”
And yet, as Shyama remembers it, “It was a wonderful time. We were so full of faith…For us it was sacred, this land. This was the divine city.” “Those days carried so much force,” says Jocelyn Elder (‘Small Jocelyn'). “It was really like we were carrying the torch for her.”
And today? Is the torch still alight? Christine has no doubts. “This collection of stories is not about the past. It is about a hidden source of water which has irrigated this land for more than 40 years […] 40 years ago a Lady Diviner struck a rock and out of this rock water sprang. It gave life to this place, it gave life to the people and sustained them. It is still here and flowing. Its name is faith.”
Yet faith is not necessarily always to the fore. In fact, the interviews seem to have provided some of the interviewees with the opportunity to recontact something deep within themselves. “It was beautiful to see,” writes Christine, “how, while recounting their inner and outer journeys, at times they were seized by a deep and unexpected emotion which transported them (and the listener at the same time) into the domain of agni, the burning aspiration.” It's revealing that when they remember meeting Mother the interviewees often switch from the past to the present tense: it is happening for them again now.
Some of the interviewees are critical of the present situation. Shyama laments “the smallness, the lack of generosity and faith”. Small Jocelyn contrasts the joy of giving and sharing prevalent in the early days with the fact that “Now you have to fight the system in order to be able to give.” Yet we should resist creating another Golden Age myth. The early years were not all paradisical. The settlers also bitched and fought and lied, as some of Mother's messages from that time make clear.
This is an inspiring book. It has its faults. It could do with tighter editing, Christine is occasionally over-directive in her questioning, not all the stories are uniformly interesting and it would have been nice to hear more Indian voices. But these are more than compensated for by the way it catches the vibration of those early years – the spontaneity, idealism and sheer craziness (“We were so naïve, we didn't have a clue”) of that motley bunch of individuals that Mother scooped up and plonked down on an arid plateau in South India .
Above all, reading this book is a little like receiving darshan of the Mother. We experience how she approached each individual differently – now gentle, now amused, now penetrating – yet flooding them all with her light and unconditional love. We are reminded of her laughter, of her joyful unpredictability (When Big Jocelyn discovered that somebody had taken her hut she wrote to Mother asking what she should do. ‘Find your psychic being' Mother replied!).
These stories make clear that something happened to those pioneers that utterly changed them; and that that experience still reverberates deep within them. Auroville would be a very different place if that reverberation, now muted, would ring out louder and louder.
This book is a wonderful beginning.
Turning Points. An inner story of the beginnings of Auroville. Auroville Press Publishers, 2008. Rs. 245.
Available at the Information Centre bookshop and Pour Tous.
Those living outside Auroville who wish to purchase a copy may contact firstname.lastname@example.org
On meeting Mother:
I felt she wanted to know me, to know who I was. But I did not want to show myself (of course all this was in silence). She looked at me and I did not want to be seen. I tried to escape but I could not. It was like a struggle, so tense that I almost passed out. So many negative thoughts assailed me, I had no control anymore. It came out of me continuously like a black cloud. Then I looked at her as if to say, ‘All right, now you know what is inside.' At that very moment her face became the smile of a 14 year-old girl, with such a delightful smile. The atmosphere had completely changed and I realised that that smile was the same inside of me; the same smile. And I was bathing in an immobile white light.
I look at her eyes, and it is like an instant recognition: I know you! And you know me! And you know me better than I myself. And then you come to her and there she is, and of course one starts crying, because you are recognised…somebody, ah, truly knows you and accepts you. And you feel this overwhelming love, the power of her love, which kind of drowns you.
I went without expecting anything, casually. The door opened, and…I have never been so astonished in my life, because I didn't see a human being there. There was a sari, there were two eyes, but it was like a window onto the infinite. The first impression was infinity, infinite space. I couldn't believe it. I had the impression I had lived all my life in a matchbox. And then wave after wave of love, like a tsunami of love. I had a very low opinion of myself… because I was very selfish and I didn't know what love was. So I thought, ‘How can you possibly love me? I felt ashamed, “Forgive me for bringing this piece of garbage in your room, I didn't know who you were!” She was loving me. I was feeling forever safe, safe…”
She was sitting in her armchair. I kneel in front of her, with a bunch of withered flowers in my hand. Silence. She looks at you; you are like an opened book; you cannot hide anything. And then an amazing smile, a radiant smile, a big smile. She offers her hands like this (palms opened). I did not dare! But she said, ‘Hey, hey!' (encouragement) so very gently and slowly I hold out one of my hands and place it in hers.
It was a very strong experience. From that instant it was decided. Heidi
So I walked into her room, and I walked in front of her, and I am standing there, and all of a sudden somebody comes up behind me, a very strong fellow, and puts his hands on my shoulders and just pushes me down. I had this thing: ‘Oh, oh, we've got a problem here', and I was about to get on my feet and give this guy a piece of my mind, and…the Mother catches my eye. And she is laughing. She seems to think that whatever it is it is very funny. I don't think it is very funny but she thinks it is very funny. And she kept on looking at me and talking to me, I presume in French. I did not understand a word of what she was saying, and basically from that point on I don't remember a thing.
The next thing I was standing outside the post-office, with this gigantic bouquet of blood red roses in my hand…I had no idea what just happened, but I understood something significant had happened. And I thought I had a great imagination and a great history of experiences that enriched that imagination. But I was wrong, because whatever happened went way beyond.