Our brief in India was a mixed one.
First we were to assess whether India was the right place to host a centre of the type “Alan” had in mind. Would it tolerate such a centre? Encourage or obstruct it? Was India stable? (“Alan” had read that in one province, Maharashtra, the eating of beef had been banned on religious grounds. Could a surge of local fanaticism destroy such a project?)
Then there were many practical issues. How would a community be administered? What would be its relationship with local government?
Second we were to see what could be learned from the Auroville community ?
We flew to Mumbai, for there was no presumption that a community would be established near Auroville or even in the same province. We wanted to get a feel for other major centres, having reached a view that areas that were not predominately Moslem would be most likely to be suitable.
Our taxi took us to a small “executive” hotel in the Bandra area, on Ambedkar Road. (I remembered that name because someone had told me that “Mr. Ambedkar” had drafted the Indian constitution even though he was an “Untouchable”).
An Indian Road is a space shared by animals, the little gas-driven carts called auto-rickshaws, cars, trucks, bikes, motorbikes and people. The sidewalks are usually broken or impassable. Every vehicle sounds its horn all the time. Somehow it works. Cows do not panic or step in front of cars. All the inhabitants of the teeming space share some sort of mutual understanding.
In India the present accumulates alongside the past, over it and around it. The great station built by the British and once called the Victoria Terminal stands there, a vast and eccentric presence from another time — where the great London terminals have been cleaned up, given new facades and shopping malls, “integrated” into a modern cityscape.
We flew from Mumbai to Chennai, formerly called Madras, and then took a car to Pondicherry, the former French enclave. This is where many Westerners stay. In the morning we visited the ashram founded by the French woman known as “The Mother”.
At the ashram, Jamie selected books about the cult and its key figures.
The next day we packed our things and a taxi took us to Auroville, which was about 20 mins out of Pondicherry, to a lodge in the community. The first signs of the community were the villas among the trees off the roadways and Europeans on bicycles.
In the afternoon we went first to the main offices of the community and then walked to see the famous dome. (At the offices we secured a ticket enabling us to go inside the dome the following day).
The inside of the dome is completely white, with a huge white carpet on the floor. In the centre of the floor is a glass globe which suffuses light from a sunbeam directed down from the roof by a system of mirrors, which adjust to the sun’s position.
Around the side of the dome are recesses. In the design plan for the dome the recesses have names like Fortitude or Patience.
Jamie had used every spare minute of the time reading. The following morning he gave me his views.
He was struck by the fact that Aurobindo himself had retired into solitude and delegated the management of the ashram and of Auroville to the Mother. Jamie read out something Aurobindo had written: “A movement in the case of a work like mine means the founding of a school or a sect or some other dammed nonsense. It means that hundreds or thousands of useless people join in and corrupt the work or reduce it to a pompous farce from which the Truth that was coming down recedes into secrecy and silence.”
“That says it all,” said Jamie. “He disses his own followers.”
In its programme Auroville talks of synthesizing the religious and the scientific, but the net result, in Jamie’s view, is an undefined “religious” culture and no science to speak of. “Occult stuff. The whole back story of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo with its talk about supramental states…”
The place appeared static. There were about 2,500 “Aurovilians” living in a space run on “ecologically sound” principles. (It was originally anticipated that there would be 50,000 inhabitants). The “industries” in the park were soft arts-and-crafts activities, like making traditional musical instruments.
“The great dome is an overblown structure. We need simple structures where you go to sit and remember who and what you are…that rest on a truth so simple you can’t miss it. That’s my conclusion.”
As requested, I took pictures and video and started to gather information and statistics.