The Professor did not mince his words. In the quaint setting of Auroville Bakery, the 78-year-old Austrian looked me in the eye as he spoke. For someone who had spent “15 half-years” of his life here, he made it clear — he was not Aurovilian.
“There is as much darkness here as there is light,” he said when asked why.
He was one of many who had spent a considerable amount of time living in and around Auroville, the experimental township that lies 12 km outside Pondicherry. Over five decades since inception, Auroville has attracted people from all over the world who either are intrigued by the writings of Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa (better known as ‘The Mother’ who founded Auroville), or just wish to push the reset button in their lives.
My journey there began early morning with a bus down the East Coast Road. As one looked out towards the Bay of Bengal gently crashing onto the shores of towns like Covelong and Mahabalipuram, the ever-expanding concrete jungles of Chennai dissolved into densely forested patches of coconut palm, interrupted by long stretches of sand and occasional backwaters.
Three hours later in Pondicherry, I rented a cycle. But the ride to Auroville took over an hour, exacerbated by the midday heat. Respite arrived when the wheels turned into the non-descript Auroville Road, which you might just miss if you do not pay attention.
Shops, cafes and guest houses seamlessly blended into the tall trees that line both sides of the road like a long green tunnel. Every second motorcyclist that zoomed past was a woman, a common sight here but rare in most other parts of India. As I glanced to my left, an old man wearing saffron robes and tending to his garden looked up and smiled at me.
Ramamurthy Jayaram was a 68-year-old ‘wanderer’ who lived on the outskirts of Auroville. Part of a sect that worshipped the Tamil saint-poet Ramalinga Vallalar, he spent around six months a year here propagating the teachings of Vallalar and offering weary travellers a place to stay during the night.
Born in Thirubhuvanai village near the city of Pondicherry, he had seen the landscape of Auroville change over the years. “At first, the people around here were mostly farmers. A few of them were shepherds too. It was only when they created Auroville that a lot of foreigners arrived,” he reminisced.
He studied engineering at IIT Kanpur in the early 1970s and spent most of his youth working abroad, taking care of his family. However, he decided to part ways with them in 2002 and had been on the road ever since.
“What I wanted was peace of mind. No problems, no issues. I wanted to break away from the money side of life,” he said.
What brought him back to Auroville time and again? His love for nature. “We must love the trees, the birds and their songs. He who deeply loves nature will also care for it and that’s what I do,” he said.
Was he concerned by the commercialization in the form of guest houses and residences being constructed along Auroville Road? “Some people seek entertainment and bodily pleasures, so they live in those houses. But there’s nothing to be worried about,” he said.
He looked at the trees above and added, “No one here has cultivated all this. Nature was here before us and it will remain here even after we are no more.”
Later at the Auroville Bookshop, 41-year-old Chitra leafed through a coffee table book chronicling the construction of the Matrimandir, the iconic golden dome-like structure and meditation centre in Auroville.
“That’s my brother! My elder brother,” she said, as she pointed to the photograph of a man lying on a gold plate.
Chitra, who has managed the Auroville Bookshop at the visitors’ centre for the last ten years, was born in Auroville but has lived in the adjacent Edaiyanchavadi village her entire life.
“When Auroville needed more land, we sold our house and moved to the village,” she said.
She had vivid memories of the time when the Matrimandir was under construction. “The whole area used to be our playground. We used to run all around the place, climb on trees like monkeys!” she laughed with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Now you see concrete roads and buildings around Auroville. Earlier, there were only mud roads and mud huts. I liked that,” she said.
She felt that the guesthouses were a good development.
“In the beginning, most people come here out of curiosity, because they liked something written by Sri Aurobindo or Mother. But when they come here, they really learn what Auroville is all about — no religion, no differences, nothing,” she said.
“Some like to think this is a life full of luxury. But it is not. Sure, this is a place for enjoyment but not of that kind,” she added, slightly tilting her head and smiling wryly.
According to her, Auroville was a very special place. She said, “Outside, people live for others. Here, we live for ourselves.”
At Dreamers’ Cafe, Logan J. frowned upon the intrusion. Halfway through a bowl of chocolate ice cream on a simmering hot afternoon, he asked me how long the questions would take. Whatever time he could spare, I answered.
“Five minutes. No more, no less,” he said, as he gulped down another spoonful of the frozen dessert.
Logan, only 32, grew up in Chennai but had been living in Delhi for the past four years until he quit his job. He volunteered here for the Sadhana Forest initiative, a non-profit organisation started by an Israeli couple, Yorit and Aviram Rozin, back in 2003 to promote sustainable living.
“At Sadhana Forest, what you do is give back to nature. You cook, you clean the place, you take care of the forest and the cattle — everything,” he said.
What brought him to Auroville of all places? “Love,” he paused, before continuing, “Love for oneself. I felt it was a risk worth taking at this point in my life. Higher the risk, higher the reward.”
He was not afraid of failure. “Even if I come crashing down, I will still learn from it,” he said with a shrug.
He did not know how long he is going to be in Auroville. But he was loving every bit of the experience.
“The best thing is the diversity here. The food, the clothes people wear, the people themselves. And everybody speaks English! No one here looks up to you for that or goes like oh, you speak English,” he said.
His ice cream had turned more or less liquid. He looked at it, looked at me, then chugged it down in one go and told me my five minutes were up.
At the Auroville Bakery, the Professor asked me, “Do you believe in God?”
Before I could come up with an answer, he elaborated, “You see, God created light and darkness in this world in equal proportion. Auroville is just like that. There are many great people here but there are also a few not-so-good ones.”
That had not stopped him from coming back here for “15 half-years”, I pointed out. He laughed and said, “Well, I love India. My grandfather bought me a radio when I was 14, and that was the first time I listened to Indian classical music. I have been fascinated with your country ever since.”
He had one sour memory though. “When I first arrived in India, I wanted to start a school in this town called Sagar (in Madhya Pradesh). But there was too much red tape,” he lamented.
This time in Auroville, he hoped to finish writing the book he was working on. “It is my diary, essentially. These are the writings I sent back home to my friends and family. Maybe then I’ll go back to Austria,” he said.
The cool evening breeze blew into my face as I cycled back towards Pondicherry to catch a homeward bus, fuelled by the downward incline and the professor’s final piece of advice before I left.
“Follow the light, my dear friend,” he had said. I was not quite sure whether he was referring to the setting sun on the horizon or something within, but that did not stop me from smiling.