Auroville, a dream still in the making
Close on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the Puducherry township, an anthology edited by Akash Kapur revisits its story through writings from the community
In this undated picture, members of the community are seen hard at work to build the township of Auroville. Pic courtesy/Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives
In February 1968, when 5,000 people thronged a desolate landscape, over 10 kilometres north of Pondicherry, now Puducherry, the excitement was palpable. Each one present there was carrying with them a dream - one that bore the promise of a new home where peace triumphed and learning never ended. Fifty years on, those ideals, once propounded by the spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindo, Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa, known to her followers as the Mother, live on in Auroville, the experimental complex she imagined for seekers of the world.
The Matrimandir, situated in the centre of the town, is an edifice of spiritual significance for practitioners of Integral Yoga, a philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. Pic courtesy/Paulette Hadnagy
With the residents of this township celebrating the 50th anniversary of its inauguration this month, a new anthology edited by writer Akash Kapur, titled Auroville: Dream and Reality (Penguin Random House), revisits the story of this venerable dreamland through literature, written about or inspired by it.
Through curated pieces of prose and poetry, Kapur, an Arovilian himself - his family moved here when he was 10 - hopes to "provide a layer of explanation" about the place, which he feels often gets misconstrued as utopian. "Utopia is by definition unreal, unattainable," he writes in the book. Auroville, he says, is not a utopia, but a "complex, lived and very real community of some 2,500 people nestled above the Indian Ocean, on the Bay of Bengal".
Dotted with schools, restaurants, shops and sports centres, Auroville, he says, looks like any other township, just that it's a lot different. "In India, I think it stands out for its environmental consciousness and ecological sensitivity. In India and the world, it stands out for its efforts to create an alternative to materialism and capitalism," Kapur says in an email interview. In the process, it has become a "sanctuary from the unconsciousness, self-destructiveness, and madness of the world". "More than that, though, it is also a laboratory for developing solutions to these ailments," he explains.
While the book helps fill the gaps surrounding the Aurovilian value systems, these ideas still appear vague. "Yes, people say that there is mystery surrounding Auroville. I think that is the case for many reasons," says Kapur, while describing the town as "elusive" and "hard to grasp". "It doesn't fit into any established narrative, model or pre-conception. Also, it is a very complex place, full of contradictions. So, it has multiple realities, not all of them immediately apparent. I think it's fair to say it doesn't open itself up or lend itself to analysis after just a few hours [or days] of visit. It needs time, needs a much more sustained engagement if it is to open itself up," he adds.
What he, however, feels has been working against the township is the growing tourist hordes. "I appreciate that people are interested in Auroville. At the same time, it is too small and was not designed to be a tourist attraction."
Yet, Aurovilians are not one to easily give in. "People [here] are really trying, they really are making the effort to live in a different way and to lay the seeds, however fledgling, for an alternative, better world. It's still very much a work in progress, but the effort alone is in my opinion, highly admirable."
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