The next morning, amma, the Tamil word for “mother” used to describe daily maids, came. She was a local Tamil villager who cleaned the house and watched the kids. Pretty much every Aurovilian had an amma, and a gardener from the nearby village of Villupuram, Shanta explained. It was a way for the wealthy township to employ the local villagers.
That day I decided to take the sputtering motorbike I had rented out on the red roads to explore and get lost, the only way to properly orient oneself in a new place.
My landmarks soon became the shapes of trees and the varying colors of the dirt: Buildings were tucked away and not visible from the road. I was staying at the heart of Auroville, which actually meant the opposite of what it would in most new places—the deeper you go inside Auroville, the more deserted it becomes. Most of the actual shops selling food, coffee, and clothes lay on the outskirts, outside of what is referred to as “the green belt,” a cylindrical, invisible barrier that marks the official parameters of Auroville.
I found a bakery called Ganesh that made fresh sesame bread every morning and was a hub for food and fast Wi-Fi inside the forest. Foreigners in dreadlocks and dhotis—a single piece of cloth worn by most Indian farmers—congregated under fans outside, smoking cigarettes and thumbing through Facebook on cellphone screens.
Posted outside was a bulletin board with fliers from April and May advertising leftover events: Nirvana Yoga Dance, Brazilian Dance Fighting, Improv Theatre, African Culture Fundraisers, and intensive Hindi and Italian lessons. The only event I found that was ongoing was a weekly discussion on the integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo.
I asked the bakery owner, an unsmiling Indian man, why there were no events in June. “Everyone leaves in the summer,” he told me. “It’s too hot.” He explained that most of the foreigners leave for a few months, sometimes for half a year, to return to their home countries to see family and, more importantly, earn money.
Inside, the bakery was full of visitors—young foreigners who had come for a few months, or for some a few years, to farm and meditate. Most I met were exceptionally warm-hearted, friendly, and lost; lonely in the particular way of those searching to belong somewhere.
An Aurovilian told me her primary job was to weed out what she called the cuckoos.
Though a place to actualize “human unity,” Auroville is also a place for a rare and dedicated breed of introspection; a space established primarily to worship the “divine consciousness”—a slippery term that, as a young German visitor I spoke with inside Ganesh bakery explained behind closed eyes, “you just feel.” She told me that she’d come to Auroville because she felt stifled in the West.
Another woman I met from America told me that she’d moved to Auroville because everything in the States “just feels really fake.” She was on the waiting list to become an Aurovilian, a two-year process that requires applicants to prove they are self-sustainable and dedicated to the cause. Applicants are not allowed to leave Auroville for two years and must work for free as a contribution to the township. After two years they face the Selection Committee, a small group that reviews applications and ultimately decides who can become an Aurovilian. An Aurovilian from Germany who worked for the Selection Committee told me her primary job was to weed out what she called “the cuckoos.” I didn’t ask what that meant.
While Auroville houses a recorded 2,500-odd residents, I was told that the actual number was much higher, roughly 10,000. The waiting list to become an Aurovilian is becoming longer because of a housing shortage.
When I told people I talked to I was working on an article about Auroville, they asked, almost uniformly, if I’d checked in with the Outreach Media Centre—a committee established to monitor any articles, films, and photo essays about Auroville. When I reached Outreach, there was only one woman sitting in the large office, an Aurovilian named Elaine Catherine who was originally from Canada. She was helping a sick friend that day and asked if we could talk at her house; I followed her on my motorbike through the thick forest to her home in one of the first-built settlements of Auroville.
“When you start to scratch the surface of Auroville, it’s a lot more ugly than from the outside. You start to see all the problems here, and it’s deeply layered,” she told me in the backyard of her house as we sipped fresh juice from limes she’d picked in her backyard. “The reality is a lot more different once you’re a part of it.”
She recounted nightmarish accounts I’d never imagined could have existed in Auroville; one in 2010 involved a bloody murder where a local villager was decapitated by gang members from Kuilapalayam, the village that borders Auroville, over an unresolved dispute. His head was dumped inside Town Hall. The gang was caught and incarcerated, Elaine told me, and there have been no incidents since.
I’d stumbled upon other cases of murder: A young Dutch man named Sydo, who was an outspoken advocate for increasing Auroville’s safety standards, was brutally murdered by Kuilapalayam villagers living on the outskirts of Auroville who were trying to rob him. Auroville now employs local security guards, but the forest is vast and they are able to cover only main intersections. I was strongly encouraged not to go out alone at night.
Elaine came to Auroville first as a volunteer, and then quit her corporate job to move to the township permanently. She was the first Aurovilian I’d met who spoke completely openly about Auroville’s problems; one being that neighbors did little to help one another. “I broke my arm, and my friend from Pune had to fly down to help me,” she said.
In spite of the dangers, she’s chosen to stay, alone, in Auroville. “I didn’t choose this path, it chose me—for now!” She wrote to me later. “I believe in the dream and trust I can help manifest the creation of the Township.”
But the bigger problem, she explained, was the question of who controlled the money in a “money-less” society. “I paid 31 lakh (roughly $48,000) to the Housing Committee as a mandatory donation for my house five years ago. Later I found a photo of the house in an architecture magazine, and saw it had been sold for 13 lakh ($20,400). I don’t know where that money went. I don’t know who controls the funds,” she explained to me, with a hint of frustration.
I couldn’t figure out who controlled the funds either. Although Auroville doesn’t have a self-sustaining economy—most Aurovilians either come in with savings or leave for a few months to work in their home countries—Auroville has a lot of money. On top of the steep donations Aurovilians pay to become “stewards” of their houses, the Indian government donates tens of millions of rupees each year. (The Auditor General of India also produces an annual report on Auroville’s finances.) As do private donors, and visitors when they come.