Before I visited Auroville in Pondicherry, I had always thought of Pondicherry as Goa of the east coast of India. A beach place for Europeans to see India, booze and party, along with some interesting architecture. So when we packed our bags for Auroville, I had no other expectations in mind. Rajitha had booked us at a place called Sadhana Forest, a forest community, based on the recommendation of some friends. I did not look it up either on the internet. Actually there was no booking. She was told that if there are no family huts (the four of us were travelling) available, we would have to sleep in the dormitory. That sounded odd, but I went along, trusting my wife as usual (ahem).
We had driven from Chennai and had stopped at Mahabalipuram, to see some ancient sculptures and temples. Being a Diwali holiday, it was hot and crowded and we felt very little sense of history to the monuments we were seeing, which seemed ancient and well kept ruins. It was another couple hours from Mahabalipuram to Auroville and it was almost dark in the evening when we reached Sadhana forest, first going through a village and later a dirt road that brought us to a primitive parking lot. There was a policeman keeping guard in a small hut that doubled up as his cabin with a solitary light. We dropped off our taxi and dragged our bags past on a dirt road past a hand painted sign that said “Visitors are welcome to Sadhana Forest”.
Soon we were in the main hut (that was lit) and given a warm welcome by strangers (mostly European looking) in a sing-song way who called out our names. Everyone had gathered for their meals, sitting on the floor in a large room. This was already feeling surreal and strange. We waited while the group finished their dinner to be checked in. The person who handled our check in, seemed a bit annoyed that we had not called him before coming along (we had emailed him but maybe people usually call), and said he wasn’t sure if a hut would be available. But thankfully after a bit of waiting he told us that there was a hut available for us! We dragged our bags again in the dark and soon we were in front of a wooden platform inside a tall hut made of wood with a roof covered with dry leaves. Since there was no electricity, we used our mobile torches as we groped our way up the ladder towards a bunch of mattresses and mosquito nets. Since it was already dark, there was no other choice but to lay down and relax. No night shower. No changing into night clothes. It was Diwali night and we could hear firecrackers continuously sputtering away in the distance. Diwali is also a night without the moon and it was so pitch dark that it was hard to tell whether our eyes were open or shut. Rajitha read a Tolstoy story about an old man’s pilgrimage from her Kindle for the kids, and soon we fell asleep.
We were asked to assemble behind the kitchen at 6am where we would be assigned our morning sevas. A seva is the volunteering work you have to do to be a part of the forest community (children are of course excluded). There was a morning chill in the forest, which seemed unusual because the night was warm, as we walked towards the assembly area. The assembly was almost ending when we reached, and we were assigned to assist the group who were planting trees in the forest. We walked towards the tool shed where we were handed crowbars and shovels and buckets and plates to be taken to the forest for planting trees.
The purpose with which Sadhana Forest was established was to plant trees and it seemed that they had a very evolved and sophisticated system for this. The volunteer leading the tree planting activity gave a quick introduction to the newcomers and we were soon digging trenches and creating mounds from the soil we were extracting from the trenches. The trench I was a part of was quite hard and had a few rocks as well, so we had to put in a lot of effort to break it down. This was my first opportunity to chat with other volunteers. Doing the sevas together turned out to be a good way of spending time with others and chatting up. Over the next few days I met some very interesting people, Indians and Europeans alike. Many were students who were backpacking in India, some were interested in the forest work and some were here for the spiritual experience. My first observation was that all of them were physically much stronger than me.
After doing the hard work, we assembled for breakfast in the main hut. Meals at Sadhana forest are taken in groups and follow strict timings. While we were on forest duty, other volunteers had prepared breakfast for us which was fruits (papayas, pineapples, melons) and porridge. The porridge was bland until you added a helping of molten jaggery in it. All the food in Sadhana Forest is vegan. Veganism is one of the big initiatives of the founders at Sadhana Forest. Once they understood the amount of forest that is destroyed for meat farming, it became a no brainer for them. Since Rajitha is already fully vegan and the rest of us are almost vegan, this was not a surprise for us. Vegan food can be surprisingly light and tasty once you get used to it. Though slightly bland for our palette, I loved the food. Sadhana forest also had a system of serving food where everyone’s plate was filled up and distributed before they started to eat. Mealtimes were also opportunities for everyone to share any news or announcements, and there was a warm and casual vibe.
It took me some time to orient myself to such a communal living, but the children were already comfortable and exploring on their own. Rajitha thrives in such environments. I am a sceptic by nature, so I wasn’t buying into the kool-aid yet. I was also observing the community dynamics of the place. The regulars and the short term volunteers. The Indians and the Europeans. The students and the families. The young and the old. The friendly and the cold. The chatty and the reticent. There seemed to be all types of people. The Europeans seemed more warm and friendly compared to the Indians, but I could sense their cultural discomfort as well. Some of the Indian volunteers were bossy and grumpy. I have observed this while travelling in America as well. Indians are always rude to each other when they are among Westerners. Maybe they see their own reflections and insecurities in other Indians.
The founding family, the Rozins had just flown in from the Kenya offshoot of Sadhana Forest on the third day and chatting with them was the highlight of the trip. When Osher, one of the daughters of the founders, learnt that we were running an alternate school (coincidently called Sadhana Learning Center), she was very welcoming in sharing her experience growing up as an unschooled child in the community. Later we also had chats with the founders, Aviram and Yorit. Both took out time to chat with us and in a way encourage us to continue our experiments with alternate spaces. We could immediately sense they had a great positive energy and charisma, and they were very generous to share their passion with us. Their journey of toiling away for 20 years on a barren piece of land to creating multiple versions of Sadhana forest is incredibly inspirational. In my pantheon of founders, I would rank them at the very top. After meeting them, it was immediately clear where the energy and quality of the space came from.
Later when I got back home, I started researching about Auroville. It was started as a “future city”, something like the flat, utopian world described in the pages of Ursula Le Guin’s “Dispossessed”. A city where everyone was invited and equal. Any community that is not founded on the principle of accumulation of wealth seems like an alternative space. Being a non-profit is not enough. It must truly be based on non-capitalist principles. Ever since we have started interacting with these communities via our school, I have observed that the energy in these communities is different. There is so much more kindness and compassion and it feels so much more natural and harmonious. People are not bound by showing off their material possessions to anyone, their clothes, their cars, their lifestyles. Everything is much simpler. These spaces are more alive and content than those that are purely capitalist, which feel competitive and exhausting. Discovering this alternate world has been life changing.
You can sense that every decision taken at Sadhana Forest is deliberate and thoughtful. Care has been taken to think about the impact of every decision. It shows up in the choice of materials, the structure of the huts, the choice of tools, the lack of electricity and machines, the sign boards, the vegan food, the smiles on the faces of people. I am not saying everything was perfect with Sadhana Forest, (human group dynamics are always complex) but it felt genuine and our kids loved it. My visit to Sadhana Forest happened around the time I discovered the American naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau lived in a simple hut for a couple years to discover the bare minimal lifestyle that he could live. It gives me hope that after all the wars and the monuments, maybe humans won’t degenerate into violent tribes, but into kind and compassionate communities like Sadhana Forest.
In a way Sadhana Forest is a more radical version of Auroville itself, the future city. I came with no expectations, but ended up seeing what the future is like. The future is kind and compassionate and open and respectful of nature and humans. You shouldn’t go to Sadhana Forest if you want to travel for comfort and leisure, but if you are on a journey of self discovery and exploration, this is a wonderful experience.