Aficionados of space travel will recall the drama of re-entry; those few minutes when the spacecraft, plunging back into the earth’s atmosphere, is severed from its umbilical link with mission control, and those NASA magicians, after piloting a half-ton lump of high technology faultlessly through interstellar vastnesses, are reduced to gnawing their fingernails and playing nervously with plastic cups.
Well, it’s an image that haunts me at the moment. Because after returning recently to Auroville from the West, I feel rather like those astronauts who, in transition between two worlds, just have to sit it out and see where – or if! – they will finally touch down. It’s tempting to ascribe this dangling condition to culture shock. And it’s true. Nothing ever prepares me for the accelerating thrust that propels me, in one short taxi ride, from a world of bullock carts to the rarefied atmosphere of jet travel, or the equally fierce decelerating jet that, on my return, jolts me out of my Boeing cocoon into the steamy soup of Madras.
But it’s more, much more than this. For the last three months have been a series of shocks and challenges which, ultimately, have confronted me with various aspects of myself – some of which have been less that entertaining.
It’s insidious, that embrace of the West.
As doors slipped quietly open, as buses arrived on time, as another perfect cappuccino coffee materialised with a crisp biscuit poised beside it on the saucer, a certain question began elbowing its way through my head. “What the hell am I doing living in India?” And as I walked familiar streets, savouring the freedom of anonymity, the release from staring eyes and probing hands, and as I met old friends doing good work and seamlessly meshed into professions, into that self-confident world of credit cards, fax and microwaves – a world I perceived as increasingly closed to me as I stood, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, a bumpkin at the gates – another more urgent doubt arose. “Did I make a wrong decision all those years ago? Is Auroville a mirage, the real work here? Have I wasted my life?”
My return brought scant relief. Auroville was green, yes, beautiful, yes. But so many tired faces, so many loose ends and strung-out enterprises. So much small-town gossip. So many petty arguments. And the stall is dark and ill-stocked, the greenbelt roads as bad as ever, the tap in the bathroom is still dripping, someone is felling the palmyra forest, a thief had broken into our house...
Re-entry! Eventually, of course, the nightmare ends. The spacecraft stops pitching and juddering, the parachutes crack open, and suddenly all is quietness and light as the frail craft swings silently, like a great silver bird, through the limpid air. It began with me one afternoon. I don’t know how or why. But suddenly I saw the problem is not Auroville’s although, objectively, there is much to rectify here. Nor is it the superficial allure of the West.
The real problem is that, over the past year, I lost my connection with the spirit of this place, with the point of power that shapes the daily flotsam and jetsam into something dynamic and meaningful.
I’d become thinned out, desiccated, de-juiced, as daily concerns invaded all the crevices of my being, leaving me no space for play or contemplation. And now the old ways back to the source are blocked, too well trodden, stale. I need, I realise, a new way in, a new language, a flame to sear me and break me open, bare me, to the sharp winds, the pains and joys of this City of Dawn. I need once more to say “yes”.
So I swing quietly beneath my parachute, straining through cumulus for my first glimpse of these new roads, this new land. It’s a long and somewhat tedious business. But once, momentarily, the clouds parted and there, far off, was something like a promise, an affirmation, a call. It was sunlight. Sunlight piercing a crystal of the Absolute.
From the ‘Introduction’, by Akash Kapur
There’s a reason so much of the best utopian literature is fiction. Utopia is by definition unreal, unattainable. Non- fiction accounts of utopian communities descend quickly into sordid exposés, or memoirs of troubled childhoods. They have difficulty reconciling the soaring ambition, the noble impulses, with messy reality. Ambition and impulse are the stuff of dreams; this is territory better traversed by the capaciousness of fiction.
Auroville is not a utopia. It is a complex, lived and very real community of some 2500 people nestled above the Indian Ocean, on the Bay of Bengal. Dotted with schools and restaurants and shops and sports centres, it is enveloped in the uncertainties and ambiguities of humankind. The community is, as we Aurovilians like to say, a living laboratory: a not-quite-yet defined experiment, an incipient society searching for new models of economy, politics, aesthetics, culture.
Yet there are no doubt utopian aspects to the community. It is founded on and structured – however loosely – around certain ideals. Its residents and institutions are unabashedly aspirational, their existence predicated on the premise that alternatives are attainable, that a better world is realisable. Although lacking a formal constitution, the community is guided through the precepts set out by its founder, the Frenchwoman Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa, known as the Mother, in the Auroville Charter.
This year, 2018, Auroville celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. It is a remarkable achievement: few intentional communities – anywhere in the world, at any point in history – have survived as long. Of course those fifty years have revealed some of the difficulties in manifesting a better world. Auroville has made some genuine achievements, but it has also faced formidable setbacks. Hence the title of this anthology: Dream and Reality. Utopia signals perfection, but perhaps the most truly utopian aspect of Auroville is the oscillation in daily life between the search for perfection and the strictures of a chronically imperfect human nature.
Excerpted with permission from Auroville: Dream and Reality – An Anthology, edited and introduced by Akash Kapur, Penguin Books.