by Callia Barnard
Today I spent the majority of my time in Bread & Chocolate, a small, trendy cafe on the outskirts of Auroville. I sat there most of the afternoon with my work while I listened to the lulling sounds of coffee being prepared and bread being sliced.
The first thing I noticed walking up to the cafe was the outside seating area. Not one person there had a skin tone darker than my own western European tone. I heard a variety of western languages being tossed around, a sign of diversity, but not the kind of diversity expected in a small town in India. I wondered if this demographic congregated here in Bread & Chocolate because they found comfort in the familiarity of this cafe setting, making it a more appealing unit for individuals who previously lived in the western world. Anyone could spend an afternoon in B&C with its stylish decor and contemporary design and forget they are in rural India.
Many westerners are enticed by the idea of Auroville, and of course have a financial leg up on those who have lived here their whole lives or in the surrounding villages. I believe this to be a big reason there was not one Tamil person having lunch in this overly-priced-for-India cafe. The trendy cafes and restaurants seem to be dominated by middle-age white folk who have saved enough to be “extravagant” in Auroville. For a community that places a heavy emphasis on equality and being free from material possessions and needs, it seems inconsistent for westerners to come into this community with their savings and live above a majority of the population, which happens to live just slightly above the poverty line. For those who haven’t come from the same background, and when the average “maintenance”, or monthly earnings, for Aurovillians is around 200 euros a month, it is not sustainable to spend 6 euros on lunch on a random Tuesday afternoon.
After scanning the crowd’s demographics, I turned to the kitchen. Every individual preparing food and coffee was Tamil. This dynamic of native Tamil people serving westerners made me uncomfortable. Why is it that those in the kitchen seem to always be native Tamil people, and where do these white Aurovillians work? I found a partial answer to this question when I spotted a white woman with an air of authority breezing in and out of the cafe. She must have been the manager or some higher position than kitchen staff, because it is seemingly uncommon for a Tamil person and a white person to occupy the same position. I find the fact that westerners come in to Auroville and run these “units” with a staff of Tamil-only individuals very strange for an “intentional community” striving for equality in all aspects.
This experience of watching white folk spend money they have acquired probably outside of Auroville while Tamil people work in the background has been reoccurring throughout the practicum, in both units and restaurants. The only place I have seen a bit of diversity in the workspace is at the Financial Services. I am unaware of any demographics, employment laws or rules, or customs that might explain this incongruous aspect of Auroville, and I wonder about the answer that lays beyond these components. I wonder if it is my own lack of knowledge that makes the situation appear as I interpret it. I intend to look deeper into this dynamic in order to understand why this evident divide can still exist in a community that drives towards human unity.