Roads and more.

The sound of bus horns invades your mind to the extent that hearing yourself think becomes a distant memory. The movement of motorbikes weaving in and out of cars with buses in hot pursuit is constant creating the sense that one is in the midst of a hurricane. It is a miracle that any one survives the journey to and from work, yet surprisingly it works. The motorbikes move to the side of the barreling buses in a fluid motion and the cars as if polite neighbors signal to one another as they pass back and forth from their respective lanes.  

The scenes that play out on the roads of India are unparalleled in ability to shock a newcomer and often leave individuals paralyzed at the side of the road unwilling to enter the fray. As a foreigner entering the country I had been made aware of the fact that the “traffic regulations” may differ from say Paris or New York, but although it may have seemed like madness when I first entered it there was a method to this madness. 

Having worked as a bicycle currier in the past, one learns very quickly that you are at the bottom of the food-chain on the road, and as a result one must become hyper-aware of what is going on around them just to get from point A to B. This is the case in London, in New York, in Paris, and in Pondicherry (the closest city located to where we were staying in India) it seems. This axiom, that carriers across all cultures, forces cyclists from all corners of the world to notice details on the road that are not always clearest to someone that has spent their entire life driving in a car.  

Europeans and Americans are always quick to warn you about two places in particular: New York and Paris. Both are major metropolises known for their diverse cultures, incredible architecture, and, among other things, their low quality of drivers. This is a surprising fact seeing as these are some of the most heavily regulated roads in the world—there are cameras on almost every corner, you have street lights on every other street, and during rush-hour you can always count on the appearance of an overzealous traffic warden. It would seem that all you would need to do is follow the intricate guidelines and there would be an avoidance many traffic fatalities, however this is not the case. The majority of drivers in big cities act and drive in a way that says, “I shall be going first as I am the most deserving.” Whether they are on a scooter, a motorcycle, a car, a bus, or a truck. There is no acknowledgement of the hierarchy that naturally exists on the roads.  

In India however, there seems to be less of an individualistic mentality when it comes to the rules of the road. It is true that a motorcyclist will always find a way to the front of the queue when it comes to a traffic light and will be quick to overtake you on a corner, but for the most part there is a natural tendency to fall into the natural hierarchy of the roads. A bus or a truck, being one of the larger vehicles, will just continue driving oblivious to what or who may lie in its path, and when this happens there is no panic on any of the smaller vehicles parts they just move. They do not claim a right of way. They do not stand their ground under the assumption that this small win will garner them some pride for the day. They just get on with it. They understand that the truck is bigger than them so they have to move.  

This idea of just getting on with it, even with the lack of guidelines, seems to be applicable much more to those on the streets of India than those on the roads of European cities. Europeans, and Americans, have become so caught up in the luxuries and the small details of life that they seem to get hung up on things that really carry little weight. Why does it matter that the barista did not say “your welcome” when you said “thank you”? Why does it matter that that person with the silly black briefcase got served at the bank before you? The truth is it does not. If we could all just shift our mentalities to be a little more like the small vehicles on the roads of India then there might be less crashes and more movement.  

Sustainability From A-Z

By: Beatriz Salgado

Day 4: December 12th, 2017

Today we visited several organizations: Upasana, Pitchandikulam, Yatra Arts Media and lastly Marc’s Café, though the last one wasn’t an organization, it was the highlight of realizing the significance of sustainability and what it means to be sustainable.

I must start with the first visit of the day at Upasana. The design studio founded by Uma, is textile-based company designed for social responsibility, which produces clothes that go beyond vanity.

The organization has several different projects revolved around sustainability and conscious consumption. While Uma talked and as we watched a movie that explained the evolution of cotton and textile, I realized how many of us don’t stop to think about the process of making a piece of clothing. That was what was so impressive at Upasana, giving importance from the very first step in making a garment, from the seed of the cotton that the farmers will pick and later be transformed in clothing. It was touching to understand the importance of textile and farmers in cotton communities within rural India. Upasana strives to change impact of fashion industry into a positive one.

blog2_4

After Upasana, we went to Pitchandikulam. They are a unit under Auroville Foundation dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the indigenous Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest of Tamil Nadu.

The foundation strives for environmental awareness, capacity building in the community, health camp and even health camp for cattle. Additionally, Pitchandikulam engages in medicinal plant awareness. For example, they teach what kinds of remedies such as, herbal tea and food are healthy and prevent illness. The organization has a pop up store with local products, which later on the trip I went to and was dazzled by what I found. There were so many different natural products each with a specific function for healing and benefitting the wellness and health. It was so encouraging to see so many options of remedies made from natural ingredients directly from the evergreen forest of Tamil Nadu. It was a completely new perspective on ways to be sustainable with the environment.

blog2_3

Later, we headed to the Yatra Arts Media, which was one of the organizations that really caught my attention. They focused on producing documentaries on social and health issues to educate school children. They also raise awareness by performing in street theatre and involving the locals.

blog2_1

It was just so fascinating to see such a creative outreach to raise serious issues and provoke behavior change and education through art. The various cultural programs made by the arts foundation was truly inspiring and a new way to engage with communities.

We finally ended the day at Marc’s Café. Little did I know that later on, the cozy yet bustling place would become our little ‘hub” for working and having access to Wi-Fi. Marc’s Café was such a warming and friendly environment, the “Starbucks” of Tamil Nadu. We had such an enriching talk with Marc, the owner. He talked about how the cultural trend for coffee started in India and how he got interested in the Coffee business.

While he explained his interest in wanting to buy beans from the producer and the importance of knowing the whole process of where coffee comes from was when I realized the real meaning of sustainability. I was able to connect all the pieces of the puzzle and notice the immense role sustainability plays on practically every issue. It was then that I realized how sustainability was possible in such an array of topics from fashion, cosmetics, well-being, architecture, music, education, art, environment, culture and even coffee! It was then that I started thinking about two questions. “How do we think sustainably?” “How do we live sustainably?”

blog2_2

The first field note…

16.12.17 Rubini & the Samugam Foundation 

by Dorothea Mursch-Edlmayr

We’ve started our second day in India with our first yoga session on the roof of our Guesthouse Mitra at 7 in the morning, before we took the bus to Pondicherry. On this Saturday we had four NGO visits schedule. The ride to Pondicherry – such a loud, crowded, colorful and culturally different place and the overall heat – was overwhelming. We were confronted with the real Indian experience already. And then we stopped at our first NGO, the Samugam Foundation. I was so fascinated with the city trying to absorb everything I saw, that I didn’t mentally prepare myself for the Samugam Foundation. So I stepped out of the bus and was completely surprised by the children that were waiting for us. They grabbed our hands, talked to us, introduced themselves, hugged us and pointed at different things. It happened so quickly and suddenly every one of us got picked by a child, taken by the hand and accompanied to the house they live and get educated in.

PC160062.jpg

Rubini (r.) and one of her friends

My girl was Rubini. She is 6 years old and wore a beautiful blue dress, my favorite color. She was smiling the whole time and was full of energy and excitement. She showed me the kitchen, the bedroom, the music room, she introduced me to her friends and taught me a clapping-singing game that they all love to play. She seemed happy and like a normal child. Although we didn’t speak the same language we communicated through gestures, pointing at things and facial expressions and hand signs. We spent 20 minutes together before she showed me my seat in the room we were about to hear a presentation from the founder of the Samugam Foundation.

This nonprofit organization gives shelter to the gypsy, street and poor children, providing them with a home, food, education, sanitarian care and overall protection with the mission of giving them a chance to become a part of the society. These children grow up in poverty and misery facing illness and death because of non-existing hygiene standards concerning food and body care, being unaware of their destiny because of a lack of education. This NGO tries to give the children a chance for a better life. I was sitting in this room, watching the videos about gipsy children eating dirty food from the dump, living so close to this polluted area being excluded from society with no possibility for a change. It was hard to take and almost overshadowed the fun playful 20 minutes with Rubini. She was one of them and I felt very helpless. My eyes were wandering around in the presentation room and suddenly I saw a quote by Ghandi on the wall that gave me hope in this moment of brutal reality; “only through education we can change the world”. Inequality and unfairness exist and there is no sense in being upset with the world how it is, we just need to keep this words in mind and help the people through education to change their destiny towards a better one. I went back to the bus with gratitude for my life and hope for Rubini and all the other beautiful children that welcomed us so friendly at our first NGO visit in India.

PC160071.JPG

Read more about the Samugam Foundation on their website: http://www.samugam.org

On the morning spiritual Kolam experience

BY SIMON MUSASIZI

The dawn before the sun rises is the sweetest time to enjoy sleep. For most people, it’s the toughest time to wake up. However, for the women in South India, this is the time to get up to express their feelings by creating beautifully-designed shapes around the entrances to their homesteads. This tradition, which spawns hundreds of years, is commonly known as the Kolam making. As early as 5am every day, women start painting the dark ground into bright and beautiful shapes as a way of bringing new energy and good vibration for the household, but also acting as a bridge between the inner and the outer world.

The process starts with cleaning with water the place where the kolam is to be drawn. The wet floor is then swept thoroughly to create an even surface. Kolams are generally drawn while the surface is still damp, so the design will hold better. Using chalk powder and white rock powder, it is amazing to watch how women trickle powder in a stream between their middle and index fingers, using their thumbs to guide the flow of the powder. The patterns range between geometric and mathematical line drawings around a matrix of dots to free form art work and closed shapes. It is reported that this used to be a matter of pride to be able to draw large complicated patterns without lifting the hand off the floor or standing up in between. The lines must be completed to symbolically prevent evil spirits from entering the inside of the shapes, which translates into shielding the home from evil spirits.

Previously, cow dung was preferred choice for laying the foundation for the kolam because it is believed to have antiseptic properties, hence, cleans and purifies the ground. Today, it isn’t commonly used partly because the cows have become few, but also, with urbanisation, many homes are located along tarmacked streets, and therefore, the kolams are drawn on the tarmac. However, previously, the cow dung provided the contrast with the white powder. Then, kolams were drawn using rice flour, as a way of beginning the day with an act of kindness by providing food for ants and other insects so they don’t have to walk too far and too long looking for a meal. The rice powder also invited the birds, thus welcoming other beings into one’s home and everyday life; a daily tribute to harmonious co-existence.

According to Ponnusamy Balasundaram, the founder of Mohanam Village Heritage Centre, kolam making evokes harmony, beauty and playfulness. You can call it the yoga of the woman. The patterns are determined by what is on the woman’s mind or heart. It averagely takes about 15-20min to accomplish one kolam, and once it is ready, it is an invitation or welcome of all into the home. Each creation is dedicated to Lakshmi the goddess of wealth, prosperity, harmony and love. It is believed to protect the household from the evil eye. Through the day, the drawings get walked on, washed out in the rain, or blown by wind, new ones are made the next day.

To enjoy this special experience, Mohanam organises what it calls the ‘Morning village tour’, a sacred Mandala kolam ritual and village walk. The four hours’ walk gives you chance to participate in the kolam drawing as well as mingle and mix with the locals.

The tour gets you absorbed in traditional crafts such as stone carving, ceramics and terracotta work that the village artisans have kept alive despite commercial competition outside. You get to watch them demonstrate their craft.

During the tour, participants can feel, taste, hear and see the richness that this part of the Tamil culture holds. Visitors have the opportunity to listen to stories from the village to get an insight into the unwritten history, as well as experience much more talent among the villages that will give the visitors a memory for life. For example, the story of the village of Sanjeevinagar is a captivating one, getting to learn how it was born when Hanuman, the monkey god, dropped part of the medicine on Mountain Sanjeevi.

It is interesting to discover how Hindus, Muslims and Dalit live together amicably in this part of India. The climax is when you enter the Hindus temple and get chance to do Pooja.

The morning ends back at Mohanam with a delicious Tamil lunch, which is uniquely served on a banana leaf, as you watch children show off skills they have learnt at the centre.

This tour is one of the ways Mohanam tries to bridge the gap between Auroville and its surrounding community. If you are the kind who can’t walk, there is a bullock cart to give you a ride.

Every year, Mohanam also organises the Women’s Kolam Retreat and Pongal festival, a five-day experience that brings together local and global women to share the art of making kolams but also reflect on the culture of Tamil Nadu, which is under threat from globalisation.

 

Building a village cultural learning centre from scratch

BY SIMON MUSASIZI

Written on January 4, 2018

When Ponnusamy Balasundaram, first came to Auroville, a lot of things captured his eye. The village was dotted with foreign faces living in nice houses with an enthusiasm about Indian culture, which many youths in the other villages were abandoning.

Balu, as he’s commonly known, had been sent to bring food to his grandfather, who made a living working as a casual laborer at the construction site of Matrimandir where he supervised a team of 60-70 workers. The then 12-year-old, Balu recalls that Auroville was a beehive of activities, with construction work going on everywhere. The above environment in Auroville inspired Balu; he knew this was the place he wanted to live. That explains why every day after school, the seventh-grade student would gladly avail himself to take food to his grandfather, uncles, and cousins at the construction site and would use this chance to link up with classmates to chat. Following the death of his father at young age, Balu grew up with his grandfather in Sanjeevinagar, a village surrounding Auroville.

The dramatic loss had an impact on his upbringing and resulted in him being always among the last people in class. Yet, he always had a dream of working together with friends to have a positive contribution to his society. His teacher noticed this attribute and always encouraged him: “Education isn’t working, but you have the energy and passion for doing something.” This encouraged him to pursue his vision. He came up with an idea to start cleaning up Auroville, which at the time had bushy roads, with poor drainage. When he proposed it to his friends, some liked it, others ridiculed it –because as young and ambitious teenagers, they would not imagine lowering themselves to being street cleaners. But Balu, who dropped out of school while doing a diploma in electrical engineering, had the backing of two Aurovilians: Bavana of Auroville Village Action Trust, and Aurelio with whom he later started Svaram Music Centre. These two believed in his idea and he would always run to them for advice.

In 2001, what started as street talk began to materialize when Balu and his friends secured a house for rent in Sanjeevinagar.

“We needed a place where we can conveniently meet because we always met at the bus stop where we would talk casually,” he recalls.

They went house-to-house to try and raise money for rent. With Bavana and Aurelio’s support, they were able to have the house, hence, Mohanam Village Heritage Centre was born in one of the last traditional houses of Sanjeevinagar.

The vision now expanded to create a heritage centre that would act as a bridge between the traditional and modern, the old and the young, and between what is happening in Auroville and its surrounding villages. This is because when Balu arrived in Auroville, there were many curious minds that wanted to know more about his culture. They would bombard him with so many questions, which inspired him to share the knowledge. Many young people who had settled in Auroville with their parents would tell him, ‘We want the real Indian experience; where do we get it?’ And he would reply to them, “But you’re in India’. They would then say, “In Auroville, we meet the same people we left in Paris, Germany, Holland. We want to meet Indian people.” This curiosity of the Aurovilians inspired him to think bigger to create a centre that would bridge the gap between Auroville and its surrounding villages.

The cultural centre therefore started tours that provided opportunity for the visitors to interact with the locals and get a taste of their culture. That way, it also began to reenergize the locals to believe more in their culture. Mohanam thereafter spread its wings into livelihood programs. In 2006, Mohanam Women’s Group was founded as a way of empowering women and making them less dependent on men. Based at Mohanam Malargal House, the women are trained in skills such as tailoring, embroidery and fabric painting. For children, there are various projects, one being the Mohanam Kindergarten with strong emphasis on creative and child-centered approach, with the foundational experience of modern child psychology and new pedagogical methods.

For local youth, Mohanam offers classes in folk dance, Carnatic singing, arts and crafts, yoga, martial arts, and theatre.  The organization keeps the youth active and stimulated as well as ensuring they have a good knowledge of cultural practice, helping them to find identity and connection to their own original culture.

There is ongoing and collaborative work regarding community welfare and development in Sanjeevinagar and Alankuppam villages, where the Mohanam team, the village elders and the youths join hands to work towards a sustainable environment.

Today, Mohanam has become the Auroville bioregion arts and cultural historical knowledge hub. “We want to be more dynamic. It is a place where people can explore the local cultural values. The dream is that every village should have a cultural centre; it is critical for future generations, to have a place where they can get in touch with their tradition and local knowledge. This is what I feel is missing. We need to create space for the next generation to understand the value of nature, to bring harmony, and peace for community building,” says Balu.

“You can be modern, but you do not have to forget where you are coming from. It is very important that we keep the connection from where we came from and find our roots. This brings community together and fosters unity.”

Currently, Mohanam is building its future campus, having received support from the Pondicherry government department of tourism and the French government. The new campus spans about five acres with a lake, which will be developed as an ecological project for the community.

Yet not everything has been achieved on a silver plate. The hardest year for the organization was 2008 when there was no funding at all. This demoralized workers and some of Balu’s friends, who quit for profit-making ventures.

Fortunately, in 2009 came support from the Lion’s Club of Holland. There was also funding from the Rose Foundation, a women’s organisation in Japan, and many other organizations have since then supported Mohanam.

Humans of Auroville

By Stephanie Alex
Written on Jan. 8

DSC00993

“My name is Madhu. I’m 27 years old.  I am from Tamil Nadu, India. I work doing graphic design and social media at Village Action Group. I create music, I do theater and I’m a dancer. I am also working with kids, teaching them what I’ve learned.  What I like the most is to be on stage, do different dances and performances with my friends. Every-time I am on stage it reminds me that I can do anything. When I was growing up I was way too shy to even dance, I remember the first time I went on stage and I did a performance, I was so happy by the end of it. I really believed that dancing and music were not for me, that I could never do that. But once I did start practicing and continued preforming, it gave me the confidence to believe that I could do anything. From all the people that I’ve learned to all the challenges that I faced, I know growing up in Auroville had a big influence in becoming who I am today.”

“I’ve noticed how every-time I go to my own village I feel like an outsider, I feel that in there everyone is the same. Every-time I visit my mum in the village, she tells me Madhu you cannot do this, you need to cut your long hair, you can’t wear earnings, you should do this and you should do that. But the main thing that I’ve learned in Auroville is that I can do what I love to do and be who I want to be.”

“I remember growing up being six or seven years old, when my father was a construction worker. I remember being on my school holiday and my father took me to work with him that day. I was playing with the sand while he was building houses in Auroville, when I saw for the first time a family of white people (jiggles) can I say that? I remember the voices in my head asking why are they white? what are they doing in here? The father of a family that was there that day invited me to play with his kids. I couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand me, but we played the whole day. That day Auroville started for me.”

 

 

 

GNO

This moment is so unreal I’m not even sure how to perceive it. I’m lying on a thin cloth blanket draped over the hard tile floor. A small pillow rest behind my head and this pen on paper is the only thing I can think to do, as I’m not sure sleeping is an option.

There is a transgender woman lying beside me. The room is filled with smoke from the prayer ritual she performed earlier this evening. The fan is on full blast, so strong that I’m really not sure I can sleep through the noise. Her daughter is asleep on the cold floor in the next room, but the lights are still on as I, their guest, is not yet ready for bed. I’m on the far-left corner of the room and she is on the far right. A pillow lays vacant it between us until dawn when the third woman returns from a night of prostitution.

I have been invited into the home of three transgender women. The youngest is a mere 17 years and spends her days begging on the streets. She is young and juvenile. She plays the role of the daughter entirely, cleaning up after her parents, making coffee and tea, fetching a drink or cigarette at their beck and call. Her guardians are not much older; one is 21 and the other 28. Together they live in an apartment smaller than my bedroom. They have their own unique family dynamic that is no different than any other. They support each other financially and emotionally as best they can.

In my quick glimpse into the lives of seven transgender women, I learn the ins and outs of their lifestyle. It was a party they told me, just for me. All the women get together and we enjoy an evening of food and laughter until it is time to go to work. Each of the girls took out their makeup bags, showing me all the products they use as they proudly put on their face. Each woman one by one applies her makeup and changes her clothes for the night to come. I joined them in the ritual and apply some of my own, as I realize they stopped what they were doing to watch and learn from me. They begin to comment on my complexion, hair color, and eyes in a way that I had never experienced before. They kept asking me if I wear lenses and of course my answer was yes because I can’t see without them, but by the time the night rolled around and I lay here writing about the days experience I realized they weren’t asking me if I wore lenses to see, but they didn’t believe that my blue eyes were real. One of the women asked me how I get my complexion so fair. Do you use cream she asked? What can I do to look like you? I’m not sure how to respond, so I returned the quasi complement by telling her how beautiful she looked and that she shouldn’t change a thing. Although in my head, I knew she honestly wanted an answer of how to whiten her skin and get blue contact lenses to look more beautiful.

I stop what I’m doing as I’ve have enough in the spotlight and each of them go back to their own process. Through a strong language barrier, I learn that four of the seven girls around me have graduated from University with degrees in engineering. They explain to me their studies and how some of their hobbies are computer programming and design. I listen to their stories and realize the complexity of what they are telling me versus what I am seeing. These women are educated, they have the ability to live successful lives and be financially stable—only if they were men. The reality of it is that they can brag about their college degrees to me only as they are preparing for a night of prostitution because it is their only possibility of bringing income to their families. They shift from the subject of university to prostitution as if it’s no big deal. They act as if they have accepted their line of work, as there are very few other ways to live their lives openly as trans women. The only woman who doesn’t do sex work anymore lives upstairs and was able get out of it once she married. Her husband, a transgender man, is the moneymaker. She told me a little bit about her active sex life and the other girls giggled to themselves exclaiming, “They have sex every day!”. Their intention was to say that this wasn’t so normal and I’m still not sure why they feel this way. Is her active sex life strange because the rest of them are paid for sex? Is a love relationship so foreign within Indian culture?

Once the girls are dressed and ready for the night we say our goodbyes as I won’t see them until I wake the next morning. The woman laying beside me playing on her phone as I write in my notebook is missing a night’s worth of income just stay behind and chaperone me. As I pause to stare up at the turquoise walls chipping and fading away, I wonder how many others have looked up at the same four walls. The women who live in the apartment told me earlier that they had only lived there for three months. She explained that they have to move often because neighbors have problems living with transgender’s.

I finally get tired, as I think the exhaustion from the overwhelming day finally sinks in…