Wednesday, February 11, 2009

When I arrived in Auroville, I didn't know I was there. I caught a bus from Madras to Pondicherry, thinking that some time on the beach would be good for me after the recent encounter I had with a pair of X chromosomes (as Yoav put it) who ruined me in typical style. I wanted to surf and I was thinking that maybe the full moon would help the waves a little. I arrived at night and strolled down the beach until I saw a light in the doorway near some new-agers doing Yoga in the sand by moonlight. I asked if there were any vacant beachside huts where I could spend the night, and the man at the door answered "hashish?" That's when I knew I was close to the largest hippy communal living experiment on earth.

I had heard that Auroville, a community which began with the best intentions had long since deteriorated into a bunch of hippies smoking weed and playing "redemption song" on the guitar. The community began in the sixties (I think) when westerners were increasingly drawn to the strange spiritual allure of India, not yet recognizing yet another form of dogmatic persuasion and what inevitably just amounts to a power grab by people who claim to know what God is doing or "fools" as Kurt Vonnegut said. Foolishness aside, I was drawn to this place by the fact that I was once an idealist, the intellectual curiosity I have worked to cultivate as a replacement for my apathy, to gain direction and insight, to "train" for the exhausting task of hanging out with hippies all summer with Outward Bound, and because there might be chicks there.

After spending an over-priced night in a hut on the beach, I rented a motorcycle to get me into Auroville, which isn't as easy as one might think. To even skim the surface of this community, one needs to agree to a set of values and complete a series of steps. The first is to be invited in. I was. Next, one has to commit to two weeks of living in one of the communities and working on the organic farm, following the myriad rules which include no outside money, no chemicals of any kind, and a 100 percent Vegan diet. I could do that. No beer, no drugs. I was looking to de-tox anyway, or perhaps just "pre-tox" which is where you get healthy before you go binge drinking. You also have to have read the community charter which sates that "Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness." Not sure about that one.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

My brother's revenge

Growing up,when I was cruel to my brother, which was often, I was warned by the people in my life that some day things would be different-- some day he would have the upper hand. I always interpreted these warnings in the narrow light of youth, thinking that it meant that someday he would grow taller and larger physically and would be able to return my physical abuse with physical abuse of his own. I dismissed all such predictions as absurd in the manner of an incredulous 9 year old who has just been told that "there is more to life than video games."

"As if!" I would say, borrowing the quaint response from Alicia Silverstone from "Clueless."

I used to torture my younger genetic counter-part with taunts about how only wussies played soccer. I thought of soccer as a baby's game where the players would express their skill through fancy footwork and trickery, to me reminiscent of the trickery of a little brother yelling "Mom, John's hitting me!" as soon as I entered the room. Soccer players would feign injury to get sympathy from the referee even though they weren't even bleeding. They were more actors than anything, I always thought, and this was something I availed myself of every possible opportunity to remind him.

When my friends in Chennai asked me if I wanted to go play football for the afternoon over in a park in the city, I immediately said yes asking if it was contact football or touch football. They gave me the quizzical look of someone who has just identified the silent farter at the tea party, and then one of them said "soccer, mate."

"Oh, soccer."

It had been days since I had any significant amount of exercise other than walking around the city, so I had to take them up on their offer and borrow some acceptable shoes.

We rode the train downtown and I watched out the window as scenes of India flew past the open doors as it conveyed us on electricity over the slippery tracks on an elevated platform--ka-chuck ka-chuck ka-chuck. We looked down at cows eating garbage by the oily roadside gutter ka-chuck, kids pushing tires with sticks through the crowded streets laughing ka-chuck, colorful laundry hung on rooftops to dry in the sunlight ka-chuck, peremptory palms protruding from cracked city sidewalks ka-chuck, arriving in a dizzy haze at a college campus in what looked from the fancy design elements and modern facade to be Los Angeles.

As we signed in at the gate and paid the 100 rupees each for use of the field, I was transported to another reality, as is so often seen in India. There is the life of the people on the street and then there is the insular and privileged life of the elite who might as well be living somewhere else entirely with the degree to which they hide in their mansions and chauffeured petrol-guzzling foreign automobiles and private schools. We walk through the campus over to the field where we greet a crowd watching a soccer match already in progress. Many of the onlookers have brown skin, but speak with impeccable British accents, clearly the new elite. I tie my shoes and sub in as a member of the white team, temporarily assigned the role of forward. This should be easy. They're all a bunch of foppish British talking Indians.

The ball sails past my head and I duck. Whoa, that was close, but then I remember that hitting the ball with your face in this game is a good thing. Oops. I quickly learn that my role is to get in the way, since my first effort to kick the ball in the right direction goes horribly awry. I try the "interfere with the other guy" strategy and I get in a kicking match with one of the red guys which ends with both of us on the ground and him whining like a baby and looking up at me astounded like I just licked his sister's face. He has a "how could you?" look and I apologize, thinking he must be really hurt. I'm about to run for the sideline and call 911, when he suddenly picks himself up and sprints down the field, proving that soccer players are more actors than anything, however fit and good with the feet they might seem. I start to think of it like ballet.

I run back and forth. I chase the ball. The ball goes over there. Somebody kicks it. I run over there. I get tired and jog toward the ball. The ball goes somewhere else. I lose my concern about where the ball is. A more pressing question is "why can't I breathe?" I stay where I am. Suddenly the ball comes to me. Think! React! Because of my laziness in chasing the ball, I'm now in a position to score. I kick the ball over to another guy and he kicks it in! Yes! I have earned the respect of the soccer players. I run with my hands up screaming "goooooooaaaaallllllll!" If respect is hard to earn it is easy to lose.

We run some more and kick the ball over there then back and then over there again. Somebody kicks it out of bounds, and sensing an opportunity, I rush over to the sideline to throw the ball in at the guy who's open and in a position to score. I grab it out of a tangle of net that is on the sideline and throw it in with a running start, but my foot catches in the net and I fall on my face. The few who see this laugh.

As the sun fades and people start to get tired, we wrap it up, and tally the goals and such, but it is unclear who won. We congratulate each other on the sideline and one Indian guy actually says to me "good show, old chap." My brother has had his revenge as was once prophesied. I have been defeated by a bunch of soccer playing wussies and thoroughly embarrassed, and they say "good show" at the end.

"Glad I could put on a show for you" I say and we make our way off the brilliantly green field rimmed by palm trees, benches and manicured gardens out to the foyer of the private school or university or whatever where we drink purified water out of the tap. We walk into the street in the darkness and are soon assaulted again by the open sewers, predatory packs of dogs fighting in the street, and the smoke plume from a pile of burning garbage that wafts into the air and disappears like the hopes of Gandhi for an India where the poor were no longer ruled by an elite whose lives they can no more comprehend than the whims of their Gods, one part kind, one part cruel, but united in their indifference.