I Went to School in an Indian Commune
Her followers call her ‘The Mother’: a French woman who began forging her vision of a Utopian society in Tamil Nadu, one of India’s southernmost states, before her death in 1973. The international community is based on her dreams of universal acceptance, where people of all countries may live and flourish as a collective, or what is more commonly referred to as a commune.
Since its founding in 1968, Auroville – or City of Dawn – has grown from a dry mass of wasteland into a living, thriving community of over 2000 people. In one of the largest experimental townships on earth, residents speed from place to place on motorbikes or amble past on bare feet and bicycles.
In the late morning, the Indian sun strolls across the sky intensely, as if through a magnifying glass. My bare feet are planted firmly in the rust-red dirt, which stains my skin heavily even after a wash. I squat outside, most of the other students attending Deepanam School crouching alongside me. An atypical education system taught mainly in English, Deepanam caters to children whose families live and work within Auroville, who want access to a less structured, more hands-on approach to learning.
During a time when my parents were fed up with the pace of American life, offered a place for my sister and I to enjoy our education. Where class is somewhat unstructured and flexible in Auroville, everything in the United States public school system is meticulously planned. It is not uncommon to gulp down lunch faster than a starving dog due to the lack of time, to forgo food altogether in order to have a break or to fake illness on a test day to postpone the doom that a bad grade could potentially cause your permanent record.
On this day, away from the harshness of many of our home countries’ schooling, we are completely engrossed in our work. It’s history class, or art – I’m not sure. All subjects seem to blend together, as our learning is not defined by overcrowded classrooms, filled with textbooks and tests, a world that I will soon be thrust into, headfirst. Today I spent hours pouring turquoise and tobacco-coloured sand into a precise pattern of radial symmetry. Pride rises in my chest as I stand up, staring at the finished piece of work. Taking a deep breath in, my mouth turns upward into a smile. I sigh, breathing out, satisfied with my mandala.
By the time lunch rolls around, the ground has turned to a hopscotch course of do-not-step-on-today’s-assignment, plastered by the children’s sand art. By the time the break passes, most of the work of the day has been destroyed, smudged into a grey powder that contrasts and eventually blends into the brick-coloured earth. Tomorrow might bring storytelling or class in our live science room, which has been filled with rescued animals that we will soon release.
Part of the beauty of this place is its fluidity, the way people in the community are constantly coming and going, cultures from around the globe mixing and learning from each other. When you are so engrossed in the freedom of the culture you are in, it becomes a welcome way of life. Especially at 11 years old, everything is in constant flux.
The pressures that I would surely experience back in the States vanish in the community of Auroville. With an emphasis on language, the arts, sports, and a child’s personal pursuits, Auroville’s idea of learning seems to directly contrast that of the United States and many other western cultures, whose emphasis focuses on a core curriculum with little leeway for personal exploration.
Why do we end up leaving then, if our lives feel so seamless here? It’s a question I’ll keep asking, although I’m not sure I’ll ever get a straightforward answer out of either of my parents. I’m not sure they know any more than I do, and their answers change each time. As with most experiences within my family growing up, little feels planned out. We ended up in India on a whim, just as we leave. Going back to America, which should feel like a homecoming, feels more like culture shock than arriving in Chennai three years prior.
On returning to the States as a 12-year-old, I find myself sitting behind a small wooden desk nailed to the floor, attached to a plastic chair by a rusty metal rod. A test booklet which I am not permitted to write in is placed in front of me, along with a bubble answer sheet and a No. 2 pencil. I stare at an ant crawling aimlessly across potential answers on my paper. Even though it is a newer development, I’ve gotten good at noticing when a panic attack is coming on. My heart speeding up, trying to crawl out of my chest, my lungs becoming smaller and my hands clenching. The ant scurries down the side of my desk and out of site.
I raise my hand and ask to go to the bathroom. The teacher stares at me blankly, “Do you have a pass?”
Cover supplied by the author