This is Sunday; Dhruva is free from his clinic so he’s
taking me to Auroville for the day. We go by taxi. Auroville was created as
an experiment, a centre for meditation, an international university, an agricultural
revolution, an industrial adventure. It is to have a multinational community,
and, with the imposing ideals laid down by the Mother (whose inspiration it
is), Auroville should be a paradise on earth.
A paradise on earth? Is it possible? Has it not been
tried before? We live through such confusion, such uncertainty, such despair,
of course we must try. The effort itself is the salvation. If we stop caring,
we die. Striving for something outside chaos may not take us straight to paradise,
but the striving, the effort — yes — the plunge into the dirt, must
cleanse us, as it has cleansed Baruni.
Auroville is supposed to be a city, but it’s
still a latent dream. Its communities have high-sounding, meaningful names like
Aspiration, Fraternity, Utility. Yes, a dream. (1)
Dhruva is directing the driver through unmade roads,
over unmade fields, into unfinished building projects. We are going to see one
of his patients. She is living in a stream-lined Mediterranean-type bungalow.
She is also stream-lined in a cool, international but rather Mediterranean sort
of way. She could be an actress, a painter, a writer; she could be married to
an actor, a painter, a writer. She is beautiful - stunningly so because she
is free and natural and honest. She is ageless.
After the three of us have been talking for two and
a half hours, occasionally skirting round the subject that keeps jumping into
my mind — the Interview, she says: You will think me a heel, but I have
decided I don’t want to talk myself into your book and excite others into
the life-style which I believe happens to suit me right now, it’s too
easy to do all that “look at me!” sort of thing.
Her decision doesn’t surprise me, and I tell
her so with much laughter. But now she is asking a pertinent question:
Has it ever crossed your mind that you may never finish
Oh yes, yes…since the book was started, many
things have crossed my mind. I explain it wasn’t in my power to start
this project, and what is developing has nothing to do with anything I have
accomplished, so as I see a greater power working, it’s that power’s
responsibility to finish the book — should that be the plan: I am to be
detached from the outcome. The dream — in this case — is to be involved
in something beautiful. Should it remain a dream — well — it will
still be beautiful.
She now asks if meeting so many different people plodding
along so many different paths is not confusing.
I reply: Yes, that could be a distraction, but all
I am doing is going from person to person like a bee gathering pollen. Whatever
is offered I accept: I don’t have to judge or compare or criticize. I
trust I am sufficiently grounded in my own guru and his teachings not to be overwhelmed
by other pollen varieties. And I am seeing, feeling, learning that in essence
all gurus, all teachings, all paths are pointing
to one sign: How to achieve perfection. That is the great dream I am aiming
to achieve. Dreams like that can’t confuse.
I am being shown some of the nearby Mediterranean style
houses, all white and gracious, tasteful and spacious. They remind me of the
unknown Ibiza in the 1960s, even the people — yes — especially the
people. I’m almost sure before the day’s out some of my old Ibiza
friends will manifest.
It’s now time for lunch, but in the dining room
(country-style Ibiza except for the Japanese furnishings) Dhruva is discretely
asking around hoping someone else will fill the breach — half the day
gone, nothing recorded! Meanwhile someone asks me if I would rent his house
for a week starting from yesterday. Now I have a habit of liking to get things
clear; I ask: You mean for six days? Actually — he replies — it’s
only five days. The deal falls through.
And just as well, for Dhruva is plowing through more
fields and rough roads — we have retained the taxi and we are on our way
to the Zelnicks. Michael is American, Shyama Swedish - Oh! - an Interview from
Their house, late 1960s Ibiza — superb, with
huge round window in the main room, thatched roof, and Italian baroque music
zooming out of the stereo in the loft. Perfect setting to get high on Vivaldi.
Or is it Albinoni? No, no, could it be Tartini?
But I am not allowed to listen because Shyama has to
take to the road with a brood of small children and Michael has agreed to start.
The effective cause of my getting interested in yoga was through my experience with drugs
which started in college, I guess in 1963. The first time I did psychedelics,
I was fortunate in that I had a spiritually aware guide. I had an experience
without any essential clouding ever after, and I knew I would end up in an Ashram.
I spent three years and about a hundred trips getting ready, so I thought it
was meandering — I knew I would eventually go to an Ashram. My interest
was in Buddhism — Zen — so I practiced
on my own: reading, meditating. My intention was to go to a Zen monastery in
Japan. I was living in Oregon, going to school, saving money: I had set a date
to leave for Japan — 1st June 1968.
I had earlier been in a Peace Corps training programme for India which I had
dropped out of. But I kept in touch with a couple who, after serving in India
for two years, met me on their return. They had planned to spend a short time
here in Pondicherry but ended up staying several months at the Ashram. Through
letters I knew they were impressed by someone they called the Mother. I was
not interested then in the Hindu tradition, but when I met them after their
return, I had an experience which I’m sure they were unaware of —
I felt something extraordinary coming through them. Extraordinary enough to
make me come straight to the Ashram in Pondicherry instead of my Zen monastery.
Did you meet Mother straight
No. But I had a strong enough feeling of her presence to make me want to stay.
I wrote to her asking if I could join the Ashram — this was January 1969:
she called me to come to see her. That was it!
Can you describe the
That’s not so easy…I saw The Mother! Until then it didn’t
mean anything to me, so I wasn’t prepared for the totally overwhelming
experience I had when I was with her.
Did you speak to her
We didn’t speak — no words were exchanged. I was led into Mother’s
room. She was in her chair…this is where a physical description becomes
difficult. It very quickly became a non-physical experience because at a certain
point I found I was on my knees in front of her looking into her eyes. And I
had a vision of The Mother. If you want to get technical, I have since decided
it was Maheshwari — that particular aspect of the Mother I got to see
that day. She was the Universal Mother — the Mother of my soul: The Mother.
It was an eternal moment, totally out of time: I had always been on my knees
looking into her eyes. That was the reality. The rest of my life, before and
after, was a dream. There was overwhelming love, compassion, understanding.
That’s all I can tell you about it. I have never since that day had such
an overwhelming experience of Mother although I subsequently saw her privately
quite a number of times.
Did she speak to you
on those other occasions?
I never spoke to her…I mean, if I had spoken, I have no doubt she would
have replied. It seemed a waste of time to talk; all I wanted was to get back
into those eyes. I never had any business to transact with her, I went as a
What work were you allowed
I started off working at the press as a proof-reader; after seven months it
wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore. As I had a background in teaching,
I wrote asking Mother if I could work in the school. She said Yes, so I started
the higher course: college-age kids, 17 to 20. This I did for nine years, in
fact, until I left the Ashram in 1978 to come to Auroville.
Why did you leave the
Ashram for Auroville?
It was not an entirely sudden move. I had been getting…restless will do…for
two years. Look, I had been doing a strict sadhana;
when I joined the Ashram, the little money I had was given to Mother, I ate
in the dining room with the others, I was celibate, etc., etc. But I started
feeling life in the Ashram was narrow. Mother had left the body in 1973; I stayed
on five more years but the place wasn’t the same. Anyway, parts of my
nature wanted to spread out a bit — in fact, I got tired of being an impoverished
sadhak, and I started a business while still in the Ashram making clothes for
export. In Ashram jargon, let’s say I wanted to experience money power.
Then I met Shyama, Shyama who is my wife now and has been in Pondy since 1965
with her previous husband. You’ve seen her, well…you know, we just
fell in love. It was impossible to have this relationship in the Ashram. She
was already living here; I moved out of the Ashram and came here.
Did you have to get permission
to leave the Ashram?
No, no, no! I left the school and spoke to the chief trustee — a matter
of formalities as the Ashram guaranteed my visa.
You didn’t have
to get permission to live in Auroville?
I didn’t. Auroville is rather amorphous; from time to time there are efforts
to organize things: rules for doing this and that, but…Shyama was here
from the beginning; there was no problem. You just have to fit in, do a job,
and not be financially dependent.
What work are you doing
At present it’s centred on children. Mornings I run a creche for little
ones — my son is the youngest: the ages are from 1 to 3. Afternoons four
days a week I have a physical education program for older kids. Previously I
worked at the Matrimandir…
In what capacity?
…as a cooli, which is basically what everyone does.
What is the significance
of this huge building?
Matrimandir means the Mother’s Temple; it’s to be a meditation hall,
a very grand one. It has been under construction since 1970 or so.
In this community life,
what are the arrangements for shopping, for food?
The answer is different as there are a lot of scenes and set-ups. There is a
community service which provides a grocery basket three times a week. There
are communal dining rooms also. One does what one does according to one’s
financial position. People having no money take all their meals at the dining
rooms, others manage with the baskets provided by the service, others supplement
it as best they can with shopping at Pondy. Our own set-up is that we get a
basket and supplement it pretty liberally.
Does this mean each family
gets the same basket?
It’s like this: the basket on Tuesdays is dry goods which one orders,
like 2 kilos of rice a week and so forth. On other days it’s basically
vegetables. It depends on how much money they have received during the week
as to what is provided. Everyone gets the same, the quantity depending on the
number of people in the household. You asked earlier about getting permission
to stay here — well, as far as I can see, those supposed to be here are
here, they stay here. The baskets are fairly meagre. If someone comes along
and says: Please feed me, and he has no resourses, it’s a bit difficult.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s a happy situation; it works —
Auroville is a special place.
Do you still give time
to any sadhana?
Well, now we are going to have to define our terms; obviously the life I am
leading now is not the life of a sadhak as lived in the Ashram. As far as I’m
concerned I’m still doing sadhana
in the broad sense that this life is given to Mother as best I can give it.
The centre of my life is my relationship to her and Sri
Aurobindo. That’s why I stay in Auroville, which is not entirely trouble-free
nor vitally exciting.
Is the life here more
difficult than in the Ashram?
As far as personal relationships go, yes. One has more here. But in a sense
the relationships here are more real. My life in Pondy was rather insular, and
my relationships were primarily through my work. Here I’m leading the
life of a householder — I have a wife and a bunch of kids running around.
The whole life here throws us all together more violently. In the Ashram everything
has worked for years; here everything has to be worked out as we go along; it
makes for a great deal more personal interaction and personality problems and
so forth. But I find on the whole life here harmonious.
Is that because everything
appears to be freer?
It’s a matter of individual choice as to the way one lives. Yes, it’s
much freer than in the Ashram — one has as much rope to hang oneself or
not hang oneself, as the case may be. Things, unlike at the Ashram, work on
a more external level, which is not to say one doesn’t have an inner life.
But let’s say that we are inclined to project our inner problems into
the life of the community more so than at the Ashram.
Do you see yourself living
in Auroville for the rest of your life?
I don’t think about it — I don’t see myself doing anything
else. It’s a splendid place for children. But the school system is only
available in rudimentary form. In terms of my existence here with Shyama, it
seems to me the best field to do the work I’m doing.
Michael Zelnick, 25 years after giving this Interview, writes: "I
am still here in Auroville and deeply, deeply happy".
He and Shyama (although now divorced) went back to USA for some years
but returned to Auroville in 1993 where he practices as a homeopath. This
led to the opening of The Quiet Healing Center, a project conceived ,
fund-raised for and launched by Maggi Lidchi (Interview No. 23). He was
the director until 2005. The Centre has become extremely successful and
has a full-time staff of nearly 40 people.
There’s something compulsively appealing about
these people’s honesty. Perhaps it’s due to elegant simple living.
Swedish Shyama never returned with her brood — no Swedish Interview today!
So goodbye Vivaldi – yes, it was Vivaldi.