The April sky was high and cloudless. It was 44°C and not a blade of grass was moving. But my blithe heart—it was dancing.
In the summer of 2016, I quit my job in Bengaluru, sub-leased my apartment, and with my meagre savings, left for Auroville in Puducherry to volunteer. I managed an arrangement that gave me accommodation in exchange for my services at the Tamarind Bakery and the bountiful cashew farms at the Evergreen Forest Community, a 25-acre stretch in a corner of the township with ambrosial wild berries, organic farms, thoroughbred horses and quaint cottages.
My hosts were Tamar, an inspiring South African woman, Amir, her Israeli husband whom she fell in love with while studying in Jerusalem, and their adorable children, Zohar, Laya, and Sophia. The couple moved here 14 years ago to lead a more nature-friendly life.
Thirteen year-old Zohar did not go anywhere without his book on Auroville’s wildlife. Laya, who was nine, loved to make jewellery out of shells, twigs and beads, and five-year-old Sophia, whose favourite word was “buttocks”, had a belly as round and spongy as the carrot cake we baked.
I was put up in a cosy tree house right above the bakery. It included a bamboo shelf, one electric plug point, a fan and a mattress with a mosquito net. This was a huge shift from my spacious one bedroom apartment in Bengaluru, decorated with Led Zeppelin posters, fairy lights and second-hand furniture.
The treehouse, with its rickety ladder, was like the bunk bed I always wanted but never had.
I learnt to wake up with the forest. Most mornings were spent in the bakery slicing apples, zesting lemons and oranges, and mixing sugar, flour, butter, and chocolate with a hand blender. With the help of Kala and Revati—the two women who worked at the bakery—I would fill the cupcake holders and Bundt pans with accurately measured batter that went into large handmade brick ovens. These desserts were then packed into boxes and sent for delivery.
Phew! I was no longer going tap-tap-tap on my laptop for a corporate job. I was happy, to say the least.
The daily work depended on the orders received by the bakery and how much cashew needed to be collected. I was free to decide how I divided my time. On lean days, I read in the tree house under the starry sky or cycled about Auroville’s dusty red roads, which turned mucky in monsoon.
The Auroville Library, which has an extensive collection of English and German literature, and everything in between, became my favourite spot, with its neatly stacked books and snug benches by French windows.
Most afternoons Zohar, Laya, Sophia and I swam in the pool full of dried leaves, fish and frogs or climbed trees, lunging from one branch to another. Sometimes we plucked rainbow-coloured pitanga fruits (Brazilian cherries) to drench our parched mouths in the summer sun.
The sweet and sour pitanga was a refreshing alternative to the cashew fruit that left my mouth uncomfortably dry. Foraging the forest, collecting cashew fruits in wheelbarrows and separating them from the nuts was arduous.
One hard twist of the nut, like that of a key, was all that was needed to separate the two, but the amount of cashew nuts we had to work with left us spent. The nut went into steel buckets and the fruit, either into our mouths or in a corner for compost.
Erumalai, a farmer from Evergreen who had been working in the commune for 20 years, warned me about urushiol, the toxin in cashew shells. Urushiol can instantly burn the skin. It is why cashew is never sold raw.
One balmy afternoon, as I sat on a barren patch and twisted the nut out of the fruit, I reminisced about the trays of cashew nuts that my mother whipped out during Diwali which I would eagerly wipe out. And here I was with Erumalai, in a nook in Tamil Nadu, itching to scratch my elbow from the juice that had leaked from the fruit down my arm.
Two months in the wilderness, and by now I had seen a snake guzzle a frog, helped Tamar’s kids save squirrels, almost swallowed a fish alive and collected eggs from under the soft tummies of chickens. I had even weathered a cyclone in a room with three open sides while babysitting my neighbour’s guinea pig, Kanoot. On the nights it didn’t rain, I would sometimes wander naked in the forest and realise that I am more afraid of people than of animals.
This urge to volunteer, which started as a need to escape from the drab city life of population, pollution, routines and familiarity, turned into an unexpected adventure in the swaying hammock of Mother Nature, where the people of the forest lived. On my ride back to Bengaluru, I knew the children of the moon had melted my freezing soul with the warm glow of theirs.
Getting There Auroville is about 16 km/20 min north of Puducherry by road. You can reach Puducherry either by bus (from Chennai/Bengaluru) or by train. From Puducherry, you can hire a cab (approx. Rs400 one-way) or take a bus (Rs10).
Eat Cheese egg dosa at La Terraza (meal for two approx. Rs250), confectionery at Dreamer’s Cafe (0413-2623143; open daily 8 a.m.-8 p.m;. meal for two approx. Rs200); pizzas at Tanto Pizzeria (0413-262 2368; open daily 12.30-3 p.m. and 6.30-8.15 p.m.; meal for two approx. Rs1,000), sandwiches and cakes at Bread & Chocolate (0413-2623778; open daily 8.30 a.m.-5 p.m; meal for two approx. Rs600).
Stay Evergreen Forest Community (97512 57769; accommodation free if you’re volunteering, but you will have to inform them in advance), Eden of Zen (9833025645; Rs700-3000 for doubles), Gaia’s Guest House (9486363282; doubles Rs1500-2800)
Traveling Hiring a bicycle is a good way to navigate your way around Auroville. If you prefer taking a walk, try leaving your slippers at home. It is common to walk around barefoot.
Work For all rules and regulations on volunteering/accommodation in Auroville, please check the official website www.auroville.org.
Madras Crocodile Bank Trust works to conserve crocodiles and other reptiles and amphibians and their habitats. You can apply to different departments like research or education and practical work. You can volunteer for two to five weeks. MCBT provides food and accommodation (www.madrascrocodilebank.org; 4, Mammalapuram, 603-104, Tamil Nadu; email@example.com).
Lha Charitable Trust in Dharamsala helps Tibetan refugees assimilate seamlessly into India. You can volunteer in a number of areas ranging from teaching English and foreign languages, photography and yoga to creative writing and fashion designing. Lha offers short and long-term opportunities (www.lhasocialwork.org; Temple Road, Kangra District, McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh; 01892-220992 / 9882323455).
Manav Sadhna in Gujarat’s Gandhi Ashram serves the underprivileged. As a volunteer, you can provide your services in fields of women’s empowerment, sanitation and community media, among others. You will have to commit for a period of at least one month. The organisation provides accommodation and lunch (www.manavsadhna.org; Gandhi Ashram, Ahmedabad, Gujarat; 79275 60002; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Spiti Ecosphere creates sustainable livelihoods associated with nature and culture conservation. The organisation works with local people and volunteers who share a common passion for conservation, mountain travel and adventure. You will be involved with organic farming and even in the construction of greenhouses (www.spitiecosphere.com; Old Bazaar, Kaza, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh; 9418860099, 8988471247, 9711930168).
Csoma’s Room Foundation is an organisation that benefits the Ladakhi community in Zanskar Valley. As a volunteer, you can work on constructing the solar-powered school and teach children. A fee of Rs7,550 will cover accommodation and food (csomasroom.org; Snow Leopard Conservancy, India Trust No 108, Zangla, J&K; 9469369406, 9469369614, 9419455963; email@example.com).
Chandni Doulatramani is trying to hide somewhere on the fringe, swapping between the roles of an independent journalist and a writer. These days she can be found loitering around the streets of Calcutta, eating jhaal muri and thinking up stories to tell.