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Bizarre childhood in Auroville

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My bizarre childhood in Auroville was interesting. I wasn’t surprised by the allegations of child abuse at Auroville – a progressive European community in India – that a BBC news team made this week. As a nine-year-old boy I lived there for three months in 1982. The place is a religious sect which shows up the arrogance, naivety and denial of liberal middle-class values. It puts children in serious danger.

A town of great temple-like structures set among palm trees in the Tamil Nadu region of south-east India, Auroville promotes a humanist philosophy, elements of Indian mysticism and a US “frontier”-style attitude. This either wore you down or toughened you up.Adults work in construction, farming or even on a newspaper; parenting is a pretty low priority. Anyone could be a guardian, and children were left to run wild from the age of six. My own mother left me and my seven-year-old sister to fend for ourselves and disappeared to a remote section of the community to be with her lover. We had somewhere to sleep, a well-managed primary school, and day trips on the weekends. At meal times children ate by themselves, with a set of unwritten rules – if you got your hands on sweets you shared them with the group, else you ate outside.

Adults seemed to be there to provide for us, but with complete emotional disengagement. When the infection from a blister spread throughout my arm and I sought out my mother for help, she just dismissed me as an attention-seeker and I had to cycle to the doctor on my own. He rushed me to a hospital that had run out of anaesthetic. I remember being held down by six medics while one made an incision with a scalpel and another squeezed the poison out of my arm.I learned to fit in with the other children and we became emotionally dependent on each other; a kind of family, with the older children looking after the younger ones. Sex was a hot topic of discussion. Being only nine I knew little of the facts of life, until they were graphically, alarmingly described by my Auroville peers.

I heard of acts between fellow pupils, acts with children from the surrounding Tamil villages, and even what I would now regard as serious child abuse by adults.Indeed, my sister twice had to fend off an attempted attack by an adult who’d persistently tried to get her to accept a lift home on his bicycle.There were terrifying incidents of indecent exposure. We children rationalised the alleged abuse as something – along with snakes, monsoons and scorpions – that you just had to deal with in Auroville.The solidarity among us was part Lord of the Flies, part Jonestown cult. Together we shared a hatred of the local Tamil children, who would apparently engage in sex for as little as five rupees, and those who’d been excluded from school for various misdemeanours.

I suffered this fate myself when I was wrongfully convicted of stealing a purse by a self-appointed “council” of children. I was banned from the primary school, no longer welcome in my lodgings, distrusted even by the adults and sent to live in an isolated hut on stilts in a wood. I found the solitude strengthening; I made friends with two other exotically-named outcasts – Gandalf and Mooney. Despite the horrors, there was something hopeful and well-meaning about the place.

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