For four weeks during the month of August 2017, I went for therapy. I would get up at 5: 30 am and cycle to my therapist every weekday on muddy roads that were sludgy during the unpredictable monsoon. My therapist and I would never have conversations; her therapy involved taking directions from her caretakers, feeding her chickens, cleaning her house every few days and creating a safe environment for her children to grow up in. For my hard work, she would reward me with a hearty breakfast everyday, introduce me to people from all over the world who had come with a similar purpose, and even permit me to take some of her fruits and vegetables home for free!
Before I continue, I shall confess: My therapy, in reality, was voluntary work. My therapist? A vegetable garden named Buddha Garden in Auroville, India. My expenses for this therapy? None. Did I benefit from this experience? Immensely.
In the four weeks that I was ‘seeking therapy’ at Buddha Garden I removed weeds (some of them being small trees for which I needed an axe), planted saplings, watered plants, plucked vegetables including basil, okra, bottle gourds and spinach. I would segregate the produce before it was being sent to the local markets, search and collect stray coconuts and fruits to be used as compost. I even once had to pluck hibiscus flowers that were surrounded by bees for a prayer ceremony!
The reason why I make the constant comparison to therapy is because these activities were therapeutic in their own way; tugging and pulling on tough weeds helped to vent frustration, the smell of freshly plucked basil calmed the senses, and planting a delicate sapling felt like taking care of a baby.
Buddha Garden is no ordinary vegetable garden; its aim is to support and promote sustainable agriculture in several forms. Imagine a work environment where you are surrounded by greenery, where you can only hear the sound of birds or the small chatter between your colleagues, where all you can smell is the fresh earth and the produce that you have plucked and where your hard work is rewarded with a hot, homemade breakfast that fills your heart and stomach. Imagine a place where everyday you meet a person who comes from another part of the world, wishing to understand and learn from the culture that you grew up in. Imagine a place where people do not talk of how much they own, but of their aspirations and their journeys ahead of this place. I lived in this place for four weeks and I am proud of it.
This includes practices such as drying of old vegetables so that their seeds can be used for cultivating saplings, feeding plucked weeds to chickens, creating compost pits using leaves that are donated by nearby schools, using drip irrigation and of course, not using any form of insecticides or pesticides on the plants. The garden has also collaborated with a university through which they have sensors to check the moisture levels of plants. If they have produce that doesn’t look good enough to be retailed, it is mostly used in the kitchen to make a delicious breakfast for as many as fifteen people on a busy day.
The work culture is very simple; no matter your age, sex, language or previous experience in a garden, you will be given certain tasks to perform, and before you sit down for your breakfast, you must make sure that you have cleaned and neatly stowed away all the garden equipment you have used. You have to be prepared to get your hands and feet quite dirty, literally, and you cannot squirm at the sight of creepy crawlies moving in the mud. You even have to be careful of any stray scorpions that may be roaming around! If you find ants suddenly roaming all around your leg (as I did many a times), you just brush them off and continue. If you cut yourself on a plant and it causes hives, just strap on some gloves and continue. Imagine a pampered girl from a bustling city like Mumbai dealing with these situations. I thought I never could, but I gladly proved myself wrong.
Getting the opportunity to volunteer was as simple as making a phone call to Rajan and joining the very next day. Rajan and Priya (a British woman with so many wonderful stories to tell) are passionate about keeping Buddha Garden the way it is, which is why it is one of the most visited places in Auroville. During my time there, they never hesitated to correct us if we were doing something incorrectly, they always had ways to keep us on our toes till breakfast time and they made sure you were not stuck doing the same activity every day. Priya even maintains an active blog of all the work that has been achieved and they have an active Facebook page!
But what made my first ever volunteering experience unforgettable, was the people that I met. The first few days I was the only woman working in the garden, and I never felt uncomfortable or threatened. I was able to use my Spanish language skills for the first time on a Spanish person and received praise for the same. I had insightful conversations with people from places as far as South America, learning about their volatile political environments. I met travellers who unlike most of us, did not know where they would go next. Some of them could pronounce my name better than most Indians!
Besides that, my experience here made me realise the efforts that others take to make sure that we get good food on our plate. I saw how it takes weeks to produce something that we middle class folk consume in a matter of minutes. It made me view food wastage in an enhanced light, and I hope to consciously reduce it during my time here in Durham.
Buddha Garden was the highlight of my stay at Auroville. At the beginning I was doubtful of my abilities, scared of the work that I might have to do, worried that my five week stay would be fruitless and anxious over talking to new people. Once it was done, I felt proud of what I achieved, confident about my communication skills, fresh because of the clean environment and exercise (gardening is hard work!) and for the first time in a long time, happy. Pure, simple happiness that cannot be described. How I wait for the day when I can go back to Auroville and plant more saplings!