EXTRACT | ‘Show Me the Place’ by Hedley Twidle

With optimism and good humour, the writer goes in search of outposts of idealism and human connection in a strife-ridden and atomised world

30 April 2024 - 14:45
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From award-winning non-fiction writer Hedley Twidle comes Show Me the Place, an essay collection that searches through history, memory and literature to find glimmers of utopia. The collection is a book of elsewheres; in it, the author charts a journey to find other liveable places and spaces in a troubled world.

Whether it’s embarking on a bizarre quest to find Cecil Rhodes’s missing nose (sliced off the bust of the Rhodes Memorial) or bike-packing the Scottish islands with a couple of squabbling anarchists, or whether it’s learning to surf (much too late) in the wild and freezing waters off the Cape Peninsula or navigating the fraught politics of a Buddhist retreat centre, the author explores forgotten utopias and intentional communities and islands of imagination with curiosity, hope and humour.

Uniting the pieces in this collection are recurring questions of friendship and human community, of environmental destruction and repair, of landscape and memory. Ranging from the science fiction of Ursula Le Guin to George Orwell’s vision of the good life, from Gandhi’s South African ashrams to the “living laboratory” of Auroville in south India, Show Me the Place investigates the deep human desire to imagine social and environmental alternatives to what we take as normal or inevitable.


“Auroville is a live-in research campus”, read a sign at the Visitors Centre: “Not a tourist destination!” But the community attracts thousands of visitors each year, most of them making the trip to see the Matrimandir (Temple of the Mother) at the heart of the settlement. Everything radiates out from this dimpled, golden orb — like a giant metallic golf ball teed up on concrete stilts. Normally, there was an elaborate ticketing system for day visitors to access it (also special socks). But the Temple — not devoted to any specific religion, more a space for personal meditation and reflection — remained closed to visitors after COVID. Only Aurovilians were allowed inside, and I got the feeling they quite enjoyed keeping the day-trippers out of their marble-lined sanctum. Within the inner chamber, a beam of sunlight strikes a globe of optically perfect glass, channelled down from the roof by a computer-controlled heliostat.

Alongside the Matrimandir are landscaped gardens and the open-air amphitheatre where Auroville’s inauguration was held on 28 February 28 1968. Its focal point is an urn containing soil from each of the 124 nations and 23 Indian states whose delegates attended the opening ceremony. Also sealed in the urn are the words of the Auroville Charter, which on the day was broadcast in 16 languages via All India Radio:

  1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But, to live in Auroville, one must be a willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.
  2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
  3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
  4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.

The Charter — which, like many utopian documents, seems to say both everything and not all that much — was drafted by Mirra Alfassa, a French woman of Jewish, Egyptian and Turkish heritage who came to be known as Sri Ma, or the Mother. Too old to attend the opening ceremony in person, in February 1968 she read the words into a microphone from her room in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in nearby Pondicherry.

On any visit to Pondi or Auroville today, you will see pictures of the Mother together with Aurobindo Ghose, or Sri Aurobindo: the anti-colonial Bengali leader turned religious sage who fled from British authorities to the French-controlled enclave in 1910. I had filled up my scooter at the Sri Aurobindo Service Station, where pictures of this famous duo appeared above every pump. Aurobindo is in white beard and raiment, so serious and spiritually composed that he might almost be tipping into a vast cosmic boredom. The Mother has kind, kohl-lined eyes and a knowing, mask-like face; but her expression is less guru smirk than shy smile, with rounded cheeks and some front teeth showing. (Another, much bigger banner behind the petrol pumps thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a successful vaccine rollout.)

In Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother had a fabled meeting, formed a spiritual partnership and established an ashram that still attracts visitors from all over the world. Its grey-painted walls are visible all along Pondicherry’s seafront promenade and in the old colonial quarter still referred to as la ville blanche or ‘White Town’. When I visited, ashramites of all hues could be glimpsed in their outdoor uniform of belted PT shorts, on their way to various sports grounds for some callisthenics or physical jerks. The Mother was a noted tennis lover and would play most days on courts near the promenade: “as if she was playing with the whole universe”, an acolyte would later recall. “Every ball was, as it were, the universe, and she was beating the universe, as it were, with her racket.’

Following Aurobindo’s death in December 1950, the Mother secured land for Auroville as a place where the “Integral Yoga” of his voluminous writings could be made manifest. This is not yoga in the downward-dog sense; it refers to a much more ambitious programme of spiritual and physical striving, one that extols active participation in the world, not  aesthetic withdrawal from it. Manual labour, the Mother wrote, was something indispensable for inner discovery: “To let the consciousness organise a bit of matter by means of one’s body is very good.” A Committee for the Yoga was established to extend the Ashram’s vision and oversee the building of Auroville — though in time the Ashram’s younger, counter-cultural creation would rebel against its founders.


A sound bath is not easy to evoke in words. The overlapping, omnidirectional richness of tones and overtones. The swells, sustains and slow decays of a soundscape made from skin, gut and gourd, brass and breath.

We were asked to enter the pavilion and lie down on the mats provided, laid out in a large circle, around which the instruments were arranged. There were gongs, bells, flutes, chimes, cymbals, sitars, tablas, harmoniums, and other things I did not recognise.

We lay on our backs, looking at the ceiling, facing away from the performers. They weren’t performers, they were more like more like facilitators: students from the Sound Research Institute who walked briskly around and among us. What a relief: to have no conductor or virtuoso, no centre demanding your attention. Just these impersonal technicians coaxing unheard-of things from their equipment, swinging gongs and chains and cymbals over our heads, moving fast enough to create stereo and Doppler effects. The sonic bath ebbed and flowed. Flutes gave way to fizzing drones, chords became blank and buzzing ambiences. Blocks of sound slowly resolved into melody or abstained from it once more.

At one point I hear an engine starting up outside. Typical — even in this paradise of sound one can’t escape the petrochemical din, the signature tune of our civilisation. Then I realise that the noise — deep, whirring, menacing — is from knotted cords, like sound lassos, being swung round in the air above us: vooooerrrr-voooooeerrr! Resonators with dangling springs make thunder. Filled tambourines give the soft collapse of waves, shells and seedpods become dripping water. “We give thanks for this full, rich, heavy monsoon,” the Institute’s director intoned in a slow, emphatic voice: “The earth is full to the brim.”

The whole body was an ear, he always like to say, since the water and cerebrospinal fluids of our bodies conducted soundwaves faster than our conscious hearing. He took me on a tour of the Institute, where every strut of the balcony could be played like a xylophone, where the steel wires used in construction were tuned for plucking. We were seldom aware of how many layers there were to the soundscape that swathed us every day, and what it all might be doing to us. Which is why he asked all students at the Institute to make time to listen to the world, and to keep a sound diary. It was a very different, much deeper way to remember a journey than just snapping pictures from the same places that everyone else took them. Sounds might often be meaningless — or rather, less easy to cram with easy, obvious meanings. I should try it, he said. And then asked if I had met Zuckman — who was also from my country. The director smiled and shook his head. I must meet Zuckman.


“There should be somewhere on earth, a place which no nation could claim as its own”, the Mother wrote in a 1954 piece called “A Dream”; “Auroville belongs to nobody”, says the Charter. The language is dreamy, universalist, apolitical. But of course, the community was to be built in an actual, historically complicated place.

This was the difference between Le Guin’s vision in The Dispossessed and the story of Auroville, I figured. In the novel, one of the most complicated variables of the utopian equation has been subtracted. Le Guin’s anarchist utopia takes shape on a lonely, previously uninhabited planet, whereas the “divine anarchy” of Auroville (as the Mother liked to put it) would manifest in a country dense with history and conflicting claims on the land — and this in a part of India that had, technically, remained a French possession until 1962, long after the rest of the country had thrown off British rule (it was only in the wake of the Algerian War that France finally ceded its territories to the Indian state, just six years before Auroville’s inauguration).

This history was somehow bound up with the whole project, but in an ambiguous, double-edged way. Auroville’s spiritual-socialist communalism was a clearly a reaction against imperialism and capitalism; but at the same time, it was positing a faraway (non-Western) place as the favoured location for a new world — a colonial reflex at least as old as More’s Utopia. The Mother liked to refer to local Tamil communities from which the land had been bought as “the first citizens of Auroville”, but one wondered how they’d felt about that. And weren’t some of the place names — Forecomers, Sustenance, Adventure — a bit like those the Voortrekkers had scattered across the Karoo?

Zuckman pointed to other examples — Gaia, Sacred Groves, Joy of Impermanence — where the Voortrekker analogy broke down. The challenge, he said, was to stop seeing everything as a version of something that already existed. I should leave all that behind, make space for the new.

We were on our way to Pondicherry in a Hindustan Ambassador, one of those classic 1950s-looking cars you see all through India. But this one had been modified, he said, so that it ran on recycled ayurvedic massage oil. He was taking me to a microbrewery in town, as if to show that this place had everything from back home and more.

Sometimes I wondered if Zuckman was stretching the truth a little. He was such an evangelist for this part of the world. He was older than me but looked more youthful; he glowed with a zealous optimism that I associated more with the corporate sector. But so far everything he’d said — about being a Sanskrit scholar, about leaving Muizenberg to come and run his software company from Auroville — had checked out.

Over some craft beers, I told him about getting lost on the muddy jungle paths that morning and asking directions from a guy who also happened to be from Muizenberg — what were the chances? This guy had a dog, a hippie paunch and a patchwork moon bag. But nothing good to say about the place. They’d tried to kick him out, these Aurovilians. They were like an exclusive club that you had to apply to. He’d been turned down three times. Not enough money, he couldn’t buy his way in. They’d even had a problem with his dog. But he didn’t care, it was mainly just rich Europeans with second homes here. He was leaving tomorrow anyway, going to Rishikesh.

Zuckman said that getting lost was part of the Auroville experience. Everyone got lost on the jungle paths, the maps were deliberately vague. It was so you could discover the place on your own terms. As for the guy and the dog — it had three legs, correct? He knew the guy. They’d had to kick him out — he was selling drugs, bhang and so forth. Also, his dog had attacked someone in a nearby village. Bad scene. There was a reason for the screening process here. You could start as Volunteer, then move up to Newcomer on a trial basis, finally becoming a fully-fledged Aurovilian in time (as long as no-one vetoed your application). At the time, Auroville’s population of permanent residents was 50 per cent locals and Indian nationals, 50 per cent people from abroad. Yes, maybe some of the foreigners were wealthier, but then money flowed into local co-ops and community projects, like the workshop that made this Auroville paper (he gave me a notebook) without felling a single tree.

Zuckman invited me to his flat for dinner, up a stairwell in a kind of ochre-coloured, foliage-circled council estate. It was simple but lovely. This was the kind of housing that could be provided once you had qualified as an Aurovilian — though you weren’t the owner of the property, only its “steward”.

Zuckman served up buckwheat dosas with jaggery and bitter home-made chocolate. At the same time, he tracked the progress of an Uber delivery man halfway across the world (he had ordered pizza for his wife and kids back in Cape Town). He tuned up a harmonium from Mysore while showing me a series of YouTube lectures that he’d done on Auroville. All my governance and finance questions would be answered there — the place was impeccably run. He was now consulting via Zoom on a planned intentional community back home, a mini-Auroville near Mossel Bay. This was the role he increasingly saw for himself: seeding and incubation.

Extract provided by Jonathan Ball Publishers

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