“I’m always burning with some new project”
With his youthful looks and bubbly enthusiasm, you’d think Olivier had just arrived, new-minted, in the community. Yet he’s been here 17 years....and hasn’t been wasting his time. Creative entrepreneur, dancer, builder, technician, alternative economist, organizer, grassroots initiator – Olivier, even by Auroville standards, is something of a multi-tasking phenomenon.
When Olivier left the army (he had been posted to Djibouti, Africa), he was very clear that he no longer wished to live in France. “I wanted to go abroad, but nothing worked out. Then one evening in a park in my home town of Strasbourg, as I was watching a bright sunset, something dropped on me and said, ‘Just take your bag and go’....which I did, to the utter dismay of my parents.”
Olivier helped sail a yacht to Mauritius, but left the boat when it reached Sri Lanka. “In France I had already been looking for something within, so now I wanted to journey to India because of the spirituality I’d heard was there.” He met a man in a train who suggested he visit Pondicherry. “I’d never heard of Sri Aurobindo or the Ashram but, within three days of arriving there, ‘pouf’, it was as if everything had been arranged – somebody had invited me to stay in his place, I was working in the Dining Hall, I was reading Sri Aurobindo’s, Mother’s and Satprem’s books...”
Eventually his visa expired and he returned to France. When he came back in 1988 he wanted to return to the Ashram where his partner, Adar, lived, but that didn’t work out and he and his friend, Michael Spector, came to Discipline instead. “We were doing dance sessions with some Aurovilians. It was more of an inner exploration, using the body as a source of inner guidance and medium for evolution. We improvised, allowing body contact. At that time this was very advanced, not to say risqué: we almost had to do it behind closed doors!”
They searched everywhere for a place of their own and finally someone suggested the community, La Ferme. “The eastern part of La Ferme was completely neglected and abandoned: there was just one tiny broken-down hut which, after some renovations, became my home for the next three years.” A cheese farm project had just been started there by Prem Malik and Giovanni, who were looking for people to manage it. Olivier and Michael agreed to take it on.
“At that time, protein was lacking in the Auroville diet and cheese is a very good way to provide vegetarian protein. But it took us ten years just to be able to meet the demand in the community. At the beginning we did not even have money to buy animal food. Then all these buffaloes that we’d bought to make mozzarella cheese started to dry up because it is almost impossible to get them to breed in captivity. We managed to get a loan to buy three cows, but we struggled for many years before we got a grant in 1991 to build a cool-room and purchase a generator. That was the real turning-point: now we could make hard cheeses that would not spoil.”
In 1999 Olivier decided to try selling to the larger Indian market. Initially they did well, profits improved and they could donate more cheese to Auroville. However, recently the influx of competitive cheeses from abroad coupled with local ‘copy-cat’ cheeses have reduced their profits to almost zero. “If we don’t specialise now with a few top-selling products, we’ll be finished within two years,” admits Olivier. “Goat’s cheese would be a niche item with a bright future, but getting hold of the right kind of goats has proved very elusive.”
For some time Olivier had been looking for an outlet in Kuilapalayam village to sell cheese to day visitors and guests. “At first I was looking for an existing shop to sell our cheese, but the facilities were so hopeless that last year we decided to rent a shop instead. Rather than just selling cheese, I went back to an old idea - to provide an outlet for Aurovilians involved in food processing to have a showcase shop and sell their products to visitors.” Farm Fresh, as the shop is called, gets good feedback from Aurovilians and visitors alike. However, its future is also in the balance because the economics of Auroville food outlets are very tricky, given the large seasonal influx and exodus of tourists and Aurovilians.
But there’s more to Farm Fresh than making profits. Olivier also wanted to stimulate interchanges between Aurovilians by providing a place where they could make their favourite home-made delicacies available to other community members. This idea of encouraging individual creativity and energy exchange runs like a golden thread through all Olivier’s projects and initiatives. Take, for example, the Mahasaraswati Free Store, which he began in the original Pour Tous building in 1995. The idea of a place where people could bring surplus or non-working items to be repaired and passed on to those who needed them came to Olivier in a meditation, but it was also a logical consequence of Olivier’s skills as a fixer. “People were always bringing me things to repair – mixies, cassette players etc. – and I’d tinker with them between the cheese work or late at night. Unfortunately the Mahasaraswati Free Store didn’t work in the way I’d intended because often people brought in decrepit stuff and all we could do was dismantle it and dispose of the waste safely. This only changed when we started giving credit in ‘Aurose’ for donated items that were still in good condition or repairable: people could use these Aurose to obtain other items. This gave a really tremendous boost to the service.”
Olivier leans forward excitedly: the reference to ‘Aurose’, a form of complementary currency, brings him to something very close to his heart. “It all began in 1999 when I joined the Auroville Board of Commerce core group and got pushed nose first into the real financial situation of Auroville. I came in as an entrepreneur, a creative business artist, who was not so much interested in money-making – which always bored me – as in finding ways to answer people’s needs. In this context, I became interested in LETS systems (Local Exchange Trading Systems) which were operating in communities in the U.S. and Europe as a means of encouraging creativity and exchange among their members. I soon realised that our Pour Tous accounts corresponded exactly to the definition of a complementary currency.
“All the alternative economy gurus were interested in the Auroville situation because it is a perfect site for economic experimentation. With their help, a small group of us studied, wrote proposals, ran seminars and by 2001 we’d worked out something that I believe was really beautiful. It included all the existing aspects of the Auroville economy, but connected them together for the first time and put them upon an entirely new basis. In a meeting on Mother’s birthday, 2001, something like 300 Aurovilians agreed to go in this direction. It was one of the high points of my life in Auroville.”
Very soon, however, a group of Aurovilians had effectively sunk the proposal. “They wouldn’t even allow a trial. They said that a complementary currency is still money because you are putting a value on the goods, and Mother said there should be no money exchange within Auroville. They also said that Aurovilians should not be encouraged to trade among themselves. But I’m convinced that a virtual means of exchange, as we came to call it, was exactly what Mother was talking about in that famous conversation in The Agenda, when Satprem suggests a coupon system and Mother says something like ‘Yes, yes, this is exactly it.’ The insanity of it is that by intuition we have done exactly the right thing at every step of the game to establish a truly marvellous structure, and now we stubbornly keep on wanting to use this as a conventional money system when we have the foundation for a completely different approach and consciousness.”
How did Olivier deal with the disappointment of two years of work seemingly coming to nothing? “Sure I felt very frustrated, it was a punch in the stomach, but I just offer it to The Mother constantly and hope that one day something will click and the pieces of the puzzle will fall together. Besides, I’m always burning with some new project, new activity. It’s like a tap that’s always flowing.”
It’s the Olivier most of us are familiar with, as he flies along the sand tracks on his mountain bike or clambers up the rock-climbing wall he built in the Aspiration canyon for smaller and bigger kids. Where does all this energy come from? “My inner work is a crucial counterbalance to my outer activity. Through all these years I’ve kept working with the body and I’ve been furiously keeping time aside for meditation: it’s a very carefully protected part of my life as it gives me an insight into the transformation of the body. But that’s also where I manage all my activities from, inside, it’s never done by reasoning. All major decisions come like an adesh – ‘do this, see that’.”
Once he did ignore such an inner indication. During a visit to a new Kali temple on the edge of Auroville he suddenly realized that the statue of the goddess was facing Matrimandir. “I saw something very interesting behind it, and sat down one night to write an article on it for the Auroville News. But just when I was about to send it, I felt a warning. Mother was saying, ‘Watch out. It’s an occult thing. Be careful.’ But somehow I could not prevent myself hitting the send key! Looking back, I knew I’d made a mistake.” That mistake resulted in a Leave India notice. “There were all these General Meetings; it was really a big thing, I had to meet people, write apologies – which was not a problem because I hadn’t intended any harm. But it was a very intense, depressing time for me, and I went back into my cave...
However, not surprisingly for someone who describes himself as “A typical Aries, the one who crashes ahead to bring the other ones behind”, he soon bounced back. This year, for example, he directed the annual Auroville dance programme. He’d been to the previous programmes and been unimpressed. “I kept getting visions of how to put it together more interestingly, but I never seemed to have the time, my life was so tightly-packed, crystallised. But Mother, She keeps you so naïve! So, after She ‘tricked’ me into the Farm Fresh experience, which was the drop in the glass which really made it overflow, I had to learn more about directing people, and how to delegate rather than manage problematic situations myself. Together with changes in my personal life, this meant I suddenly had time again, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I try the dance performance thing?’
“I wanted to do something more interesting for the public – new, unexpected. The worst fight was against an established practice of just throwing the different groups together at the last minute. The dance groups had to learn to work together, to change their beginnings and their endings. There were some tense moments but in the end everybody enjoyed the result. I’m not inclined to do it next year, though. I couldn’t work enough with the groups individually this time, and I would rather work with fewer people who are ready to begin from scratch and work towards a performance.”
And the future? “When I received the Leave India notice I suddenly realized I have no place else to go. I left the Western world to avoid committing suicide or going mad. My soul is here. But that experience also taught me how to detach myself. Now I’m finally returning to France to visit my family (my grandfather is over 100 years old) and to get a new visa. I feel it’s all in The Mother’s hands. If She needs me here, She’ll bring me back. If She wants me somewhere else, she’ll arrange it.”