Free Sri Aurobindo from clutches of real estate sharks
How silly of me, how naïve! All this while I was thinking that the practical ban — not a legal one, please note — on Peter Heehs’s biography of Sri Aurobindo was because a few people felt he “denigrated” this great poet-seer. That by writing a book, complete with footnotes and references on every point and bringing out elements of one of India’s greatest freedom fighters, it was the illiteracy or even non-comprehension of a handful that has driven it be banned. I now stand corrected.
The matter is simpler — lust for real estate.
On his 140th birth anniversary that falls on August 15, when India celebrates its 65th Independence Day, it is a national tragedy that the best biography of India’s foremost political activist and spiritual leader continues to be smothered in a quagmire of vested interests. Enough has been written on how Peter Heehs was almost denied an extension of visa, a move that would have taken India one more step further on the global map of nations that cannot tolerate free speech. Now, former Comptroller and Auditor General and Karnataka governor TN Chaturvedi has appealed for the book to be freed.
“In 2008 a new biography written by Peter Heehs, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, was published by Columbia University Press (New York),” Chaturvedi writes in August 2012 issue of the respected Hindi monthly magazine Sahitya Amrit, whose English translation you can read here. “When its cheaper Indian edition was to be brought out, a controversy was started by a handful of people who claimed that Peter Heehs had written some insulting and false things about their Guru (although Sri Aurobindo never claimed to be anybody’s Guru). In an attempt to block the Indian edition, a petition was filed in the Odisha High Court, which the Court accepted. The opponents of the book did not go to the Madras High Court under whose jurisdiction the territory of Pondicherry falls. Copies of the American edition, which costs Rs 2,000, reached only a few people. I ordered a copy from America in order to read it.”
Who are these “opponents”?
“Without reading the book, a few people residing in the Ashram and nurturing ambitions to occupy the Trustee’s chair, have raised this ruckus,” Chaturvedi writes. “They caught hold of a couple of MPs and the issue was raised in the Parliament and the controversy reached the print and television media as well. Several former and sitting MPs began a signature campaign. God alone knows how many of these had read the book, let alone seen it! A few MPs like Jairam Ramesh, who had read the book, declared that they should not get entangled in this dispute.”
Why would anyone want to occupy the Trustee’s chair in an ashram that barely gets along (for those who do not know, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram is not a cash-rich entity like many of its high-profile cousins)?
“It has come to light that behind this above-mentioned movement is the hand of “developers” who sent to some MPs a distorted version of this affair,” Chaturvedi writes. “Their game-plan is to install their puppets as Trustees, the puppets being these people who pretend to be followers of Sri Aurobindo and proclaim themselves to the world as the chosen interpreters of his writings, so that they can lease out the Ashram lands and each pursue their vested interests. This does not seem to be an affair about Sri Aurobindo’s being insulted but a stratagem to capture real estate.”
What does the Ashram do with this real estate?
It runs a school, Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. I have been to the school and the playground opposite it. As someone who follows the Indian economy, I can say with some conviction that these lands would be worth thousands of crores of rupees (the price of an apartment around the Ashram is Rs 17,000 per sq ft). The school that charges a tuition fees of Rs 1,000 per annum and and hostel fees of Rs 750 per month, offers complete education — physical, vital and mental — to students, can easily be converted into a hotel and the school moved elsewhere. It stands bang in the middle of the French quarters of Pondicherry.
The Park Guest House at the corner of the Beach Road overlooks the sea and offers a view that no amount of money can buy. That’s where I live every time I go to Pondicherry. The room cost: Rs 700 per night, which, if leased out to these real estate sharks, can easily command 10 times or more. And even then, you can’t buy the silence in the area — though I would think it is not silence that developers would be seeking. Similarly, there are Ashram lands across the city and beyond. All these, in the hands of a compliant Trustee, can spew gold all around.
As far as Lives of Sri Aurobindo goes, I find it to be the best biography of this great man. Even though I’m conversant with his work, having read most of the 37 volumes (and a few more that will be published soon, I hope) written by him, Heehs’s book left me inspired. According to a senior minister, who has read the book, “this is not the best biography of Sri Aurobindo, it is the best biography I’ve ever read.” Like Chaturvedi, I was unable to read this book when it was published in 2008 and it got drawn into Orissa’s bureaucracy and judiciary, but only last year. “It (the book) only increases our sense of pride at his greatness,” Chaturvedi concludes. “Sri Aurobindo is too great to be touched by such senseless controversy.”
India’s 65th Independence Day would be a good time to review what’s going on and free this book from the shackles of vested interests. India needs this book.