The Peoples' Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development

Awakening at Sadhana Forest: Interview with Rajesh Goswami

Now is the time to start living the life you always imagined.

An awakening of a simple curiosity, after reading about a self sustaining community just a thousand miles away, took newly-wed Rajesh Goswami and his wife Sheela on a life changing journey. They planned to spend two days at Auroville, but ended up spending six months at Sadhana Forest — a project of Auroville that was in its nascent stage back then. They returned to their hometown in Aurangabad to fulfill certain family commitments and were back at Sadhana Forest after about 5 years, along with their three year old daughter ‘Sadhana’ who was named after the beautiful forest that inspired them. This time they spent four years (2009–2013) at Sadhana Forest embracing an environment friendly community and immersed themselves in the forest reforestation activities. Here is what Rajesh had to say about his experiences at Sadhana Forest and his life journey so far.

Me: Tell us something about yourself and your family.

Rajesh: I am a home tutor by profession. I teach different subjects including math, science, social studies, Sankrit, Hindi and Marathi. My wife Sheela is a homemaker and enjoys cooking. Our daughter Sadhana is 13 years old. She has never been to school. She loves music and follows her passion in singing and is currently learning the Guitar. We live in Aurangabad, a city famous for Ajantha and Ellora caves in Maharashtra.

Me: Many people have heard about Auroville, but don’t know much about Sadhana project and so, what is Sadhana project all about?

Rajesh: Sadhana project started somewhere in 2003 is a reforestation project in Auroville. The vision of its founders, Yorit and Aviram Rozin, is to transform 70 acres of severely eroded, arid land on the outskirts of Auroville. Their aim is to build a community that participates in the reforestation activities, experience an eco-friendly, minimalistic lifestyle and enjoys living together as a family. Volunteers from all over the world come to Sadhana Forest. The volunteer community comes together during meal times every day. There are many other activities such as morning circle, movie nights, Yoga, talent shows and games organized to strengthen the community.

Sadhana Forest is not connected to the electricity grid. All the energy needs at the forest are covered through solar power and human power (through bicycles). They have four exercise bicycles that charge batteries. They have compost toilets and human waste compost is used as a fertilizer for the trees.

Many experiments are undertaken to conserve the environment. One such experiment is the ‘Gaushaala’ which is a space for abandoned cows. Here these cows are cared for but are never milked as everyone at the forest follows veganism.

 

Me: Why did you select Sadhana Forest? What inspired you to go back?

Rajesh: Way back in 2004 when we visited Auroville, we found that the staying arrangements were at guest houses, which gave me a touristy feeling. Not wanting to stay like a tourist, we found Sadhana Forest to be just right for us — simple accommodation in open huts, inexpensive and an opportunity to volunteer. We were the first Indian couple volunteering at the campus.

What inspired us to go back after about five years was the simple, eco-friendly, sustainable and conscious living. We had found Sadhana community highly enriching and joyful. We had missed it terribly and yearned to go back. It was an ideal place to begin our journey in unschooling ourselves and our daughter.

Me: What did you do for a living then? How did you fund your stay at Sadhana forest?

Rajesh: I was a home tutor back then too. Since I wasn’t employed by anyone and had flexible time commitments, it was easy for me to discontinue tutoring. We came from a well-to-do family and hence I didn’t have to worry about the financials. At Sadhana Forest, we contributed toward our food expenses for the initial few months. However, once we committed ourselves for a long term, we were not required to pay for anything and also received a small stipend of Rs 2000 per month.

Me: How did your day look like at Sadhana Forest?

Rajesh: During our first stint at Sadhana Forest — there were very few volunteers. The project was new. Thus everything was relaxed and laid back. The number of volunteers increased during the six months we were there. They came from all over the world.

Sadhana Forest has its principles, structure and rules and regulations. There are many dos and don’t to ensure safety of its volunteers and for protection of the environment. All volunteers are required to work for four to five hours a day. Usually two hours in the morning and two to three hours in the afternoon. They have fixed meal timings. Volunteers are free during the rest of the day, i.e they can do whatever they want to during their free time — sleep, read a book, swim or visit other places in and around Auroville.

My usual day would begin at around 6:00 in the morning. I would participate in the reforestation activities planned for the day and provide seva for upkeep of the community facilities such as cleaning the garden, maintaining the compost toilets, helping in the kitchen, wood cutting etc. The community is like a village — laid back and yet very enriching.

My wife immersed herself in the kitchen. She is very shy by nature. She enjoyed cooking and soon took on the role of kitchen manager and chef. Our daughter was just around. She was there playing with the other kids including Aviram’s children or with some volunteers. We didn’t have to ‘look after her’. The kids had so many things to do — swim, play in the mud, chat with other volunteers, and explore the area. They were like wild kids, enjoying and learning from nature.

 

Me: It is wonderful to see that you have chosen a different learning path for your daughter. Why did you decide to unschool her?

Rajesh: All our doubts about unschooling were clarified by Yorit and Aviram Rozin — the founders of Sadhana Forest project. They helped us understand the negative impact of a schooling system and benefits of unschooling. We watched the happy face of their daughter and the confidence with which she spoke to people from different age groups and felt that we would like our child to be free, outspoken and happy. I remember how Aviram and Yorit would respond to their then five year old’s tantrums. They would say, “There must be some logical reason behind the outburst.” They never panicked and never said anything to stop her from expressing herself. Many such experiences and discussions helped us understand the true essence of unschooling. We decided that whenever would have a child, we would not force school on her. Our child would also have the freedom to learn. She would learn from her surrounding and from her interactions with everyone around her. We came back to Sadhana Forest, mainly because we wanted our daughter to be in nature. We felt that Sadhana Forest was the best place for her to begin her unschooling journey.

Me: How did your experience at Sadhana forest impact you and your family? How did it change your life style?

Rajesh: The biggest learning was around ‘unschooling’. It was the best thing that happened to us as a family. We wanted to enjoy being with our daughter and watch her learn and grow. We didn’t want to give that up to others. Why should someone else decide what and how should she learn, when she can learn so much just by herself and her natural curiosity.

We enjoyed living in a community comprising of people from all over the world — connecting with people, understanding their ways and their culture helped me become open-minded. I enjoyed being a vegan during our time at Sadhana forest. Though, I have found it difficult to sustain being a vegan and today we do consume milk products. Still many of the dishes my wife cooks are vegan. We often choose vegan options while preparing meals. We are conscious of living a healthy life style. Our stay at Sadhana also made us more aware and conscious of leading an environmentally friendly lifestyle and we continue to produce minimal waste.

I was initially taken aback by Aviram and Yorit’s perceptions and point of view toward life, community living and unschooling. However, the chats we had with them and few other volunteers made me re-think about my lifestyle and made me more aware and conscious of the way we lived. I must acknowledge that as we are back in the city, we struggle with maintaining a completely eco-friendly lifestyle, but as a family we put in efforts to be healthy and minimalistic in our living.

 

Me: What were your reasons for coming back to your hometown?

Rajesh: There were multiple reasons — firstly I had family commitments. Secondly, we had spent four years at Sadhana Forest. We were looking for some change. We were in a safe zone and had become used to our life there. We now wanted more challenge. Thirdly, we wanted to explore other communities in India. After we came back we visited many places — some of them were — Himalayan farms in Nainitaal, Sapna Ranch in Maharashtra, Aarohi in Bangalore. We plan to visit Shikshantar in Udaipur and a few more places in the near future.

Me: Do you plan to go back to Sadhana Forest? What advice would you give to people who want to experience living at Sadhana Forest?

Rajesh: We definitely would love to revisit Sadhana Forest. However, we don’t plan to be there for a long term. We will continue to explore different alternate learning and living communities in India. The forest is beautiful and the community is caring and helpful. However, many visitors often find it difficult to adjust to the rustic environment (limited electricity, vegan meals, compost toilets) and hence I would advise people to volunteer for a shorter duration before committing for long term volunteering.


Sharmila Govande, a mother of three, has been involved in the field of education and development for the past 23 years. She has joined the unschooling movement recently. She writes, facilitates and hosts workshops on learning and development and focuses her energies on unschooling herself and her children. She can be reached at sharmilagovande@gmail.com.