September 25, 2021 4:53:19 pm
Akash Kapur’s Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville is an ode to two loves: his wife and his hometown. It is also a celebration of other loves: filial, devotional, communal and botanical. Kapur presents all of these through the haunting story of his childhood home, an “intentional community” in south India called Auroville.
This is not Kapur’s first time writing about utopia – which Auroville is sometimes described as – and he is honest about its slippery texture. “There is always the danger that context will drown out story, that the need for elucidation will overwhelm narrative,” he explains in a 2018 anthology about Auroville. But Kapur is able to navigate Auroville’s elusiveness by approaching his subjects with patience and, that word again, love. The result is his most original work yet.
A book about Auroville requires a brief history lesson. Early on, Better to Have Gone introduces Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose, a Bengali freedom fighter wanted by the British, who flees in 1910 to Pondicherry, which is under French jurisdiction. His movements restricted, Ghose finds himself withdrawing deeper into his thoughts; Known by the 1920s as Sri Aurobindo, he proceeds to spend the rest of his life in Pondicherry where he creates an ashram that attracts disciples from all over the world. His foremost disciple is a French woman named Mirra Alfassa. A profound spiritual partnership develops between them, and in 1926, Sri Aurobindo appoints her as “the Mother” to the Ashram. Indeed, his devotees take to her as children to a mother. She successfully runs the Ashram and until her own death in 1973.
Around the mid-1960s, the Mother shares her vision of “a place of peace”, that will be “a living embodiment of an actual human unity.” She calls it Auroville: it means “city of dawn” and is an homage to her guru. Her followers clamour to build it with her, and for her, on a deserted plateau about five miles north of Pondicherry. Among them are John Walker and Diane Maes. The Maes are early arrivals to Auroville, in the 1970s. The book also follows a third Aurovilian, Satprem-née-Bernard, who survives Gestapo and Nazi torture before finding peace in India. Like dozens of others drawn to this corner of the world, John, Diane and Satprem are inherently conflicted individuals, trying to make sense of their lives.
The initial years are gruelling, for Auroville and Aurovilians both. Progress on the barren, scorched earth is jagged and jarring. They must, alongside, learn how to express themselves, what to believe in, and ultimately, how to survive. John and Diane do their best to raise their daughter Auralice – whom Kapur goes on to marry – in this strange, sacred wilderness. But when she is just 14, they both die, one day apart. Their deaths don’t appear accidental. How does Auroville continue in spite of such trauma, Kapur asks, and answers, defending his characters’ choices. “I’ve spent almost 10 years chasing this story, and I know that there were many versions of reality, many versions of the truth, that played out in my hometown. I’m not prepared to say which one was right,” he writes.
Rather, Kapur is tender, respectful. The book’s structure parallels Auroville’s origin story: discrete parts that merge into a whole. Part I is parcelled as several sections, each led by a different protagonist. By Part II, the chapters unfold as a chorus. Kapur keeps his sentences and paragraphs short, making it easier to absorb his amazing range of sources: facts, dates, letters, archival material and “hundreds of interviews.” Most of the book is in present tense, which amplifies Auroville’s alive-ness. The final chapters bring out individual voices once again, a harbinger of these characters’ separation from other Aurovilians: When they began, John, Diane and Satprem wanted to live for Auroville; now, all three want to die for it.
Kapur is in awe of John and Diane’s journeys, though Auralice is sceptical throughout. Still, she has moved back to Auroville with her husband and sons, and reclaimed it as home. Auro, Aura, and Akash – the dawn, the atmosphere, and the sky – seem to be forever intertwined. Perhaps, that unity is what the quest for utopia is about.
Sriram is assistant professor of academic writing, Ashoka University.
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