Read

Auroville: An utopian search for a better world

N Chandrasekhar Ramanujan | Updated on September 17, 2021

Making a dream: Akash Kapur talks in detail about the spiritual vision and philosophy that made Auroville   -  SAMRAJ M

Akash Kapur’s ‘Better to Have Gone’ traces what happens when we believe deeply in a quest and give up everything in its pursuit

* Akash Kapur is a journalist who now lives in Auroville. The book is primarily about the unnatural deaths of his wife Auralice’s parents

* The book is structured into three interlinking narratives — the origins of the Puducherry ashram, John and Diane's story, and the present day

* The book talks a bit about how the Auroville project came about

***

Imagine that it’s the weekend. You decide to fire up Netflix. You see a new drama series about a tragic love story set in the late 1960s.

John Walker is the heir to a powerful US East Coast family. Diane Maes is a hippie from a small town in Belgium. Both of them want to escape the confines of their lives and society, and somehow end up at a small patch of land in south India where they try to build a utopian community from scratch with other similarly disenchanted western transplants. The two fall in love. Lots of dramatic events happen, and 20 years later they are both tragically dead.

It sounds absolutely unbelievable. You’d turn off the TV midway. You’d complain to your friends about how outlandish the plot was. Except that all of this is true. All of this actually happened.

Better To Have Gone is a book by Akash Kapur, a journalist who now lives in Auroville. It’s primarily about his wife Auralice’s parents. Both Akash and Auralice grew up in Auroville — an international utopian community in Puducherry. (Technically Auroville is in Tamil Nadu).

They then went to the US, met each other there, got married, and ended up coming back to Auroville. The book was a way for both of them to understand the circumstances behind John and his partner, Diane’s (Auralice’s mother) deaths, and how that affected the community they live in today.

It’s a great book — there’s no question about that. I more or less devoured it in a single sitting. A lot of the reviews focus on the writing style and pacing, calling it thriller-like, and I have to agree with the assessment.

I’ve noticed however, that a lot of the press and reviews the book is getting focuses more on the ‘cult’ aspect of things. There is a lot of fascination with cults recently, with the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country or the bestselling novel The Girls by Emma Cline being a recent example. But I argue that’s a mistake. By framing what happened in Auroville as a result of a cult, it’s easy to dismiss it.

Cults and other such religious organisations consist of people, and people do things for a reason. Kapur focuses a lot on people’s inner motivations and thought processes. A lot of these memoirs focus on the more salacious or scandalous parts of being in a cult, but Kapur, to his credit, decides to avoid those entirely.

The book itself is structured into three interlinking narratives.

The first is about the origins of the Puducherry ashram, which in its current form was founded in the 1920s by Aurobindo Ghosh, a freedom fighter who renounced violence, and his disciple Mira Alfassa, a French woman who came to Puducherry and became his biggest devotee and confidante. ‘Mother’ as she is known in the collective lexicon of the ashram and Auroville.

The book then talks a bit about how the Auroville project came about, and how it was established bit by bit over time. Kapur talks in detail about its spiritual vision and philosophy, and manages to do so in a way that is not boring — which is very impressive.

The second is about the lives of John and Diane, who they were, how they thought, where they came from, and how their story intersected tragically with the political happenings in Auroville.

The most interesting person in the book is Satprem — one of the Mother’s most devoted followers. Earlier known as Bernard, he was a French resistance member in World War II who was tortured in the Nazi concentration camps. He drives a schism between the community of Auroville and the Puducherry ashram, that leads to a long court case about the legal status of Auroville itself.

He in many ways acts as a villain in the narrative although the author seems to have consciously kept the portrayal just short from saying as much. Satprem, though, is implicated in the chain of events that leads to John and Diane’s deaths.

The third narrative is about the present day. It talks about Akash and Auralice’s life in the US, and why they came back to Auroville. He talks about the process of how they tried to confront what took place years ago, to try to understand what really happened.

Kapur writes forebodingly: “The problem is that Utopia is so often shot through with the worst form of callousness and cruelty. Human beings, individuals, families, are mere sideshows in the quest for a perfect world.”

More than anything, Better to Have Gone is a book about what happens when we choose to believe deeply in a quest or an activity outside of ourselves, and give up everything in pursuit of that.

That requires both a fanatical belief in that vision, as well as a certain dogged refusal to listen to sceptics or dissent.

I personally found his description of this process most interesting. He draws a strong parallel between utopian experiments in history and culture and the start-up ethos and our current cultural moment where there is a boundless optimism about technology.

Of course, there is a lot that Kapur does not talk about. As a Puducherry resident, I was surprised at how Auroville is portrayed as an abstracted form, and not a part of, the surrounding area, when in fact it very much is.

Dr Jessica Namakkal, who is a historian at Duke University, pointedly highlights this in her book Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India. The book is also in part about Auroville, and discusses how fraught the relationship was between the poor Tamil part, and the hippie western segment.

Better to Have Gone describes the people who came to build Auroville as “pioneers” when in fact they were not. In an interview with Firstpost, Dr Namakkal talks about stories she had heard from the original Tamil residents, who had sold the land Auroville now stands on, at cheap prices, due to financial emergencies, and ended up landless, working for the newcomers.

The pioneer framing is also problematic, because that’s what the Europeans who settled in the US, Canada, and Australia also called themselves. They acted like the lands they had settled on were uninhabited and that they built everything from scratch, erasing the histories of the people who lived there before.

Better to Have Gone: Love, Death and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville / Akash Kapur / Simon & Schuster / Non-fiction / ₹699

 

The parallels to what happened with Auroville are uncanny, and the book would have been greatly improved if Kapur had included that side of the narrative as well.

 

Check out this book on Amazon

N Chandrasekhar Ramanujan is a product designer and researcher working in the tech sector. He lives in Puducherry

Published on September 15, 2021

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

  1. Comments will be moderated by The Hindu Business Line editorial team.
  2. Comments that are abusive, personal, incendiary or irrelevant cannot be published.
  3. Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (example: u cannot substitute for you, d is not 'the', n is not 'and').
  4. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.
  5. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name, to avoid rejection.