Akash Kapur mixes history and memory in fascinating book, Better to Have Gone, about his hometown Auroville

Better to have disappeared from Akash Kapur: 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, community and botany. Kapur presents it all through the haunting story of his childhood home, an “intentional community” in South India called Auroville.

This isn’t the first time Kapur has written about utopia – which Auroville is sometimes described as – and he’s honest about its slippery texture. “There is always the danger that the context drowns the story, that the need for elucidation overwhelms the story,” he explains in a 2018 anthology on Auroville. But Kapur is able to navigate Auroville’s elusive character by approaching his subjects with patience and, that word again, love. The result is his most original work to date.

A book on Auroville requires a brief history lesson. From the start, Better to Have Gone features Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose, a Bengali freedom fighter wanted by the British, who fled in 1910 to Pondicherry, which is under French jurisdiction. His movements restricted, Ghose finds himself retreating deeper into his thoughts; Known in the 1920s as Sri Aurobindo, he spent the rest of his life in Pondicherry where he created an ashram that attracted followers from all over the world. His first disciple is a French woman named Mirra Alfassa. A deep spiritual partnership developed between them, and in 1926 Sri Aurobindo named her “the Mother” of the Ashram. Indeed, her followers take her as children of a mother. She successfully ran the Ashram and until her own death in 1973.

In the mid-1960s, the Mother shared her vision of a “place of peace” which would be “a living embodiment of real human unity”. She calls it Auroville: it means “city of dawn” and is a tribute to her guru. Her supporters claim to build it with her, and for her, on a deserted plateau about five miles north of Pondicherry. Among them, John Walker and Diane Maes. The Maes were the first to arrive in Auroville in the 1970s. The book also follows a third Aurovilian, Satprem-née-Bernard, who survives the 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 individuals inherently in conflict, trying to make sense of their lives.

The first few years were exhausting, both for Auroville and for the Aurovilians. Progress on the arid and scorched earth is jagged and jarring. At the same time, they must learn 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 will marry – in this strange sacred desert. But when she is only 14 years old, they both die, a day apart. Their deaths do not seem accidental. How Auroville continues despite such trauma, asks and answers Kapur, defending his character choices. “I have spent almost 10 years chasing this story, and I know there have been many versions of reality, many versions of the truth, that have taken place in my hometown. I’m not ready to say which one was right, ”he wrote.

On the contrary, Kapur is tender, respectful. The structure of the book parallels Auroville’s origin story: discrete parts that merge into a whole. Part I is divided into several sections, each led by a different protagonist. In part II, the chapters take place in chorus. Kapur keeps his sentences and paragraphs short, making it easy to assimilate his incredible array of sources: facts, dates, letters, archival documents and “hundreds of interviews”. Most of the book is in the present tense, which amplifies Auroville’s liveliness. The last chapters again bring out individual voices, a harbinger of the separation of these characters from the other Aurovilians: When they started, John, Diane and Satprem wanted to live for Auroville; now all three of them want to die for it.

Kapur is impressed with John and Diane’s travels, although Auralice is skeptical throughout. Yet she returned to Auroville with her husband and sons and reclaimed it as a home. Auro, Aura and Akash – the dawn, the atmosphere and the sky – seem to be forever intertwined. Perhaps this unity is the goal of the quest for utopia.

Sriram is an Assistant Professor of Academic Writing at Ashoka University.