Auroville: a utopian search for a better world

* Akash Kapur is a journalist who now lives in Auroville. The book is mainly about the unnatural death of the parents of his wife Auralice

* The book is structured into three interconnected narratives – the origins of the Puducherry Ashram, the story of John and Diane, and the present

* The book tells a little about how the Auroville project was born


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

John Walker is the heir to a powerful family on the east coast of the United States. Diane Maes is a hippie from a small town in Belgium. Both want to escape the confines of their lives and their society, and somehow find themselves in a small patch of land in southern India where they try to build a utopian community out of it. zero with other equally disillusioned Western transplants. The two fall in love. Many dramatic events occur, and 20 years later they are both tragically dead.

It sounds absolutely amazing. You would turn off the TV halfway. You would complain to your friends about the weirdness of the plot. Except that all of this is true. It all really happened.

Better be gone is a book by Akash Kapur, a journalist who now lives in Auroville. They are mainly the parents of his wife Auralice. Akash and Auralice both grew up in Auroville – an international utopian community in Pondicherry. (Technically Auroville is in Tamil Nadu).

They then went to the United States, met there, got married, and eventually returned to Auroville. The book was a way for them both to understand the circumstances behind the deaths of John and his partner, Diane (Auralice’s mother), and how it affected the community they live in today.

It’s an excellent book, there is no doubt about it. I more or less devoured it in one sitting. A lot of reviews focus on the writing style and pace, calling it a thriller, and I agree with the rating.

I have noticed, however, that much of the press and reviews of the book focus more on the “cult” side of things. There’s a lot of fascination with cults lately, with the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country or the bestselling novel Girls by Emma Cline being a recent example. But I claim this is a mistake. By framing what happened in Auroville as a result of a cult, it is easy to ignore it.

Cults and other such religious organizations are made up of people, and people do things for a reason. Kapur focuses a lot on the inner motivations and thought processes of people. Many of these memoirs focus on the more salacious or scandalous aspects of being in a cult, but Kapur, to his credit, decides to avoid them altogether.

The book itself is structured into three interconnected narratives.

The first concerns the origins of the Pondicherry 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. came to Pondicherry and became his greatest devotee. and confidante. ‘Mother’ as she is known in the collective lexicon of the ashram and Auroville.

The book then tells a little about how the Auroville project was born, and how it was gradually put in place over time. Kapur talks in detail about his spiritual outlook and philosophy, and manages to do so in a way that isn’t boring – which is very impressive.

The second concerns the life of John and Diane, who they were, how they thought, where they came from and how their story tragically intersected with the political events in Auroville.

The most interesting person in the book is Satprem – one of the Mother’s most devoted disciples. Earlier known as Bernard, he was a French resistance fighter during World War II who was tortured in Nazi concentration camps. It causes a schism between the community of Auroville and the Ashram of Pondicherry, which leads to a long lawsuit over the legal status of Auroville itself.

He acts like a villain in the narrative in many ways, although the author seems to have consciously kept the portrayal just short to say the same. Satprem, however, is involved in the chain of events that led to the deaths of John and Diane.

The third story is about the present. He talks about Akash and Auralice’s life in the United States, and why they came back to Auroville. He talks about how they tried to confront what happened years ago, to try to figure out what really happened.

Kapur writes apprehensively: “The problem is that utopia is so often crossed by the worst forms of insensitivity and cruelty. Human beings, individuals, families, are mere spectacles in the quest for a perfect world. “

Over all, Better be gone is a book about what happens when we choose to believe deeply in a quest or activity outside of ourselves, and give up everything to achieve it.

It requires both a fanatical belief in this vision, as well as a certain stubborn refusal to listen to skeptics or dissent.

Personally, I found his description of this process very interesting. It draws a strong parallel between the utopian experiences in the history and culture and ethics of the start-up and our current cultural moment where there is boundless optimism about technology.

Of course, there are a lot of things that Kapur doesn’t talk about. As a resident of Pondicherry, I was surprised at how Auroville is portrayed as an abstract shape, and not part of the surrounding area, when in fact it really is.

Dr Jessica Namakkal, historian at Duke University, pointed this out pointedly in her book A disturbing utopia: the make and the undo of French India. The book also partly deals with Auroville and explains how strained the relationship was between the poor Tamil side and the hippie western segment.

Better be gone describes the people who came to build Auroville as “pioneers” when in fact they were not. In an interview with Firstpost, Dr Namakkal recounts stories she had heard from original Tamil residents, who had sold the land on which Auroville now sits, cheaply, due to financial emergencies, and turned to found without land, working for the new arrivals.

The framing of the pioneers is also problematic, as this is how the Europeans who settled in the United States, Canada and Australia were also called. They acted as if the land they settled on was uninhabited and they built everything from scratch, erasing the history 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 strange, and the book would have been greatly improved if Kapur had included this side of the story as well.

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