NONFICTION: A fascinating memoir about a Utopian city in India — which proves less than ideal.
"Better to Have Gone" by Akash Kapur; Scribner (344 pages, $27)
The most surprising aspect of Akash Kapur's "Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville" is the author's well-disposed view of the leaders, beliefs and practices of Auroville, a planned city founded in 1968 outside Pondicherry in southeast India. It was here that Kapur's wife, Auralice, lost her mother to suicide and her adoptive father to a mysterious wasting condition.
Auroville was the dreamchild of Blanche Alfassa, a Frenchwoman known as the Mother, a spiritual seeker who adopted "Integral Yoga," a discipline which holds that humanity is transitional and promises its adherents "evolutionary transformation" into "supramental" beings.
Among those attracted to the place was Auralice's mother, Diane Maes, a Belgian with a difficult childhood, and John Walker, scion of a privileged, wealthy family, who later became Diane's partner. The author's parents, too, had been drawn there, his mother from Pipestone, Minn., and his father from Pakistan. Akash and his future wife had been childhood playmates.
The early history of Auroville follows the pattern of other attempts to transform society and human nature. For a start, the original notion that money would play no part ran into reality in predicable ways. More seriously, Auroville's physical planning came from organizers in Pondicherry who envisioned a rigorously designed futuristic city of 50,000 with a complex infrastructure. The actual residents, however, tended more toward hippies, counterculturists and spiritual seekers, people who believed that the place should develop "organically."
In time this led to the organizers cutting off funding, while many of the residents hardened into ideological zealots who embarked on their own "cultural revolution," complete with interrogations, purity tests, book burning and violence. "Education, medicine, money, marriage: anything with a whiff of the old, of ordinary humanness [was] now suspect and deemed superfluous."
Although this painful phase eventually passed, a benign view of nature and rejection of medical intervention persisted. Diane slipped off a tall building under construction and, though horribly injured, refused to be taken to a hospital. Ailments were often understood to be the symptoms of hoped-for cellular evolution. As John, too, shunned doctors, the cause of his long decline and death remains unclear; still, parasitic invasion seems a good guess — if one may judge from the two 10-inch worms that emerged from his body at different times.
Despite this and other tragedies recorded here, the book provides a fascinating picture of an "Ideal City" brought into being by the ceaseless, grueling work of its first residents, "idiot savants of endurance," as one man dubbed them. It is also a shrewd portrayal of some of the experiment's key players and of the backgrounds and beliefs of Diane and John, two stubborn, driven spiritual adventurers.
The desire to understand their lives and their deaths eventually led Akash and Auralice to return to Auroville in 2004 — and, baffling though it is to me, they have stayed on with their own children, embracing the community's way of life.