KATHERINE A. POWERS Star Tribune
“Better Be 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 benevolent take on the rulers, beliefs, and practices of Auroville, a planned town founded in 1968 outside Pondicherry. in south-eastern India. It was here that Kapur’s wife, Auralice, lost her mother by suicide and her adoptive father in a mysterious state of wasting away.
Auroville was the dream child of Blanche Alfassa, a Frenchwoman known as Mother, a spiritual seeker who embraced “Integral Yoga”, a discipline that holds that humanity is in transition and promises its adherents a “transformation evolving” into “supramental” beings.
Among those drawn to the place were Auralice’s mother, Diane Maes, a Belgian with a difficult childhood, and John Walker, a scion of a privileged and wealthy family, who later became Diane’s partner. The author’s parents had also been lured there, his mother from Pipestone, Minnesota, and his father from Pakistan. Akash and his future wife had been childhood playmates.
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The ancient history of Auroville follows the pattern of other attempts to transform society and human nature. For starters, the original notion that money wouldn’t play a role came to fruition in predictable ways. More seriously, the physical planning for Auroville came from organizers in Pondicherry who envisioned a rigorously designed futuristic city of 50,000 people with complex infrastructure. The actual residents, however, were more like hippies, counter-bodybuilders, and spiritual seekers, people who believed the place should grow “organically.”
Over time, this led to organizers cutting off funding, while many locals hardened into ideological fanatics who embarked on their own “cultural revolution”, complete with interrogations, purity tests, books being burned and violence. “Education, medicine, money, marriage: everything that smacks of the old, of ordinary humanity [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 from a large building under construction and, although horribly injured, refused to be taken to hospital. Ailments were often understood as symptoms of hoped-for cellular evolution. As John, too, avoided doctors, the cause of his long decline and death remains unclear; Still, the parasitic invasion seems like a good guess – judging by the two 10-inch worms that emerged from its body at different times.
Despite this and other tragedies recorded here, the book offers a fascinating picture of an “ideal city” created by the tireless and tireless work of its first inhabitants, “stupid scholars of endurance”, as one man put it. nicknamed. It’s also a clever portrayal of some of the key players in the experience and background and beliefs of Diane and John, two headstrong and driven spiritual adventurers.
The desire to understand their lives and deaths eventually led Akash and Auralice to return to Auroville in 2004 – and, disconcerting as it was to me, they remained with their own children, adopting the community way of life.
Katherine A. Powers, originally from Minnesota, is also a critic for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.