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‘Better to Have Gone: Love, Death and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville’ review: The dream of utopia and its tragic consequences

It would not be an exaggeration to describe Akash Kapur’s methodical unravelling of the secrets and mythology that have gone into the creation of Auroville, the City of Dawn, at the arid edge of the South Indian plateau of Tamil Nadu, as being of a Homeric quality. It is epic.

Kapur writes with the familiarity of a person who was born there, played as it were in the red mud of infancy, only to flee from its suffocating familiarity during early adulthood and still returning to seek, he does not know for what.

Some of these experiences have already been recorded in an earlier book Auroville: Dream & Reality, edited and introduced by Akash Kapur.

Search for truth

Kapur begins his treatise with a quote from Robert Musil, (1880-1942) the Austrian philosopher and writer, who was fierce in his denunciation of authoritarian movements, whether of the right or the left, in the first half of the 20th century.

Kapur is not writing fiction. He is more of a historian. Perhaps even a seeker, since there are references to the “Truth”, the chimerical concept that has attracted so many of the persons through whom he re-creates the composite background to the Auroville saga. He refers to it at times as an “intentional community” rather than an ashram, or a monastery. The word Utopia is also bandied about.

There is of course the Ashram itself at Pondicherry, with the twin personalities of Shri Aurobindo and the Mother as she is universally known, with its own set of adherents, the original elders, as Kapur often calls them. It’s the Mother’s visionary interpretation of Shri Aurobindo’s advocacy of what he defined as ‘integral yoga’; a means of kick-starting the next stage of humanity’s evolutionary process that led to the promise of Auroville. It is meant to be a laboratory of human aspirations created for and controlled by a chosen elite of people from all over the world. Now at its half-century mark, it has certainly become an example of the regeneration of the earth through multiple afforestation and water conservation programmes.

Mirra Alfassa’s journey

This story has been told before in Anita Desai’s Journey to Ithaca, the sensitive, but not always sympathetic re-telling of Mirra Alfassa’s (1878-1973) trajectory from Cairo and Paris to Pondicherry where she would meet her soul-mate. As a spiritually hypersensitive girl and young woman, she had already read Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga and Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East; met the French woman and Tibetan Buddhist explorer Madam Alexandra Neel, and was therefore ready for the next step in her evolution as the Mother. An interesting conclusion in Desai’s book is that renunciation, or deprivation of the senses, might also be a form of bondage. Reading Kapur’s account leads one to ask can that be true of hedonism as well?

Dual promise

It’s also instructive to remember that all through the early part of the 20th century with the trauma of the World Wars, the dual promises of an industrialised utopia, whether under capitalism, or communism, there were people trying to escape into other modes of thinking.

What makes Kapur’s re-telling of the Mother’s vision is his focus on the lives of three main characters. There is the affluent son of the East Coast American elite John Walker; Diane, a free-spirited Belgian girl; and Satprem, the former French revolutionary who was tortured in the Nazi-era concentration camps. Do we see here a new version of the Holy Trinity? Certainly, there is the temptation of transcendence based on the Mother’s promise of eternal life, together with the suffering that is all too real and minutely described. Finally, however, there is also compassion and a clear-sightedness that makes the story timeless.

Better to Have Gone: Love, Death and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville; Akash Kapur, Simon & Schuster, ₹699.

The Chennai-based writer is a critic and cultural commentator.


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