There is a legend of the seventh century Irumbai temple near Auroville which tells of a Siddhar (an enlightened sage) who re-ties the anklet of a dancer in whom he sees the form of Shiva himself. The locals mock him, and Kaduveli Siddhar is furious. He utters a curse that breaks the temple lingam in three and commences a ceaseless drought. The frightened villagers beg for mercy, the Siddhar relents, the lingam is partially rejoined, but the curse can be lifted only with the arrival of some people from a far-off land, he says, at some far-off time.
Many today say those people must have been the early Aurovillians.
There is another, better-known legend of Auroville which tells of a fair-skinned seer from a far-off land who comes to Pondicherry (now Puducherry) and finds a rishi in whom she sees the form of Krishna himself. Other fair-skinned people follow, drawn by her magnetism, locals join, and her vision of human purpose and unity compels them to build a city from the red earth of a drought-ridden land, transforming it into a forest. They work with what they have, not always having enough, and, like the villagers in the old story, not always able to understand the whys of anything: why a woman is paralysed or a child drowns, or why the miracles they envision do not occur.
But they make Auroville the place it now is.
The first story is immortalised in the reliefs on the walls of the Irumbai temple and in the little booklets the priests will give you if you ask; Akash Kapur makes fleeting reference to it in his new book, Better To Have Gone, a memoir of growing up in the universal township and experimental community called Auroville, just north of Pondicherry. It’s the second story that preoccupies him—not as legend, as I have told it, but as an assemblage of the biographical tales of a handful of early Aurovillians: of the charming and brilliant John, trapped and propped by his elite American life; vivacious Diane from small-town East Flanders, determined to escape her controlling mother; the strong-willed French survivor of Nazi concentration camps who becomes Satprem, and several secondary characters entering and exiting this pageant as it unfolds.
Through the minutiae of their stories emerges a narrative history of Auroville which runs roughly as follows. “Seekers” of various stripes are drawn in the 1950s-60s to Pondicherry, where the Sri Aurobindo Ashram is in the hands of the Mother, a Frenchwoman born Mirra Alfassa, the spiritual collaborator of the revolutionary freedom fighter and yogi Sri Aurobindo. The place is already a community of sadhaks (roughly, spiritual practitioners), both Indian and not. The Mother has an idea of a city of the future, a place of freedom, experimentation and never-ceasing progress where human unity can manifest and where each individual is a “willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness”. This city, which she calls Auroville, is founded in 1968, with a call to “all men of goodwill” and pledges of support from governments and agencies around the world.
Then commence the human travails, the actual work of translating lofty aspirations into material practice. This is the focus of Kapur’s writing and in the lives and strivings of the early Aurovillians lies this book’s first premise: There is no dreamy mythology of Auroville, the quest for perfection is inherently imperfect; there are no goddesses and gods, only people who are dreamers, searchers, rebels, “each trying to fill a distinctive gap in their soul”. It is through each of their quests, thrown and shaped by the actual circumstances of their lives, that Auroville comes into being.
There is another quest here, and that is Kapur’s own. Both he and his wife, Auralice, are children of Auroville’s formative years, having grown up through the tumult of early community building, as the Matrimandir, a monument to the Divine Mother at the centre of Auroville, is being built. Diane is Auralice’s mother, John eventually becomes her adoptive father. Both die within hours of each other. What was it that drew these people here? What brought them to their deaths? Better To Have Gone offers a reckoning.
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Kapur reaches into letters, archival records and the dark labyrinths of personal memory to investigate. There is no mystery here, as we eventually discover, maybe at best a tragic love story or a rending family drama, certainly a child’s (that is, Auralice’s) poignant coming to terms with the incomprehensibility of her parents’ life choices and the weights those laid on her. Poised at this personal fulcrum, Kapur’s project is one of sense-making—and not the way Aurovillians and many Indians as well do it, seeking explanations for the why of things in abstract divine will and purpose. Explanations based on divine providence and faith won’t do for Kapur; he has had a “surfeit” of those, they are part of the burden to release. Instead, he veers towards rationalist, almost historiographic methods. Enlightenment rationalism is thus the second premise of this book—or at least Kapur wants it to be. He wants to rail that faith is somehow the opposite of reason, that it doesn’t make sense, that it can wreak havoc.
So, he turns to experiences more readily comprehensible. Auroville’s early years play in his words as on those scratched and grainy family films we all so love watching, even if this is no idyllic time. Life involves contending with snakes, parasites, the lack of equipment (using bus schedules as timers for bread in the bakery), the need for money as much as the desire to eschew money exchange (the origins of Auroville’s so-called “cashless” economy), wary and sometimes violent local villagers, and a harsh, brutally hot environment. At times one has the sense of witnessing the “progressive insanities of a pioneer”, to borrow Margaret Atwood’s poetic words—but Auroville is hardly the monolithic “settler colony” historian Jessica Namakkal unfailingly insists it must be. The community wrests with challenges that are at once physical, material, ideological and spiritual.
Aurovillians see their labours as “attempt(s) to materialize spiritual consciousness”, and Kapur’s rationalism strains and gives way sometimes, but the frames keep clashing. How does Auroville work? John’s American father wants to know, programmatically, pragmatically, at the same time as Diane feels complete in the silence of the Matrimandir’s construction site and the simple lives, sacrifices and spiritual leanings of this nascent community endear local villagers to the Auroville idea.
With all this as background, it is difficult to think of Auroville as “utopia” by any measure but Kapur feels compelled to raise this spectre. “Utopia is a place that’s perfect and that doesn’t exist,” he says with conviction, and then, hesitantly: “I guess it would be more appropriate to say that Auroville is an aspiring utopia.” Loose definitions circulate: Thomas More’s utopia, Soviet-era imaginaries, our common desires for “fresh starts and alternative lives”. It is never clear how or when any of these notions attach themselves to Auroville—they do not figure in common Aurovillian parlance, and appear neither in the Mother’s own descriptions, nor in the Auroville charter. The Mother once remarked that “utopia” was “the basis on which they (reporters, observers) tell you, ‘You won’t succeed’” (Agenda vol.9, 6 April 1968). Nonetheless, it becomes Kapur’s proverbial straw man, to be set up and knocked down.
The Mother, too, features in Kapur’s dramatis personae alongside the others. There is a certain blank, staccato rhythm to Kapur’s writing and his presentation of facts: Diane cries, the Mother cranes her neck, John is shattered. The tense is present and continuous, happening as we watch; there is very little to suggest that the Mother’s envisionings are any more or less important than the interpretations and experiences of all those who carry it forward. At times Kapur erupts, asserting passionately that “Human beings—individuals, families—are mere sideshows in the quest for a perfect world; they are sacrificed at the altar of ideals”. But he never really tells us what Auroville’s ideals are. He reproduces the Auroville charter without comment, and says nothing of the specific notions of freedom, unity, and progress that Aurovillian endeavours equally embody. No comment either on the importance of India to the formation of Auroville, except as clichéd “eastern salve to broken western materialism”. As for the people who are willingly and even wilfully sacrificing themselves—their actions bewilder the rationalist in Kapur. His only recourse is to make their “sideshows” central.
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“Really,” he says, Auroville has emerged “from the rubble of the Second World War”. It will later have its own “cultural revolution” (referring to the 1970s conflict over self-governance that shook relations between Auroville and entities associated with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram). Via such sleights of hand does Kapur place Auroville amidst an odd jumble of responses to post-war despondency and other social uprisings, alongside the Japanese Yamagishi movement, the ill-fated Jamestown settlement, Israeli kibbutzim and Mao’s revolution. Auroville’s primary distinction is merely that it outlives most others.
For all the filial affection Kapur clearly has for this place of his birth and growth, these are damning moves. They open the door to a reading of Auroville as a bizarre utopian cult (Zoë Heller’s 5 July article in The New Yorker is proof) and they undermine the values that the very Aurovillians Kapur writes about so deeply espouse. It makes little difference that he comes around, from a preoccupation with the inexplicability of Auroville’s deaths to a rebirthing of sorts, after a meditation in the inner chamber of the Matrimandir, no less, but the path he opens for personal sense-making is one that deliberately sidesteps the Mother’s vision of Auroville, only cursorily considers even Aurovillian enactments of that vision, and focuses overwhelmingly on how people imperfectly materialised it—as though that is the only “reality” worth reporting.
To frame a story as legend, as with the Siddhar’s tale or the lore of Auroville, is to recognise just how fantastic it is: amazing, a touch incredible, but always containing an explanation of the present and opening energetically to the possibilities of the future. To frame a story as utopia-that-isn’t is to establish an underbelly “shot through with the worst forms of callousness and cruelty”. This second is Kapur’s goal and the book’s chief failing. Saying Auroville isn’t a utopia is, after all, very different from saying it was never meant to be one.
I am reminded of why it is that traditional Tamilians will never speak ill of the places of their own birth: It’s a question of loyalty and of risk. At 79, John’s father writes a letter to his son: “I admire you on your pilgrimage,” he says, and in a blessing that gives the book its title, “May it have a good ending…better to have gone on it than to have stayed here quietly.” It takes a lifetime of a father’s love to arrive at this point of comprehension. Who else would make such an effort?
Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist and researcher with the University of Houston-Clear Lake, US. She lives and works from Puducherry and Auroville.