Thesis: Akash Kapur reminds us why imperfect utopias are better than creating none

It was Oscar Wilde who said: “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not even worth taking a look at … Progress is the realization of utopias. But the exploration of the concept of utopia has a long intellectual tradition. The word, coined by the English humanist Thomas More, means “no place” or “nowhere” in Greek etymology; it’s a pun that asks if a perfect society or a self-sustaining community with a common, cohesive culture and way of life is even achievable. In 1872, novelist and critic Samuel Butler wrote about a fictional country of “eternal progress” in Erewhon, which is still an anagram for “nowhere.”

But among the many reasons why one should read Akash Kapur’s book Better to go: love, death and the quest for utopia in Auroville, one is to learn to appreciate utopia as a rationalist. May we come to a renewed understanding of the mysterious workings of faith. That the sweeping dismissals of the so-called “hippie-dippie” sects and communes are hardly fun. That there is not really a single reality. And while most utopias fail, some can endure with its many fractures and factions.

This is precisely the point that Kapur emphasizes in a telephone interview from the United States. “This kind of idea that Auroville was a unitary phenomenon is wrong. There is no unitary Aurovilian position. Auroville, from the inside, is like any small town in the world,” Kapur explains of of the complicated heritage of the “universal settlement” of Auroville, the city of dawn. Officially inaugurated in 1968 by a Frenchwoman, Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa or the Mother, to achieve the impossible ideal of “human unity” on a barren strip of land near the former French colonial colony of Pondicherry, Auroville sought to create an alternative community where dreamers, wanderers, seekers and rebels would coexist to create a spiritually evolved society of “supramental” beings.

Today, Auroville, while no longer the best version of herself, still functions as an intriguing, albeit somewhat corrupt, promised land where one can hope to live a calmer, internalized existence. “He doesn’t have a leader. There is no central vision. It’s an anarchic community, ”says Kapur.

The heart of Better be gone is the fascinating, almost cinematic story of John Anthony Drummond Walker and Diane Maes; John – a product of East Coast royalty, all ‘cocktails with crystal chandeliers’ – and Diane, the beautiful and restless dropout from the small town of Belgium. Both from radically different social backgrounds meet in Auroville with all the promise and optimism to inhabit a new secular world which draws its philosophical core from the teachings of Sri Aurobindo.

But the price John and Diane end up paying for their purity and persistence – in a country troubled by its own competing conflicts and contradictions in the 1970s and 1980s – is told with the eerie energy of a fender-bender. In this fascinating memoir, the end is already known, but the little by little process to reach the denouement is the most captivating part. A complete insider, Kapur knows the lay of the land. He grew up on one of the first farms established in Auroville — Kottakarai, where Kapur lived with his parents in a one-room hut.

After a boarding school and college in the United States, Kapur returned to Auroville in 2004 with his partner, Auralice, daughter of the late Diane. In a way, the book serves to free both Kapur and Auralice from the overwhelming weight of their shared history, with painful and untreated memories. Like a giant puzzle, Kapur recreates the journey of John and Diane in the tumult of a revolutionary Auroville; he weaves their character sketches from personal letters, postcards, diary entries, old photographs and in-depth oral interviews conducted over five years. And the result is a scintillating cast of characters in search of their own respective utopia, always on the precipice.

Auroville could never become the utopia that it had originally imagined. But perhaps in an echo of Wilde himself, Kapur knows the importance of the project, imperfect as it is. Especially in a democratically fractured society that we now inhabit. “Auroville is an important reminder. Here is at least an attempt to build something less materialistic, less unequal. Personally, I appreciate this aspect.

Better to go: love, death and the quest for utopia in Auroville

Posted by Simon & Schuster

Price: Rs699 Pages: 354