How far can you go in the search for faith before you have gone too far? Akash Kapur probes this question with painful, almost endearing emotional honesty in his second book of nonfiction, Better to Have Gone. In his hands, John and Diane – whose journeys of faith are the heart of the book – and the other eccentric but compelling characters that populate it, evoke both irk and sympathy. But it is more than a story of characters whose paths cross in unexpected ways; it is also the history of an idea that braided spiritual strife with faith attempting to make a new reality, but ended up with fragmented, often painful truths. “I admire you on your pilgrimage,” John’s father writes to him at one point. “May it have a good ending. But no matter, better to have gone on it than to have stayed here quietly.” The foreboding prickles, but he is right – it is hard to not respect the courage of our protagonists.
Auroville’s worst tragedy
In 1986 – Auroville, an intentional community established near Pondicherry in South India almost two decades earlier – witnessed its founding dream of utopia encounter its worst tragedy yet. John Walker, the scion of a prominent East Coast family and perhaps the most generous benefactor of Auroville, who had left behind a life of luxury and prestige to pursue the divine yoga, died after refusing medical treatment for a whole host of medical complications. Diane Maes, his partner and a Belgian woman of great beauty and greater faith, consumed poisonous seeds upon hearing of his death, and passed away within a few hours, leaving behind her 14-year-old daughter Auralice.
Kapur grew up in and around Auroville – clearly evident in the familiarity and ambivalence with which he writes about his complicated relationship with the place. Auralice and Kapur later marry, and a different life in America and many years later, they move back to Auroville in 2004, the death of her mother and adoptive father, intertwined with the thorny history of their childhood, looming large over their marriage, and their conscience.
It is easy to categorise the book as a work of investigative journalism – Kapur is, after all, primarily interested in the circumstances that made possible such a tragedy in a community bashfully confident and endlessly hopeful in its aim to take humanity to the next stage of evolution. But Better to Have Gone is also more: part-memoir, part-biography, and perhaps, at its most successful, a gesture of love – for his wife, and his home. This mix of authorial ambition shines through most clearly when Kapur works his way through incidents that defy logic; he is less interested in presenting an objective truth, and more in the different versions of the stories that lead us there.
“Who am I to doubt that there are more things in this world than fit within my limited philosophy?” he writes. Several times, he notes his own bias towards more commonly accepted kinds of rationality and his reluctance towards revolutionary change. In allowing himself to be humbled by the scale of Auroville’s aspirations, however, he constructs a world where, despite the creeping sadness of what is about to come, I kept returning to see him attempt to understand what he finds difficult to believe in.
The quest for a perfect world
Auroville was not an aberration in the global milieu of the 1960s: the horrors of the Second World War and the disillusionment with political institutions and existing traditions birthed a countercultural wave of communes and intentional projects that practiced alternate living. Some, like the Peoples Temple in Indiana that culminated in the death by suicide of over nine hundred people, ended in tragedy; others fizzled out in the face of practical and organisational challenges. Found as an offshoot of an ashram run by Sri Aurobindo and a Frenchwoman who comes to be known simply as the Mother, Auroville outlived them all – it struggles, bides its time, adapts, but it endures.
But endurance is not the only vindication of utopias; they must also provide some relief from the sorrows of the nihilistic world that they seek to rescue their residents from. Faith is a heavy word, and Kapur contends with it as such. In Auroville, faith in the Mother is the reason an arid canyon blooms into a lush forest with rich biodiversity; faith is also the cross that John and Diane ultimately sacrifice their lives bearing. Events are contorted to fit the stories that the residents have told themselves, and truths get lost in the entanglements of what must be. In utopias, “human beings – individuals, families – are mere sideshows in the quest for a perfect world; they are sacrificed at the altar of ideals,” Kapur notes sharply.
At some points, the level of detail in the narrative can seem unnecessary, but Kapur’s insistence on not making it a story of clean binaries of good and bad carries the readers through them. Eventually, the necessity of these anecdotes also makes itself apparent: at so many points, the story of this pathbreaking community could have averted its eventual tragedies, but sometimes fanatic belief in creating a better world blinds people to what they do to each other in its name.
The present tense narrative of the book draws the reader in; John, the man who is “born a swan but wants to be a crow” charms, Diane’s conviction fascinates. Then they both baffle, and in Kapur’s hands, they eventually stir up empathy. Who among us has not at some point desperately wanted something to believe in, the belief so resolute that it can carry us through life? Over 50 years ago, some people from all around the world congregated on an inhospitable plateau to find respite from their inner turmoil and that of the world around them. In their stories and Auroville’s, we may not find spiritual answers, and perhaps it is best to not try – their voyages find meaning in their wanderings, not arrivals.
Better To Have Gone: Love, Death and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville, Akash Kapur, Simon & Schuster.