Better to Have Gone: Love, Death and the Quest for Utopia in AurovilleAuthor: Akash KapurPublisher: ScribnerPages: 368 Price: Rs 699How did “an arid patch of earth in South India” become Auroville, “an international utopian community for thousands of people”? Why did Mirra Alfassa, a French woman born to an Egyptian mother and a Turkish father, initiate this project? To what extent was her vision anchored in the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, her spiritual mentor in Puducherry? What happened to her dream and legacy after she passed away due to prolonged illness?Read Akash Kapur’s courageous book titled Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville to have these questions answered by an insider. He grew up in Auroville and returned there to live with his family after studying in the United States and the United Kingdom, where he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. Kapur had previously edited an anthology titled Auroville: Dream and Reality (2018).As Kapur reminds us, Auroville — founded in 1968 — emerged from “the rubble of the Second World War”. People who were “dismayed with humanity and society” and had lost their faith in “existing institutions and traditions” were looking for something new to hold on to. There was “a heightened interest in Eastern religions and cultures” among those who were frustrated with “the broken materialism of the West”. What did Auroville offer them?If you approach this book expecting a world where everyone is blissful, kind, and living in harmony with nature, you are bound to be disappointed. Kapur is not here to sell Auroville as a tourist destination or pilgrimage spot. He writes about an intensely personal journey that overlaps with the ups and downs in the life of this intentional community. Kapur’s wife Auralice grew up in Auroville, and her parents died there under mysterious circumstances.Diane, her biological mother, was a hippie from Belgium. John, her adoptive father, was a Harvard-educated man and the scion of a powerful family in the US. They met in the 1960s, became friends, lovers and then partners. Diane’s mother believes that John compelled her daughter to go on a fatal fast. John’s sister accuses Diane of casting a trap that her brother could not escape. Kapur and his wife are keen to know what really happened.This quest is what the book is about. It was written while living in Auroville, among people who knew Diane and John but did not necessarily agree about the causes behind their death. The hunger to go back in time, and put together various pieces of a puzzle, made Kapur and Auralice examine their own childhoods in a different light. They will perhaps never get answers that are truly satisfying but they might reach a point where the questions cease.Their search reveals several disturbing aspects of Auroville’s history — a rush to declare the founder dead and her premature entombment, mismanagement of funds, ideological differences between opposing camps, blackmail, assassination attempts, and more. Aurovilians who did not want to take sides were reviled for being “Neutrals” and bullied.The book is enriched by Kapur’s honesty regarding his own actions during the early 1980s when battle lines were sharply drawn in the Auroville community. He was nine or ten years old. He remembers being with a group of friends when they ran into two Neutrals walking down a path of eucalyptus trees. These children started jeering, catcalling, shouting the men’s names in scornful voices, throwing twigs and pebbles at them, and laughing hysterically.Kapur feels “deeply ashamed”. He writes, “What was it in our world, in the ethical context our adults painted for us, that made it seem acceptable to chase these men like prey down a dirt path, as the sun set behind the eucalyptus and over Auroville’s red land?” He wonders what happened to the “moral compass” of his town that was dedicated to “human unity”.In this divisive atmosphere, people were identified by allegiances — real and perceived — and subjected to loyalty tests. John was considered a Neutral, and Diane a revolutionary. They did not want to get caught up in these ego trips, so they turned inward. They embraced a frugal lifestyle, stopped socialising, and refused to take medicines for their ailments.John died first. As soon as Diane received the news, she wanted to go with him. Auralice was only 14 then. Diane poisoned herself in the presence of community members. As John’s sister, Jillian, would tell the author years later, “My brother was dying and no one did anything about it. They just wanted more money; that’s all they cared about. Is that what you call a community? Is that the yoga? I’m sorry, but it was disgusting. I’ll never get over what happened there.”Kapur is wary of assigning blame to the community, or to specific individuals, but Bernard, aka Satprem, — who moved from Paris to Puducherry and was a confidant of Alfassa (later called “The Mother”) — comes across as an antagonist. According to this book, he led one of the two camps that emerged in Auroville, mobilised support from industrialists and foreign embassies, and advised Diane not to see doctors during the nine years she was paralysed.If this seems bizarre, read the book to find out how Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Soli Sorabjee and Fali Nariman got involved in Auroville. Kapur tells a heartbreaking story in a dignified manner, offering explanations without insisting that his interpretation is the last word. He makes an excellent contribution to the study of Auroville, alongside Jessica Namakkal’s book Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India.Kapur writes from a unique vantage point. He has an uneasy relationship with faith but he does meditate. He finds it tough to see Auralice being haunted by the loss of her parents; they will never get to meet their grandsons Aman and Emil — a new generation being raised in the same town. Kapur has misgivings but they have not diminished his love for Auroville.