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BOOK REVIEW

A search for utopia recalled in ‘Better to Have Gone’

A street scene from Pondicherry, India.
A street scene from Pondicherry, India.Taolmor/TMAX - stock.adobe.com

The ’60s — just an extravaganza of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? Hardly. The whirlwind that was the late 1960s also included earnest searchers looking for a life more meaningful than trading up to a bigger house or flashier car. Many of them formed intentional communities of like-minded believers set apart from conventional society. Communes sprang up from California to Vermont. Other seekers looked eastward.

Better to Have Gone” tells the extraordinary true story of an “aspiring utopia” named Auroville, “The City of Dawn,” established near Pondicherry in southeast India in 1968. Its inhabitants were drawn from all corners of the world. Akash Kapur, son of an American mother and an Indian father, grew up there, was educated in the US, and returned to Auroville in 2004. His “India Becoming” (2012) was an insightful introduction to contemporary India. His new book is even better, a riveting account of human aspiration and folly taken to extremes.

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Kapur frames his story around three couples. After founding Auroville, Blanche Alfassa, a Sephardic Jew born in Paris, becomes known simply as the Mother. Her prime disciple, Bernard Ensinger, a French Resistance fighter who survived a Nazi concentration camp, she dubs Satprem, “the one who loves truly.”

Most of the narrative, however, focuses on John Anthony Walker, a scion of the American elite, and Diane Maes, a Belgian of more humble origins. They are the story’s tragic victims of utopian fecklessness. Kapur and his wife, Diane’s daughter Auralice, bind past and present together.

John’s ambivalence about his privileged background always battles with his reliance on family money. His father is director of the National Gallery of Art and well-connected in Washington society; his mother hails from Scottish aristocracy. At Harvard, he dabbles in Buddhism, LSD, and yoga. He volunteers for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and is nearby when RFK is assassinated.

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For a while, John lives in splendor in Pondicherry. Once in Auroville, he is generous with his parents’ money, funding community construction projects and handing out rupees to poor Tamil villagers. Though he resolves to build a mansion, designed in Renaissance Italian style, his bedroom will be tiny and spartan, like a monk’s. “John’s problem” according to one observer, “is that he was born a swan and wants to be a crow.”

The Mother and Satprem concoct a form of yoga they claim will promote human amity and evolution, and pave the way for immortality. After her body belies the claim to eternal life, in1973, her followers build a huge temple, the Matrimandir, in her honor. While working on its construction, Diane falls from high scaffolding, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. Satprem, a kind of French Svengali, insists that her fall is an omen of Auroville’s failure to abide by the Mother’s teachings. She must refuse medical treatment and instead use her condition — via meditation and willpower — to become the instrument for human transformation. John, now her partner, is left to tend to her and her 4-year-old daughter, Auralice.

Satprem is a harsh taskmaster whose edicts result in conflict between the residents of Auroville and its governing body at an ashram in Pondicherry. Even within Auroville, Revolutionaries square off against Neutrals. Never mind freedom and egalitarianism. Coercion and groupthink rule. Schools are shut down, books burned. A girl is prohibited from a tennis court unless — shades of the Chinese Cultural Revolution — she denounces her parents.

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For a time, John and Diane seek refuge in Pondicherry. So do the author’s parents. John and Diane eventually return, but find themselves “in a defensive crouch,” increasingly isolated from others; living in a hut, while their mansion remains unfinished. Diane’s condition does not improve, and John, for unknown reasons, suffers pain, fever, and partial paralysis. He vomits up a foot-long worm. He refuses medical intervention and soon is dead, Diane commits suicide by poison. Auralice is only 14. (This is no spoiler. The author reveals the gist of their fates early on.)

Kapur’s aim in writing this book is to fathom why and how his wife’s mother died. It’s a complex tale made somewhat more fathomable by the treasure trove of letters, diaries, and interviews at his disposal. In poignant passages, for example, we witness John writing about the “possibility of a progress that … is infinite,” and his father’s halting attempt to understand this alien worldview. Since there is less material about Diane, Kapur must rely on the larger context for explanation. In the end, she remains a mystery, even to her daughter.

With two young sons in tow, the adult Akash and Auralice eventually return to a more placid Auroville where strife and dogma have dissipated. Having known each other since they were young, they feel like exiles in America, and Auroville, for all its faults, feels like home.

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Kapur’s prose is nimble and fluid, as his attitude toward his material shifts from dismay to anger to anguish and, finally, to hope. He has “always distrusted faith,” he writes, and “never had much patience for wide-eyed schemes that aim at … dramatic transformation.” However well-intended, they inevitably sacrifice individuals “on the altar of ideals.” Diane and John ended up on that altar.

Despite everything, Akash and Auralice stubbornly cling to a vision of a better world. It’s a vague yearning that the author can’t quite put into words. Readers may be pardoned for being more skeptical.

BETTER TO HAVE GONE: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville

By Akash Kapur

Scribner, 344 pp., $27

Dan Cryer is author of the biography “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church” and the memoir “Forgetting My Mother: A Blues from the Heartland.”