The enigma of Auroville 

A discerning quest for community living, the idealism involved and its implications

Published: 14th November 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th November 2021 05:59 PM   |  A+A-

Author Akash Kapur (right) with his wife Auralice Graft

Express News Service

At its core, Akash Kapur’s latest book is about the eternal human desire for utopia and the cruelty that accompanies it. In early 2004, the author moved with his wife, Auralice Graft, from New York to Auroville. For the couple who grew up in Auroville, the move represented a step back into the past. Graft’s mother, Diane Maes, and adopted father, John Walker, had both died in Auroville when she was 14. The deaths remained shrouded tragedies, and it wasn’t clear what happened. 

An intelligent, privileged scion of a wealthy American family, Walker left his life of luxury and chose one of an ascetic—complete with austerity and self abnegation. Maes was a beautiful, spiritually inclined dropout from Belgium. As Kapur narrates the detailed story of their lives, he also traces Auroville’s origin, its idealism, geography, architecture and gradual expansion—the many layers to its history as well as stories of hardship faced by its many inhabitants.

Along the way, he includes vivid details about the central characters who helped shape Auroville’s trajectory over the years—a Frenchwoman called Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa, known as the Mother, Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose, known as Sri Aurobindo and a Frenchman, Bernard Enginger, known as Satprem. All of these people were rebels, who shared a constant restlessness—the urge to fill a distinctive gap in their souls and escape their seemingly mundane lives. They were joined by thousands of others from around the world, people propelled by “the same thirst, the same vague longing for something different, something more meaningful—a deeper way of living.” 

Kapur analyses the possible reason for this phenomenon. After the Second World War, a number of people, particularly in the West, were dismayed with society—leading to a heightened interest in Eastern religions, cultures and spiritualism. During the 1960s—the golden age of utopia—more than 10,000 communities in alternative living with at least 750,000 members emerged across the world. “Some moments in time are simply more epochal: they offer more scaffolding for our ideals, and for our fantasies of reinvention,” writes Kapur. 

And so, the ‘Ideal City’ of Auroville—a brave experiment in communal living—was a creature of its time, founded in 1968 with the goals of encouraging human unity and fostering evolution. For all its idealism and the promise of a better world, the fractured landscape of this idyllic land full of possibility was plagued with several fault lines which Kapur goes on to expose, such as disagreements, divisions, hunger, food shortages as well as a lack of organisation and finances. A number of freak occurrences add further to the turmoil. 

According to Kapur, everyone at heart is a utopian. He also knows, however, what faith can do, and that the “dream” has its own shadows. By unravelling the truth about the City of Dawn and the mystery behind Maes and Walker’s deaths, he somewhat busts the myth about the very idea of utopia and the search of perfection—revealing its dark and often extremist underbelly. “The line between utopia and dystopia is often thin,” he warns. Writing the book was a cathartic process for Kapur and Graft , as it helped them decipher the tumult of their own unusual childhood.

Children of utopias are like exiles, writes Kapur. Having grown up with the illusory promise of an ideal society, they grasp the impracticability of that vision as adults. Yet, a part of them clings to that promise and they never stop hoping. “It’s hard to eradicate the vision of a better dream once it inhabits your dreams,” he writes.

For more than a decade, Kapur and his wife spoke to a number of Ashramites and Aurovilians, who shared their memories and experiences. The book’s extensive research also includes other documentary sources, such as John’s original letters and diaries as well as material from the Auroville Archives, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The book also truly brings alive the 1960s counter-cultural and hippie movements, filling the reader’s mind with images of its idealists, dreamers and romantics, all part of a great adventure to remake human society and build a new world.

Better to Have Gone: Love, Death,
and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville
By: Akash Kapur
Publisher: Scribner
Pages: 352
Price: Rs 699

India Matters


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