“Growing up in utopia is a good way to make you an incrementalist,” Akash Kapur writes wryly in his new book Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville, which is simultaneously an unsparing investigation and a love letter to the utterly unique place where he was born.
Kapur was raised in Auroville, an intentional community near the city of Pondicherry in southern India. Auroville was founded in 1968 by followers of the French mystic Mirra Alfassa, referred to as “the Mother,” herself an acolyte of the Indian guru Sri Aurobindo. Auroville was intended to be a “site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual human unity” and the project attracted idealists and spiritual seekers from around the world. These included Kapur’s parents, as well as the parents of his wife, Auralice, who are this book’s protagonists. John Walker was a privileged scion of America’s elite—his father was the first director of the National Gallery and a cultural power player in Kennedy-era Washington. Diane Maes was a rebellious hippie raised in much humbler circumstances in Belgium. They would find each other and build an unlikely family together in Auroville.
As often happens with utopian projects, Auroville took a dark turn in the 1970s and ’80s, as bitter and sometimes violent rifts over governance and ideology tore the community apart. John and Diane’s own story ended in seemingly senseless tragedy, as they died of likely treatable conditions for which they steadfastly refused to receive medical treatment.
Given this history, and his ambivalence about utopian projects in general, it might seem surprising that Kapur and his wife, after years of living in the U.S., decided to move back to Auroville in 2004. He describes the decision in the book as motivated by a mix of homesickness, disillusionment with post-9/11 America, and a desire to get the truth about what really happened during Auroville’s dark years. Today, Auroville sounds like a mellower place. With more than 3,000 residents from 59 countries, it’s become a popular tourist draw for its spiritual vibes and thriving foodie scene—developments about which Kapur has mixed feelings.
I spoke recently with Kapur about Auroville’s evolution, how the writing of the book changed his feelings about the community where he still lives, and whether we still have something to learn from dreams of utopia. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joshua Keating: It’s sort of a big question, but how close would you say the Auroville, as it exists today, is to what either the Mother or the first generation of Aurovillians envisioned at the outset?
Akash Kapur: That is a big question. In some ways, it’s the core of the book: the gap between ideals and reality. People very much come with their own inherent biases or feelings about these types of projects. It’s very easy to say, “Oh, come on. All these promises made, all these ideals, and it’s just a morass of humanity that just has not lived up to it in any ways.” I understand that perspective, particularly if people come to it with a naturally skeptical bent. As I write in the book, I often have a naturally skeptical bent. So, that would be a reasonable position to take.
On the other hand, you can also look at these places and say, “Look at what they have achieved and look at what they have tried.” You could ask yourself, “Well, if a community sets itself lofty goals, and, let’s say, it achieves only 30 percent or even 40 percent of those goals, do we denigrate them for the 60 percent that they failed? Or do we praise them and admire them for the 30 percent they’ve achieved?” I don’t have an answer to that question. I really think it comes down to individual temperament.
I think a lot of us, when we hear about intentional communities like this, we have this idea that in order to live there, you have to fully buy in to the project and everything about it. But on the other hand, we’d never assume that someone who is a Catholic, or an American for that matter, has to be 100 percent on board with everything about those institutions to feel a part of them. So, when you made the decision to move back, was it more just the community that you were attracted to? To what extent was it that the original ideals of the project were something that you wanted to be part of?
Yeah. So let me just reply to the first part of that question first, because I do think that that is a key thing and one of the greatest misunderstandings. I get it. People like to categorize things into known categories and known types of places. You see comparisons of Auroville to a cult. I think that’s a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the community. As I try to explain in the book, and as I think the fact that I wrote this book as a member of the community itself proves, it’s a much looser place than that.
By no means am I denying that there are fanatical elements in the community or that there are elements in the community that would even possibly take it in a cultish direction. But I think the way I see it is that it’s a much more organic, nonhomogenous entity where there are just many strands coexisting, as you might have in most societies. You don’t look at America and because there are QAnon elements say the whole of the country is a crazy cult, right? There are elements of that in the country, they coexist, and they jostle for preeminence and authority and power with the other elements. That’s the way I see the community.
On the question of our coming back, again, I think that this faith and ideals in the community, the way I see it, it exists on a spectrum. There are people who are all-in and believe in what you might call the letter of the law or the letter of the idea. And then there are people who are more attracted to the sense of, “Well, we’re trying to build something different. Trying to build a new world. Trying to live in a different way,” as vague and as squishy as that might be. My attraction to Auroville has always been that it’s trying to build something different. It is a different world with all its failures and warts and all.
Auroville was born out of this ’60s moment of fascination in the West with Indian and Asian spirituality. A lot of times, you see that tendency mocked today as cultural appropriation, or spiritual tourism, or what have you. But your book seems to make the case that there were some important redeeming qualities in that moment as well. Is that fair to say?
I mean, I do. I certainly see why it would get mocked also. I think there was certainly an element of Orientalism to that ’60s Indian flower power trip. It often ended badly in many ashrams and cults and things.
But I think the redeeming quality was in people who were trying to build a different world, and set out in search of it. Obviously, there may have been elements of Orientalism in the way they went about it and the way they approached local culture. I do think that, in general, the relationship between Auroville, which is about 50 percent Indian, and the surrounding Indian context has been complicated over time. But I think it’s much too simplistic, as some people have done, to categorize Auroville as a neocolonial project. I think that strand may exist, but there’s also just been a much more positive interaction. I mean, you put people together, not just Indians and Westerners. You put people together from more than 50 countries, all kinds of stuff plays out.
You talk in the book about how bureaucracy and institutionalization have inevitably creeped into Auroville over time, and it occurred to me as I was reading that there’s some parallel there to the way in which practices like yoga and mindfulness meditation have become more commercialized in the West, maybe a bit more institutionalized as opposed to transcendence that the earlier Western practitioners might have been seeking.
Yeah. The problem that keeps coming up in these intentional communities is the run-up of ideals against human nature. There seems to be something in the way humans are, whether it’s the institutionalization of yoga, whether it’s bureaucracy [in Auroville] or turning spiritual teachings into religion.
These are human tendencies and you don’t just see them playing out in Auroville—many of the world’s great religions, as far as I can tell, began quite differently. From a writer’s perspective, from a researcher’s perspective, one of the most fascinating things is to see these age-old things that have always played out, playing out in this very condensed small town.
The book is also an investigation of the deaths of these two people, of John and Diane. You seem to leave it a bit ambiguous, but I know both of their families seemed to hold the community responsible for those deaths, for the way that they died. I’m curious if, after doing this deep dive into their story, where you come down on that question of whether Auroville, as a community, has some responsibility for what happened to them?
I do feel ambiguous about that. I think it’s pretty simplistic to blame the community for what was clearly a very strong individual choice. To the extent communal forces were to blame, again, you would say certain factions or certain groups within the community rather than the community at large.
Probably a fair criticism is that as John is lying there dying, nobody informed his family. I think that’s a very specific criticism and I know the people that were there at the time regret that to some extent. So if you were going to blame anybody, it would be the immediate neighbors or the immediate circle of friends that did that.
But on the other hand, we deal with questions about suicide and assisted suicide in the West too. If an adult has very clearly chosen a path in life, doesn’t want his family to be informed, and doesn’t want his path to be interrupted, I’m not sure where the line is. I’m not sure where somebody should step in.
And by the way, I should also say, because you were talking about the families, that over the course of the research and after she read this book, John’s sister, Gillian, came down in quite a different place. She understands what her brother was up to, what he was doing there, very differently, and I think has much less anger toward the community.
That is interesting. The anger she expressed in the book made me wonder how she felt about you and your wife moving back there.
I think that probably it began with a certain amount of bafflement maybe, but there was a moment when she visited us actually. I think her position on this has changed somewhat. I mean, I’m obviously very close to Gillian because she collaborated a lot with this book and we learned a lot together. I think her position has changed.
Again, this is not to absolve elements that were fanatic in the community and may have pushed her brother in a radical direction. It’s not to condone a lot of the stuff that happened. But I think there’s a little more nuance and a little less anger in the way we all see what happened in those years.
One thing that surprised me reading it was the degree to which the shadow of World War II hung over the beginning of the Auroville project. One of the important figures in the story was born in a Japanese internment camp in the U.S. Another survived a Nazi concentration camp. How do you think that the war informed the way this project developed early on?
Yeah, that’s also something that I found really fascinating as I was talking to people. Some of it is just probably that that the war was the formative experience of that generation and of a certain age group. But I think, more generally, one of the things I learned while writing this book was while we say that Auroville is a product of ’60s hippiedom, I think hippiedom itself probably came, to some extent, out of the moral breakdown of the Second World War.
I think that you see this throughout history, these periods where society breaks down and all institutions are revealed to be somewhat hollow and morality is revealed to be hollow. They give rise to these urges for something radically different and to a different world. In America, after the Civil War, there was this huge outpouring of intentional communities that emerged out of a similarly dark moment. And in some ways, I think we’re living through that now. There’s this sense of having hit a wall, the old solutions don’t work. So you see more casting about for radical change, for what you might think of as utopian solutions, and even an interest in things like communal living and co-living.
Do you think it would be possible to build something like Auroville today, or was it just such a product of its time?
Well, I think that specific incarnation was probably a product of its time. I think these things surface over and over throughout history and they are always echoes of their time. Or maybe echo isn’t even the right word because they often emerge in opposition to the dominant narrative of their time. So I think it would probably have a different shape. I could imagine a virtual intentional community coming up or something like that.
I think there’s still a very strong interest in intentional living. I certainly see in the conversations I’ve had with people over the last month and in recent years that there’s a lot of interest in utopianism that I hadn’t felt earlier in my life—a lot more defense and sympathy for utopianism. I mean, I’m, to some extent, shaped by the biggest utopian failure in history, which is the collapse of communism. For much of the ’80s, the ’90s, and maybe the early 2000s, utopianism was basically a dirty word.
I wrote a piece a few years ago in the New Yorker, which was a skeptical take on utopianism partly, obviously, informed by my own background and upbringing. Some of the response to it, particularly by the younger generation, was very skeptical of my take. It was like, “What we need now are utopian solutions, and this old denigration of utopianism is outdated.” I was pretty struck by that.
It seemed to me that the biggest question raised by the story of Auroville, as you tell it, is whether it is possible to build a different type of society, or whether attempts to do so always end up just resembling the larger society outside. Which of those do you think is the bigger takeaway?
I think it’s really tough. I think that, put it this way, attempts to counter human nature just keep running up against human nature. I think it’s certainly possible to build improvements on human society and to build better versions of human society. But I think attempts to build ideal human societies or perfect worlds are not likely to succeed.
And that’s one of the reasons why, as I say in the book, I say that I’m much more of an incrementalist. I think if I look at the elements of Auroville that I most admire and that I think are most successful, they were things that weren’t planned out. They weren’t the most radical visions and the most dramatic ideas for change. They were things that emerged more organically from lived life of the community, by having a number of very idealistic, very committed people come together, and then channel those energies in unanticipated, unplanned ways.