Better to Have Gone: Auroville

Akash Kapur

In this excerpt from his new book, Better to Have Gone, Akash Kapur describes the beginning of an incredible journey.
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Auroville, 1986

October of 1986 and a man lies dying in a hut at the edge of a canyon. His name is John Anthony Walker. He’s on a mattress on a cement floor, and by his side sits a woman wrapped in a shawl, a yellow cat in her lap, and she cries.

Her name is Diane Maes. This has been going on for months. All through the summer, first in the brutal South Indian heat, and then into the monsoon, with dark clouds blowing in and promising respite, the man’s condition has worsened.

What is it that ails him? What is it that has brought him—brought them both—to this point? Once their lives were full of promise. They are part of a great adventure, this quest to build a new world called Auroville. They arrived here like so many idealists and romantics, filled with aspiration and optimism, and they have worked hard, held their faith diligently. John, the intelligent, privileged scion of a wealthy American East Coast family. Diane, the beautiful, spiritually inclined dropout from Belgium. Both have been determined, alongside hundreds of others who have left families, friends, homes, and possessions behind, to come to this flat patch of land in India and remake human society.

But now John lies ill on a cracked concrete floor, and Diane cries. On October 13, it rains. Parched soil comes to life. Streams cut into red earth, flow toward the canyon, join to form rivers that replenish the ocean. Roots are exposed, trees and shrubs overturned. The frogs are a cacophony; snakes emerge to feast on them. A drizzle turns into a downpour. Diane scribbles an urgent note to a person she thinks might be able to save them, a Frenchman named Bernard. “Where is the force for us?” she writes desperately. John dies early the next morning. Diane dies the same afternoon.

John Anthony Walker. Credit: Camilla Smith

Diane Maes in Belgium. Courtesy of Auralice Graft

This is the story we knew; this is the history Auralice carried with her when she left for America as a fourteen-year-old girl, to move in with John’s family. The mystery and sense of secrecy were always nagging. But you get on with life, you push the questions away. Over time, they subside, or at least lose their urgency.

Then one evening I was browsing through a drawer at the apartment of John’s relatives (Auralice’s new family) in New York, and I stumbled upon a stack of overflowing green folders. They were filled with letters and postcards, pages from diaries, and wrinkled old photographs. These were John’s surviving papers, preserved by his sister, Gillian, now Auralice’s adoptive mother.

Those folders opened worlds for me. For the first time, I was able to go beyond the myths of John and Diane, to see them as human beings—a man and a woman who had dreamed, who had loved, and for whom things had gone horribly wrong. The folders also brought me back to the Auroville of my youth: a place I had cherished dearly, a vista of eroded red canyons and dusty fields that seemed full of possibility. But there were fault lines below that idyll, conflicts and divisions of which Auralice and I had been only dimly aware.

John’s papers helped us better understand the social tumult of our childhoods; and they allowed us to see, too, how that tumult was implicated in what happened to him and Diane. I stayed up practically all night reading (and, later, there would be many more sleepless nights). It was raining outside and at one point I heard a loud fight on the sidewalk, full of cursing and violent threats, but I hardly noticed.

I didn’t know it then, but my immersion in John’s papers was the start of a journey, for both Auralice and me.

My name is on the cover of this book, but we have undertaken this project together, every step of the way. We have tracked down old friends of John’s and Diane’s, their former lovers, family members, fellow travelers in Auroville, scores of them on six continents. We have read and inhaled the dust of old letters, diaries, crumbling, typewritten meeting reports, often in ill-lit archives. We have lived with this book for more than a decade, and the experience has changed how we see ourselves and our community; and changed, also, our feelings about the very idea of utopia and the search for perfection. There was much more to this story than we ever knew. Those deaths were far more complicated than we could have imagined.

Akash Kapur is the author of Better to Have Gone. Auroville: Love, Death and the Quest for Utopia.

Aspects of History Issue 4 is out now.