Better To Have Gone, by Akash Kapur

Marjan Tavassoli

A search for the truth behind a family mystery, and the story of Auroville, a collective community based in southern India.
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Auroville, a town near Pondicherry in the state of Tamil Nadu in India, was established in 1968 with a goal of ‘human unity’ that still thrives today. If this sounds like a utopian community, Akash Kapur, author of Better to Have Gone, wouldn’t necessarily agree. It’s his view that Auroville is an aspiration, and far from perfect. Kapur should know, he grew up there, and returned with his wife to raise their children. His new books seeks to not only write about Auroville, but also to the tragedy that his wife, Auralice experienced. In 1986, for reasons that are unknown, Auralice’s mother and stepfather died with hours of each other. This book is an attempt to understand more about the couple, why they died, and also the true history of the Auroville of his and Auralice’s childhood. It’s an enlightening story, and I found myself close to understanding not only the settlement itself, but also those brave idealists that moved there in search of a better future.

Auralice’s mother, Diane Maes, was a beautiful free spirit from an unremarkable East Flanders town, and American John Anthony Walker, was a member of a prominent East Coast family, but more importantly a dreamer. They were both dedicated to integral yoga which sought to integrate the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of those practising so as to become aware of the divine. It was in Auroville they met and fell in love.

Auroville’s leader, The Mother, a charismatic figure, and unlike in more infamous utopian townships, was a positive inspirational presence. It was only when she passed away that certain practices took a more disturbing turn, with competing factions vying for control and a sceptical approach to education and medicine that had tragic consequences.  However, and this is an important theme of the book which has stayed with me, there is plenty to admire about Auroville, not least its spiritual, communal, environmental and architectural achievements.

The narrative, written in chronological order, is utterly beguiling, and by the end I felt attached to these fascinating characters, and wondering what if? This book has clearly been a difficult experience for Kapur and his wife, but he has shown readers a glimpse of John and Diane’s humanity, and its something that has stayed with me after finishing the final page.

Better To Have Gone. Auroville: Love, Death and the Question for Utopia by Akash Kapur is published by Simon & Schuster and is available now.