Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville by Akash Kapur

Among my happiest memories as an adolescent are the times I spent in the South Indian town of Auroville. It had been founded in 1968, the year of student revolution, as a Utopia—or, as Akash Kapur writes in his beautiful but devastating book, Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville, “an intentional community.”

The seaside town of approximately 2,500 sent a regular contingent of some of the most surprising, brilliant, and, frankly, strange kids to my boarding school, in the hills of Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state. They had these extraordinary half-Indic, half-European names, such as Satyen and Samya Tait, Akincana Keppel, Suryan Stettner. They spoke multiple languages, including fluent Tamil. They played marvelous soccer. They smoked pot, which invariably landed them in trouble with the missionaries who ran our school.

I would go to see them in Auroville on our holidays, where we roared down red-earth roads on motorcycles, drank cold Kingfisher beer, and ate at a cashless cultural center—“Money would no longer be the sovereign lord,” someone called the Mother had decreed. We swam in the Bay of Bengal and meditated in the Matrimandir, a great gold-leaf golf ball of a structure at the center of the Utopia. It was a dream.

Not for one moment during these happy times did I have any intimation of the darkness—“There is a tyranny in the womb of every utopia,” writes Kapur, quoting Bertrand de Jouvenel—that undergirded the Mother’s vision of a “Tower of Babel in reverse.”

I do now.

Halcyon to Taliban

I read Kapur’s book, which tells the catastrophic story of his wife’s parents, Diane, a Belgian hippie, and John Walker, the trustafarian scion of a glamorous American family with connections to the Kennedys and Isaiah Berlin, with my heart in my mouth.

Diane and John are drifters. They come to Auroville in the nomadic, questing spirit of the 1960s. The town, founded on the teachings of the Mother—a Frenchwoman née Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa, who was the foremost disciple of the great Indian guru Sri Aurobindo—knows some early halcyon days.

But soon after the Mother dies, in 1973, civil war erupts between her ashram and the new residents of Auroville. John and Diane are swept up. “We were a little bit like the Taliban,” one resident tells Kapur, recalling an era of fanaticism and book burnings.

As the community loses its way, and an atmosphere that is some terrifying mixture of Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies takes hold, John and Diane are visited by disaster after personal disaster. Diane’s son, Aurolouis, drowns in a well. Diane slips and falls from the scaffolding of the Matrimandir and is paralyzed from the waist down. John develops a mystery illness.

Throughout, the logic of spirituality and a rejection of modern medicine prevails. (“Pas de médecins!” the Mother’s heir has dictated.) John, vomiting up worms, is simply left to waste away. Diane entreats the Mother speak from her heavenly abode, in the vain hope of making these easily preventable calamities part of “a mesh of significance.” The Mother is silent. When John finally dies, Diane, with no thought for her teenage daughter, Auralice (who would become Kapur’s wife), gorges herself on the poisonous seeds of the datura plant, entering a death cycle several hours long.

Kapur, to his credit, is incredibly fair to these people, in whose lives a thread of doom runs, and who, in turn, leave his wife with a lifetime of hurt. “I’m not prepared to say,” he writes, “which one is right. I’m not here to say anyone was crazy.”

I feel no such compunction myself. Better to Have Gone is one of the severest indictments of the 1960s that I have ever read. In his quiet, nonjudgmental way, Kapur lays bare the utter wretchedness and moral squalor of hippie life, with its built-in parasitism.

John and Diane, even as they bring ruin upon themselves and others, are funded by John’s rich father, the head of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. As John’s sister, Gillian, the only adult in the room, puts it: “It wasn’t the Mother’s money. It was my mother’s money.”

Aatish Taseer is the author of, most recently, The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges. His documentary, In Search of India’s Soul, was released last year