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Revisiting a Utopian city with fondness and fury

Three lives, three acts and three genres combine in this narrative set in Auroville. Kapur weaves together memoir, history and ethnography to tell a story of the desire for utopia.

July 24, 2021 / 09:07 PM IST
A building in Auroville Township. Today, around 2,500 people live and work in Auroville. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0)

A building in Auroville Township. Today, around 2,500 people live and work in Auroville. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0)

Tucked above the Indian Ocean, on the Bay of Bengal, lies a city named for the dawn. Auroville is an intentional community founded in 1968 by a Frenchwoman, Mirra Alfassa, known as the Mother, and consecrated to an exemplary if somewhat vague notion of human unity. Today some 2,500 people — mostly Indians and Westerners — make their home there, among organic farms, free schools and ethical design studios, all subsidized by donations and the Indian government. Seen from above, the city swirls, designed to look like a galaxy, a world unto itself — or so it likes to believe.

Mirra Alfassa Mirra Alfassa (via Wikimedia Commons)

Early Aurovillians coaxed forests out of parched land, and the place has also proven fertile for grand claims, rumors and darker, often suppressed histories. One such story has been the death of two members of the community in 1986: the American John Walker and his partner, a Belgian woman named Diane Maes.

The writer Akash Kapur grew up in Auroville. He was a classmate of Diane’s daughter, Auralice, who was 14 when her mother died. Kapur and Auralice eventually married and lived in America but felt summoned home, Kapur writes in a new book, “Better to Have Gone,” by the memory of Walker and Maes, whose unmarked graves lie in a forest beneath a termite mound — “we had unfinished business there.”

What happened inside that little hut, now mysteriously charred, where Walker lay on the floor dying and Maes, long physically incapacitated by a freakish accident, held their cat in her arms and cried and cried? What brought these two people together? What did they seek, and what, finally, did they find?

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Walker was the beloved, indulged scion of a wealthy East Coast family, the son of the first curator of the National Gallery and a descendant of Thomas More, the author of the 15th-century satire “Utopia.” Gentle, impulsive and generous to the point of fecklessness, he would give away a Giacometti charcoal to a woman he was casually interested in. A restless spiritual hunger prompted a stint in a Benedictine monastery and landed him in India, where he fell in love with “the thick velvet stillness of the land.”

Does a utopian impulse run in families, Kapur asks. Walker’s father had longings of his own; the title of the book comes from his letter to his son: “I admire you on your pilgrimage. May it have a good ending. But no matter, better to have gone on it than to have stayed here quietly. At the end of my life I realize there is nothing worthwhile except love and compassion and the search, which I have not made, for reality.”

Maes, meanwhile, grew up bucking against a “controlling mother,” Kapur writes, and the narrow conventionality of Flanders. She found her way to Auroville and its thrilling spirit of license. She had two children with two men — and raised Auralice with a third, Walker. Couplings were casual in Auroville, where Maes’ greatest emotional commitment was reserved for the Mother. After her accident — she fell 50 feet while helping to construct the community’s meditation center, breaking her neck, back, ribs and an arm — she refused much medical treatment, refused even a wheelchair, believing that if she performed her spiritual duties with sufficient fervor, her body would be rendered whole. She spent the rest of her life paralyzed below the waist.

To these strands, Kapur adds a third: the story of Bernard Enginger, later known as Satprem, a former member of the French Resistance who suffered imprisonment and torture in the concentration camps. He traveled to India to work in the French colonial administration that controlled the territory, and became enamored with the teachings of the Mother. In time, he became a formidable spiritual leader himself — holding particular sway over Maes.

Three lives, three acts and three genres combine in this narrative. Kapur weaves together memoir, history and ethnography to tell a story of the desire for utopia and the cruelties committed in its name. It’s not an unusual story, perhaps — there’s always been a fine line between utopia and dystopia (see Jonestown) — but it is told with a native son’s fondness, fury, stubborn loyalty, exasperated amusement. In Auroville, Walker would meditate with such stillness that dogs would urinate on him, leaving him, by all accounts, damp and serenely untroubled.

If the story of Walker and Maes cannot be separated from the longing and naïveté of the 1960s, as Kapur writes, it is even more tangled up in the politics of Auroville itself, which was thrown into an identity crisis after the death of the Mother in 1973. The ideological rifts went all the way up to the Indian Supreme Court: Did the teachings of Auroville constitute a religion, a sect or a spirituality? What are the differences between the three?

For a book that is so diligent about context, however, Kapur’s lack of interest in the colonial legacy of Auroville is surprising, and his description of the land itself — “a fitting tabula rasa for the new world,” this, in the teeming state of Tamil Nadu — genuinely took me aback. (For a thorough treatment of the colonial roots of Auroville — and indeed the idea of utopia itself — see Jessica Namakkal’s “Unsettling Utopia,” published last month.)

A louder, more troubling omission is Maes herself. The contours of her faith, desires, personality are not easy to trace, and her contradictions impossible to reconcile — she who let young Auralice be raised by neighbors but insisted on spoon-feeding the girl into her teens? She is a sphinx, reduced mostly to the extraordinary fact of her beauty.

Walker, on the other hand, not only left a cache of correspondence but proved to be an uncommonly interesting writer. Some of the most vivacious prose in the book can be found in his letters (extended quotation comes with its perils).

Kapur has his talents — the story is suspensefully structured, and I consumed it with a febrile intensity — but he has a deadly attraction to cliché. Men contain all the requisite multitudes in this tale full of “unfinished business” and the “wreckage of history,” in which “the wolf is perpetually at the door” and seasons are spent in the “belly of the beast” (in this case, Harvard).

If there is a mystery to be solved in this book, it is not what happened on that day in October 1986, in the hut, where a man lay dying and a woman watching him wept. What happened was witnessed by many, it turns out; it was tragic and deeply unnecessary. The mystery lies in this book’s provenance and desire, the reason, I suspect, for that decorous reticence where Maes is concerned.

This book has one real reader in mind: Auralice, who was raised with a kind of reverence and neglect not uncommon in Auroville in those days. She foraged for food, escaped to neighbors when the chaos of her home proved too much. Living with her, Kapur has come to know the quality of her silences — “there are places we don’t go, thing we don’t — can’t — talk about,” he writes. “I suppose one of the reasons I wrote this book was to break down those walls.”

He accomplishes far more. He brings this past into a kind of balance: He shows how to hold it, all together, in one eye — a people and a place in all their promise and corruption. It is a complicated offering, this book, and the artifact of a great love.

'Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville', By Akash Kapur. Illustrated. 344 pages. Scribner. $27.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Parul Sehgal | c.2021 The New York Times Company
New York Times

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