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When utopia met dystopia, they were there

  • >> Alisha Haridasani Gupta, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-07-16 10:34:15 BdST

Akash Kapur and Auralice Graft are married now, but they first met in 1975 when they were just toddlers, racing around on wooden scooters, in a hut in utopia.

Well, kind of. They were living in an “aspiring utopia,” as Kapur describes it in his new book, “Better to Have Gone,” which Scribner publishes Tuesday. The community was called Auroville, located on the eastern edge of India’s southern tip, and it had been founded in the late ’60s by Mirra Alfassa, an elderly Frenchwoman known to everyone there as the Mother.

Inspired by the philosophy and yoga of a sage named Sri Aurobindo, the Mother intended for Auroville to be a place where people could live freely and “money would no longer be the sovereign lord” — the same kind of philosophy undergirding the peace-and-love hippie movements that were blossoming around the world in that era. People who were unmoored were drawn to the community’s ideals of anti-consumerism, equality and unity, and they were undeterred by the lack of clean water and other modern comforts. They were powered by hope and determination.

The community began to come apart after the Mother died in 1973, but it was the 1986 deaths of two of its first inhabitants — Diane Maes, a woman from a small town in Belgium, and John Walker, a wealthy Manhattanite — that are central, along with Auroville’s unusual history, to Kapur’s book. Maes and Walker were also Graft’s mother and stepfather (her biological father left Auroville early in her life to earn a living), leaving her alone when she was just 14.

Although Kapur, 46, wrote “Better to Have Gone,” the research was a collaboration with his wife. They discussed interviews in advance and went through them together afterward, excavating stories Graft was too young to remember and piecing together the mystery of her mother and stepfather. “The process has been very healing,” said Graft, 49.

“There are a lot of dark corners in my story,” she added, “and this process has shone a light into those corners.”

The book comes almost a decade after Kapur’s first, “India Becoming,” which took a broad look at the pain and promise of the subcontinent’s modernization. In “Better to Have Gone,” he turns his gaze inward, reexamining everything he and his wife thought they knew about the place where Graft was born and Kapur lived since before he was a year old.

Although the book is nonfiction, it has the pace and feel of a novel, said William Dalrymple, author of several books on India, most recently “The Anarchy,” a 2019 history of the East India Company.

“You forget at times that you’re dealing with real characters, and the story itself is so crazy,” he said. “It reminded me in some ways of ‘The Beach’ — that sense of hopefulness — and a bit of ‘Lord of the Flies.’”

One of the Mother’s and Sri Aurobindo’s beliefs was that human beings could evolve to have a heightened consciousness, enabling them to transcend physical constraints. There were whispers that the Mother, who had been working on her yoga for years, might achieve immortality.

That kind of thinking persisted after her death, with other members of the community, including Walker and Maes, developing an aversion to Western medicine in favor of yoga, Ayurvedic medicine and focus. Walker died of an illness that was never diagnosed, but those around him suspect it was a kidney infection or intestinal worms, both easily curable. Maes died from poison that she ingested, refusing treatment.

“One of the core questions of the book is: At what point does faith tip over the edge into darkness?” Kapur said. “Utopia and dystopia are very linked.”

After Graft’s mother and stepfather died, Walker’s sister brought her to New York, where she experienced the perks of modern civilization for the first time: running hot water, washing machines, refrigerators and cars. She also faced culture shock, since the lack of a formal, Western education in Auroville left her ill-prepared for New York’s school system.

She remembers being mystified by a test question involving a touch-tone phone. “It was a question that would be very obvious to many people, but I hadn’t grown up with a telephone,” Graft said. She adapted, eventually attending the University of Southern California and then graduate school at Columbia University.

Kapur’s parents — his Indian father attended classes at Sri Aurobindo’s ashram as a child and his American mother grew up on a farm in Minnesota — held more moderate beliefs. At one point in Auroville’s history, the community went through its own version of an anti-establishment revolution in which zealousness was prized, books were burned and schools were closed. So Kapur’s parents moved to nearby Pondicherry to ensure that his education was never disrupted, he said, and at 16, he transferred to boarding school in the United States, then went to Harvard.

All this time, Kapur and Graft remained friends. It would be somewhat awkward for them to date other people in America who could never understand their background — “What could we talk about? Our favorite sports team?” Kapur said — and it is their overlapping journeys that eventually brought them together.

“How many people are there in the world who’ve lived in a place like Auroville? And then who ended up in some version of the East Coast establishment?” Kapur said.

But Kapur and Graft’s story — and by extension the story of Auroville — isn’t one of escape, of unshackling themselves from the clutches of a toxic cult for the safety of the real world. “Growing up, a lot of people asked us, ‘Do you come from a cult?’” Kapur said, but he said that is a misinterpretation. Its founder died early on in the town’s history, and there isn’t a single leader ruling over the community, prescribing how people should live and what they can or can’t do. “There are no rules, to a fault, almost,” he said.

Kapur and Graft moved back to Auroville in 2004, partly from homesickness but also to understand what exactly happened to Graft’s parents.

Matrimandir temple in Auroville, a Utopian community near Puducherry, India, Jan. 5, 2018. (Saumya Khandelwal/The New York Times)

Matrimandir temple in Auroville, a Utopian community near Puducherry, India, Jan. 5, 2018. (Saumya Khandelwal/The New York Times)

Now they’ve planted roots there, raising their two sons amid the lush forest that has sprung up where there was once only parched earth. Early Aurovillians, out of necessity, learned to grow and create new life on eroded, unfertile soil, laying the groundwork to turn the town into one on a shrinking list of places in India today where the air isn’t choked with smog.

“Not to sound cheesy, but I do feel like I grew up with a forest,” Graft said. “I recognize many of the trees.” She now works as a consultant on climate change policies in India and around the world.

Auroville continues to attract people searching for a simpler life, fleeing the grind of capitalism or, for women, conservative or traditional cultures with rigid gender roles. The Mother’s idealistic dream of creating a cashless society bumped into reality and has since evolved into a kind of “hybrid economy,” Kapur said.

Auroville’s roughly 2,800 residents receive a monthly food stipend. No one can own private property, although the houses now have running water and are built from brick and cement, not mud as they once were. Taxes are voluntary for those who can afford to pay. And, unlike when Graft and Kapur were growing up, there are now high-quality schools providing free education.

“We have a small, beaten-down car, and my kids are ashamed if we drop them off at school, not because our car is beaten down, but because we have, like, one of the only cars there,” Kapur said.

“So the values of the community are still relatively anti-materialistic and anti-consumerist,” he added. “It’s noble and beautiful.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company