This is a haunting, heartbreaking story, deeply researched and lucidly told, with an almost painful emotional honesty—the use of present tense weaving a kind of trance. I kept wanting to read Better to Have Gone because I found it so gripping; I kept wanting not to read it because I found it so upsetting. The image that came to mind, again and again, was of human lives being dashed against the rocks of rigid belief ... Like much of reality, the story Kapur tells sounds almost too implausible to be true ... Part of Kapur’s strength as a guide is that he is attached to reason, yet he yearns for faith. He wants to understand, even if he cannot, quite. Kapur...is excellent about the ideas that animated Auroville and nearly destroyed it. (I did sometimes wish for a map of the township, without which I felt lost in a mythological place, its locales given names like Certitude and Aspiration.) He spares no detail in describing the community’s early years ... His focus, so intense, is sometimes too narrow. More history of the French colony of Pondicherry, from where Auroville emanated, would have been useful, along with more scrutiny of how India’s colonial history, which left a hangover of both excessive deference to white Westerners and whiplash against that, shaped Auroville ... But Auroville, not India, is Kapur’s subject, and the place emerges as awful and beautiful in equal measure.
... extraordinary ... a riveting account of human aspiration and folly taken to extremes ... It’s a complex tale made somewhat more fathomable by the treasure trove of letters, diaries, and interviews at his disposal ... poignant passages ... Kapur’s prose is nimble and fluid, as his attitude toward his material shifts from dismay to anger to anguish and, finally, to hope ... Despite everything, Akash and Auralice stubbornly cling to a vision of a better world. It’s a vague yearning that the author can’t quite put into words. Readers may be pardoned for being more skeptical.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... [Kapur] 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.
Akash Kapur’s Better to Have Gone is a haunting and elegant account of this attempt at utopia and of his family’s deep connections to it ... The beauty of Mr. Kapur’s story lies in our conviction, by the end, that he and his wife have found most of the answers they were looking for.
Befitting a book about a spiritual community, this is the tale of the journey as much as the destination. Kapur is a terrific storyteller, and even though you’re told a lot up front, his writing compels you to follow him as he digs deeper. The Mother is, as you’d expect, creepy and compelling, and a sense of foreboding is ever present ... Kapur is not just writing this narrative; he is an integral part of it. Like Aurolice, he was born and raised in Auroville. He and Aurolice married and moved to the States — and yet they returned to live in this enigmatic place full of so many difficult memories. That, I have to say, was surprising.
The most surprising aspect of Akash Kapur's Better to Have Gone is the author's well-disposed view of the leaders, beliefs and practices of Auroville...[where] Kapur's wife, Auralice, lost her mother to suicide and her adoptive father to a mysterious wasting condition ... Despite this and other tragedies recorded here, the book provides a fascinating picture of an 'Ideal City' brought into being by the ceaseless, grueling work of its first residents, 'idiot savants of endurance,' as one man dubbed them. It is also a shrewd portrayal of some of the experiment's key players and of the backgrounds and beliefs of Diane and John, two stubborn, driven spiritual adventurers.
An eerie mystery wrapped in Eastern mysticism is at the heart of this intriguing examination by journalist Akash Kapur ... Kapur builds his story in a rich, person-centered chronology that includes the ideals and motivations of the 1960s hippie movement and its connection to principles and practices of Eastern religion and philosophy. It’s a tangled web, and pulling apart each skein combines Kapur’s deft penmanship and sharp observational powers with a devotion to his spouse ... emotionally nourishing and intellectually provoking.
[A] beautiful but devastating book ... I read Kapur's book...with my heart in my mouth ... 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.
... [a] moving, complex combination of history both social and personal ... Along the way, he makes good use of the many revealing letters Aurilice’s adoptive father sent home to his upper-class family. While Aurilice’s parents’ deaths turn out to be more sad than mysterious, Kapur clearly and passionately articulates both his love for Auroville and his deep awareness of its flaws.
Melding history, biography, and memoir, the author offers a sensitive examination of Auroville’s complex origins, tumultuous evolution ... the author portrays with generosity the consuming faith that led Maes and Walker to endure suffering and to leave Auralice abandoned ... A discerning portrait of a storied community.