A journalist looks back at Auroville, the utopian community in South India where he grew up. Above all, he seeks to understand the mystery of the deaths of John Walker and Diane Maes, the parents of his wife, with whom he grew up in Auroville and later returns to raise his own family.
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.