Utopias are not, by definition, on this side of paradise. Yet this truth has not stopped visionaries and researchers – let alone rascals and fools – from trying to build communities on lofty principles and chimerical aspirations. One of these wonders is Auroville, a town in southern Tamil India whose intoxicating origins date back to the incense and raga era of the 1960s. Akash Kapur “Better Go” (Scribner, 344 pages, $ 27) is a haunting and elegant tale of this attempt at utopia and her family’s deep bond with it.
Founded in 1968 by a French woman with a divine complex, Auroville is a place committed to “human unity and promoting evolution”. Its original inhabitants included a few hundred people from France, Germany and the United States and a pinch of other Europeans – mostly hippie refugees from Western materialism – as well as like-minded Indians. Today, 53 years later, it has a population of some 2,500. “Few intentional communities – now or ever – have survived this long,” Kapur writes. “The world militates against. . . anywhere that tries to play by different rules.
The word Auroville is derived from dawn—French for “dawn” —with a convenient echo, too, of the name of Sri Aurobindo, an Indian guru born in 1872. Mirra Alfassa, the French-founder, became Aurobindo’s acolyte in 1920 and his spiritual successor to her Alfassa died in 1950 came to be called by everyone as “the Mother”, and there was even an Indian postage stamp issued in her honor.
According to the founding charter of the Mother, this City of Dawn did not belong “to anyone in particular” but to humanity as a whole. To live in Auroville, one had to be “a voluntary servant of the Divine Consciousness”, and each resident was personally controlled by the Mother. Although she is still worshiped in India – where obedience is granted far too easily to anyone with spiritual pretensions – it is difficult not to view the Mother as a charlatan. Auroville, in its own words, was a place where “the embryo or the seed of the future supramental world could be created”. And it was no secret that she craved immortality.
Mr. Kapur and his wife, Auralice – a name given to him by the Mother, who claimed the right to name all children born to her flock – both grew up in Auroville. Auralice was born in 1972, Mr. Kapur two years later. Auralice’s mother, Diane Maes, was a woman from rural Flanders who arrived in Auroville at the age of 18. Stubborn and flirtatious, she quickly parted ways with her daughter’s biological father and met another man from Auroville named John Walker, in many ways the most convincing (and infuriating) character in the book.