Written from personal experience, author and journalist Akash Kapur’s new book is a spellbinding, true story of life and tragic death in the aspiring utopian community of Auroville, south India
In the winter of 2004, I moved with my wife, Auralice, to a town called Auroville. Situated in south India, Auroville is an intentional community on a plateau overlooking the Bay of Bengal. It was founded in 1968 with the ambitious goals of encouraging human unity and fostering evolution.
Some people think of Auroville as a utopia, but the people who live there, including my wife and me, reject this label. Utopia is a place that’s perfect and that doesn’t exist. Auroville is real, and highly – humanly – imperfect. I guess it would be more appropriate to say that Auroville is an aspiring utopia.
People typically move to places such as Auroville – have moved throughout the ages – because they’re searching for something new.
Maybe they’re tired of their lives, maybe they feel alienated by the way the world is. They sell the house, pack their bags, travel to a faraway destination, and hope for a fresh start. But for Auralice and me, our move represented something different.
We weren’t lunging toward the future; we were taking a step back, into the past. Auralice and I grew up in Auroville. We spent our early years there, in a magical, denuded terrain, a flat desert that felt very remote, both physically and psychologically. We knew each other as kids, and then we went our separate ways in the world – the real world, as we called it – and built lives.
Now, more than a decade later, we found ourselves leaving those lives, dismantling the identities we had so assiduously constructed, and moving back to the landscape of our childhoods.
We were living in Brooklyn. We had rented a one-bedroom apartment on Atlantic Avenue, in a pre-war building with a brick façade and protruding metal fire escapes. Atlantic was noisy and a little dirty; its honking trucks reminded me of India, but I liked it there.
We took the subway into the city, we worked at jobs, we spent our paychecks on the usual things– clothes and technology, books – and we tried new restaurants on weekends. We had lots of friends; we led good, normal lives.
People asked us why we were leaving all of that, and we didn’t have a coherent answer. Sometimes we told them we were homesick. Sometimes we just said we wanted to try something new (though, of course, it wasn’t actually new for us).
We said things about America being the past and Asia the future. Also, we were horrified by the war in Iraq. I remember riding the subway one day, looking at a photo spread in the New York Times, American soldiers in green combat fatigues amid the orange glow of a dust storm, and I thought, so clearly, I don’t want to be part of this.
These were all real reasons, and they strike me now, each, as valid reasons. But there was something else. My wife had a history in Auroville. Her mother and adoptive father both died there when she was fourteen years old. She left soon after, moved to New York to start a new life with a new family.
She (and I) never understood those deaths. They loomed huge in our lives, hers especially, and also in the collective consciousness of our town.
Over time, they had become part of an emerging mythology. But it was never clear what had happened; the deaths remained shrouded, inscrutable tragedies that hovered over my wife, and then eventually over me, too.
Looking back, I know that’s the real reason we returned to Auroville: we had unfinished business there.
Extract from Better To Have Gone: Love, Death And The Quest For Utopia In Auroville by Akash Kapur (Simon & Schuster). Buy a copy here.
For a review of Better To Have Gone in the New York Times, click here.