When Utopia Met Dystopia, They Were There

Akash Kapur and Auralice Graft are married now, however they first met in 1975 once they had been simply toddlers, racing round on wood scooters, in a hut in utopia.

Well, form of. They had been dwelling in an “aspiring utopia,” as Kapur describes it in his new guide “Better to Have Gone,” which Scribner publishes on Tuesday. The neighborhood was known as Auroville, positioned on the jap fringe of India’s southern tip, and it had been based within the late ’60s by Mirra Alfassa, an aged Frenchwoman recognized to everybody there because the Mother.

Inspired by the philosophy and yoga of a sage named Sri Aurobindo, the Mother supposed for Auroville to be a spot the place individuals might reside freely and “money would no longer be the sovereign lord” — the identical form of philosophy undergirding the peace-and-love hippie actions that had been blossoming all over the world in that period. People who had been unmoored had been drawn to the neighborhood’s beliefs of anti-consumerism, equality and unity, and so they had been undeterred by the dearth of fresh water and different trendy comforts. They had been powered by hope and dedication.

The neighborhood started to come back aside after the Mother died in 1973, nevertheless it was the 1986 deaths of two of its first inhabitants — Diane Maes, a girl from a small city in Belgium, and John Walker, a rich Manhattanite — which can be central, together with Auroville’s uncommon historical past, to Kapur’s guide. Maes and Walker had been additionally Graft’s mom and stepfather (her organic father left Auroville early in her life to earn a dwelling), leaving her alone when she was simply 14.

Though Kapur, 46, wrote “Better to Have Gone,” the analysis was a collaboration together with his spouse. They mentioned interviews prematurely and went by means of them collectively afterward, excavating tales Graft was too younger to recollect and piecing collectively the thriller of her mom and stepfather. “The process has been very healing,” Graft, 49, stated.

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

The guide comes nearly a decade after Kapur’s first, “India Becoming,” which took a broad have a look at the ache and promise of the subcontinent’s modernization. In “Better to Have Gone,” he turns his gaze inward, re-examining every part he and his spouse thought they knew in regards to the place the place Graft was born and Kapur lived since earlier than he was a 12 months outdated.

Although the guide is nonfiction, it has the tempo and really feel of a novel, stated William Dalrymple, the creator of a number of books on India, most just lately “The Anarchy,” a 2019 historical past of the East India Company.

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

The Matrimandir, considered one of Auroville’s landmarks, in 2018.Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

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

That form of pondering persevered after her demise, with different members of the neighborhood, together with Walker and Maes, growing an aversion to Western drugs in favor of yoga, Ayurvedic drugs and focus. Walker died of an sickness that was by no means identified, however these round him suspect it was a kidney an infection or intestinal worms, each simply curable. Maes died from poison that she ingested, refusing therapy.

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

After Graft’s mom and stepfather died, Walker’s sister introduced her to New York, the place she skilled the perks of contemporary civilization for the primary time: working scorching water, washing machines, fridges and automobiles. She additionally confronted tradition shock, for the reason that lack of a proper, Western training in Auroville left her ill-prepared for New York’s faculty system.

She remembers being mystified by a take a look at query involving a touch-tone cellphone. “It was a question that would be very obvious to many people, but I hadn’t grown up with a telephone,” Graft stated. She tailored, ultimately attending the University of Southern California after which graduate faculty at Columbia University.

Kapur’s mother and father — his Indian father attended courses at Sri Aurobindo’s ashram as a baby and his American mom grew up on a farm in Minnesota — held extra average beliefs. At one level in Auroville’s historical past, the neighborhood went by means of its personal model of an anti-establishment revolution during which zealousness was prized, books had been burned and colleges had been closed. So Kapur’s mother and father moved to close by Pondicherry to make sure his training was by no means disrupted, he stated, and at 16, he transferred to boarding faculty within the United States, then went to Harvard.

All this time, Kapur and Graft remained pals. It could be considerably awkward for them up to now different individuals in America who might by no means perceive their background — “What could we talk about? Our favorite sports team?” Kapur stated — and it’s their overlapping journeys that ultimately introduced them collectively.

“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 stated.

But Kapur and Graft’s story — and by extension the story of Auroville — isn’t considered one of escape, of unshackling themselves from the clutches of a poisonous cult for the protection of the actual world. “Growing up, a lot of people asked us, ‘Do you come from a cult?’” Kapur stated, however he stated that could be a misinterpretation. Its founder died early on within the city’s historical past, and there isn’t a single chief ruling over the neighborhood, prescribing how individuals ought to reside and what they will or can’t do. “There are no rules, to a fault, almost,” he stated.

In truth, Kapur and Graft moved again to Auroville in 2004, partly from homesickness but additionally to know what precisely occurred to Graft’s mother and father.

Now they’ve planted roots there, elevating their two sons amid the plush forest that has sprung up the place there was as soon as solely parched earth. Early Aurovillians, out of necessity, realized to develop and create new life on eroded, unfertile soil, laying the groundwork to show the city into one on a shrinking record of locations in India right this moment the place the air isn’t choked with smog.

“Not to sound cheesy but I do feel like I grew up with a forest,” Graft stated. “I recognize many of the trees.” She now works as a marketing consultant on local weather change insurance policies in India and all over the world.

Auroville continues to draw individuals trying to find an easier life, fleeing the grind of capitalism or, for ladies, conservative or conventional cultures with inflexible gender roles. The Mother’s idealistic dream of making a cashless society ran into actuality and has since advanced right into a form of “hybrid economy,” Kapur stated.

Auroville’s roughly 2,800 residents obtain a month-to-month meals stipend. No one can personal personal property, although the homes now have working water and are constructed from brick and cement, not mud as they as soon as had been. Taxes are voluntary for individuals who can afford to pay. And, in contrast to when Graft and Kapur had been rising up, there at the moment are high-quality colleges offering free training.

“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 stated.

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