Better To Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville, by Akash Kapur

January 16, 2022 at 8:51 pm (Book review, books)

This book tells an intriguing story. It is by turns hopeful and tragic. But mostly it is strange. It is a story in which adults make decisions that are sometimes hard to understand. These decision have long range consequences for their children, and it is two of those children who set out to uncover the facts that underlie their fateful legacy.

Auroville is what is termed an intentional community. It is located in Southeastern India. The nearest established city is Pondicherry.

The following video conveys  a sense of what Auroville means to those who have chosen to live there:

Auroville was established in 1968, in accordance with the vision of Sri Aurobindo.   Mirra Alfassa, who became known simply as The Mother, was his spiritual collaborator, and it was she who was the guiding spirit of Auroville from its inception to her death in 1973, at age 95.

Sir Aurobindo


Mirra Alfassa, aka The Mother


The death of The Mother precipitated a crisis for Auroville. Akash Kapur tells us:

The residents of Auroville are confronting a quandary that has faced intentional communities throughout the ages. What happens when the founder  dies? What structure, what kind of governance, can replace the charismatic authority that has initiated and  held these places together?

Upon the demise of The Mother, Auroville entered a period of darkness and confusion. Eventually it emerged into the light: order and purpose were restored once again.

One of The Mother’s chief mandates for Auroville was the bringing into being of a structure called the Matrimandir. She pronounced it to be “the soul of the city.”

It’s difficult to describe exactly what the purpose is of this strange edifice, so I’ll quote from Wikipedia:

In the middle of the town is the Matrimandir, which was conceived by Alfassa as “a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection”. Silence is maintained inside the Matrimandir to ensure the tranquility of the space, and the entire area surrounding the Matrimandir is called the Peace area. Inside the Matrimandir, a spiraling ramp leads upwards to an air-conditioned chamber of polished white marble referred to as “a place to find one’s consciousness”.

Matrimandir is equipped with a solar power plant and is surrounded by manicured gardens. When there is no sun or after the sunset, the sunray on the globe is replaced by a beam from a solar-powered light.

Radiating from this center are four “zones” of the City Area: the “Residential Zone”, “Industrial Zone”, “Cultural (& Educational) Zone” and “International Zone”. Around the city or the urban area, lies a Green Belt which is an environmental research and resource area and includes farms and forestries, a botanical garden, seed bank, medicinal and herbal plants, water catchment bunds, and some communities.

Kapur’s chief purpose in penning this volume is to relate the story of two denizens of Auroville: Diane Maes and John Walker. Diane was originally from Belgium; John was American, the scion of a wealthy and distinguished family. Akash Kapur and his wife Auralice both grew up in Auroville. Diane was Auralice’s mother; John was, in effect, the stepfather who was devoted to her. In 1986, when Auralice was  fourteen years old, Diane and John both died. Auralice was sent to live with relatives in America. Akash Kapur had gone there as well. The two eventually married. Auralice was haunted by the tragic and premature deaths of her parents; neither she nor Akash knew exactly what had caused them. Better To Have Gone was born of the search for answers to these questions.

This is a complex and disturbing story, but it is also deeply compelling. I haven’t wanted to give away too much in this review. But I must make one point. The Matrimandir – “the soul of the city” – was the site of a terrible accident that befell Diane Maes. I for one could never have warm, reverent feelings about the place.

Akash Kapur readily concedes that this story of the search for a utopia on Earth has “some dark corners.” But it also has bursts of bright light. Read it, and you will perceive both. Some books have the power to haunt the reader long after they’ve been read. About Better To Have Gone, I feel this sensation myself, especially when I gaze upon the book’s cover and the beautiful Diane Maes gazes, enigmatically, back at me.

Akash and Auralice Kapur






1 Comment

  1. Donny Lee Duke said,

    You’re saying never before you ever see the place. So, the Matrimandir is waste and should be just torn down because of a terrible accident building it? It took 30 years to build, and in that time you are going to have accidents. The residents themselves built it for the most part. Be a little less the spirit of these times: mess up, and it’s over for you, for all time over, even if it’s an accident.

    I have lived near Auroville for about 17 years, first visited it in ’95, before the Matrimandir had the gold petals on it, which, now, in the afternoons, I can see shinning in the sun from my roof, just the very top of the building. If you are into meditation and things like lucid dreaming, it’s built to enhance experiences of the inner consciousness, and it works, the effects cumulative. I would imagine you are into neither of those things, I mean with your heart and soul, but that’s just a guess, and you are a secular, outer-reality kind of person, and pardon me if I’m assuming.

    At any rate, this brings me to show you my review of the book, also on WordPress:

    Thank you for this post. You treat the subject mostly with objectivity, treat it for the most part kindly, Auroville and it’s experiment I mean. The pics really add to it and show you do care about your posts and the subjects you post about.

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