“Old Pittsburgh Industrial Fortune” Sustained “Anti-Materialist Conceit of Auroville”

(p. C7) Utopias are not, by definition, found on this side of paradise. Yet that truth hasn’t stopped visionaries and seekers—not to mention knaves and fools—from trying to build communities on lofty principles and quixotic aspirations. One such wonderland is Auroville, a commune in India’s Tamil south whose heady origins can be traced to the incense-and-raga days of the 1960s. Akash Kapur’s “Better to Have Gone” is a haunting and elegant account of this attempt at utopia and of his family’s deep connections to it.

. . .

Mr. Kapur and his wife, Auralice—a name given to her by the Mother, who asserted 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’d arrived at Auroville as an 18-year-old. Headstrong and flirtatious, she soon separated from the biological father of her daughter and took up with another Auroville man named John Walker, in many ways the book’s most compelling (and infuriating) character.

. . .

Unlike the bucolic Maes, Walker was born into privilege, his father the heir to an old Pittsburgh industrial fortune.

. . .

It’s easy to be irritated, even incensed at times, by Walker’s blithe aura of entitlement. The hardship of the early days at Auroville—when there was no running water or electricity—is mitigated in Walker’s case by his renting an air-conditioned room at a comfortable hotel in nearby Pondicherry. Whenever funds ran low, he wrote to his father for more.

Much of this money helped sustain the anti-materialist conceit of Auroville. The community depended on the bounty of rich residents like Walker, who placed their trust funds at the disposal of the Mother. Walker’s money paid for the drilling of wells, the building of roads and houses, the salaries of laborers, even Auroville’s bakery. He did not, of course, begrudge this parasitic relationship with utopia. Why would he? All he had to do was holler for dad.

For the full review, see:

Tunku Varadarajan. “Dawn of a New Humanity.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 24, 2021): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 23, 2021, and has the title “‘Better to Have Gone’ Review: Dawn of a New Humanity.”)

The book under review is:

Kapur, Akash. Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville. New York: Scribner, 2021.

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