The Promise and Tragedy of a Utopian Community, as Seen by One of Its Own

His focus, so intense, is sometimes too narrow. More history of the French colony of Pondicherry, from where Auroville emanated, would have been useful, along with more scrutiny of how India’s colonial history, which left a hangover of both excessive deference to white Westerners and whiplash against that, shaped Auroville. In its creation, foreigners leveraged global inequities and India’s poverty. Would Mother and her devotees have been able to claim the same open land or fall back on the same cheap labor (both human and bullock) if they had been in Europe? The rule of Indira Gandhi, meanwhile, is viewed entirely through the lens of whether she is good for Auroville, not through what her Emergency (which suspended democratic freedoms in the face of internal unrest) meant for India at large.

But Auroville, not India, is Kapur’s subject, and the place emerges as awful and beautiful in equal measure. “Better to Have Gone” ends with an unexpected lightness, even transcendence, as Kapur helps us see what Auroville has given him, gives him still, despite the pain. In his descriptions of its landscape, made so lush by those early pioneers, as well as of the sphere at its heart, he conveys the internal concord and harmony, the peace, that he finds there.

The autophagy of utopian experiments seems nearly inevitable, perhaps because communities founded on ideals rely on individuals to sustain them. Purity is in the eye of the beholder. Time and again places like this have become laboratories not just for political or spiritual or economic experimentation but for what people will do to one another in the name of human improvement.

Yet Kapur is rightly moved by Auroville’s ability to survive its darkest hours and endure for half a century. He is moved, too, by what it represents: the rejection of convention, ambition, materialism, individualism and all the other treadmills we mindlessly walk. The questions Auroville tried to answer lurk somewhere deep in all of us: Is this the only kind of life? Are these the only things that matter? Few of us will live in places like Auroville, but perhaps all of us need them.

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