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Better To Have Gone

Love, Death and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville

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'Beautifully written and structured, deeply moving, and realised in wise, thoughtful, chiselled prose... it is that rarity: a genuine non-fiction classic' William Dalrymple

A spellbinding story about love, faith, the search for utopia - and the often devastating cost of idealism.

It’s the late 1960s, and two lovers converge on an arid patch of earth in South India. John Walker is the handsome scion of a powerful East Coast American family. Diane Maes is a beautiful hippie from Belgium. They have come to build a new world - Auroville, an international utopian community for thousands of people. Their faith is strong, the future bright.

So how do John and Diane end up dying two decades later, on the same day, on a cracked concrete floor in a thatch hut by a remote canyon? This is the mystery Akash Kapur sets out to solve in Better to Have Gone, and it carries deep personal resonance: Diane and John were the parents of Akash’s wife, Auralice. Akash and Auralice grew up in Auroville; like the rest of their community, they never really understood those deaths.

In 2004, Akash and Auralice return to Auroville from New York, where they have been living with John’s family. As they re-establish themselves, along with their two sons, in the community, they must confront the ghosts of those distant deaths. Slowly, they come to understand how the tragic individual fates of John and Diane intersected with the collective history of their town.

Better to Have Gone is a book about the human cost of our age-old quest for a more perfect world. It probes the under-explored yet universal idea of utopia, and it portrays in vivid detail the daily life of one utopian community. Richly atmospheric and filled with remarkable characters, spread across time and continents, this is narrative writing of the highest order - a heartbreaking, unforgettable story.

This reading group guide for BETTER TO HAVE GONE includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Better to Have Gone tells a mesmerizing true story about two lovers, their mysterious deaths, and the age-old quest for a better world that has long inspired humanity. It takes place in Auroville, an international utopian community in South India, and begins shortly after its founding in 1968. John Walker, a handsome American man from a privileged East Coast family, meets Diane Maes, a beautiful Belgian hippie, and the two bond over their shared spirituality and dreams of a brighter future. Two decades later, they both die on the same day in a thatch hut by a remote canyon, leaving behind a teenage daughter, Auralice.

Jump ahead to 2004; Auralice is living in New York and married to Akash Kapur, a childhood friend from Auroville. The two decide to return with their two sons and confront the ghosts of their past. Through years of research, interviews, and often painful reflection, they piece together the circumstances of John’s and Diane’s deaths—which, they slowly discover, were inextricably linked to the broader history of the community.

Better to Have Gone explores the human desire for utopia as it plays out in the lives of Auroville’s founders and their early followers. This unforgettable story probes themes of love and conflict, death and bereavement, faith and family, and the often devastating cost of idealism.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the epigraph. How does its presentation of what is real vs. what is possible prepare you for the book’s major themes?

2. Auroville was founded in 1968 and immediately attracted people from all over the world. As the author points out, it was one of over ten thousand such communities that formed in the 1960s. Consider the historical context of that decade—what major political tensions and world events shaped the ideologies of the time? How did they contribute to the desire for flight to a better world? Where do figures like John, Diane, and Bernard (Satprem) fit into this context?

3. All utopias are founded in idealism, and the author characterizes Auroville’s as “the ambitious goals of encouraging human unity and fostering evolution” (p. 1). Paraphrase and discuss these ideals as presented in the charter on page 27. Are they achievable or realistic? Where do you see these ideals upheld in the community throughout the book? Where do Auroville and its residents fall short and why? Do these ambitious goals heighten the tragic outcomes of the story?

4. Better to Have Gone takes place primarily in India, but in what ways can it be considered an American story? Discuss the Americans who moved to Auroville as well as the American tradition of setting out for new lands and establishing new societies, communities, and even cults. How do these “settler” attitudes play out in India, an independent nation that had only recently broken free from the shackles of colonialism?

5. Reflect on the treatment of children in Auroville. What are the community’s philosophies on parenting and how do they differ from Western attitudes? In what ways can allowing children to “roam freely, with minimal adult supervision” (p. 124) allow them to thrive? When does it become neglect or even abuse? Consider examples involving Auroson, Aurolouis, Auralice, and Akash. How well do you think children were taken care of in Auroville’s early years?

6. Some of the prominent figures in the book chose to move to Auroville; others were born there or brought there as children. How do their experiences and understandings of utopia differ? In what ways are they similar? What drives some of the children of utopia to leave it as adults?

7. Akash’s mother, John, and Diane were brought up by Catholic families in Western nations. The Mother was born and raised in France, and her parents were Jewish atheists. Why do you think Eastern religions and spirituality are attractive to Western people, both those from religious and non-religious upbringings? Can you think of examples from contemporary culture? How do other figures in the book engage with religion, spirituality, and faith? Discuss, in particular, the differing perceptions of the author and his wife, Auralice, both as they relate to faith in general and to John and Diane’s spiritual convictions.

8. Money is a prominent theme in the book. Auroville’s planners estimated they would need $8 billion to build a cashless utopian community for fifty thousand people. The community’s early economic models made many feel uncertain that their basic needs would be met. And while John left behind his cushy upbringing, he also relied on his family’s wealth to finance his dreams for Auroville and Ravena, the mansion he built by a canyon. Where else does money play a role in the book? When does it interfere with the community’s dreams for utopia? To what extent does Auroville achieve its cash-free ideals?

9. The Mother believed the Matrimandir would “be the soul of Auroville” (p. 69). John dreamed that Ravena would be “an offering to the divine, a material embodiment of their yoga” (p. 234). In what ways does the architecture of these buildings reflect Auroville’s ideals, symbolically and in practice? How have buildings played a role in the “soul” of communities throughout history? Which buildings have been important in your life?

10. The author explains that many early Aurovilians believed “in spiritualism’s ability to temper human matter—and biology” (p. 97). How do these ideas about health and medicine play out in the lives—and deaths—of Auroville’s residents? Consider the examples of the Mother, Diane, and John. Can you think of other instances—historical or contemporary—where a person’s beliefs have affected their medical choices? Is it ever ethical to intervene and go against someone’s expressed wishes? If so, under what circumstances?

11. An aspiring utopia is only as strong as the idealism that fuels it, but several moments chronicled in the book threatened the spirit of Auroville. One was Diane’s accident; a man who witnessed the event later said, “It was like the bubble went out of utopia” (p. 171). What other moments in Auroville’s history nearly extinguished the community’s faith? How did they recover? What did Diane’s accident come to mean to the people of Auroville?

12. On page 224, Akash recounts an instance from his childhood where he and some friends taunted two Neutral men. He later recalled the moment with shame, asking, “What happened to the moral compass of my town, this inspired, idealized project dedicated to human unity?” Where else do we see moments of conflict in the book—interpersonal, political, or violent? Which conflicts struck you as unavoidable, and which seemed like lapses in Aurovilian values of unity? To what extent do you think these occasional lapses negate—or at least diminish—the overall project? Why is it hard sometimes to live up to our ideals?

13. The book’s title comes from a letter John Walker Sr. wrote to his son, saying, “I admire you on your pilgrimage. May it have a good ending. But no matter, better to have gone on it than to have stayed here quietly” (p. 249). Knowing how the story ends, do you agree with his statement? John and Diane’s desire to achieve a higher plane of existence in Auroville was filled with missteps, tragedy, suffering, and yet a kind of deliverance. Discuss their story in the context of this idea—was it “better to have gone” to Auroville than to have remained at home following a well-trodden path? Which other figures and groups in the book broke with the establishment or status quo—either outside Auroville or within it—and how did their stories end?

14. The historical narrative of the book is written in the present tense. Why do you think the author made this choice? How did it affect your reading experience?

15. Better to Have Gone unravels a historical family mystery, but the book is framed in a personal, present-day narrative that highlights Akash and Auralice’s current life in Auroville with their two sons. How did knowing that they returned to Auroville shape your perspective of the community’s origin story and the tragic deaths of John and Diane? On several occasions, the author mentions that he and Auralice had complex motivations for returning to Auroville. After everything that happened, what do you think drew them back?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Watch a documentary about Auroville: City of the Dawn (2010), Auroville, The Outline of a World (2009), Auroville—A Dream of the Divine (2003), or The India Trip (1971). Compare what you learned from the film with what you learned from Better to Have Gone.

2. Visit the official Auroville website (Auroville.org). How does the community today differ from the one portrayed in historical passages of the book?

3. Have each member of your book club research a different aspiring utopia, intentional community, or cult—current or historical—and share their findings with the group. How are they similar to Auroville? How do they differ? Are any of them places you might want to live or visit?
Photograph © Emil Kapur

Akash Kapur is the author of India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India and the editor of an anthology, Auroville: Dream and Reality. He is the former Letter from India columnist for the international New York Times, the recipient of a Whiting Grant, and has written for various leading publications. He grew up in Auroville and returned there to live with his family after boarding school and college in America. 

  • Publisher: Scribner UK (July 20, 2021)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781398506763

'A forensic reconstruction of two deaths set against the background of a tropical utopia. It is beautifully written and structured, deeply moving, and realised in wise, thoughtful, chiselled prose. It tells an extraordinary tale of a paradise lost, and of the dangers of utopian naivety: what happens when dreams collide with harsh reality. Like In Cold Blood, it is that rarity: a genuine non-fiction classic.'

– William Dalrymple, author of The Anarchy

'This beautifully written account ... is fascinating in describing the efforts of people...to carve out a sustainable community in such a forbidding environment. But it becomes more fascinating still when it begins to explore the contradictions between idealism and real life.'

– Mick Brown, Sunday Telegraph

'Using the framework of a personal historical quest, Akash Kapur gives us a gripping morality tale, phosphorescent and unsettling, of the cruelty that accompanies utopia.'

– Jeet Thayil, Booker shortlisted author of Narcopolis

'A haunting, heartbreaking story, deeply researched and lucidly told, with an almost painful emotional honesty... I kept wanting to read Better to Have Gone because I found it so gripping; I kept wanting not to read it because I found it so upsetting. 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.'

– Amy Waldman, New York Times

'Spellbinding and otherworldlyBetter to Have Gone is an exquisite literary achievement. With graceful, luminous prose, Akash Kapur's intimate account of utopian Auroville is entrancing, devastating and unforgettable. Above all, this book is a hauntingly beautiful love story, composed by a writer in full command of his craft.'

– Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Devil in the Grove

'Haunting and elegant... The beauty of Mr Kapur’s story lies in our conviction, by the end, that he and his wife have found most of the answers they were looking for.'

– Tunku Varadarajan, Wall Street Journal

'Akash Kapur has written a trenchant, nuanced account of the longing for a perfect world. Working from personal experience and a writer’s profound curiosity, he takes us deep into the heart of an intentional community’s ambitions and failures. This is an important work about the eternal human desire for utopia, and about the dystopia that always lurks within these dreams.'

– Vikram Chandra, author of Sacred Games

'Haunting...a harrowing quest to understand the blinkered idealism that led to [his parents-in-law's] deaths, on the same day, in 1986'

– Financial Times

'In this compulsively readable account, Akash Kapur ... unravels a mystery whose players are yogis and hippies, Tamil villagers and a disaffected son of the American elite. Kapur’s great achievement is to narrate a personal tragedy with such generosity and insight that it becomes a love story - one that doesn’t shy from the passionate idealism or devastating failures of sixties utopianism.'

– Nell Freudenberger, author of Lost and Wanted and The Newlyweds

'Kapur weaves together memoir, history and ethnography to tell a story of the desire for utopia and the cruelties committed in its name… told with a native son’s fondness, fury, stubborn loyalty, exasperated amusement… the story is suspensefully structured, and I consumed it with a febrile intensity… It is a complicated offering, this book, and the artefact of a great love.'

– Parul Sehgal, New York Times

'Kapur's account of the trajectories of his main characters is gripping... [he] has a fine understanding of the fundamentally flawed, even cankered, nature of any utopia. The author's cool, clean style, and his admirable refusal to judge any of his characters' words and actions...give the book a quiet cumulative power.'

– Neel Mukherjee, Financial Times

'Better to Have Gone tells the extraordinary true story of an "aspiring utopia" named Auroville, "The City of Dawn", established near Pondicherry in southeast India in 1968. A riveting account of human aspiration and folly taken to extremes.'

– Dan Cryer, Boston Globe

'A riveting memoir of a search for utopia… Kapur is a terrific storyteller…his writing compels you to follow him as he digs deeper.'

– Alison Arieff, San Francisco Chronicle

'This gripping, magical, deeply moving book is a story of stubborn, self-sacrificing idealism - both its beauty and its cost. Akash Kapur set out to understand the visionary lives and terrible deaths of his wife’s parents in Auroville, the South Indian utopian community where he and she grew up... It is exhilarating to read about a place and time where utopia seemed not just possible but close.'

– Larissa MacFarquhar, author of Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help

'An enlightening look at how a well-meaning utopian community in India became complicated by reality. In a propulsive narrative, [Kapur] chronicles the story of John Walker and Diane Maes, the parents of his wife, Auralice, who left their homes in the waning days of the hippie movement for South India’s idealistic “planned city” Auroville... Expect the unexpected in this riveting story.'

– Publishers Weekly