While Walker and Maes’ story is inseparable from the nostalgia and naivety of the 1960s, as Kapur writes, it is even more entangled in the politics of Auroville itself, which was plunged into a crisis of identity after the death of the Mother in 1973. The ideological divisions go as far as the Indian Supreme Court: did the teachings of Auroville constitute a religion, a sect or a spirituality? What are the differences between the three?
For a book so diligent about context, however, Kapur’s lack of interest in Auroville’s colonial legacy is surprising, and his description of the land itself – “a clean slate suitable for the new world”, this, in the teeming state of Tamil Nadu – really surprised me. (For an in-depth treatment of Auroville’s colonial roots – and indeed the idea of utopia itself – see Jessica Namakkal’s “Unsettling Utopia,” published last month.)
A stronger and more disturbing omission is Maes herself. The contours of her faith, her desires, her personality are not easy to draw and her contradictions impossible to reconcile – she who let young Auralice be raised by neighbors but insisted on spoon-feeding the girl until in his adolescence? He is a sphinx, reduced above all to the extraordinary fact of his beauty. Walker, on the other hand, not only left a cache of correspondence, but turned out to be a particularly interesting writer. Some of the book’s most vivid prose is found in its letters (a long quote comes with its dangers). Kapur has his talents – the story is structured with suspense, and I consumed it with feverish intensity – but he has a deadly attraction to the cliché. Men contain all the multitudes required in this tale full of “unfinished business” and “the wreckage of history”, in which “the wolf is perpetually at the door” and the seasons pass in the “belly of the beast ”(in this case, Harvard).
If there is one mystery to be solved in this book, it is not what happened that day in October 1986, in the hut, where a dying man lay and a woman who watched him cry. It turns out that what happened was seen by many; it was tragic and deeply unnecessary. The mystery lies in the provenance and the desire for this book, the reason, I suppose, for this proper reluctance towards Maes. This book has a real reader in mind: Auralice, who was brought up with a kind of respect and neglect that was not uncommon in Auroville at that time. She searched for food, fled to neighbors when the chaos of her house was too much. Living with her, Kapur has come to know the quality of her silences – “there are places we don’t go, things we can’t talk about,” he writes. “I guess one of the reasons I wrote this book was to break down those walls.”
He accomplishes much more. He puts this past in a kind of balance: he shows how to hold it, all together, in one eye – a people and a place in all its promise and corruption. It is a complicated offering, this book, and the artefact of a great love.