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Memoirist Details Growing Up In A Utopian Community That Wasn't So Ideal

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Utopian communities are of special interest to my guest Akash Kapur because he grew up in one. He's seen the idealism of people trying to remake human society and renounce materialism. He's also seen how idealism and spirituality can turn into zealotry and how individuals can become victims of their own search for perfection. Children, he writes, are often the worst victims of such communities.

His parents were pioneers of the utopian community, Auroville, in India. It was founded in 1968 with the goals of encouraging humanity and advancing the spiritual evolution of humanity. The spiritual leader, known as the Mother, believed in a system of yoga that would enable the practitioner to achieve, quote, "cellular transformation and immortality." Kapur left that world when he was 16 to attend the prestigious boarding school Phillips Academy Andover. It was on to Harvard after that.

Well, in the U.S., he ran into a woman who also grew up in Auroville and went to college in the U.S. They'd known each other only slightly growing up. They fell in love and married and, for reasons Kapur will explain, moved back to Auroville and have been raising their two children there. Auroville is very different now from the time he was a child. He's written a new book called "Better To Have Gone: Love, Death, And The Quest For Utopia In Auroville." The book is part history, part memoir and part the story of his wife's parents, who both died there under unusual circumstances when she was 14.

Kapur is also the author of "India Becoming: A Portrait Of Life In Modern India." And he's the editor of an anthology of writings about Auroville. He's the former "Letter From India" columnist for the International New York Times and has also written for The New Yorker. As a result of the pandemic, he and his family have been living in New York since November.

Akash Kapur, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we get to more specifics about Auroville, you've written extensively about utopian communities and the ideals that create them and the things that go wrong once they're created. And why do you continue to be so interested in these experiments of utopian communities?

AKASH KAPUR: Well, I think there are many reasons. I mean, for one thing, there's a sort of personal connection, obviously, having grown up in one. But I also just think, you know, there's this - there's a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is writing about Brook Farm, which was a 19th century intentional community in Massachusetts. And he described it as a French revolution in small, an age of reason in a paddy pen. And I think that, like - a lot of the sort of, like, the grand currents of humanity, a lot of the sort of, like, the ideological sort of, you know, big themes of history and the impulses of humankind often play out in these small communities.

So, like, when I was thinking of this book, I was thinking, is this just about one small community in India? And the more I thought about it, it just felt like this sort of impulse to reinvent, to build a better world, to sort of perfect humankind is very much like a universal impulse. And people - you know, people people manifest it in different ways in their lives, whether it's, like, sell the house and, like, move to Tahiti, or whatever. But we're often trying to just, like, build a better world. And that process is often a lot more complicated than we imagine it's going to be. You know, dreams sort of crash against reality. And I guess that's what interests me about these places.

GROSS: 1968, the year Auroville was founded, was the year in which so many people in the U.S. were trying to create utopian communities, hippie communes. Would you describe Auroville when it was founded and what the founding principles were?

KAPUR: It wasn't a coincidence that Auroville was founded in 1968 because it really was part of that kind of efflorescence of intentional communities and communes that came up in the 1960s and in many ways was sort of part of that ideology and that urge to reinvent the world. So, you know, Auroville was a little bit different because it was in India, as opposed to the Western world, where many of these communes were. And so it had a strong kind of spiritual basis. Some of it was based on Indian spirituality. The broad principles were foster human unity, create sort of new models of economy or society.

I mean, there was a very strong anti-materialist emphasis to the community. It also was founded on very strong sort of ecological principles, which became stronger over time. And then part of the spiritual idea - and it was this idea of spiritual evolution, the idea that sort of man was not the final stage of evolution and that human evolution could somehow be willed through a more disciplined spiritual practice.

GROSS: The person behind the community was known as the Mother. She was the spiritual leader. Who was she? And what did she believe in?

KAPUR: So the Mother - you know, her born name or her given name was Mirra Alfassa. She was born in the late 19th century in France to parents of Jewish origin. She was - I guess, you know, she was a mystic. She was having mystical experiences at a very young age. She sort of got into theosophy. She used to read Eastern spirituality.

And then she visited India at some point right around the start of World War I with her husband, who at that time - they visited this town called Pondicherry, which was a French colony. And her husband wanted to run for, you know, French government. I think it was a legislative seat from Pondicherry. So she visits Pondicherry. And there she meets a sort of Indian yogi or a sage called Sri Aurobindo, who is himself a former freedom fighter against the British and who had taken refuge in French India.

And she ended up staying there with Sri Aurobindo and building a spiritual community there known as the ashram. I mean, the ashram is the sort of generic term for a spiritual community. And then later, when Aurobindo died, she tried to sort of adapt his philosophy to Auroville. The idea was that Auroville would become a kind of incubator of the philosophy and the sort of spiritual theories of Sri Aurobindo.

GROSS: So she believed in a form of yoga called integral yoga. And she believed that if you practice this, you could achieve cellular transformation. What does that mean?

KAPUR: Well, so integral yoga was was sort of Sri Aurobindo's original creation, if you will. And it was based on a couple principles. I mean, for one thing, it was a sort of reworking of ancient Indian thought. So it wasn't something that he - you know, that he sort of invented on his own. It was - he was trying to rework Indian thought.

One of the important principles was this idea that in - traditional Indian thought was very much based on sort of being an ascetic and withdrawing from the world. And Sri Aurobindo believed in sort of infusing ordinary, everyday life and materialism with spirituality. So he has this sort of epigraph in one of his books where he says, all life is yoga. And so there was this idea that you would sort of like - anything you build, anything you live is infused with spirituality.

Another aspect of his integral yoga, which is where the sort of - the idea of cellular transformation comes in is this notion of evolution, that man is not the final stage and that you can will yourself into a sort of further stage of evolution. I mean, in some ways, it's a kind of Nietzschean idea, that we can - through sheer will, we can advance and we can move ourselves further in the world. And so that was integral yoga. And after Sri Aurobindo died, the Mother sort of carried forward the idea of integral yoga and tried to adapt it. And that's where she came up with this notion of sort of cellular transformation, that you could transform your cells as part of this search, as part of this process of evolution, as this search for a higher form of life.

GROSS: Why did your parents move there? And I should mention that your father, as you write, grew up in a Hindu family who lived in Pakistan but was forced to flee to India during the Partition in 1947. They lost everything in the process. And your mother was from Minnesota, a small farming town there, and an Irish Catholic family. So how did they end up moving to this utopian community, Auroville?

KAPUR: I think, you know - so in your earlier questions, you kind of emphasized the sort of spiritual dimensions and the integral yoga. But you have to also realize that there was sort of like secular aspects to a town like this and secular aspects to a project like this, and that a lot of people moved there because they were fueled by sort of the general idealism of the '60s. And they were inspired by this idea that, like, really, they could reinvent the world. I mean, you know, I remember when I was a kid, my father used to often say to me - he would say, we really thought that we were going to, like, start a revolution that was going to change the world. And I don't think that was particular to Auroville. I think that was the ethos of the '60s.

So the kind of, like, specific answer is that, you know, my father was a student at the University of Denver. And he and my mom met at an anti-war rally, an anti-Vietnam War rally in Denver. And then it's like, next thing you know, they're taking this grand overland trip. My mom's never been out of the U.S. before because she grew up in this small farming town. And they were living in a hut by the edge of a field, part of this sort of, like, you know, crazy, grand experiment to remake the world.

GROSS: What did your grandparents think of your parents moving to - you know, becoming pioneers in this community?

KAPUR: Well, from my father's side, like, his parents, after having lost everything in partition, they sort of had made their way down to the south of India and were actually living in the ashram, the spiritual community founded by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. So I think, for them, this was less of a sort of leap, right? Whereas, I think, for my mom's parents, I mean, I think it was - novel would be sort of...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KAPUR: ...One way to put it. But, I think, you know, my dad always said that they were incredibly tolerant and accepting of it. And I don't know. Maybe, again, it was the '60s. People did wild things in those days. And they seemed less wild than they might now.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Akash Kapur, author of the new book "Better To Have Gone: Love, Death, And The Quest For Utopia In Auroville." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Akash Kapur, author of the new book "Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, And The Quest For Utopia In Auroville." It's about the utopian community in India, Auroville, where he and his wife were raised. They became close in the U.S., where they both went to college. They fell in love, married and eventually returned to Auroville, where they're raising their two children.

So your wife grew up in Auroville. Her father was a pioneer there, her mother, too. But her adoptive father's father was from a very prominent, wealthy family in the U.S. Tell us a little bit about him, your wife's grandfather, and what his reaction was when his son moved to Auroville.

KAPUR: They were a very prominent family. His father was, you know, director of the National Art Gallery, one of its founding members, really, in Washington, D.C. He came from a very wealthy family, Pittsburgh money. His grandfather had been a partner to the Carnegie's. And they were very much just, like, plugged into the Washington world. Their social life included the Kennedys, Isaiah Berlin. You know, T. S. Eliot would stop by their house sometimes. So they really came from sort of a very wealthy, prominent family. And when his son, John - so he was John Walker Sr. When his son, John Walker, moved to Auroville - again, fueled by this kind of '60s idealism and this search for a new world and sort of reinvent the world - I think it was very hard for them to understand.

And I think it was - you know, they always hoped that he would come back sort of. That being said, you know, one of the things that was - when I was writing this book - like, sort of the genesis of the book was I found all these letters between John Walker and his father. And I was just - I expected the father to sort of not get what his son was doing at all. But I was really struck by, actually, how much the father himself was this kind of, like, searcher and pilgrim. Like, he had converted to Catholicism fairly late in life. And so that sort of reinforced this idea in my head that, like, this search for meaning, the search for sort of reinvention, the search for something new is pretty universal. So even though he didn't understand specifically what his son was doing, I feel like there was an understanding of the impulse.

GROSS: What was your understanding as a child about the community you were living in and why you were living there? Did you understand, like, the idealistic principles? Did your parents talk to you about those principles, about, like, finding - you know, like, creating a new kind of community, perfecting humanity, living in an anti-materialistic world? Did you understand that? Did you hear a lot about it?

KAPUR: We heard the broad outline. So like, I didn't know a lot about, you know, integral yoga and things like that. We heard the broad outlines. Partly that was because my parents were less doctrinaire, if you will, than some other people in the community. But I certainly was aware that we were living in this place that was sort of unique and that was trying to reinvent the world and that was very idealistic. And I say somewhere in the book, I say, you know, oh, we sort of had the implicit faith of children, right? Like, we didn't question that much when we were kids. We just had the sense of sort of being part of a grand experiment. And frankly, our childhood was pretty magical because the terrain was absolutely magical. You had - you know, this world was coming up around you. Buildings were being built. Forests were emerging. And people - adults were infused with this idealism that, at least as a kid and in the early days of the community, felt very noble and kind of inspiring.

GROSS: But you write that children are often the victims of utopian communities, and that children grow up to be like exiles. Can you expand on that?

KAPUR: I mean, there are a couple of things. Like, I think that when utopian communities go wrong and head too far in the direction of idealism, children often end up suffering. And this is part of my sort of, like, general sense that - there's often a conflict between idealism and ideology and family life that sort of - you know, part of the problem with utopian communities is they elevate principles and ideas above humanity. And so there comes a point where people start doing things that are not necessarily great at a human level. They start doing them for the sake of ideology and to advance the sort of - the ideas of the place. So, you know, I write in the book, for example, Auroville went through a phase - and it's emerged from that phase. But it went through a phase of more extreme ideology, where the schools were shut down. And so, you know, kids were obviously victims of that.

Somebody once told me there's this sort of very interesting thing that I didn't manage to fit into the book. But he told me, he said - you know, he was quite a hardcore sort of believer, if you will. And he said the problems with Auroville all started happening when people started having kids, when they started having families. Because before that, they could dedicate themselves entirely to the community and the communal goals. And then the minute they start having kids, they start caring more about, you know, the private sphere and about themselves. And in his view, that sort of eroded the communal vibe or the communal commitment. You know, I have a different view about them.

GROSS: What's your view?

KAPUR: Well, I mean, I put humanity first. And I think that communities and towns and societies do well when individuals are well-treated and when when humans are well-treated. And I think that, you know, Auroville is sort of unique in having lasted more than 50 years. Many of these intentional communities faded away. And I think that part of the reason they fade away is because they don't account for sort of human complexity and human individuality and just humanity. They're just too doctrinaire and too rigid. And so eventually, they fall apart. And I think Auroville stepped to the edge of that precipice. And I write that in the book. It went through a very difficult period after its founder died. But it's sort of stepped back from that precipice and created a more kind of tolerant, accepting, less doctrinaire community. And I really believe that's the reason it's still around.

GROSS: Yeah. You compare that period to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. So what else - you mentioned the schools were shut. That was part of this drive to, like, liberate children. So what - why were the schools closed?

KAPUR: Well, the schools were closed because it was a relatively short period in the community's history following the Mother's death. And, you know, often, these communities do fall apart after the founder is no more because the founder is the sort of - you know, the force that holds them together. And there was a kind of vacuum - right? - a vacuum of authority, a sense of, you know, disorientation. And I think that, often, extremism and extremist ideologies step into these vacuums. And so there was this urge - and I want to emphasize that it was a certain group, right? It wasn't the community as a whole. It was an extremist group, you know, individuals that felt they had to sort of, like, rekindle the original flame, if you will.

And so this - you know, there was the - I call it a cultural revolution because we were like, we're not here to just reinvent and redo education and family and money and business the way the old world did it. We are here to do something completely new. And, yeah, shutting down the schools was one of the more unfortunate byproducts of that thing. It lasted a few years, you know, three years, five years, six years. It depends how you count it. But it was an unfortunate phase in the community's history.

GROSS: Did that affect your education?

KAPUR: It affected my education somewhat less than many of my friends because my parents, as I said earlier, were less doctrinaire. And I think they sort of - they saw what was happening. And we actually left the community for a short period and moved to a nearby town. And I was enrolled in a more traditional school. But, yeah, there were many kids who sort of lost out on critical years of their education. Some of them recovered. Some of them recovered less well. Many of them are my friends. And, you know, they've sort of - it's - you have this kind of dual perspective when you live in a place like Auroville. Many of them love Auroville, and they still call it home. But they do regret what happened in those years. Yes.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Akash Kapur, author of the new book "Better To Have Gone: Love, Death, And The Quest For Utopia In Auroville." We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL'S "PROLOGUE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Akash Kapur. His new book, "Better To Have Gone: Love, Death, And The Quest For Utopia In Auroville," is about the utopian community in India in which he and his wife were raised. He's seen the idealism of people trying to remake human society and renounce materialism. He's also seen how idealism and spirituality can turn into zealotry and how individuals can become victims of their own search for perfection. But after living in the U.S. in their teens and attending college in the U.S., he and his wife, Auralice, returned to Auroville, where they're raising their two children. Kapur has written for The International New York Times and The New Yorker, and for the past few months, a little more than that, he and his wife and their children have been living in New York because of the pandemic, which is really bad in India.

KAPUR: Yeah. The situation is really bad. I mean, it goes through waves, so it's abating a little bit right now. But, you know, I don't know what the future holds because a very small percentage of the population is vaccinated. So you can do these lockdowns, and then it probably just surges back.

GROSS: Have you lost a lot of members of the Auroville community?

KAPUR: Three people died in Auroville. Auroville was relatively less hit than the rest of India because it's quite spread out, and there's a lot of outdoor living. So a lot of people got it. Three people did die, yes.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about your wife's story because, like you, she grew up in Auroville. Her parents both died there when she was 14. Her mother was in a horrible accident when she was climbing up scaffolding, participating in the building of what was to be a kind of centerpiece of the community, a spiritual building basically dedicated to the founding - to the founder of the community, who was known as the mother. She fell off the scaffolding and was terribly injured. She broke her jaw. She broke her back and ended up being paralyzed from the waist down after that. And after that happened - after the accident - she was told by one of the spiritual leaders of the community not to seek medical help, but to just basically seek spiritual help. So how did she handle that advice?

KAPUR: I think the short answer is badly. And I don't think it went very well. Because, you know, in some ways, this is sort of, like, the heart of the book because I think that she was a woman who had suffered a horrible accident, who had suffered a horrible tragedy. And instead of being able to sort of process it and deal with it as a tragedy, there was this whole web of symbolism and meaning constructed around it. And she was essentially told not only that, you know, she should reject medical care and that she would sort of heal herself through yoga and through spiritual practice, but that the community, which, at that time, was going through a very rough time, and there were all these divisions, that somehow the healing of the community was linked to her healing. And I think it just - it was just, you know, too much weight to put on one person's shoulders, especially somebody who had just suffered a horrible tragedy like that.

GROSS: So she raised Auralice, who is now your wife, while being, like, incapacitated. And her partner had to carry her even if she was going to the bathroom. It's not like she had a wheelchair or any kind of device to help her. So she was really dependent on him. And then he got really sick, and he eventually just died. And then what happened after that?

KAPUR: What happened after that is that Auralice's mother, Diane, was left on her own. And she had been utterly dependent, as you said, on John. And in addition to being utterly dependent, I think they felt that they had been on this kind of grand spiritual sort of quest together. And she wanted to sort of, like, join him. And so the same day that he died, that afternoon, she swallowed poison from a plant growing outside her house, and she died from the poison that she ingested.

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, how does your wife feel knowing that her mother died by suicide, knowingly leaving behind a 14-year-old daughter with no family in India?

KAPUR: It's - you know, it's what you would expect. It's very difficult. Of course it's a form of abandonment, and, of course, it feels like a form of abandonment. At the same time, I think that my wife understands that her mother was in, you know, tremendous distress. And she knew the sort of, like, distress and suffering she had gone through. And frankly, part of the process of healing was writing this book and researching this book because, you know, she sort of knew the broad outlines of these deaths, but she didn't know the details, and she didn't know what had sort of led them to this point. And there were many conversations we had while I was researching the book where I would sort of find out things about what had led to this point, and we would sort of talk about it and process it together. My wife is a very wise, strong, well-balanced person, having come through some real hardship.

GROSS: So what made you both decide that you were going to move back to Auroville, considering how traumatic some of her memories are from there and the mixed feelings that you had about Auroville?

KAPUR: I mean, people often ask us that. I mean, I say somewhere in the book that children of utopian communities are often, like, exiles. And I think what I mean by that is that you grow up with this sort of, like, dream in your head and this vision of a more perfect world, and you believe it very much when you're a kid. You believe that that's real. And then you get older, and you sort of realize, oh, you know, life's more complicated, and these things - like, they're hard to work out, and they often don't work out. But there's a part of your brain and, more relevantly, your dreams or your imagination that sort of, like, cling to that idea, even if it's not very conscious.

And so I believe that that was part of our move back, that we sort of wanted to be somewhere where it felt like, oh, people are trying to build a new world. People are trying to build a better world. People are rejecting, you know, materialism. And maybe that was naive, you know? It's not like it got any easier 20 years down the line when we were adults. But I do think that part of us still clung to that. And I will say that for Auralice, of course, again, probably unconsciously, there was all this, you know, unfinished business to be worked out. She didn't know how they had died. I don't think she felt like she wanted to know at that point. But I suspect that that was part of the impetus that drove us back.

GROSS: Auroville is now over 50 years old, which is a long time for a utopian community. How does Auroville of today compare to your memories of childhood?

KAPUR: (Laughter) No. People - life has gotten easier. It's less - the, you know - one of the great changes and the most sort of positive changes in Auroville is that this barren desert plateau has been turned into an amazing forest. I mean, Auroville's ecological work is sort of probably one of the most successful reforestation projects in India. So the physical landscape has changed a lot. A lot of that extremism I wouldn't say is completely gone. I mean, you know, certainly the types of people who are attracted to these types of communities are firm believers. And so there are certainly people who still believe very strongly and very firmly. But the community has grown bigger, and those forces sort of dissipate more through the wider community. So they're still there. But the community as a whole is less doctrinaire, and there's less zealotry now.

GROSS: How are you raising your children in Auroville compared to how you were raised there?

KAPUR: Well, I think we're much more conventional. I think the community is much more conventional, for better and for worse. The schools are much more solid. They're - you know, they're great in many ways. They're multicultural. They have - because, you know, Auroville's a very diverse community. It has, you know, people from more than 100 countries. And so their classes are very multicultural. The system of education is still more, I guess you would say, open than - or flexible than a conventional system. Like, they don't get graded. They don't have exams. The purpose of education is not necessarily to just, like, you know, get into college or whatever. So it's a little looser than a traditional school. But, yeah - but it's a lot more solid than it was when we were kids.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Akash Kapur, author of the new book "Better To Have Gone: Love, Death, And The Quest For Utopia In Auroville." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Akash Kapur, author of the new book "Better To Have Gone: Love, Death, And The Quest For Utopia In Auroville." It's about the utopian community in India, Auroville, where he and his wife were raised.

You write that you've always mistrusted faith a little and that maybe it's because you've grown up around too much of it, and you've seen what faith can do. Do you practice any faith now? Or do you practice yoga? Or do you meditate?

KAPUR: Yes, I do. I do practice yoga. And I do meditate every day. I don't necessarily see those, as, you know, religious or spiritual practices, per se. I say in the book somewhere that yoga in the Auroville context and, you know, really in the Indian context, isn't - it's kind of like a mind-body cultivation, if you will. It's like a full sort of ethical discipline, in a way. And it's not necessarily religious or spiritual.

As far as faith goes, you're right that I started off this project with skepticism towards faith, partly because of what I'd seen, and I'd seen the dangers of faith. And I think certainly, you know, the story of my wife's parents lives is a cautionary sort of story about too much faith. One of the great surprises about this book is that I ended up in a somewhat different place. I wouldn't say I found faith. But by sort of reading John's letters and diaries about faith and understanding the impulse and seeing the sort of beauty and the nobility of faith, a door has been opened. I haven't walked through the door. Maybe I will. Maybe I will at some point. It's the first time in my life that I can imagine walking through that door. You know, I've always sort of adamantly kept the door shut until this point, partly as a reaction to what I've seen faith do. But a little door opened for me. And I don't know. I don't know what will happen. You know, it's - writing is a process. And I didn't even realize this, really, 'til I got to the end of the book, where I was - I sort of just felt something's changed. Not just that I put words down on a page, but something's changed in me, too.

GROSS: You write that growing up in, quote, "utopia" is a good way to make you an incrementalist. Can you expand on that?

KAPUR: You know, I've written about this elsewhere and in the context of sort of contemporary situation in the world. Because I think that we're in a moment now - let's put it this way. Historically, utopias have often emerged from very disorienting and sort of disturbed times. So, you know, like, OK. The Renaissance, which was a form of utopia, emerged from the Black Death. After the Civil War in America, there was this huge efflorescence of intentional communities across the country. And then, you know, a lot of what we think of as '60s communities actually started in the '50s. And I think they really emerged from kind of the detritus of World War II, where everything that we had taken for granted was sort of shattered, and all norms felt worthless and thrown out the window.

And I think that it's possible that we're living through such a moment again now, where everything just feels like we've sort of hit a wall, like things - the existing solutions don't really work. And I certainly see signs on all sides of the political spectrum of casting about for sort of dramatic reinvention and dramatic change. And I understand that. And I myself feel that we've hit a wall. But, you know, I'm also - I guess because of my own biography, I'm also - it makes me a little nervous, and I'm a little skeptical of it because I know how these things often end badly. And it's interesting because people have reacted sometimes negatively to it, right? Because the moment is not really - you know, they don't - it's not in favor of incrementalism. The moment's in favor of radical change.

GROSS: Where do your parents live now?

KAPUR: My parents are both in Auroville.

GROSS: Oh, so they're both in the community?

KAPUR: Yes, they both are.

GROSS: How well did your parents know your wife's parents?

KAPUR: Oh, they knew each other pretty well. They were - you know, it was a small community, and everybody knew everybody. And I describe a scene in the book that my mom told me, where she remembers having a conversation with my wife's mother. This is before she'd had her accident. They were having coffee together or something. And she says she remembers two kids on little wooden scooters, shirtless, sort of scurrying around the floor. And that was my wife and me. (Laughter) So, you know, we have no memory of that moment. But as I say, it was sort of like the inception of a friendship that we wouldn't remember, but that would last a lifetime.

GROSS: A lot of your book is about your wife's parents and - who were true believers, in a lot of ways, and suffered the consequences of that. And then - and your wife suffered the consequences because she was orphaned at the age of 14. She didn't know a lot about her parents' deaths until you found her father's letters and papers. And you moved back and started doing all this research. You write that she was a partner with you the whole step of the way in terms of writing this book and researching it. How has it changed her outlook on her parents and on her own life? - because for so many years, you really didn't understand what had happened. All she knew was, like, you know, her mother took her life when - or at least your wife was, like, 14 and left her parentless.

KAPUR: It was complicated. I mean, there were certainly times when it was pretty painful. And we were kind of - you know, we were casting a light on dark places, places that she had sort of never dared to approach herself. And, you know, when we would, you know, find out details about her mother's death and things like that, it could be quite painful. There were other ways in which it was very cathartic. As you said, she was a 14-year-old girl. She left Auroville. She knew they had died. She never quite knew how or why and was just kind of stuffed away. And so I think unpacking it and understanding the impulses and the forces and the sort of - the social phenomena that had led to it was quite cathartic and illuminating for her.

It was certainly - you know, there were some strange moments. You know, when you're researching or writing a book, you go out there, and you interview people. And there are moments when you forget that the people you're talking about here who have died are your wife's parents, right? So, like, I remember a moment when I was talking to somebody, and she was giving me some pretty intimate details. She had seen her mother right before she died after she'd taken the poison, and she'd said something to her about, like, how can you do this to your daughter? You know, don't abandon your daughter. And her mother had answered very sort of categorically and harshly.

And for me, this was, like, a form of, like, information. This was something I had discovered as a journalist. And I get out of the interview, and I call my wife. And I'm all excited. You know what I found out, you know? And then you sort of pause halfway through the conversation, and you realize that what you're doing here - you know, you realize that you're not talking about characters in a book. You're talking about your wife's parents. So there were some moments like that.

GROSS: Yeah. It's basically like saying, like, your mother was angry at the person who was saying you're leaving your daughter as an orphan. How can you do that to her?

KAPUR: And, like, you know, we worked through this. We had many, many conversations and many discussions along the way. Somebody told me as I was writing this book - very sort of wise person. He said, you know, the hardest thing in a marriage and the hardest thing in a relationship is to really look at the other person and really be curious about their lives. Like, we're all so caught up in our own lives and sort of, like, our day-to-day whatever that's going on. And it's very hard in a marriage to just step outside yourself and really look at your spouse.

And I think the book really helped in that way. It helped me, you know? Like, in some ways, it helped make me a better husband because I could - I was, like, really there. Like, I wanted to know about her life, and I was asking her questions about her life. And I know that there was a sort of instrumentalism to that, and I'm aware of that. But it was nice to be able to, like, really sort of, like, find out more about my wife and her history.

GROSS: Well, Akash Kapur, I want to thank you so much for talking with us, and I wish you and your family well.

KAPUR: Thank you, Terry. That was fun.

GROSS: Akash Kapur is the author of the new book "Better To Have Gone: Love, Death And The Quest For Utopia In Auroville." After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new Bill Evans anthology. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS TRIO'S "MILESTONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.