books Utopia’s Settler Colonialism Problem
Better to Have Gone
Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville
THE 1960s WAS a decade synonymous with revolutionary utopianism. From the widespread movements for decolonization that roiled Africa and Asia to the evolution of a Western counterculture movement that inspired thousands of well-educated, privileged youth to reject mainstream society and go off the grid, people throughout the world sought to create new worlds. While inhabitants of the colonized world were calling for freedom from an oppression that was highly visible, for white people who lived in the centers of empire, from London to Paris, from New York to Los Angeles, a more perplexing question arose: how do you “drop out” of a society that was, for all intents and purposes, created for you? Fed up with the tired routines of capitalist exploitation, white people in the First World quit their jobs or dropped out of college, left their families, and set out to find a new way of living, often describing this quest as motivated by the search for utopia free from the constraints of the capitalist-colonial world. For some, the answer was to seek enlightenment in the Third World, the post-colony, a space imbued with both anticolonial spirit and an element of the unknown. This often meant setting off for India, retracing the paths previously trod by European explorers seeking a similar uplift of spirit.
Utopia is, by definition, “nowhere,” while it is simultaneously “somewhere good.” In the words of Krishan Kumar, “to live in a world that cannot be but where one fervently wishes to be” is the “essence of utopia.” For Akash Kapur, the author of Better to Have Gone, the widely lauded new memoir about the intentional community in Southern India called Auroville, utopian projects, while necessarily imperfect and “unattainable,” are nevertheless a noble pursuit. The history of Auroville, as Kapur tells it, shows how a group of mostly well-intentioned Westerners arrived in Southern India, a space they viewed as “barren,” a “denuded plateau,” ready to breathe life into a land that was passively waiting to be populated. In the minds of these “pioneers,” colonialism was dead. Thus, they claimed, their arrival did not signal a new colonial regime but instead a move toward a future free of the past. The new inhabitants brought with them promises of revolutions in evolution — they aspired to create a living laboratory in which to develop future-oriented approaches to education, ecology, and spirituality. Much like the centuries of settlers before them who had arrived on Indigenous lands ready to start a new way of life, the people who came to this patch of land in Southern India in the 1960s and ’70s saw, as Kapur writes, “a moonscape: vacant, panoramic, the earth packed hard, and red from oxide in the soil. A fitting tabula rasa for the new world.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that the Westerners who came to Auroville so readily, and without any sense of reflection, employed settler-colonial language and narratives to justify their utopian quests. After all, the settlers were arriving from settler colonies: Australia, the United States, Canada, as well as from imperial states, including France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, that celebrated settler colonialism as a marker of modernity. The concept of terra nullius (or the associated term, tabula rasa) is central to narratives of utopian settlement and in international law, systems of thought that have justified the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands. Ideas, no matter how good they may seem, have consequences when put into practice.
Despite the claims that settlers have made about the emptiness of land, the terrae nullius of yore were always filled with communities, peoples, and generations. Once you start looking, it’s not hard to find the settler-colonial practices that have driven, and continue to drive, utopian practices. First, building a utopia necessitates acquiring land and property. Acquiring property in a capitalist society, particularly if it is a lot of land in a space that is not familiar to you or your family, almost always involves dispossession. You may not be purchasing the land directly from those who have been dispossessed but in a settler society, the dispossessed are never very far away, even if your own narrative has convinced you they have already disappeared.
The commune movements of the 1960s, which spanned the globe but proliferated in settler-colonial countries, were often the result of white settlers who had lived mainstream lives “dropping out” of college, the workforce, and suburban nuclear-family life to “go back to the land” and rediscover a more “natural” life. These back-to-the-land movements simultaneously claimed that they wanted to detach from the decay of modern life wrought by technology and industry while also stating they would be able to “restore” land that had fallen into disarray. Communities like Wilderland (founded 1964) in New Zealand and New Buffalo Commune (founded 1967) in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, explicitly appropriated Indigenous ways of living and knowing without engaging with the political and material reality of Indigenous people in the present. This particular settler-colonial practice that envisions Indigenous peoples as existing and thriving only in a pre-colonial world is what scholar Juliana Hu Pegues calls “space-time colonialism.” In this formulation, the Indigenous peoples of the pre-colony are perpetually stuck in the stasis of the past.
While the majority of communes established in the 1960s and 1970s were in settler colonies, Auroville is in India. India was not a settler colony under British rule, though some argue quite convincingly the postcolonial Indian state engages in colonial settlement in areas that are under near-constant military occupation, such as in Jammu and Kashmir. In 1968, when Auroville was established, India was a postcolonial state still in the early years of detaching itself from colonial rule. For Westerners traveling to India during this time, there was a sense that moving eastward was an act of anticolonialism. For these wayward white people, leaving the imperial center for the former colonies was an act of imperial refusal. However, even when the outward politics of these spiritual seekers were in solidarity with the formerly colonized, the internalized narratives of the valor and bravery of exploration and settlement, established through existing colonial divisions and hierarchies, privileged those with the most social, cultural, racial, and material capital.
A bit about Auroville: Located about 100 kilometers south of Chennai, the international township, home today to just under 3,000 people, has become well known for its cottage industries and organic farming. Auroville is the site of fashion houses, architects and designers, vegan chefs, guest houses and wellness centers for tourists, and a smattering of industries that often tout the benefit of “women’s empowerment” through employing local Tamil women to work in producing paper crafts, soap, incense, and other specialty objects for export (my local Whole Foods carries Auroville incense). Originally planned as a city for 50,000 people, Auroville has held steady between 2,000 to 3,000 people for some time, partly because they have come up against the problem of acquiring more land, making it hard to expand.
Importantly, Auroville is located on the edge of Pondicherry, a city that is today part of the Union Territory of Puducherry, a federated union of four territories geographically dispersed throughout India. Pondicherry had, from the 17th century until 1962, been a French territory. The visionaries behind Auroville were a Bengali man named Aurobindo Ghosh and a French woman born Mirra Alfassa, better known as la Mère, or the Mother. Ghosh and Alfassa met in Pondicherry (now Puducherry) in 1914. Together, Aurobindo and the Mother built a vibrant Ashram that attracted residents from throughout India and the world, though there was a particular appeal to the French because of the Mother and its location in French India. While the British had left India in 1947, the French hung on to territories in the subcontinent until 1962, which means that Auroville came into being just six years following the French departure. The area had just emerged from centuries of colonial rule, a fact that was almost never acknowledged by the people in Auroville, who saw themselves as completely isolated from local history and politics.
Yet, the French association of this area of India has been important to the success of Auroville. The Mother, who passed away in 1973, never lived in Auroville, but her work and her presence remain the spiritual center of the town. Many of the first people who came to build Auroville came from France because they were familiar with the work of the Mother, though others came from all over the world. India loomed large in the imagination of 1960s counterculture, thanks to the Beatles and other popular artists who made heavily publicized trips to India, but also because of the global circulation of ideas about “Eastern religions” as the antithesis to what at the time was perceived of as the greed and materiality of Western modernity. As the journalist Gita Mehta wrote in her now classic work Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East (1979), Westerners were drawn to India by the promise of cool drugs, cheap living, and authentic gurus. Unlike the majority of the ashrams in India at the time that were led by Indian gurus, Auroville was from the start envisioned by a group of Europeans who sought to create something decidedly un-Indian: a projection of a “future” free of the horrors of the past, a projection that insisted that India was the past and Auroville the future.
There are two overarching narratives told in popular histories of Auroville, including, but not limited to, Kapur’s new book. The first is that that the people who arrived from elsewhere to build Auroville were heroic self-described “pioneers” who sacrificed family, money, and careers for a project they saw as greater than themselves. The second is that because Auroville is and has always been about the future, it is essential for Auroville to dispense with and disappear the messy colonial past. Before the first “pioneer” even arrived at the future site of Auroville, promotional materials touted it as a place committed to “evolution,” “a laboratory consciously evolving a new way of life, discarding old codes and conventions,” a place where “men” would work to “transcend himself,” and, as the Mother said, “a place where one will be able to think of the future only,” a statement that surely crosses the line from utopia to dystopia. The architectural model of Auroville took the form of a galaxy (see image 1) to accentuate the designers’ dedication to building an “otherworldly” space, “a listening-post for the forces of the future.” Promotional materials that were released between 1965 and 1974 took care to emphasize that Auroville was about “progress,” and encouraged those wishing to come to Auroville to “leave the prison of the past” behind.
This specific emphasis on leaving the past behind while thinking only of the future allowed the original settlers in Auroville to engage with India selectively, emphasizing the importance of India being a place of great “spirituality,” but only in ways that were either unknowable or rooted in an ancient (not recent) past. Aurovilians use the innocence afforded by their settler memory to detach from the very real ways that the past continues to shape both the privileged position of Aurovilians and the continued colonial subjugation of local peoples.
Figure 1, An architectural model of Auroville printed on a postcard, 1968
Stories about new settlers who find the heat and land to be incredibly inhospitable appear over and over again in the oral histories, essays, and testimonials of the Auroville pioneers. They talk freely and openly about hiring people from the local villages, who they could pay just a few pennies a day, to do the hardest labor, while the new arrivals focused on work that brought them satisfaction. Meanwhile, local people were dispossessed, and were now being paid very low wages to work the land that had been theirs. Yet, the Aurovilians continued (and continue) to celebrate “the yoga of work,” as evidenced by the image below. This photograph, which I took at the Auroville Visitor Centre in 2016, shows men dressed in “Western” clothes working construction and states that “Auroville is for those who want to do the yoga of work.” The yoga of work is the idea that everyone who belongs to Auroville must work in order to be closer to the Divine, promoting a sort of work ethic which the Mother described as the antithesis to what she saw as the laziness of drug-addled hippies.
The text on the top that reads “a life divine but no religions” is very important here. When the question of whether the local populations should be Aurovilians or not came up, the response from the Mother was that to be Aurovilian you had to be devoted to the “the Divine,” but this “Divine truth” must not be associated with religion, precluding the majority of local people, who are majority Hindu, from being included. The Hindus mired in religion could definitely work as laborers, though. A contrasting picture, taken by an Italian magazine in the mid-1970s, shows white Aurovilians playing and resting and “building the new world,” while Tamil women work in a field, a much more truthful depiction of what happened, and continues to happen, in Auroville.
Figure 2, A photo of a panel on display in the Auroville Welcome Center, 2016
Figure 3, A photo from the Italian magazine Flashmen, 1972
But that was the past, some might say, and Auroville has come a long way since the 1970s. While this is certainly true, the settler narratives are such a strong basis for the identity of the community that they still pervade the project today. One example: Auroville owns beachfront property, which is privatized, largely to keep local merchants out and make a “safe space” for women to wear the swimsuits they are used to wearing without experiencing harassment. On the surface, this may seem like a noble, even perhaps a feminist, reason for privatizing a beach. By fencing off and bringing in security, Auroville continued to work toward creating a purely “non-Indian” space in India. By privatizing the space for Auroville residents and guests only, we see some important material consequences. First, there is increased policing of the local population to protect non-local people, which creates even more of a hierarchized divide than already existed. Second, it promotes the idea that there are certain women who are worth protecting, and those women are not the ones who live in the local communities.
What if the resources that go into securitizing a beach were instead used to bolster Tamil feminist organizing? What if Aurovilians stopped calling themselves Aurovilians and instead considered what it means to live in solidarity and connection with not just the land they settled, but the people they employ? What happens if utopian ideals are practiced holistically instead of used to demarcate an exclusive space? What if the people who want to “drop out” have to instead confront their own complicity in the inequalities of global wealth, the racism produced through centuries of colonialism, and the hetero-patriarchal culture that makes going to the beach in certain parts of the world less appealing for women in swimsuits? Answering these questions would surely take time and effort, and would probably make a lot of people uncomfortable and unable to use the beach in the ways they would like for some time, but it would be also be a movement toward collective change.
There is a telling moment at the end of Kapur’s book when he shares a story of how he has felt increasingly irritated by tourists in Auroville. After stating that the “geography” of Auroville is in “his blood,” he goes on to complain about the “hordes” of tourists “doused in cologne and dressed in designer knockoff clothes” that “run” his family off the roads, stop to ask where to buy croissants, look at Aurovilians “like a curiosity,” and generally upset the space that Kapur believes belongs to Auroville. This statement is pretty astonishing, given that it has been just over 50 years since Auroville bought this land from local people, many I am sure he would describe now as ogling tourists. Without any acknowledgment of what his presence must look like to the local populations, Kapur, with his narrative and complaint, has erased the history of the local peoples and their relationship to this land and geography, and has made it his own.
Our present moment is marked by a seemingly endless pandemic and the promise of a future rife with extreme temperature fluctuations, massive wildfires, and the regular occurrence of “once in a lifetime” hurricanes and floods. The promise of utopia could seem, for these reasons, enticing. If you pay attention to what is happening in the world that we are a small part of, it can be difficult to find the motivation to try to do better, to work toward making the changes needed to improve the entire world in significant enough ways. When the world around you is on fire, embarking on a utopian project based on a suspension of disbelief is definitely appealing. Moving out of a space wherein you understand the problems around you, that perhaps leave you feeling immobilized, into one where the problems are easy to dismiss as “not your problem” could seem like a balm on an individual level. Yet, to signal that you are “building a better world” without actually engaging in the politics, history, and culture of the people, animals, plants, bodies of water, borders, soil, and every other single material object on earth that surround you, the project is bound to recreate the hierarchies that exist both in the past and in the world around us.
Now is the time to tear down borders, not build new ones. The time has come to unsettle utopia.
Jessica Namakkal is the author of Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India (Columbia University Press, 2021). She teaches in the Program in International Comparative Studies, History, and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University.