x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A map of the heart

Anuradha Roy's debut novel takes a familiar tale of love and belonging and imprints it with a voice that is so distinctively, you'd think she'd been doing this for decades.

An Atlas of Impossible Longing spans three generations of an Indian family in the village of Songarh.
An Atlas of Impossible Longing spans three generations of an Indian family in the village of Songarh.

Anuradha Roy's debut novel takes a familiar tale of love and belonging that recalls classics from Great Expectations to The Cherry Orchard and imprints it with a voice that is so distinctively Roy's own, you'd think she'd been doing this for decades. An Atlas of Impossible Longing Anuradha Roy Quercus Dh40 An Atlas of Impossible Longing spans three generations of an Indian family. Its heart belongs in Songarh, a small town set high up on a rocky plateau surrounded by forests. Reputed to once have been a centre of Buddhist learning, it has become better known for its mica and coal reserves by 1907, the year Amulya moves his family there from Calcutta.

Dreamy Amulya owns a successful business manufacturing traditional medicines and perfumes out of wild herbs, flowers and leaves, but while he is kept busy with his factory and garden, his wife Kananbala roams the empty rooms of their large home, pining for theatres, bazaars and her noisy siblings. In Songarh, her days are filled with "cowbells tinkling, the occasional clopping of a horse's hoofs, the ghostly throb of tribal drums". Eventually solitude turns her into the local mad woman, accosting the household with expletive-laden streams of insults - unearned but often comically close to the bone.

Meantime, her sons have grown up and married. The younger one, an archaeologist named Nirmal, loses his wife in monsoon season but gains a baby daughter, Bakul. Her childhood friend is Mukunda, an orphan of uncertain caste, and it's their story that carries the novel. As children the two are inseparable, but as adolescence looms, their intimacy causes eyebrows to be raised. Nirmal eventually sends Mukunda away to Calcutta, ostensibly to go to school, though the boy knows he has been banished. As soon as he can, heart-broken Mukunda cuts off all ties with Songarh.

Roy's prose is luscious yet economical. Capturing the rhythms of life in rural backwater and big city alike, she strings together jewel-like episodes, skipping across decades and defining historical events in mere sentences, and giving her story the quality of something remembered. Incidental characters are conjured with an almost Dickensian alacrity. There's the man who keeps Mukunda awake on a sleeper train with his story of seeing a spaceship, and the scandalous Anglo-Indian woman who sends Kananbala tins of bulls eyes and condensed milk. A historian who can only find work as an assistant in a watch shop after Partition drives him from his home jokes that he is "Still working with Time, you see, a historian of sorts!" Even a childless woman's parrot becomes memorable.

The novel's final third is narrated in the first person by Mukunda, a shift that would seem jarring were Roy not such a supple writer. Mukunda's break comes when he is taken under the wing of an unprincipled property developer, who buys houses left empty by Partition and then demolishes them to build mansions that he sells for a fat profit. He teaches Mukunda plenty, including the none-too-subtle art of intimidation and a readiness to overlook false title deeds.

This nostalgic portrait of India may be jasmine-scented but it is not rose-tinted. Roy weaves in plenty of criticisms of the caste system and the traditions that circumscribe women's lives, managing to be incisive without detracting from an increasingly tense plot. The book's title references an intense longing for places, times, love and familial ties , all of which are borne inexorably away on the tides of history and fate. Yet Roy ends on a hopeful note. A dozen years after being sent away by Nirmal, Mukunda finds himself returning to Songarh. Revenge is within his grasp, but so, too, is the chance to claim a greater, more enduring prize.