Wednesday, April 6, 2011

An Atlas of Impossible Longing

by Anuradha Roy
New York, Free Press, 2008
305 p.   Fiction

An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy tells an intricate story of families, houses, time,and memory in India from the early 1900s to the years following the partition, about 1950.

First it is the story of several families over three generations beginning with a business man Amulya and his wife Kanabala, who settle in a small town, Songarth, where he becomes a prosperous businessman. He builds a large multigenerational home for his older son and wife, his younger son and daughter, and a young widow who takes care of Bakul, the granddaughter.

Second it is the story of two houses, Amulya’s house in Songarth and Bakul’s grandfather’s house in Manoharpur. The houses take on personality much like the people; they nurture the families they house, and then, like the inhabitants, the houses age and decline.

It is also the story of Mukunda, a caste-less orphan, who is raised in the house at Songarth. His story ties all the other stories together.

There is also a tumultuous river, symbolic in many ways. One review indicates: “The striking aspect of the novel is the intricate paradox of stillness as visualized in the description of the picture (the scene) and the onward movement of the river that symbolizes the volatile story enacted along the border of West Bengal.” It would appear that nothing much is going on in this quiet countryside, but indeed a very great deal is going on, including insanity, murder, unrequited love, teenage angst, and grief.

Even though things seem to be at a standstill, time is passing, and Roy shows the passage of time in very imaginative ways. The Independent of London describes the passage of time thus: “Several strata make themselves apparent. There are the huge ideas of geological time evoked in the image of the mounds behind the ruined fort; there are the humdrum indications of change such as the marks of decay affecting the house; and there are, powerfully present in the landscape, the descriptions of the movements of the river in Manoharpur as it advances upon "the drowned house," in which Bakul's mother had died while giving birth and which she now inherits - the house in constant danger before the shifting and rising water. Behind Roy's novel must surely be the words of TS Eliot: "In succession/ Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,/ Are removed, destroyed, restored."

I was immensely intrigued by the title, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. I understood the concept of longing, because longing permeates the book. It wasn’t until page 199 that the reason for the title comes clear. The third section of the book tells the story of Mukunda, the orphan boy, now a businessman, on his way to becoming successful. At one point he visits an astrologer, who looks at his palm and says: “Your palm is nothing but an atlas of impossible longings.” Ah, I thought, now I get it!

Although the story line is interesting and intriguing, what makes this book unique and compelling is the mood that permeates every pore of the book, much like the heat that permeates every pore of the characters. One reviewer calls it “a quality that can only be described as grace.” One of my favorite acts of grace in the novel occurs when the businessman, Amulya, realizes that his wife, Kanabala, is going mad. Up until this time, he has virtually ignored his wife, which probably has contributed to her madness. He begins to spend his evenings in the garden with her, talking to her, helping her walk, and tenderly taking care of her.

The book is quite beautifully written. Descriptive passages abound, like this one: “The rushes had stopped nodding, the breeze had stopped blowing through our hair, the stream had stopped flowing, the curdled clouds had stopped drifting overhead, the bird had stopped its call, the two children on the opposite bank had frozen in mid-gesture. . .”

Roy invokes the India of the past in somewhat nostalgic terms, but we are given a glimmer of the India that is to come. Nothing moves very rapidly in Roy’s India, but the undercurrent is there, much like the undercurrent monsoon river that floods the house of Bakul’s grandfather.

Anuradha Roy is a book publisher in Delhi. An Atlas of Impossible Longing is her first novel.

This review in the Hindu, an Indian magazine, gives a perspective totally different from the Western papers that reviewed the book:
Here is a review in a British newspaper. It includes an outline of the plot:

I received this book as a review copy from the publisher.

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