Friday, May 11, 2012

The Folded Earth

By Anuradha Roy
New York, Free Press, 2011
259 pages    Fiction

The Folded Earth is Anuradha Roy’s second novel, and it was with great anticipation that I embraced it. I had read An Atlas of ImpossibleLonging last year and absolutely loved it. Does this one match it? Not sure. Does it make me want to go to India? You bet.

While the setting of Atlas was India in older times, The Folded Earth is set in modern times, in a village high in the Himalayas. (In actuality, the village is where Roy and her husband live.) There is quite a bit of the older India at play in the book, including English-style cottages, old military men, and a mystery regarding the romance between Nehru and the wife of the Earl of Mountbatten. I was not aware of the term Raj Fiction, but apparently this is the term for nostalgic fiction of the British time in India. 

The book is divided into two parts—the first moves leisurely, much like one would imagine life in a Himalayan village. The second part moves more rapidly to a stunning conclusion. The plot takes too long to establish itself, but the writing is so good that the reader is willing to forgive Roy that indulgence.

Maya (my granddaughter’s name, by the way) is a young Hindu woman, widowed before the age of 20 by a mountaineering accident that claimed her husband, Michael’s life. She is estranged from her family because Michael was a Christian. Having nowhere to turn, she takes an opportunity to teach at a Christian school in the mountains, so she can be nearer the spot where her husband died. The first section of the book sets the scene and introduces us to a unique group of characters, including a nobleman who lets her live on his estate, where she edits a book he is writing about the adventurer, Jim Corbett. She defines her purpose in life thus: “I would not look into the future. My life had been too cruelly overturned once before for me to think of anything but the present moment. I would negotiate each day as if I were riding a leaf in a flowing stream: enough to stay afloat. I would not ask for more.”

Maya develops great affection for Diwan Sahib, the nobleman, and the people around the estate. She teaches a young woman to read so she can carry on a long-distance romance with a young cook in Delhi. She falls for Diwan Sahib’s nephew, Veer, who also is a mountaineer. The plot meanders a bit, but we get a very clear picture of village life, the summer heat, the monsoons, the ever-present mountains. Here is one of the beautiful passages that gives us a picture of mountain living:: “In winter, the air is clear enough to drink, and your eyes can travel many hundreds of miles until they reach the green of the near hills, the blue-gray beyond them, and then the snow peaks far away, which rise in the sky with the sun, and remain suspended there, higher than imaginable, changing color and shape through the day.”

The second part of the book moves a little faster as the carefully crafted life Maya has established starts to unravel, beginning with the decline of Diwan Sahib’s health until his eventual death. The reader develops a great deal of affection for Maya because her narration is mostly gentle and kind to those around her. She is like a wounded animal and the reader wants to make life better for her. The final events in the narration comes as much a blow to the reader as to Maya. The reader awakens rather abruptly from the dream-like state the beautiful words have thrust us into. 

Reviewers speak to the strength of Roy’s writing: “Roy's talent lies in her ability to infuse hard bits of social and political reality into a narrative that would otherwise have assumed the soft tinctures of light reading.” Another says: “. . . a poem to the natural world and its relentless displacement by the developed one.”

Roy calls upon the reader to embrace the slow pace of The Folded Earth, to savor the words and the character development, to feel Maya’s pain, and to discover a life that is unknown to her American audience. Although not as remarkable as An Atlas of Impossible Longing, The Folded Earth is worth reading for its own strengths and its own beauty.

Here is my review of An Atlas of Impossible Longing.
Anuradha Roy’s blog:

No comments: