[23 August 2011]
Published in 16 countries and translated into over a dozen languages, Anuradha Roy’s first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, is a beautifully woven narrative describing three generations of a dysfunctional Indian family, spanning the 20th century. As the influence of the British wanes, the central family members, in rural Songarh, struggle to stay in sync with each other; each a victim of crushing gender-biased expectations, arranged marriages, and the stifling nature of the local community and landscape.
Roy starts with Amulya, formerly of Calcutta, who has left the big city to succeed as a small town business man, unaware that the move away from everything and everyone they know will drive his wife, Kananbala, to the brink of insanity. Her symptoms emerge as a jaw-dropping tendency to curse at and insult everyone around her, and then failing utterly to remember her transgressions. Their two sons, wrapped up in their studies and making their own way in the world, fail to notice. Eventually, Amulya is forced to lock Kananbala up in her room, away from the world and with only her view onto a property owned by a British couple to keep her company.
Unwittingly, Kananbala becomes friends with the British woman across the road, who can’t communicate well enough with anyone around to find out why her neighbor is locked away. One night Kananbala witnesses a vicious crime from her window and the friendship is cemented. In her own way Larissa Barnum is a captive of her adopted culture and later in the novel she also starts to come unhinged, so it’s not such an unlikely connection between the women.
The story has tendrils that stretch to other rural areas of India, as well. Visiting relatives arrive with a marriage proposal for Amulya’s second son, and the process of vetting the bride begins. A photograph of Santi arrives, along with effusive praise for her character and suitability; Kananbala wonders at the process that sees her husband deciding that a complete stranger is an acceptable match for her darling youngest son.
Santi’s family home is its own character; a mansion drowning slowly on the edge of a riverbank as the water gradually changes course over a number of years. The house, mirroring Santi’s father (whose relatives have stepped in to find a future for Santi, since her father cannot see so far ahead), has lost its will to stand tall in a village of much humbler establishments. Santi’s father is a recluse, refusing to see the encroaching waters, and after the wedding, when Santi returns to her childhood home to bear her first child, it’s too late to abandon the house as the seasonal monsoon overflows the river’s boundaries. The child survives, and grows as uncontrollable as the river itself.
Roy’s writing is gentle yet urgent, giving the reader a glimpse into rural life in several remote corners of rural India, but never letting go of the central family relationships that provide the foundation for her story. Most characters are unable to control their own destinies, affected by circumstances of birth, chance, caste, or one of the few lucky ones who dictate how others must behave. Also underpinning An Atlas of Impossible Longing are archeological roots that stretch into the very hills of Songarh, drawing in various characters with the mysterious possibilities of what lies hidden below the forgotten dust.
Roy’s second novel, The Folded Earth, was released earlier this year. She keeps an excellent blog here, where she writes about her influences and the experience of writing, and posts excerpts from reviews and interviews, plus other media regularly.