Tuesday, August 19, 2008

On Anuradha Roy's An Atlas of Impossible Longing

The first and most unassailable truth of life is change, movement, flux. But the essence of that change is often to be found less in the highly visible, volcanic change of a new job, or a birth or death in the family, a milestone traversed, a timeline of events, a stock market crashing, or a government falling, and more in the galaxies that are always imperceptibly moving and shifting within us, the time that is ceaselessly passing, the body that is growing ripe and strong and then paling, the private and public faces that we sometimes will into being and that sometimes take even us by surprise. The famous Heraclitean epigram “You cannot step into the same river twice” is justly famous not just because of its primary meaning – the river is always flowing, and what was present a moment ago is now gone – but also its secondary suggestion of eternal flux contained in that word “you”. That you that steps into the river is also like the river.

Which art form walks with a lamp through this subterranean field? The novel, particularly the realist novel, a form we might think of as an education in human moods, feelings and compulsions through the shape of a story that we live vicariously. The best realist novels rouse us to a state of heightened awareness and sensitivity, and Anuradha Roy’s first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, the story of three generations of a Bengali family in the first half of the 20th century, seems just such a book. Roy’s novel is as much about a house as it is about a family, and indeed it teaches us that houses, which hold themselves erect longer and witness more than people do and echo with human presence, cannot but be seen as beings in their own right.

Early in the twentieth century, Amulya Babu, a Bengali entrepreneur, builds himself a huge house in the remote hamlet of Songarh, on the edge of a forest and beside the ruins of an old fort, with only a British couple for neighbours. His wife Kananbala detests the place because it is so far from Kolkata, relatives, and civilization. While her husband finds the solitude and expanse of Songarh liberating, Kananbala is oppressed by it, and slowly begins to lose her mind, shocking her family with sudden outbursts of spleen. Amulya and his wife are in search of a bride for their younger son Nirmal, and they find one from a town called Manoharpur, an only child raised in a vast, extravagantly built mansion by the edge of a churning river. The seasons come and go; one generation gives way to another. Suddenly widowed at a young age, Nirmal finds himself responsible not only for his daughter Bakul, but also for an orphan boy, Mukunda, whom Amulya had agreed to provide for.

Roy is especially good on establishing a character’s relation to place: we always think of her characters in relation to a scene precious to them or resented by them. Here is Amulya Babu’s bifurcated world of teeming town and hushed home:
Amulya was the only Indian to have built his home in that area, in the wilderness near the miners’ dwellings and fox-lairs, far away from the bustle of the main market, from the drums of Ram Navami, the speeches and tom-toms of patriots, the nasal calls of the maulvi, the discordant bursts of trumpet music at wedding processions, the sparklers and explosions of Diwali. He heard these noises all day at the factory. As his daily tonga clattered him towards his home each evening, he waited for that miraculous moment when the shouting town would slide behind, replaced by dark trees and an echoing stillness broken only by calls from the forest and birdsong at dusk.
Note that Roy does not say that the tonga “clattered towards his home” but that it “clattered him towards his home”, as if Amulya is himself a vessel of sounds and agitation on his journey towards peace. The noise-silence axis of this passage is thus evoked on every level.

And here is Kananbala’s relation to the same place:

The silence that to Amulya meant repletion locked Kananbala within a bell jar she felt she could not prise open for air. She had disliked it from the start: the large house with echoing, empty rooms, the wild, enormous garden where leaves rustled and unfamiliar berries plopped onto the grass. The want of visitors, the absence of theatre-shows and festivity. Instead, cow-bells tinkling, the occasional clopping of a horse’s hooves, the ghostly throb of tribal drums far away. The croaking of a hundred frogs after rain, the inscrutable sounds from the forest at night. In Calcutta, in her rambling family home crowded with siblings and aunts and uncles, there was always the possibility of a chat, the comforting sounds of nearby laughter, gossip, clanging utensils, squabbling sisters-in-law, the tong-tong of rickshaw bells, the further-away din of the bazaar, the cries of vendors, the afternoon murmurs of a decrepit goldsmith who visited them with boxes of new trinkets and a tiny silver balance to weigh them on.
But this passage also suggests that perhaps Amulya Babu only enjoys his home and his grounds so much because he has a noisy day-world of business, conversation, and engagement that fulfils another side of him; Kananbala, on the other hand, subsists on the memories of the same sounds which Amulya Babu might find so annoying. All the genderedness of space in Indian society is evoked by this description of Kananbala’s exceptional poverty of sounds and relationships, even within the prevailing constrictions of the female domain.

Indeed, the main theme of An Atlas might be the explosive relationship between people and the place they think of as home. Nirmal himself leaves home after the sudden death of his wife, entrusting Bakul and the orphan boy Mukunda to the care of his brother’s family and a widow called Meera. As a employee of the Archaeological Survey of India, entrusted with digging up ruins across the country, Nirmal tries to leave the place of his youth and its scars behind him and make the world his home:
It was a rare feeling, one that usually came to him, if it did, high on a mountain ridge, the immense folds and humps of hills and valleys falling away before him, edges muted in the evening air. At such times, he saw himself as if from the sky, an infinitesmal speck on a gigantic fold of earth, as inseparable a part of the mountains, pink sorrel and trees as were the flying squirrels that scampered up the deodars beside him.
When Nirmal returns home after several years to begin a dig on the site of the old fort, he finds that his daughter will not accept him as a father. And Bakul and Mukunda are inseparable in childhood, but as they reach the threshold of maturity, Nirmal is persuaded to send Mukunda to a boarding school to protect the innocence of his daughter. Mukunda never forgets this abandonment, and resolves never to return to Songarh. After his studies he begins work as an assistant to a building contractor, and this is what occasions his bitter observation, “I know all about houses and homes, I who never had one”.

Roy’s slow-burning prose style proves germinal for a host of beautifully weighted observations. “Beyond the house, in the memory of the day’s light, the ruins of the fort were still discernible to those who knew it was there” – a sentence like that, with absences evoked as presences, encapsulates a whole world of feeling and of mystery. When Mukunda, after a childhood supported by charity, rises to a position of some influence as a contractor and enforcer, he feels a new relationship with the world: “After a lifetime of deferring to other people, now there were those who deferred to me. I saw in their faces my old faces.” And yet, Mukunda knows that there were things not only painful, but also admirable in his past life, and fears that with his rough work he is changing “into someone my old self would have despised”.

One of the triumphs of Roy’s construction is that, after two sections told in the third person by a voice standing above the characters, the novel suddenly switches in the final section to first-person narration through the voice of Mukunda. This is very apt, because of all the characters in the novel, his is the voice most worth hearing from the inside. Mukunda carries within himself a complicated tie of both attachment to and resentment of the old house at Songarh; he loves Nirmal and Bakul for protecting him, and despises them for abandoning him; he has a wife and child of his own, yet longs for another woman. He harbours within him – as we all do to a greater or lesser extent – an atlas of impossible longing, and the contours of that terrain are memorably mapped in Roy’s novel.

And an archive of old Middle Stage essays on Indian fiction is here.


neha said...

Loved your first paragraph, it reminded me of this quote I really like -

"In a modern context nostalgia means sentimentalising a period of the past; mourning a lost immediacy that makes the past unmatchable. Nostalgia obscures the connections between the past and the present; it idealises the past and makes it stand outside time, frozen in unchanging perfection.

'Nostalgia', writes Christopher Lasch, 'invokes the past to bury it alive. It shares with the belief in progress, to which it is only superficially opposed, an eagerness to proclaim the death of the past and to deny history's hold over the present. Lasch has argued that real knowledge of the past requires something more than knowing how people used to make candles or what kind of bed they slept in. It requires a sense of persistence of the past and an understanding of the manifold ways in which it penetrates our lives; this persistence is what nostalgic attitudes deny."

Christopher Lasch (in True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics) quoted by
Paul Sinclair (in The Murray: The River and its People)

I have a blog full of quotes, so I am just copying it here. :)

SundharP said...

Why does the book title sound so pretentious?

Chandrahas said...

Sundhar - You ask a reasonable question, although maybe not in the best way possible. I could hardly answer as simply and swiftly as you ask because you don't give any reasons for your judgement, and I myself feel the title is in more or less the same key as the novel.

I would agree though that I often find the titles of novels too high-pitched or grandiose for my taste. I prefer something simple, direct, striking, or intriguing - Seize The Day (Bellow), Independent People (Halldor Laxness), My Antonia (Cather), Dead Souls (Gogol), I'm Off (Jean Echenoz, Sunday's Child (Ingmar Bergman) or, closer home, RK Narayan's Swami and Friends. These are titles which themselves seize the day, as it were, and make the most of the reader's two-second investment in their covers. The genius of some writers is evident even in their titles, such as Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend or Jose Saramago's Death At Intervals.

But titles depend on the individual taste of writers; also, some writers have an appetite for titles and can't even begin work without one, while others are happy to write books and then take suggestions for names. You should always go further than the title before making a judgement of a book.

Anonymous said...

Chandrahas, you are championing the book as if you are her literary agent. And wow, what a Novel 101 in your first two paragraphs. Your reader is right: the title is too pretentious. I've burnt my fingers several times from pretentious titles: The Alchemy of Desire, Maps for Lost Lovers, The Inheritence of Loss. This time I'm chickening out. And yeah, this Roy has one similarity with her namesake: she takes her overwrought prose too Seriously.

Anonymous said...

It seems you were Really moved by the book. I read reviews usually just to kill time .. rarely do I actually read the reviewed book .. but your glowing review made me sit up and immediately order this book.

For the sake of my ~21 precious Euros, I hope Amit is exaggerating.

Chandrahas said...

Amit - Thankfully AAOIL does not have the distressing tendency towards mid-sentence capitalization favoured by the previous Roy, which I too found intolerable. I don't think the two novels compare on the overwrought scale at any level other than that of the title, which, as you point out, has many parallels in contemporary Indian fiction. The subject probably deserves an essay of its own, and you may be the one to write it. I managed to avoid all the three novels you mention.

KR - I enjoyed the book very much (while feeling that the ending fell away a little), and quoted from some of the bits that I liked most. If you liked these passages your 21 euros will pobably not be wasted.

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