An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy

23/09/08, Time Magazine Asia

Anuradha Roy, a publisher based in Delhi and Ranikhet (she is the co-founder of India’s finest non-fiction press, Permanent Black), sets her first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, during the most momentous years for the Indian Subcontinent. Between 1907, when the novel opens, and its end-point, circa 1956, the Subcontinent saw the increasingly powerful freedom movement that led to independence from British rule in 1947, the tragedy of the Partition, and the intransigent problem of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). All these impinge on Roy’s tale of private lives subtly and unobtrusively, almost as noises off, for the novel is above all a love story.

It opens with a first-person voice describing a sepia photograph, then this voice disappears from the novel until in the third and final part of the book, it recurs, appropriating the narrative in an act of breathtaking reclamation, ‘I am Mukunda. This is my story.’

The story begins in the town of Songarh where Amulya and his wife, Kananbala, build their family home by a river and he sets up his factory for the manufacture of herbal products. In 1927, Amulya saves the illegitimate baby of an employee’s son – born of a casual fling with a tribal girl – and puts him in an orphanage, taking on the responsibility for this boy’s upkeep. Nirmal, Amulya’s younger son, marries Shanti, whose father’s house in Manoharpur, also on the very edge of a river, is one of the loci in the book where beginning and end combine in a beautifully elliptical way. It is in this house that Nirmal’s daughter, Bakul is born and Bakul’s mother dies during childbirth.

When Bakul is four, he brings to the family home six-year-old Mukunda, the orphan his father had saved. In the teeth of fierce opposition from Nirmal’s brother and his sister-in-law – no one knows what caste the boy is – Mukunda is brought up in the family home but lives in the tiny outhouse, works as general dogsbody, is served food in a way so that the serving spoon doesn’t touch his plate. Then, as Bakul and Mukunda, inseparable companions, reach adolescence, petty family politics ensure that the two are separated.

It will be another thirteen years before Bakul and Mukunda meet again. By that time, everyone’s life has changed irreversibly, it would appear. But of the many lives Roy, with such effortless deftness, unfolds in her novel, it is the outsider Mukunda’s that brings everything together, almost to the concluding arc of a circle. In this novel about homes and homelessness, about houses and their fugitive nature, about what it means to be an outsider, about love found, lost, and finally recovered, Mukunda’s act of narrative ownership (‘This is my story’), mirrored and refracted throughout the book in several instances of ownership or loss of home and property, opens the way for a far greater emotional reclamation.

‘Home is where we start from’, writes Eliot. But Roy’s novel upends that with infinitely sympathetic elegance: what if home is something that you make rather than what you are given? Written with a soaring yet impeccably balanced lyricism, Roy’s prose does not hit a single wrong note: its restrained beauty sings off the page. Here, for example, is the stasis at the very heart of the tumult that is love: ‘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.’ If she is miraculously observant of the details of suburban middle-class Bengali life – at one point, an irate housewife shouts to the servant, ‘ “You numbskull, grind the mustard with the green chilli, with green chilli!” ’ – she is equally precise describing a passionflower: a ‘flamboyant purple flower [with] a ring of lighter petals within the purple ones, and a pincushion of stamens.’ Above all, the book has an elusive quality, so absent from the contemporary novel, a quality that can only be described as grace.