No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

2012/68: An Atlas of Impossible Longing -- Anuradha Roy

[Kananbala] started to babble, worried. "Slut, whore, daughter of the devil, syphilitic hen."
"Pity we can't understand each other!" Mrs Barnum said, "We'd have such a jolly time."[location 1322]
The story begins in 1907, when Amulya moves with his wife and child from Calcutta to the small town of Songarh, and establishes a herbal medicine factory. His wife Kananbala hates the countryside; she is discontent even before their son Nirmal marries the lovely Shanti. Forced to share the house and its management with her daughter-in-law, she becomes prone to outbursts of obscenity, and is locked away. (Though it doesn't stop her witnessing a murder.)

Nirmal and Shanti have a daughter, Bakul: then Shanti dies in childbirth, and Nirmal takes in an orphan boy who his father Amulya has been supporting (for sentimental reasons, rather than through any sense of obligation). The orphan Mukunda grows up with Bakul, though he's not treated as her equal: nevertheless, they become very close, which worries Nirmal. He sends Mukunda away to school in the city, away from everything and everyone he knows.

Years later, after India's independence, Mukunda -- now a married man with a child of his own -- travels back to Songarh for work, and finds himself in a position to save Nirmal and Bakul from ruin. But can the past be set aside?

That's a very superficial summary of An Atlas of Impossible Longing: there's a great deal more to the book. But at the heart of it all -- though he isn't present at the beginning -- is Mukunda, who I confess I found an unlikeable and destructive character. His first-person narration forms the last third of the novel, but even before that there's a sense that people who don't matter to Mukunda are unimportant. They often die 'off-stage', off-page, mentioned in passing or absent by inference; they are seldom mourned.

It's a love story, and a story about the immense changes undergone by India, and Indian society, over a fifty-year period. Roy is evocative when she writes about the physical world -- especially the decaying glories of Songarh, an important archaeological site -- but less convincing when she focusses on characters. And there's a dreadful sense of inevitability to it all: a sense that Mukunda, never mind his humble origins, will get what he wants simply because he is unfettered by family, caste or convention.

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