Anuradha Roy. Does the surname sound familiar? But there is no connection to Arundhati Roy except the gender and the pen. And this author writes in a totally different style too. There is no magical realism here, and the pace and prose need to be savoured in an unhurried way — think Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters.When Anuradha Roy published her first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, the literary world sat up and took notice. She was read widely, discussed ardently, and felicitated many times. The book was published in 16 countries, translated into 13 languages, shortlisted for the Crossword Prize and the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in India, long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Award and named by World Literature Today as one of the 60 most essential books on modern India. The Folded Earth, which came out this year, has already become a worthy successor to her debut novel. It was shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Award 2011, but did not win. It has also made it to the Man Asian Prize long-list 2011.
The book is set in the slow-paced mountain town of Ranikhet. The real Ranikhet is in the Kumaon hills, near Nainital, and is “a haven of tranquillity with its meadows, pine and cedar forests and ethereal views of the snow capped Himalayas,” says online travel literature. This is one of the many connections to “real life” that Roy uses through her book, perhaps to sustain the ambience, which is the backbone of her story.
The plot unfolds through a first-person narrative, that of Maya, who arrives at Ranikhet as a young widow, in search of peace and a living. She has lost her husband Michael to the mountains, both figuratively and literally, while on a trek to the famous Roopkund Lake. This husband was all she had in the world, after her parents disowned her following a controversial inter-religious marriage. Her mother still has clandestine meetings with her. Maya juggles quite a few roles as a woman in Ranikhet: she teaches at a Christian school, is a scribe to an old gentleman who wants to write his memoirs of a colourful past, supervises a pickle factory, and is the messenger in a young neighbour’s love affair with a man out-of-town. In the process, she meets “life”, as well as some people.
Among them are Veer, a relative of her employer (Diwan Sahib), who claims her romantic sensibilities; Charu, the young neighbour; Charu’s grandmother, Ama, who is the other woman protagonist on the scene; Puran, the challenged boy of their household; and Kundan, Charu’s love interest. The external characters that shake and fold Maya’s earth are cameos sketched deftly to reflect contemporary life: Mr Chauhan, who is the administrator and Kundan’s boss, writes touristy slogans; and Ummed Singh, a new-age politician, is a Hindu fundamentalist. It’s an “incredible India” painted on these pages.
There is enough meat in the story for a neat, fast-paced plot. Diwan Sahib is an ex-ruler of princely India, a Nawab of Surajgarh and lives in an estate that appears suitably of the “past”. He claims to have in his archives a set of personal letters between Lady Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru. Besides, he is writing about Jim Corbett. Plus, the woes of the contemporary world come in with tidings of a painful change. Religion, real estate dealings and environment issues trouble Ranikhet; they also take the story forward. At the same time, Roy does not bother to create conflict for the sake of it. The life of the protagonists carries on smoothly till an external catalyst decides otherwise.
Roy has a way of depicting the real with a shadow that intrigues. Maya is privy to the love letters from Kundan to Charu, while those of Edwina-Nehru are inaccessible and sought by the world. The author also throws in a number of real characters as minor players: Ramachandra Guha, Bill Aitken and Edmund Hillary, to mention a few.
‘The Folded Earth’ uncovers Ranikhet.
Roy’s writing is a celebration of the senses in exquisite descriptive prose. Her narrative has that “just-right” feel with not an inch of flab; though it is crafted in brilliance, it does not intimidate the reader with an artificial density that is classified as “literary” these days. Yet, Roy’s prose is layered and she often uses her descriptions to convey the progress of her story in an unobtrusive way. One reads with delight an interesting plot, which unfolds at a deliberate pace, and, above all, has a classic touch.
THE FOLDED EARTH
256 pages; Rs 295