Is writing a form of archaeology? The metaphor is a seductive one, bringing to mind the excavation of buried moments, the enshrining of past activity and the assigning of a structure to the movement of memory. Such activities do, in fact, play an important role in Anuradha Roy’s debut novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. There are other fitting tropes in the book, too: the mining of the earth’s seams and the reclaiming of ancestral houses, for instance.
The novel is a triple-decker, with the first part introducing us to Amulya and his wife Kananbala who move to the hamlet of Sonagarh near Calcutta at the turn of the last century. As the years pass, their mansion is witness to family tragedies, from Kananbala’s mental deterioration to the collapse of their son Nirmal’s marriage. The action of the second part, based in the same location, takes place 11 years later.
We learn of Nirmal’s fate and of his daughter Bakul’s association with orphaned tribal Mukunda, in the context of relationships with other family members. Part three segues into a first-person narration by Mukunda, speaking of his life in Calcutta and elsewhere, of his struggle to make something of himself, and of his meeting Bakul once again so that both can reclaim their lives.
Clearly, one thing the author isn’t short of is ambition: the chronological and point of view shifts apart, the novel covers roughly the first fifty years of the 20th century (historical events resound offstage like muffled echoes) and there are quite a few characters and locales whose development she pays close attention to. Roy’s prose is atmospheric and attuned to nuance, and while there’s always the danger of such writing becoming nothing more than a warm bath of generalisations, she steers clear of this by her attention to detail and by making the action progress through powerful scenes.
Thus, river water seeps into the crevices of an old mansion; the feeling of a sari on a mannequin is both unusual and tempting; Bakul rips apart some of Nirmal’s books in frenzy; a building contractor’s hands are studded with rings; and Mukunda struggles with the chaos of Calcutta’s streets. In its delineation of flowers, skies, rain and their emotionally-charged effect on human beings, the prose is almost Lawrentian. There are other literary resonances to be found here, two obvious examples being the Mrs Rochester-like state of Kananbala and the Miss Havisham-like battiness of the family’s Anglo-Indian neighbour.
Though much of the plot satisfyingly emerges from the interactions between characters, the childhood ties between Mukunda and Bakul come across as insubstantial, which robs their later relationship of impact. In addition, events speed up towards the end through some all-too-convenient coincidences. Such reservations apart, An Atlas of Impossible Longing is a well-etched map of a world in which the past has to be dealt with before the present can be set free.