The first and most unassailable truth of life is change. And the truth of that change is to be found less in the highly visible, volcanic change of a new job, or a birth in the family, of someone dying, a stock market crashing, or a government falling, and more in the things that are always imperceptibly moving and shifting, the time that is ceaselessly passing, the waxing and waning within ourselves that sometimes we will into being, and that sometimes takes even us by surprise.
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 two generations of a Bengali family in the first half of the 20th century, seems just such a book.
An Atlas of Impossible Longing: Picador, 320 pages, Rs395.
Roy’s novel is as much about a house as it is about a family, and indeed it teaches us that houses, which last longer and witness more than people do, cannot but be seen as beings in their own right.
Early in the 20th century, Amulya Babu, a Bengali entrepreneur, builds himself a huge house in the hamlet of Songarh, on the edge of a forest. 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 and haunted by it, and slowly begins to lose her mind. 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.
It is a carefully laid foundation—a vividly realized landscape, within that a house, within that house a family, and within that family, the drama of comings and goings, secrets and compromises, conformity and rebellion. Upon it, Roy constructs a novelistic edifice of considerable beauty and enchantment. The seasons come and go; one generation gives way to another. Nirmal, left a widower at a young age, is responsible not only for his daughter Bakul, but also for an orphan boy, Mukunda, whom Amulya had agreed to provide for. 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.
Roy’s ringing 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 encapsulates a whole world of feeling. 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. 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”.
Double role: Roy is a publisher by profession.
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 third and last 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. 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 hates them for abandoning him; he has a wife and child of his own, yet longs for another woman. He harbours within him—as perhaps we all do—an atlas of impossible longing, and the past and present of that terrain is beautifully mapped in this memorable novel.
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