An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy

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An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: From Amulya's dreams of forging a new life in remote Songarh to the orphan Mukunda's attempts to escape into the obscurity of crowded Calcutta, familial, friend, love and business relationships weave a complex web of love and longing that captures the imagination but somehow fails to engage the emotions.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 320 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 978-1847247643

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There is a picture the house in the picture is afloat on a river the innocuous colour of darkening sepia. The river in the photograph is still far from the house, held back, temporarily by the works of man. But it did not stay that way, the indecisive river wandered in such a way as to come not to the very steps of the house, but beyond them, swamping all within… and not just in its waters.

In 1907 Amulya brought his family to Songarh, an ancient centre of learning which by then had degenerated into a mining town. Patchy fields of food crops give way to the coal and mica mines, where the land is raped by the colonist English for the quick gains. The boom is a small one, and more of a puzzlement than anything else to the locals unaccustomed to the white ways of tinned fish, peach halves, cigarettes and cheese.

Amulya is from Calcutta and does not even speak the language of the local Santhal people, much less understand their customs any more than he truly does those of the English overlords. Still he brought the family to set up a factory making medicine and perfume from the local plants and flowers. He built a big house and gave it an innocuous address (No. 3 Dulganj Road – no name) and there he brought his young sons and his wife.

And there, for most of the time, he left her. Kananbala was born to the riotous familiarity of Calcutta and found herself virtually abandoned in the people-less ends of the earth. As Amulya tries to make his way into local society by being seen at the appropriate gatherings, these are barred to Kananbala who must wait patiently at home, wondering…and very very slowly, very patiently, beginning to go mad.

As the years pass and their children grow to adulthood, Amulya is secretly supporting another child – one brought to his door late one night, to whom he owes no real allegiance or debt, but one for whom he accepts a responsibility. The child is taken to the orphanage, but Amulya pays for his keep.

This unknown, casteless, orphan is the pivot about whom the novel turns.

The Atlas is split into three distinct sections, each focussing on a generation and the longings of that generation, but each bleeding into the next as the unresolved is passed down, or survives in its own way.

We begin with Amulya's yearning for peace away from the city and success in a community he does not understand, while his wife pines for the bustle of the life denied her. Their English neighbours across the street have their own marital mismatched yearnings which will end in a tragedy that is to echo down the generations. A child grows to adulthood, is married, and falls in love – only to have that love denied.

The central section begins with another child: one denied access to the Puja room by a holy man cringing at the unknowability of the casteless. The setting has moved on a decade and more. There are new children in the house on Dulganj Road…children drawn together in friendship and in a thirst for learning that takes them into the realm of the neighbours across the road. The children grow. The parents fret. Love meanders around the sidelines…and madness stalks the dark corridors of more than one home.

The third section takes us away from Songarh back to the streets of Calcutta and into the dark days of partition and beyond. A young man is making his way in the world of property development, to call it kindly, when he is landed with an assignment that takes him back to his past. To the unwelcome memories and those cherished ones that lead to a rediscovery of love.

This is a love story… about two people who find each other when abandoned by everyone else says the blurb on the cover. That is to sell the story short. It is not a love story…it is a story of love. Romantic love, between a man and a woman, accounts for at least five strands of the tale. Five couples and tales of love succeeding and failing. Love granted and withheld within families. Love for those cherished with whom the connections are weaker. Love wanders aimlessly through all the twists of this novel, just as the madwoman stalks her grand house.

That we should have more than one failing old lady adds a certain balance – both driven by loss and loneliness and longing – the one deserted, the other cherished into imprisonment. Meanwhile, a young widow and the object of her desire dream of a future that they each choose to leave unrequited. Children are abandoned, and sought, and make their own judgements. Wisdom is scattered among the young and the old, the sane and those whose grip on reality is waning. Spitefulness equally so.

Despite the potential, however, to call Roy's tale an epic is an undeserved over-estimation. It could have been. The sweep covers a time of epic change in India on all levels. Those changes are key to the story's unfurling. But however hard you try, you cannot cram an epic into three hundred pages. She does tell a good story and her characters are utterly believable, in all their charm and indignity. None escapes censure; none escapes a measure of admiration.

It is well enough written, accurately observed, and tightly plotted. It's just a shame that I couldn't get away from the Agatha Christie murder, the Dickensian orphan making good and above all that prologue that so echoed a return trip to Manderley, that the impending flood rather than fire made no real odds. In the end I felt more sympathy for the houses and their gardens than for any of the characters.

A reasonable read, full of clever allusions and aptly titled. Unfortunately an Atlas gives us only a description of a place, and no feeling for it. The breadth and depth of longing in this tale really should provoke a greater emotional response than it does, so somewhere along the line, it fails.

For a harsher, more modern take on India try Animal's People by Indra Sinha or for more oriental love stories head to China for Peony in Love.

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