~Finding their way~
An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy is a three-generational saga set in the west of India during the first half of the 20th century. It's presented in three stages, each focusing on one generation of the family, though strictly speaking only two of the protagonists are blood relatives.
We join the family in 1907 with the story of Amulya, the son of a well-to-do Calcutta family who is drawn to the countryside. Leaving his family home in Calcutta he moves to the small town of Songarh in a tribal area of western India. He sets up a factory making herbal medicines and perfumes and builds a home amongst people whose language he can't speak and whose ways he barely understands. He brings his family from the big city to live with him in the wilds, not that his poor wife can understand why she has to live in the back of beyond. Amulya builds a house on a road that didn't previously exist and he names the house '3 Dulganj Road'. There is no other house, no 1, 2, 4 or 5 because the '3' represents him and his two sons, Kamal and Nirmal. You can tell a lot about a man when he forgets to count his wife. Kananbala, his wife, hates living in Songarh and yearns to return to Calcutta and leave this primitive and friendless place behind.
Son Nirmal gets married off to pretty Shanti who loves to sing and whose presence brings about an unexpected change in her mother-in-law who doted on Nirmal. Kananbala starts to suffer unpredictable outbursts, Tourettes-like bouts of swearing and calling her daughters-in-law whores and abusing both family and strangers alike. The family send her to her room like a naughty child and keep her away from people she might shock.
The nearest house to 3 Dulganj Road belongs to a British man, the boorish and bad tempered Mr Barnum, who lives there with his elegant Anglo-Indian wife. Kananbala finds herself watching Mrs Barnum, waving to her when she comes and goes from the house, observing a crime and keeping a dangerous secret for the woman who becomes the closest thing to a friend that she has experienced, despite them meeting only once and sharing no common language.
~Inspire a Generation~
The second part of the book focuses on Nirmal who finds himself widowed with a young daughter, Bakul. When his father dies, Nirmal discovers that the old man had been supporting a boy child in a local orphanage and brings the child - Mukunda - back to the family home as a companion for his daughter. Interestingly nobody in the family ever seems to express interest about why Amulya was sponsoring this child or to make assumptions about any relationship. However, whilst the family accepts the boy into their home, they never really accept him into their family, treating him as if he's a combination of a favoured servant and a rather naughty pet dog. The two children grow up together as friends and companions until Nirmal gets nervous about them being too close and sends the boy away to school in Calcutta for part three of the book.
After the first two sections being narrated in the third person, the final section marks a change in style and is narrated from the point of view of the now adult Mukunda. He leaves school, gets involved in the shady business of a property developer, makes a good marriage, has both good and bad fortune but never forgets his friend Bakul. Through a series of coincidences that border on the unbelievable and require the reader to not think too closely or too often about how unlikely they are to happen, Mukunda and Bakul's lives intertwine but rarely touch. The role of Bakul's late mother's family home in the plot takes some believing but by that stage of the story, if you're still reading it's probably because you're in love with the book and you'll accept whatever the author throws at you.
~Do I long for it or is it impossible to read?~
'An Atlas of Impossible Longing' is a quintessentially Indian story, a multi-generational saga that explores many of the key issues about the nature of family and family relationships with a particularly Indian and Hindu perspective. I read a lot of books about India and this one has all the hallmarks of a potential classic. It really couldn't have been set anywhere else or have been written by anyone of any other nationality.
It's a tale about unmet need and the longing for things to be other than they are. The characters are mostly unhappy or unfulfilled and generally in some way or other at odds with themselves. You will struggle to find anyone in the book who isn't either personally discontented or who hasn't been battered by life and its cycle of never ending traumas. There are long periods during which little seems to happen and short bursts where if you're not concentrating, people get killed off and you're at risk of missing that it even happened.
The phrase 'An Atlas of Impossible Longing' appears only once in the book and is uttered by a fortune teller who is reading Mukunda's palm. The book is filled with yearnings, mostly of the type that never actually get acted upon and which build in intensity from one generation to the next. The patriarch of the family, Amulya, gets off lightly with a little bit of wondering how life could have been different if he'd been with the tribal girl who once gave him a flower at a dance. His son, Nirmal, is a poor father to his motherless daughter, distracted by his growing longing for the woman who comes to look after Bakul whilst he's away on archaeological digs. Finally Mukunda represents the most intense and potentially explosive longings expressed through his drive to become someone of significance and his passion for a woman who is not his wife.
Anuradha Roy is fabulous at describing 'things' but she's not quite so hot on people. The dialogue is often frustratingly unsatisfying and I'm not sure if it's part of the plot that her characters should say relatively little to each other, or just an artifact of her preference for painting word pictures of houses, villages and cities. The countryside around Songarh is described with such clarity that I feel I know the place despite never having been to that part of India. The pages sizzle with the heat haze of her precise writing. When she describes the architectural ruins which fascinate Nirmal, I don't need a drawing because the pictures are there in my mind. She's particularly detailed in describing the houses in which so much of the book is set - the house at 3 Dulganj Road, the drowned house of Bakul's mother's family which forms the setting for much wheeling and dealing, and the home that Mukunda acquires in Calcutta when its owner flees to Bangladesh. In some ways the houses are the stars of the book, the leading players whose names would be 'above the title' in any film of this story. The descriptive powers of the writer are so strong that as a reader you can sometimes find yourself choking on the richness of the fare presented on the page and long (perhaps not impossibly) for a bit of bread and butter writing without quite so much dressing.
An Atlas of Impossible Longing
Available in Kindle and paper versions
Approx 320 pages in hard copy.