An atlas of impossible longing By Anuradha Roy, Picador, Rs 395
An Atlas of Impossible Longing starts with a prologue that is about a photograph refusing to remain still. In it, there is a house (“a Roman-looking affair with tapering pillars soaring to its arched roof”) that seems to be floating on a river of “darkening sepia”. And as we read on, we realize that the photograph is being described to us by the person who owns it, an ‘I’ who then disappears from the novel as it moves into the first of its three parts. The ‘I’ returns again in the third, and final, part. There it is the voice of Mukunda, an orphan of tribal origin, born in 1927, looked after and then taken in by a Bengali family settled in Songarh somewhere outside Bengal (possibly Bihar, but this is never specified) and then, quite as arbitrarily, cast out to fend more-or-less for himself in Calcutta. The history of Mukunda’s voice, how and why he gets to speak the way he does, is one of the histories in Anuradha Roy’s novel as it moves down its riverine course through the first half of the 20th century.
Yet, when we look back on the prologue’s first person in the light of the third part, we are hardly certain about who speaks the prologue. For, by the time we finish the novel, we know that the house in the picture belongs to Bakul. It was her mother’s house, in a town called Manoharpur in another unspecified state outside Bengal, and to it her mother had come to give birth to her and then die while doing so. Bakul’s father, Nirmal, a history teacher and amateur archaeologist, was the man who had taken Mukunda in (in his usual whimsical, self-absorbed, eccentric way), and eventually brings his motherless daughter back to live with them at Songarh. Here Mukunda and Bakul grow up together in a state of natural and secretly wayward closeness that is far more intense and complicated than the usual intimacy between siblings or social equals, for the rest of Nirmal’s fairly conservative, Hindu family never quite accepts Mukunda’s castless, half-known origins.
Given the tortuously interlaced paths of Nirmal, Bakul and Mukunda’s lives, that original scene in the prologue, of somebody looking at a photograph of the house, could have been enacted by any of these characters. Each of them, at different moments in the novel, could have possessed, cherished and scrutinized the photograph, and then tried to imagine into its stillness the subsequent and calamitous history of the house and the river. As we read the prologue and, through it, begin to look at the picture ourselves, the house, river, trees and sky begin to stir, and then move swiftly towards something like doom. “I see people swimming behind the submerged windows, imprisoned by the drowned rooms as if in some abandoned Atlantis.”
This could even be the voice of the writer herself, whose stakes in the house are inseparable from those of her characters’. The prologue then begins to read like a rather terrifying enactment of her ability to look at, and into, a still image, real or imagined, and make it move and grow into a living story simply by the power of the imagination, feelings and memory. The house “dissolves” right in front of our eyes, and the word takes us not only into the realm of the river’s liquid flow, but also towards the language of other kinds of narrative, other orders of Time. It takes us from the still to the moving image, from photography to the novel and cinema, from memory and imagination to history, and later even to archaeology and geology.
Roy’s achievement in this, her first, novel is to begin with a still image, then dissolve and shatter it into the flow and fragments of interwoven histories, and finally to bring the whole arc of the novel — “a vastness impossible to cross” — back again to yet another stillness, but of a profoundly different kind. This other stillness at the novel’s close is not only a state of mind, the inwardness that is perhaps the only thing that Mukunda gets to keep securely after a life of relentless oscillation between loss and recovery, leaving and returning, vertigo and euphoria. But this stillness is also the quality that defines a particular moment in his relationship with Bakul, as they are finally brought together at “the water’s edge”: “I felt as if everything had gone very still. The rushes had stopped nodding, the breeze had stopped blowing through our hair, the stream had stopped flowing, the curdled clouds had stopped drifting overhead, that bird had stopped its call, the two children on the opposite bank had frozen in mid-gesture.” As in the prologue, this is the description both of an actual landscape and of the process by which that landscape is actively brought into being, as we read, by an overwhelming human emotion — in this case, love, and a melancholy yet surreally lightheaded sense of the belatedness of its fulfilments and clarities, “now exposed to air and light after years of drowning”.
Roy’s novel truly comes into its own in the third part, when Mukunda, now a builder’s assistant in Calcutta (“I know all about houses and homes, I who never had one”), sheds the “burden of origins” and starts telling his “story” as his life moves gradually to what begins to look like the very heart of loss. Together with Mukunda’s burden, something falls off Roy’s shoulders as well as her narrative moves closer to the present, and she gradually liberates herself from having to perfectly recreate a ‘period’ or succession of periods. This she does in the first two parts with a sort of relentless perfectionism, crafting a prose, particularly for the description of settings, manners, appearance and speech that is always exactly right. One begins to long, after a while, for some bad writing, something to trip against and fall through, a rent in the shallows of the prose through which one can explore and imagine, a little more unwieldily perhaps, its deeps. But these deeps glimmer all the time beneath the impeccably constructed and assembled sets and props, behind which corridors of literary and cinematic history open out towards the past (the early Ray, Tagore, Saratchandra and Bibhutibhushan come most readily to mind).
It is only when ‘period’ turns into memory, into the novel’s internalized mechanisms of repetition and recall, as it so beautifully does in the third part, that history becomes lived time — lived, lost, escaped from, returned to, lost again, and then wonderfully regained, though not resolved — leaving us at once enriched and bereft, enriched because bereft.