An Atlas of Impossible Longing

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9781847244772: An Atlas of Impossible Longing

The story is of three generations of an Indian family, brilliantly told, in which a sensitive and intelligent foundling boy orphan who is casteless and without religion and Bakul, the motherless granddaughter of the house, grow up together. The boy, Mukunda, spends his time as a servant in the house or reading the books of Mrs Barnum, an Anglo-Englishwoman whose life was saved long ago by Bakul's grandmother, by now demented by loneliness. Mrs Barnum gives Mukunda the run of her house, but as he and Bakul grow, they become aware that their intense closeness is becoming something else, and Bakul's father is warned to separate them. He banishes Mukunda to a school in Calcutta, where in the years after Partition he prospers, and whence in time he will return to rediscover all that he has lost.The novel begins in 1907 with the founding of a factory in Songarh, a small provincial town where narrow attitudes prevail. Amulya and Kananbala have two sons and as their family grows, and the house and their garden too, a microcosm of a society develops. It is scholarly, eccentric, hide-bound, fraught with drama, destined to self-destruct. The many strands of this intensely-fashioned narrative converge when Mukunda, by now a successful businessman, returns to Songarh years after he has been exiled from the only home he knew, to resolve the family's destiny.

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About the Author:

Anuradha Roy is the award-winning author of The Folded Earth and An Atlas of Impossible Longing, which has been published in sixteen countries and named by World Literature Today as one of the sixty most essential books on modern India. She lives in India.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

An Atlas of Impossible Longing ONE


In the warm glow of fires that lit the clearing at the centre of straw-roofed mud huts, palm-leaf cups of toddy flew from hand to hand. Men in loincloths and women in saris had begun to dance barefoot, kicking up dust. Smoke curled from cooking fires and tobacco. The drums, the monotonous twanging of a stringed instrument, and loud singing obliterated the sounds of the forest.

A man with a thin, frown-creviced face topped by dark hair combed back from his high forehead sat as still as a stone image in their midst, in a chair that still had its arms but had lost its backrest. His long nose struck out, arrow-like, beneath deep-set eyes. He had smoked a pipe all evening and held one polite leaf cup of toddy that he had only pretended to sip. His kurta and dhoti were an austere white, his waistcoat a lawyerly black.

He did not appear to hear the singing. But his eyes were on the dancers: wasn’t that girl in the red sari the one who had come with baskets of wild hibiscus that she had flung carelessly into a corner of his factory floor? And that man who was dancing with his arm around her waist, wasn’t he one of the honey-collectors? It was hard to tell, with their new saris and dhotis, the flowers in their hair, the beads flying out from necks, the firelight. The man leaned forward, trying to tell which of the sweat-gleaming faces he had encountered before in his small workforce.

The brown-suited, toadlike figure sitting on a stool next to him nudged him in the ribs. “Something about these tribal girls, eh, Amulya Babu? Makes long-married men think unholy thoughts! And do you know, they’ll sleep with any number of men they like!” He emptied his cup of toddy into his mouth and licked his lips, saying, “Strong stuff! I should sell it in my shop!”

A bare-chested villager refilled the cup, saying, “Come and dance with us, Cowasjee Sahib! And Amulya Babu, you are not drinking at all! This is the first time people from outside the jungle have come as guests to our harvest festival. And because I insisted. I said, it’s Cowasjee Sahib and Amulya Babu who give us our roti and salt! We must repay them in our humble way!”

A tall, hard-muscled man stood nearby, listening, lips curling with contempt as his relative hovered over the four or five friends Cowasjee had brought with him, radiating obeisance as he refilled their cups. Beyond the pool of firelight, cooking smells, and noise, the forest darkened into shadows. Somewhere, a buffalo let out a mournful, strangled bellow. The drums gathered pace, the girls linked their arms behind each other’s waists, swaying to the rhythm, and the men began to sing:

A young girl with a waist so slender that

I can put my finger around it,

Is going down to the well for water.

With swaying hips she goes.

My life yearns with desire.

My bed is painted red.

Red are my blankets.

For these four months of rain and happiness

Stay, stay with me.

Without you I cannot eat,

Without you I cannot drink.

I’ll find no joy in anything.

So stay, stay, for the months of rain,

And for happiness with me.

One of the girls in the line of dancers separated herself from her partners. She had noticed Amulya’s preoccupied expression, wondered how a man could remain unmoved by the music, not drink their wine. She came forward with a smile, her beads and bangles jingling, her bare shoulders gleaming in the firelight, orange sari wrapped tight over her young body. The toddy made her head spin a little when she bent down to Amulya. As he tried to scramble away, she stroked his cheek and said, “Poor babuji, are you too pining for someone?” She leaned closer and whispered into his ear, “Won’t you come and dance? It wipes sorrows away.”

Amulya looked up beyond her childish face, framed by curling hair which smelled of a strong, sweet oil, at the flamboyant purple flower pinned into her bun. It had a ring of lighter petals within the purple ones, and a pincushion of stamens. Passiflora, of course. Yes, certainly Passiflora. But what species?

Despite the haze of alcohol that made her eyes slide from thing to thing, the girl noticed that the man’s gaze was not on her face, but on the flower. She unpinned it and held it out to him. A deep dimple pierced her cheek. The drums rolled again, a fresh song started, and she tripped back to her friends with a laugh, looking once over her shoulder.

“Hey, Amulya Babu, the girl likes you!” Cowasjee cried, slapping Amulya’s thigh. “You can turn down food and drink, but how can you turn down a lusting woman? Go on, dance with her! That’s the done thing in these parts!”

Amulya stood up from his chair and moved away from Cowasjee’s hand. “I have to leave now,” he said, his tone peremptory. In his left hand he clutched the purple flower. With the other he felt about for his umbrella.

Amulya understood he was an anomaly. When still new in the town adjoining the jungle, he had tried to make himself part of local society by going to a few parties. Songarh’s local rich, they too had hopes of him, as a metropolitan dandy perhaps, laden with tales and gossip from the big city, conversant with its fashions, bright with repartee, a tonic for their jaded, small-town appetites. He had had many eager invitations.

After the first few parties, at which he refused offers of whisky and pink gins, and then waited, not talking very much, for dinner to be served and the evening to end, he had realised that perhaps his being there was not serving any purpose. Was he really becoming a bona fide local by attending these parties when his presence emanated obligation?

Today – these festivities at the village whose people were his workforce – he had thought it would be different. He had, for a change, wanted to come. He had only ever seen tribal people at work – what were they like at play, what were their homes like? The opportunity had seemed too good to miss; but Cowasjee, in whom the bare-shouldered village girls seemed to unleash more than his usual loutishness, had ensured that this evening was like all the others.

Amulya looked around for someone to thank, but everywhere people sat on their haunches drinking, or they danced, enclosed in worlds of private rapture. The drums had speeded up, the twanging could scarcely keep pace. Where was his umbrella? And his office bag? Was his tonga waiting for him as instructed? Was anyone sober enough to light his way to the tonga?

“Oh sit, sit, Amulya Babu,” Cowasjee said, tugging Amulya’s sleeve. “You can’t go without eating, they’ll be sure their food was too humble for you, they’ll feel insulted. The night is young and we have stories to swap! Have you heard this one?” Cowasjee cackled in anticipation of his punchline.

Amulya sat again, annoyed and reluctant, barely able to summon up a strained smile to the yodelled laughs that accompanied the ensuing discussion about why a woman’s two holes smelled different despite being geographically proximate. “Just like the difference between Darjeeling tea and Assam!” one of Cowasjee’s friends shrieked. “Both in the hills of eastern India, but their aromas worlds apart!” The third said, “You bugger! More like the difference between the stink of a sewage nullah and a water drain!” They nudged each other and pointed at the girls dancing by the fire. “She’s for you,” giggled one. “How ’bout taking her home and confirming the Assam–Darjeeling hypothesis?”

The tall, muscular villager stepped out from the shadows, one fist clenched around a long bamboo pole. In two rapid strides, he and his weapon were towering over them. Cowasjee shrank back on his stool. The obsequious middleman noticed the threat and scurried out from a corner. He said something over his shoulder to the drummer, then to a woman tending a cooking pot. The drums fell suddenly quiet. Confused, the dancers stopped mid-stride. The woman called out, “We will eat now, before the chickens run out from the rice!”

The stringed instrument played on, its performer too rapt to pause. The man with the bamboo pole stepped aside, not taking his expressionless eyes off Cowasjee.

* * *

Far away, Kananbala heard the faint sound of drums, like a pulse in the night. Another night of waiting. At nine-thirty the neighbour’s car. Slamming doors. Shouts to the watchman. Ten. The whir of the clock gathering its energies for the long spell of gongs to come. The creaking of trees. A single crow, confused by moonlight. The wind banging a door. Ten-thirty. The owls calling, one to the other, the foxes further away. Then the faint clop of hooves. Closer, the clop of hooves together now with the sound of wheels on tarmac, whip on hide. A tongawallah cursing. Amulya saying, “That’s it, no further.” His voice too loud.

Kananbala dropped her age-softened copy of the Ramayana and went to the window. She could see her husband hunching to release himself from the shelter of the tonga, too tall for its low bonnet. She turned away and returned to the bed, picking up her Ramayana again. When Amulya entered the room and looked around for his slippers, she did not tell him she had put them under the table. When he asked her, “Have you eaten?” she pretended to be immersed in her book. When he said, “Are the children asleep?” she replied, “Of course. It’s so late.”

“They only served dinner at ten. They wouldn’t let me leave without eating, what do you expect me to do?”

“Nothing,” Kananbala said, “I know ...” Something caught her eye and she stopped.

“What is that?”

“What? That? Oh, it’s a flower.”

Amulya’s voice was muffled beneath the kurta he was pulling off over his head. She could see his vest, striped with ribs, his stomach arcing in. She looked again at the flower, dark purple, wilted. He had placed it under the lamp near the bed. In the light of the lamp she could see one long, black strand of hair stuck to the gummy edge of its stem.

“I know it’s a flower,” she said. “Why have you brought it home?”

“Just wanted to identify it ... “ he said, leaving the room.

She had often asked him before: were there women at the parties he went to? The host’s wife? Her friends or relatives? Why could she, Kananbala, never be taken? He always laughed with condescension or said, exasperated, “I have never met women at these parties, neither do I aspire to.” And what of today, the festival at the tribal village – could she not have been taken? If she were a tribal woman herself, she would have needed no man’s permission.

Amulya returned to their room with a large, hard-covered book. He sat near the lamp and opened it, then put on his black-framed spectacles. He picked up the flower in one hand, turned the pages of the book with the other, looking once at the pages and once at the flower, saying under his breath, “Passiflora of course, but incarnata? I’ve never seen this vine in Songarh.”

Kananbala turned away, lay back against her pillow and shut her eyes. She could hear pages rustling, Amulya murmuring under his breath. She wished with a sudden flaming urge that she could stamp on his spectacles and smash them.

Amulya laid the flower against an illustration in the book and whispered, “Incarnata, yes, it is incarnata. Roxburgh has to be right.”

* * *

In about 1907 , when Amulya moved from Calcutta to Songarh, he could still see the town had been hacked out, maybe a hundred years before, from forest and stone. The town perched on a rocky plateau, at the edge of which he could see, even from the house, a dark strip of forest and the irregular, bluish shadows of the hills beyond. In the distance were broken-down walls of medieval stone – the ruined fort, the garh from which the town took its name. A few walls and one domed watchtower, enough to fuel Amulya’s fantasies, could still be discerned in the ruins. In front there was a shallow pool with inlaid stone patterns around its edges. Beyond the fort lay an ancient, dried stream-bed that separated it from the forest and hilly mounds. It was said that an entire city would some day be found buried around the fort. Some claimed Songarh had been one of the centres of Buddhist learning in the ancient past and that the Buddha himself had rested there, under a tree, on one of his journeys. On his first visit to the fort, Amulya saw that there was indeed an ancient, spreading banyan tree with its own jungle of stone-coloured aerial roots. The tree had a knot on its main trunk that in a certain light looked like the face of a meditating man.

When Amulya brought his family to Songarh, it was no longer a centre of learning, but it had acquired new importance after the discovery by the imperial geologists of ores of mica. There was even more lucrative material below the forests somewhat further away: coal. Among the patchy fields of millet and greens there grew a tiny British colony of people who supervised the coal mines and the nearer mica ores from the salubrious climate of Songarh, which was chilly enough in winter for log fires. Before long the town had a white area near the fort where the handful of miners lived, forming a compact society of their own.

Over time, Songarh acquired a main street with a few shops. One of the earliest, Finlays, was run by an enterprising Parsi who supplied the needs of the expatriates for the exotic: coffee, fruit, fish in tins, lace and lingerie, treacle and suet, cigarettes and cheese. Indians went to the shop for fabrics and buttons, medicines and cosmetics, and returned with tins of peach halves, wondering what to do with them.

The forest watched. It was well known that leopards wandered its unknown interior. There were stories of tigers and jackals drinking together from streams that ran through it over round, grey and brown pebbles. Cows and goats disappeared, and sometimes dogs. It was useless looking for their remains. Until the mines came, and with them the safety of numbers, nobody from the town was foolhardy enough to venture into the wilderness at the edge of their homes: green, dark, alien, stretching for miles, ending only where the coal mines began.

The forest was still the domain of tribal people with skin as shiny and dark as wet stone and straight, wiry bodies. Flowers with frilly petals nestled in the black hair of the women. They were poor; many looked as though they were starving. Yet they kept to the forest, venturing out only occasionally, in groups. Some were forced into the town when the mines gouged out chunks of their forest. They lived in makeshift shanties, working at whatever they could find. Amulya employed many of them.

He had heard of Songarh in Calcutta, come on a visit, walked all over the little town and its surrounding countryside, and the knowledge that he would live there came to him like a benediction. Just as some people speak to you immediately without saying a word, and you feel a kinship as real as the touch of a hand, Amulya felt a connection with Songarh. He knew that if he turned away from it then, he would never be able to stop thinking of it, that all his life would feel as though it were being spent away from its core.

In Songarh, among people whose language he did not speak, he set up his small factory to manufacture medicines and perfumes out of wild herbs, flowers and leaves. The people of the forest knew where to find wild hibiscus flowers for fragrant and red...

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