At last I’m posting my first review for our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize longlist reviewing project. The book is The folded earth by Indian writer Anuradha Roy. Like many others, my first reaction when I saw this book listed was to wonder whether Anuradha was another name for Arundhati Roy – but it isn’t. She is, however, used to readers confusing her – and now that we have cleared that up, I will get on with my review.
The folded earth is Roy’s second novel. It’s a contemporary story about a young Hindu woman, Maya, who marries a Christian man, Michael, thereby angering both her parents and his. Consequently, when Michael dies, mountaineering, after only 6 years of marriage, she has no family to turn to for support. Grief-striken her solution is to move to Ranikhet, the nearest town in the Himalayan foothills to where he died. The novel chronicles her life in that town – the work she does, the friends she makes. It’s a fairly simple plot, though there are some complications: there’s the mysterious Veer who comes and goes and with whom she develops an uneasy relationship, and there’s the backdrop of conflict as the impending elections bring into focus Christian-Hindu tensions. There are also some references to real people – to the romantically involved Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, and to the legendary big-cat hunter Jim Corbett.
The main appeal of the book for me was the evocation of village life through its colourful characters. They include Ama, the stereotypical but nonetheless believable wise village woman; Charu, her lovelorn but resourceful granddaughter; Mr Chauhan, the officious Administrator; Diwan Sihab, the eccentric would-be biographer of Corbett and generous landlord to Maya; Puran, the simple cowherd; Miss Wilson, the austere principal of the Catholic school at which Maya works. And of course, Maya, herself, who is the first person narrator of the novel. These characters come alive and we care about them, even Mr Chauhan who, with his attempts to beautify Ranikhet (“In foreign countries I have heard people have to pick up even their dog’s … waste from roads”), provides light comic relief. He is not totally benign though, as he is also behind one of the book’s cruellest moments when his henchmen torture Puran.
I also enjoyed the writing. Roy’s descriptions of the foothills and seasonal changes bring the landscape alive:
… I stood looking at the mountains, which had risen out of the monsoon sky. Clouds were piled high at their base so that they floated in mid-air, detached from everything earthly. Something in the quality of the light made the peaks appear translucent, as if the molten silver sky were visible through them.
Her descriptions of people and their relationships are often spot-on, such as this of a new relationship:
We were too new and fragile, too skinless to be exposed to daylight just yet.
Roy explores some of the changes confronting the region, particularly in relation to religious difference, education, and the role of women. Should women be educated, and if so how much? (Ama, for example, would like to see Charu educated so that “she won’t let a man get away with treating her badly” but not so much that it will stop her getting a husband.) How do hardworking villagers comprehend the seasonal influx of wealthy travellers? Here is Ama again:
Travelling is all very well […] But it’s for people with money to burn and nothing better to do but eat, drink and idle. Why go walking up and down hills for pleasure? We do that everyday for work.
Social conflict and change are real issues in this neck of the woods!
And yet, despite these positives, the book doesn’t quite hang together, mainly, I think, because it doesn’t know what it is. Is it about coming to terms with grief, an ideas novel about political tensions in contemporary India, a mystery about Michael’s death, a hymn to the Himalayan region (in the face of encroaching urbanisation), or all of the above? I suspect Roy intended all of these but the book is a little too disjointed, a little too unfocused to quite pull it off. The politics seem important but are mostly a sideline to the personal stories. For the political ideas to have impact they needed to collide in some major way with the characters rather than form a backdrop as they do here. There is a mystery about Michael’s death but Roy doesn’t build or sustain the tension well, and when the true story comes out it’s neither surprising nor particularly powerful. There are references to the destruction of the natural world, to humans making “anthills out of the mountains”, to “the distant past of the forests when the shadow of a barasingha’s horns flitted through the denser woods”, but the ideas are not fully integrated into the story.
I’m not sorry to have read it, however. It’s not a ground-breaking book and it doesn’t fully cohere, but there is a lot to enjoy – the writing, the exotic (to me) setting, and the characters, for a start. I don’t imagine this will be my top-ranked book in the longlist but neither would I discourage people from reading it.
The folded earth
London: MacLehose Press, 2011