The Folded Earth is a story written with a gentle perfection and precision about people who love, long impossibly and love again.
In the profusion of psychedelic characters, poetic coincidences and machine-gun prose that contemporary Indian fiction abounds in, we have all but forgotten that the stories that touch both mind, body and heart the best are those about ordinary people with extraordinary secrets. For, ordinary people are figures whose existence you believe in, whose stories are sometimes uncannily similar to experiences you've lived, tales you've heard, things you've seen. And as for secrets, why, what good is a story unless there are things to discover at the very end?
For these reasons alone, Anuradha Roy's second novel, The Folded Earth — it comes a scant three years after her first, An Atlas of Impossible Longing — is worth every one of its 257 pages. Reading them is like the long walks that Maya, the central character of the book, goes on; an exploration of territory made familiar by earlier visits, the very familiarity becoming the source of the enjoyment. For, Roy returns again and again in her novel to Maya's ramshackle cottage in the Himalayan hill town of Ranikhet, to the grounds and the big house on those grounds, to the roads and the hillsides, each time unspooling a little more of her account of the lonely schoolteacher's life from which, like the hills, layers of covering material are gradually removed.
Why is Maya so far from her home in Hyderabad? Why has she taken up a job so close to the spot where her young husband died on a mountaineering trip? Is there more to her husband's death than even she herself knows? Who is the Diwan Sahib, whose cottage she rents, and who claims to own a set of love letters between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten? Why are love-letters such a leitmotif in this novel, appearing as the commentary on the rustic romance between Charu the cowgirl and Kundan Singh the cook? And why does the Diwan Sahib's nephew Veer suddenly appear on the scene, and in Maya's life?
All of these are central to the story that Roy unfolds with deceptive skill, using the folded hills of the Garhwal as a seamless extension of the crevices of the mind in which truths are hidden within. Deceptive, because she does not allow the reader's expectations to get breathless, making them rise and fall to her own controlled rhythm. Why is this rhythm so important? Because this novel is a well-choreographed exposition of the secrets that lurk within every relationship, be it conjugal or romantic, collegiate or religious.
The larger truths of environmental assault and of the gaudiness in present-day politics are woven into the story too. And, supported by a cast of characters who all seem to have back-stories of their own, and mingling the backward-looking sensibilities of the human relics of the Raj with the upwardly mobile aspirations of once-remote hill folk, The Folded Earth presents every single scene with such completeness of visual, auditory and olfactory detail that the reader becomes almost a participant without dialogue and not just an eavesdropper.
Indeed, there is a gentle perfection to the way Roy writes — unhurriedly but with soft precision, using words and phrases that are so apt they almost do not register separately, fusing form and content flawlessly. This seductive surface draws the reader in as a shimmering river would on a moonlit night, compulsively, inexorably. And once under the surface, the cross-currents of different lives bears the reader along, across whirlpools and eddies, waterfalls and streams, all of them taking the story forward continuously.
One of the story-telling tricks that Roy pulls off remarkably unobtrusively is the shift in the narrative voice from the first person to the third, while keeping Maya as the teller. Thus, she describes every incident she is part of in the first person, but segues smoothly into the role of the omniscient narrator when telling of the other love-affair in the novel, the one between Charu and Kundan Singh — the heartwarming counterpoint to the heartbreaking melancholy elsewhere in the novel.
For everyone who seeks an interpretation of India in every novel from this country, it will be tempting to read The Folded Earth as an elegy for a past about to be defiled, or as a story of individual lives against the backdrop of violation. Neither of those readings would necessarily be wrong. But they would not do justice to what is, to my mind, a beautiful — and, by Fitzgeraldian association, damned — love story. One about people who love and long — impossibly? — and love again.
The Folded Earth, Anuradha Roy, Hachette India, p. 257, Rs. 495
Arunava Sinha translates contemporary and classic Bengali fiction.