Literary Fiction Books

The little master of Kummarapet: Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta reviews Anuradha Roy’s ‘The Earthspinner’

“Tell this any way you like, but tell it. Fill in the gaps. Work with whatever earth you get. A potter knows how to do that.”

Anuradha Roy’s new novel comes like a breath of sweet, fresh air. The first thing about the novel is its gentleness of tone. Though it tells of violent and traumatic acts, it does so with such a calm, reflective and understanding tone that one is left thinking, with a touch of sadness, of so much that could have been otherwise.

Fractures in the lives of communities can take place in a moment of rage, while it can take years, even decades, to repair the damage. “Today, I wonder at the certainty in these people that their world would heal in a matter of weeks… As the city was remade, Kummarapet itself would melt back to earth.”

Compelled to create

The second thing about the novel is its setting. The main story is set somewhere in the Deccan, but the location is not specified. A character dreams of travelling “where the dry land stretched as far as the eye could see, where hill-sized boulders perched on each other.” It could be anywhere, any tiny town, brought to life by a few signs — a river, a forest, a potters’ habitation, an autorickshaw ferrying children to school, a handful of petty crimes reported in the local newspaper. A microcosm of how we have lived for decades, and how we could live.

The third thing about The Earthspinner is its powerful description of the process of artistic creation. “My father would have said

The little master of Kummarapet: Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta reviews Anuradha Roy’s ‘The Earthspinner’

change was the work of the earth spinning, spinning as it always had.” The central metaphor is that of the earth and its soil, of work with hands and clay and a potter’s wheel. A river to wash sorrows away. A terracotta lamp that, when lit, casts the shadow of a flower. A sculptor who creates pots and lamps every day; and who, one morning, wakes up from a dream suddenly compelled to create a monumental terracotta horse. “In his dream the horse had risen on its own like an earthen fountain. It wore a necklace of beads and its ears were like two mango leaves on either side of its magnificent head… The mane swept down the neck in a wave, the eyes stared straight ahead, gazing at eternity.”

Lives left behind

Alongside the clay work is calligraphy: the intricate and beautiful writing of words, created by humans to communicate and consecrate. A blind calligrapher dreams of the beauty of script: “His fingers had forgotten how it was to hold his bamboo quill or hear its sound on paper — inaudible to all but himself — to see the strokes appear one by one, forming pages of beauty and learning.”

Sculpture, text, and syncretism. The epigraph from Kabir, beautifully translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, brings these diverse elements together into one whole: “I’m bowl/ And I’m platter/ I’m man/ And I’m woman… I’m nothing/ Says Kabir /I’m not among the living/ Or the dead”.

But it is as easy to destroy peace as it is to shatter a clay pot into pieces. A man falls in love with a woman who lives in the same town, but they are separated by insurmountable barriers of religion. “In this country it’s just film stars and cricketers who get to marry whom they please,” says one character.

Ways to heal

Years later, the narrator meets a friend from her childhood and they reflect on the tragic turn of events and everything that they have, separately, left behind: “I didn’t know when I would hear again these intonations and words, this particular language of my childhood. I listened as if my life depended on remembering every word.”

At the warm, throbbing heart of the story is a little dog: once called Tashi or good fortune, now he is Chinna, “little one”, walking proudly anywhere and everywhere within village and town. “‘Chinna, Chinna,’ Elango crooned to the dog, whose cries of sorrow became fainter and more forlorn as the night passed. He kept stroking its back and it moved something deep inside him that he did not know was there.”

As dogs do, Chinna teaches the human characters what it is to be human. It is the little dog who can cross the boundaries that seem impassable to humans. “He was Chinna, the grand old dog of Kummarapet, who had lived and loved and populated the neighbourhood with versions of himself.”

Chinna connects people whose disparate lives would not otherwise intersect: a couple from the city, assaulted on the border of a forest; a working-class potter who doubles as the local autorickshaw driver, ferrying kids to school; two little girls, sisters, whose father is ill and whose mother is a reporter for the local newspaper; a young girl with a limp and her grandfather, a near-blind calligrapher. Chinna brings them all together with his fearless and unconditional love. And shows them a way to heal and reconcile, a way out of the painful darkness.

The Earthspinner; Anuradha Roy, Hachette India, ₹599

The reviewer is in the IAS.


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