November 18, 2011 by markstani
It takes a special writer to fashion something out of the ordinary from such a conventional subject: in this case, the much-plundered, Kipling-esque tale of rural India’s struggle to shake off the remnants of the Raj and embrace an uneasy new political and religious future.
Anuradha Roy, however, has lifted The Folded Earth (pub. MacLehose Press) far above the dangers of cliche, both with the shimmering beauty of her prose and the effortless manner in which she unfurls a tale rich in warmth and humour, yet never straying far from its delicate, dark heart.
‘The Folded Earth’ is about love, loss and longing as much as it about the corruptive influence of politics and religion: the fragility of everyday existence in the mountain villages of Himalaya mirrored by the uneasy peace among Hindus, Christians and Muslims, which is already spilling blood in the valleys below.
Maya, a young schoolteacher, escapes to the mountains following the death of her husband in a climbing accident, seeking and at first finding a happiness of sorts. She helps an eccentric scholar, Diwan Sahib, complete his life’s work and forges a precious friendship with Charu, a peasant girl who lives on his estate.
When Charu falls in love with a visiting hotel cook, and Diwan’s nephew Veer arrives to set up a trekking company, Maya’s dream of solitude is shattered. Elections are approaching, and the rise in Hindu nationalism threatens the future of her school and the life she and the locals have forged around it.
Roy’s work is a masterpiece of restraint. She conjures a world of such verdant beauty it must surely have been tempting to destroy it: juxtaposing her poetic descriptions with a brutality which shatters its inherent tranquility to devastating effect.
Many have done it; many others have resisted the temptation so entirely as to render their works little more than glorified travelogues; bright pictures of magical, distant lands. Roy has achieved both: content to let the dark forces lurk without ever quite manifesting themselves, she lends an extra potency and poignancy to almost all of the central characters’ choices. Their lives as they know it are, you sense, hanging by a thread no stronger than the one which Charu tears superstitiously from her dupatta to tie to temple railings at the beginning of her greatest journey.
‘The Folded Earth’ is a book about the power and glory of nature, and humanity’s struggle to establish itself therein. The politics – and threats – ebb and flow through the scorching hot summers and frozen winters, but the mountains, and the mountain people, remain:
‘In winter the barbet calls all day from its lonely perch high in a leafless tree. Its plaintive, monotonous cry is the distillation of solitude and sadness. The tourists have gone, and the summer visitors with them. Only now does the town feel truly ours…’
‘The Folded Earth’ – longlisted for the MAN Asian Literary Prize, and surely a strong contender – is a beautiful book that will not leave you until long after the final page. There, you will find what is perhaps Roy’s ultimate anti-cliche: a happy (ish) and eminently satisfactory ending – for the time being, at least.