Every once in a great while, a novel comes along to remind you why you rummage through shelves in the first place. Why you peck like a magpie past the bright glitter of publishers’ promises. Why you read.
No “news hook” will have brought you to it. No famous name on the spine will suggest what’s in store. But as you slip into the book’s pages, you sense you are entering a singular creation, a richly populated world. Curiosity overcomes you. Before long, you are surrendering to the voice of a confident narrator, the arc of an unfamiliar story. And then, suddenly, you are swept away in a tale that is bristling with incident, steeped in the human condition, buffeted by winds of fate. This, you think, is the feeling you had as you read “Great Expectations” or “Sophie’s Choice” or “The Kite Runner.” This is why you read fiction at all.
Anuradha Roy’s “An Atlas of Impossible Longing” is such a book, a novel to convince us that boldly drawn sagas with larger-than-life characters are still possible in a relentlessly postmodern world. Its author, a first-time novelist, is no one you’ve heard of, and yet she is also no stranger to books. She lives in the picturesque hill station of Ranikhet, in the distant Himalaya mountains, and commutes to New Delhi, where she works for an academic publisher that specializes in South Asia.
Apart from its setting just outside Calcutta, Roy’s “Atlas” is hardly distant. A sprawling epic of love, class and ambition, it has more in common with Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” than it does with “The Mahabharata.” In it, a single act of pity rattles down generations to break a caste’s rules, test a family’s mettle and throw together two unlikely childhood friends, who will negotiate every circuit of human love. It’s a big story.
It begins in 1907, when Amulya leaves Calcutta with his young wife, Kananbala, and travels to the backwater of Songarh to open a factory to manufacture herbal potions and perfumes. In time, they produce a son, who is a joy to them both, but the quiet cramp of small-town life becomes anathema to the lonely mother. She starts to evince strange symptoms, begins speaking out of turn and is given to obscene outbursts. As months go by, it is clear she has gone mad.
Into her altered world step two newcomers: a granddaughter, Bakul, whose birth killed her mother; and a boy, Mukunda, of indeterminate caste, whose uneasy adoption into the family becomes the single act of pity that reverberates down the generations to change everything once and for all.
Mukunda and Bakul spend idyllic days in one another’s company. For Bakul, Mukunda is the emotional link to a motherless world — a world that Bakul’s father, too, in abject grief, has abandoned. For Mukunda, Bakul is the human anchor, the single, totally truthful person on whom a casteless orphan can rely.
But time deals harshly with that sibling love. There comes a point in their adolescence when the family begins to worry about the wisdom of their growing up together — there is the question of burgeoning sexualities, the question of castes.
It would be unfair to tell a prospective reader more. And yet we are but a short way through a very long and complicated story. Suffice it to say that the boy is sent off, cast out into an uncertain, Dickensian future, and, as a result, boy, girl and family are forever altered. There is a coldblooded murder, a meddling neighbor, a hardening of hearts. In the end, a fiend enters the scene to ensure — as must happen in every good story — that the first shall be last and the last, first. Pieces fall into place, perhaps not entirely as anticipated, and readers are well rewarded.
Along the way, Roy’s India emerges in all its magnificent splendor and dysfunction: its bloodshot sunsets, its lowering skies, its religious riots, which set the country on fire with an “incandescent necklace of terrifying beauty.” We encounter every view of the country, from brutal to elegiac, including this fleeting image of Calcutta through Mukunda’s eyes:
“I cooked some daal and rice, and having eaten it, sat alone on the terrace feeling the city throb below me while I looked up at the stars from my little oasis, drinking rum, feeling the familiar languor spread by degrees to my fingertips. If I went to the parapet of the terrace I could see the trams moving like lit caterpillars, pinging the wires above, and the squares of yellow lamplight in the houses around me.”
All manner of fate will descend on Mukunda; and he, in turn, will try to twist fate around to impose some kind of justice on a deeply unjust world.
“Atlas” is wide in scope, generous in its humanity. Roy spares no effort in conjuring memorable characters whose lives intertwine in luminous strands. The writing, like Dreiser’s, could have used a more acute editor here and there, but mostly it sings: A voice is “as clear as the sound of spoon against glass”; women fill men with “fury and astonishment”; hair pokes up from a balding head “like new saplings in a brown flowerbed.”
The road from Songarh, as we learn, will lead to a far and forbidding place, but, inevitably, it will wind home again. “Want, want, hope, hope,” a wizened astrologer tells Mukunda, tracing a finger on his palm as he looks for an organizing life logic. “Your palm is nothing but an atlas of impossible longings.”
But I am richer for having traveled its ground.
Arana is a writer at large for The Post and the author of “Cellophane” and “American Chica.”
AN ATLAS OF IMPOSSIBLE LONGING
By Anuradha Roy
319 pp. Paperback, $14