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.