An Atlas of Impossible Longing, by Anuradha Roy, 2008

Title: An Atlas of Impossible Longing

Author: Anuradha Roy

Publisher: Picador USA

Genre: Historical fiction

Format: Hardcover

Language: English

No. of pages: 336

Recommended for:  

Synopsis:

On the outskirts of a small town in Bengal, a family lives in solitude in their vast new house. Here, lives intertwine and unravel. A widower struggles with his love for an unmarried cousin. Bakul, a motherless daughter, runs wild with Mukunda, an orphan of unknown caste adopted by the family. Confined in a room at the top of the house, a matriarch goes slowly mad; her husband searches for its cause as he shapes and reshapes his garden.

As Mukunda and Bakul grow, their intense closeness matures into something else, and Mukunda is banished to Calcutta. He prospers in the turbulent years after Partition, but his thoughts stay with his home, with Bakul, with all that he has lost—and he knows that he must return.

My review:

Thanks to my professor for lending me this book.

“A veritable atlas. What rivers of desire, what mountains of ambition. Want, want, hope, hope, this is what your palm say, your palm is nothing but an atlas of impossible longings.” 

An Atlas of Impossible Longings is a story of loss, love, hope, longings and desires. This tapestry of human natures is so vivid and full of imagery that it takes one to the places and the people as the author describes them. The story is undoubtedly sad at times, but I personally applaud the author’s ability to write it without making the reader really depressed. There is a thread of old-world, pre-independence era nostalgia threading throughout the entire narrative.

It was only when the novel ended that I understood why the author started it as she had. She does not fail to give us a backstory to the major characters, across the various generations – Amulya, Kananbala, Manjula, Nirmal, Mukunda, Bakul, Suleiman Chacha, Bikash Babu etc.

One could say, that there are three stories – that of Amulya who had created his new home away from the hustle and bustle of Calcutta, in Songarh, with his wife who is very much resentful of this; then we see Suleiman Chacha’s house in Calcutta, in the midst of the chaotic Partition years, where Mukunda also stays; and lastly, we see the house of Bikash Babu, built on the banks of a river gone wild, which is very much related to Bakul, the female protagonist, also named after a tree that had been growing on a side of the mansion. Tying all three of these, is the undeniable bond of Mukunda and Bakul, as well as both of them independently.

Mukunda as a character is the only one who we see is undergoing social mobility. He is a casteless orphan firstly, in a time when caste consciousness reigned supreme. Then he is taken up by Nirmal and encouraged to study and move forward in life – in this we again see him as the gentleman’s son. But then, in Calcutta, he is like every other individual trying to make something for himself. He never fails to remember, however, his Bakul whom he has left behind in Songarh. Even after being married, we see that unbreakable thread of thought and emotion binding him to her.  It is this aspect that really makes me relate him to Heathcliff, from Emily Bronte’s classic – Wuthering Heights. I really do think of this story as a somewhat loosely written Indian version of Wuthering Heights. Mukunda and Bakul’s story is just as tumultuous and wrought with various troubles.

He wanted to tell her that his dreams took him far beyond Songarh, beyond Calcutta, across oceans, towards icebergs. What would she say? “Take me with you! I want to come too!” 

Hand in hand, they stood in the middle of the empty fields under the star-filled sky, their troubles, fear, and the long way they still had to go before reaching home, all forgotten.

The name of this novel is quite relatable to the characters to this book – “impossible longing” implying that the longings that these people might have, are not to be accepted by society, and obviously so – we see Nirmal in love with Meera, a widow, who is, because of her marital state, a figure on the lower rungs of societal hierarchy; Mukunda with his own share and Meera with her desire to be identified as a woman by her own rights and not by her marital state. These people are so real to the reader – we see them giving up on this desires as they let themselves be carried forward by estiny, but still, holding onto a tiny flicker of hope.

“A veritable atlas. What rivers of desire, what mountains of ambition. Want, want, hope, hope, this is what your palm say, your palm is nothing but an atlas of impossible longings.” 

Displacement plays an important underlying theme in this novel- whether it is Amulya as he brings in his family to Songarh, Nirmal in the city, and most importantly with Suleiman Chacha.

Women and their position in society is also another interesting point. Considering the fact that the novel spans roughly 1920s to the 1950s, the expectations and rules set upon them were also very different. We see Kananbala, and as she grows older, the lack of knowledge that people have about speech impediments, leads her to being locked up in her room until her death. Manjula as a wife and daughter-in-law “fails” to do her duty, because she is unable to bear progeny. Then comes the Mrs. Barnum whose half-blood origins make her foreign to both the British as well as the locals. Then again, one rumor (in case of Bakul) is enough to stop a marriage from occuring. The pitiable condition of widows is seen through Meera and one line really touched me.

“Some day, she fantasised, I’ll again wear sunset orange, green the colour of a young mango, and rich semul red. Maybe just in secret, for myself, when nobody’s looking, but I will.
Unknown to her, Nirmal was watching from outside. It had brought him to a standstill, to see her doing something so ordinary, looking at a sari, the kind of sari that a widow could never wear.”

The author has not failed to cover many important aspects of India of those times – caste system, the pitiable condition of widows, the Hindu-Muslins rivalry and riots near the Partition years, social system etc. in her brutally elegant writing style, Roy has woven together a veritable mass of an entity that is relatable to the heart of India, and all things Indian. With brilliant characterization and world building, this is one of the best books I read in 2018!

Verdict:

I rate it a 5/5 stars!

About the reviewer:

Nayanika Saikia, is one of the foremost book reviewers from the North-east and Assam, and is also an admin for the official India bookstagram page on Instagram. She publishes her own reviews and recommendations for poetry, fiction, non-fiction etc. on her bookstagram account @pretty_little_bibliophile which won the NorthEast Creator Awards 2018, as well as in daily newspapers, online magazines etc.  She can be contacted at nayanikasaikia98@gmail.com .

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