Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hill Station Blues

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge.


A sense of place is “one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction”, Eudora Welty wrote in a famous 1956 essay. “Location is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction that charge out from the story in its course”. It’s just such an angel that presides over Anuradha Roy’s second novel, The Folded Earth.

The hill station of Ranikhet is the backdrop against which she sets her characters, and it is one that defines and determines their actions. On almost every page, there are descriptions of the area’s seasons, wildlife, views, habitations, history, customs, architecture and more. This is done with a delicacy and empathy that belie the understanding and skill necessary to achieve them. One is reminded of Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountain, similarly set in Kasauli.

As with Roy’s first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, themes of loss, yearning and changing ties suffuse the book.  It’s narrated by Maya, a young woman from Hyderabad, who arrives in Ranikhet to take up a position as schoolteacher and get over a tragic bereavement. The years pass, and “though I cannot know precisely when it happened, a time had come when I became a hill-person who was only at peace when the earth rose and fell in waves like the sea”. She strikes up close relationships with Diwan Sahib, erstwhile minister of a royal family and now presiding over a decaying estate; Veer, the Diwan’s mysterious long-lost relative; and Charu, a young village girl.

The descriptions of the locale apart, another of the novel’s strengths is in its depiction of minor characters, be it the diwan’s factotum, Charu’s canny grandmother, her witless uncle, the school principal, the owner of a local garage and more. The portrait of the local administrator, though, is touched with caricature in his far-right tendencies and cartoonish attempts at writing and painting slogans for the good of the community (“Walk in Nature Zone, It is Health Prone”, for example.)

While not at school or helping the students make jams and jellies, Maya tries to assist the Diwan in completing a biography of Jim Corbett, speculating on occasion about his alleged possession of letters between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. Meanwhile, Veer appears and disappears, busy with setting up a trekking agency, and Charu enters into a liaison with a cook at a new hotel. The deepening and shifting of intimacies, and the consequences that result, take place under the implacable gaze of the high Himalaya.

Other changes, too, affect everyday lives. Elections are nigh, and politicians of varying degrees of shiftiness seek to enforce their agendas. In addition, deforestation and construction leave scars on the idyllic landscape.

Roy’s sentences are graceful and unhurried, matching the pace of the novel. Some of the symbolism, though, is a tad overdone. Long-awaited showers put out a simmering forest fire as a couple finally consummate their relationship. Later on, a giant tree falls after a patriarch’s demise. Puzzlingly, the point of view strays away from the first-person on occasion, at times to detail Charu’s blossoming, pastoral love affair, at others to delve into the life of the buffoonish administrator.

Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, many of its narrative strands peter out. Be it Charu’s future, the threats against the missionary school or the outcome of the polls, they’re resolved in a matter-of-fact manner that robs the plot of vitality. Again, Maya’s relationships with the Diwan Sahib and with Veer are realigned in the finale through the abrupt tumbling out of hidden secrets, something that smacks of contrivance. Figuratively speaking, it isn’t Maya’s hand that brings about a resolution, but the author’s.

In its evocation of the permanent black of loneliness, and its rendition of the rhythms of life in a small town in the hills, The Folded Earth offers many rewards. It’s a pity that an organic unfurling of plot isn’t one of the novel’s strong suits.

(My review of Anuradha Roy's first novel is here.)

1 comment:

Sakhi Shah said...

sounds like a pretty, melancholy book...if not a must-read. I'll keep an eye out for it.