This review first appeared in the Asian Review of Books on 2 April 2012
The Folded Earth is Anuradha Roy’s second novel after her highly-acclaimed debut, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. This story of love and loss and the futility of escape, set in the Himalayas, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Hindu Prize for Literature. It has all ingredients that prize committees like: a personal story resonant with history, a cast of suitably eccentric characters, a mystery underlying the narrative, atmospheric setting.
The story is of Maya, a “stick-thin-coffee-coloured” Hindu girl who marries Michael, a Christian, against the wishes of her family and finds herself cut off from all relatives. Michael, a mountaineering enthusiast, dies in an accident in the Himalayas, leaving Maya with an urn of his ashes and an unopened backpack. Nobody can tell her how her husband died exactly.
To be closer to Michael, Maya escapes to a hill station in the Himalayas called Ranikhet. There, she starts work as a teacher in a Convent school and rents a cottage on the estate of Diwan Sahib, an erstwhile noble, an aspiring Corbett biographer and the rumoured owner of a cache of letters exchanged between Prime Minister Nehru and his ladylove Edwina Mountbatten. On the rambling estate also live Ama, an elderly village woman, with her cowherd granddaughter Charu and a yokel Puran.
When the story begins Maya is 25 years old and has been residing in Ranikhet for six years. Her daily routine includes supervising the girls at the jam factory on the premises of the school, afternoon tea with the Diwan Sahib, teaching Charu the alphabet, typing up the few pages that the Diwan might write on-off and exploring the hill station on foot.
Ranikhet’s varied fauna also includes Chauhan, an administrator with a penchant for English slogans, a dog-walking Colonel, a hotelier looking to cash in on the laid-back charm of the town. To add to the charm, a rakish young relative of the Diwan, Veer, sets up residence in the estate. Veer runs a trekking company, a passion shared by the dead Michael, has lost one finger and a part of his ear to frostbite, and Maya feels a visceral tug on the first encounter.
The book is told in two parts, the first gentle and unhurried like the amble of the cows that graze the hillside through the day. In lyrical prose Roy evokes Ranikhet, a place she has been living in for ten years, drawing out its bucolic charm and highlighting it with Raj nostalgia—Corbett, the famous hunter of man-eating tigers, tittle-tattle from Colonial heyday, English bungalows which dot the Scotland-like terrain. Lost in this mist-laden ethereal idyll, one vaguely wonders if real world will intrude, when Roy declares a switch to Part 2.
The second half of the narrative is propulsive, as if the writer is making up for the earlier meandering, as each character is driven to its individual resolution. Diwan Sahib’s sundowner switches to an “early, medicinal brandy” and transforms into an all day binge on the copious liquor that Veer conveniently supplies. Lost in a haze of fumes, the charming raconteur abandons Corbett and conversation, and Maya watches him recede. Veer’s visits become more erratic, his trysts with Maya more public even as she grows more suspicious of him. Lovelorn Charu decamps one night in search of her beloved, the election campaigning gets shrilly communal threatening the Convent and its inmates, and the English-loving administrator’s passion acquires a Nazi zeal.
The first-person narrative through Maya is both engaging and vexing. Maya is a keen observer, of nature and people, as she limns the life of her small hill town where “the sky is circumscribed. Its fluid blue is cupped in the palm of a hand whose fingers are the mountains around us. Here is where sky begins and ends, and if there are other places, they have skies different from our sky.”
Yet, there is a veil that separates Maya from the reader. With Veer, Maya has once again fallen in love with a man whom mountains beckon away from her. We understand her frustration but don’t feel it much as she alternates between guilt and bliss, visiting Michael’s grave when Veer disappears as is his custom, probing him on his mysterious snooping around the Diwan’s house before melting in his arms.
Roy deploys weather adeptly as the misty cool of ethereal Part 1 yields to the heat of summer followed by the deluge of monsoon in corporeal Part 2. A fine storyteller, she seems weighted by the compulsions of plot in the latter half of the book, which give it a stagey feel divvying the narrative into two phases: Before Cryptic Veer and After Diwan’s Decline.
The story ratchets to a sensationalist denouement that seems at odds with the rest of the novel. Perhaps Roy should have set up some of the snares early in the narrative to prevent Ranikhet and its residents collapsing like a house of cards in the end.