14 May 2011

the folded earth by Anuradha Roy

Love, hunger and death in an idyllic location
My first feeling as I started reading this book was a rising admiration for the author’s skill as I got drawn into the story. My second was embarrassment, at the memory of having mistaken it after a cursory glance at the author’s name and the pointedly environmental feel of the cover, for yet another tome of screechy pseudo-development ranting by Arundhati Roy, which had caused me to relegate it to the “no thank you” heap for weeks.

This books is set in Ranikhet. The heroine is Maya, a young woman from Andhra Pradesh with a tragedy behind her. She starts a new life here and this is her story and the story of the people she becomes involved with. There’s the Diwan Sahib, her landlord, once Munim of the Nawab of Surajgarh until the princedom acceded to India after Independence – but not before the Diwan himself had been arrested by the Nawab for treason. There’s the lovely young milkmaid Charu with a poignant story of her own. Maya’s parents and her husband feature in the story too, though we never actually meet them. Maya herself, as Anuradha Roy said in answer to a question I asked, is:
A rich, educated man's daughter. She has had a good education herself; she is a highly intelligent, untraditional woman who is a reader of all kinds of books and is in the constant company of man who is learned and cosmopolitan and with whom one of the things she does daily is read the international pages of the newspaper.Maya's mind has a way of wandering and making strange connections. She gets distracted easily, she often doesn’t focus when people are speaking. She thinks a great deal about her past and about other people, and this creates a prismatic sense of time so that her life with her father and then her husband become part of the present time of the narrative.
With the Himalaya in the backdrop, one of the major background themes of this book is trekking and mountain tourism. Hill life is well described and the flavour of a cantonment town, its local politics and loutish politicians enticingly caricatured. By the time I finished it, I felt a bit as if I’d lived ten years in Ranikhet too, as Anuradha Roy told me she has.

The Folded Earth also has stories from the life of Jim Corbett, from the turbulent times soon after India’s Independence, something about the relationship between Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru, and a heart-wrenching twist at the end.

This book is beautifully written and its story both gripping and plausible. I admired the author’s choice of issues to use as background. One of the things that upset me, though, was a cameo appearance by Ramachandra Guha, a real person and a respected historian, without any disclaimer or acknowledgement.
When I asked Anuradha Roy, she replied,
Ram is an old friend and he is an author we have published at Permanent Black. In the novel, Ram Guha is another of the scholars who arrive to meet the Diwan, in this case a scholar genuinely worried about the safety of valuable documents. The novel throughout plays around quite a bit at blurring the lines between fact and fiction and this is another instance. People who know Ranikhet spot many more instances beyond even the Corbett and Mountbatten angles. Plus for me, it's a private joke, of which too there are plenty in the book. As a writer yourself, you know we are entitled to have some fun while writing!
Now the thing I like best about Ramachandra Guha, even more than the quality of his work, is the fact that instead of using all the attention he gets from the media to transform into a rockstar, he has applied his common sense and clarity of thought not just in his writing but also in his personal life and remained a relaxed, unpretentious person. So I suppose to be drawn by a peer as a fictionalised character alongside Jawaharlal Nehru is more than a joke, it’s a compliment.
I then asked Anuradha Roy whether she was often mistaken for Arundhati Roy and how she dealt with it, and she replied,
Yes, particularly foreigners often mistake me for Arundhati Roy. There is a whole review of my first book on Goodreads that reviews it as her second book. Imagine the fate of the novelist Elizabeth Taylor. And there was another novelist called Winston Churchill...

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