Silken threads of cruelty and kindness

By Carroll du Chateau

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This first novel of Indian writer Anuradha Roy follows the fortunes of a Bengali family living in the first half of the 20th century, before Bengal became Bangladesh and West Bengal.

It is a skilfully, yet loosely written story, full of beautifully observed detail that subtly points to and weaves the bigger political picture.

Roy throws out a handful of silken threads, then pulls them together to create a tapestry of the lives of three generations through a series of unexpected and mysterious sub-plots. Each small fragment of the family's story has its place. Each tells of its moment in time, but also helps build a picture of 50 years of Indian history that touches the heart with far more power than the ordinary narrative.

For Western readers, the names, characteristics and behaviour of the various characters of this so-believable family are hard to fix on. There's the strange father figure Amulya, and his wife Kanabula who goes mad from boredom and loneliness after being uprooted from her family in Calcutta as a young bride.

Her two sons and, eventually, her daughters-in-law, do little to alleviate the tedium. Her only excitement is watching the antics of the English couple next door, Digby Barnum and his much younger, more liberated, wife.

Kanabala must stay home while her husband has a career he adores and a full social life.

Meanwhile Mrs Barnum, in the British tradition, accompanies her husband to parties and dances and dinners. But the boredom catches up with her too. Roy describes with depressing accuracy the quiet decay of a town once bustling with expat English businessmen. Then there is the not-so-quiet crumbling - and surprise saving - of a once-glorious house built too close to the river.

After a beginning and central section that follow the lives of several other pretenders, the story settles on Makunda, the illegitimate child of a tribal woman who is connected to the family through one of Amulya's father's servants, the narrator of the novel's third and final part.

An orphan, Makunda is casteless and has no religion. And when it becomes obvious he is getting too close to Bakul, the motherless daughter of the family, he is sent to Calcutta to find his own way. There he is befriended by an older couple who take him in. By then he is working for a corrupt property developer. The couple give him their beloved and beautiful house to live in, then accept it with the calmness of saints when he sells it behind their backs.

All this is enlivened by the beauty of Roy's writing. You can almost feel the boredom of a hot, breathless afternoon in Songarah. You can imagine the water relentlessly seeping into the house in Manoharpur while Bakul's mother waits, far from her husband, for their baby daughter to arrive.

And by the end you are no longer surprised by the cruelty of some characters, the incredible kindness of others and perhaps understand Indian culture - and its people - a little better than before.

An atlas of Impossible Longing
By Anuradha Roy (Maclehose Press $35)

* Carroll du Chateau is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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