The Folded Earth
Reviewed by Padmini Mongia, BIBLIO, April-May 2011
From its inspired title to its tactilely enticing cover, Anuradha Roy’s second novel demands the reader pause, slow down, savor this work. Purple, ochre, and brown mountains or folds lie above and below a central image of fossils and other nebulous remnants on the front cover; these are gently ridged, and they, along with the raised type make one want to run one’s fingers over the front before opening the book. Mountains are, of course, at the very least, folded earth. What lies beneath their folds and between the folds of the ridges and mountains that surround Ranikhet, where the novel is set, is the chief motor of Roy’s story.
Maya, the central character in the novel, and its narrator, seeks to understand, if she can, why and how she lost her husband to a remote lake called Roopkund. The lake’s mystery lies not only in its remoteness but in the bodies, skulls, arms and bracelets of the six hundred people found centuries later, people who died leaving no explanation of why and how they died. Why were there so many? How did they die? This mystery haunts Maya’s husband Michael and lures him to trek to this lake, only to lose his life there. Maya is haunted not only by the deaths of the six hundred, but also how her husband died on this trek. What happened? Nobody can tell her, and so she follows a mental picture, a picture shared by her husband in happier times, of a house he had seen and where they would live from where they could see, every morning, the “Trishul emboss itself on the sky as the sun lit its three tips one by one.” Leaving behind her home in Hyderabad, Maya moves to Ranikhet, initially to teach children in a convent school there and soon to run, in addition, the jam factory associated with the school.
Six years have passed since Michael’s death, when the events shared in the novel unfold. Maya’s closest relations in Ranikhet are Diwan Sahib, on whose estate she rents a small cottage, and Charu, the peasant girl, who used to be Maya’s student at St. Hilda’s. The quiet Maya cherishes—mornings at the school and factory, afternoons reading the newspaper to Diwan Sahib, and evenings nursing rum in her own little cottage—is shattered by the arrival of Veer, another mountaineer and Diwan Sahib’s relative. Eventually, Veer and Maya are drawn to each other in a love which bears the promise of mature fruition. But second love is rarely uncomplicated and Roy’s characters are too nuanced and textured for such a placid unfolding of life.
Mountains entice men in this novel, and Michael and Veer are drawn to them with a hopeless love that makes it necessary for them to leave Maya. Maya realizes she cannot compete with this love and she waits patiently for her men to return to her. Michael doesn’t, and her young life is thrown off its track when she is only twenty-five. Her second love, Veer, offers much more difficult comfort from the start, so that her story in these pages is essentially her own and those of the secondary cast of characters in whose lives she is involved. Charu is delightful and sketched vividly in her young love, her innocence, and her significant strength. Her grandmother, Ama, a more prickly character, is nevertheless a very likeable one and the repository of a brisk, intelligent wisdom. Each of the characters with the smaller parts such as Puran, Mr. Chauhan, Qureshi, the General, and Miss Wilson is drawn with quick, precise strokes so that each one is real in their particularities as they negotiate their lives in these hills. Nor are human beings our only concern in this novel. Quite deliberately, Roy is attentive to the animal life, quickly disappearing, that shares these hills with the human inhabitants. The figure of Corbett rightly looms large in this novel; not only is Diwan Sahib working on a biography of the famed hunter but Corbett’s knowledge and respect for the hills and the lives they nurture is repeatedly brought to our attention.
The British who recreated their Scotlands in Ranikhet left behind a set of structures and relations that continue a post-independence life in certain predictable ways. Sahibs have their butlers and waiting staff, gardens bloom with particular flowers reminiscent of homes on other continents, and houses are tended and maintained in precise ways. In urban India, the changes taking place are so rapid and so enormous that traces of life as it may have been lived a hundred years ago have to be specifically sought in particular places and contexts. Not so in Ranikhet, although here too change is obvious. Local elections are taking place in the course of the events that unfold in this novel, and the rightward trend that has marked Indian politics these last decades is obvious here to the pain of several characters involved with its crude assertion.
While the novel is narrated in the first-person by Maya, she is curiously shielded as if she doesn’t want to share with the reader a deeper life she surely lives. The central fact of Maya’s life speaks of great spunk: at nineteen she chooses marriage outside her community to a Christian which leads her to leave the father who adored her and who raised her to be the heiress to his six pickle factories. After Michael’s death, we admire Maya’s strength that refuses to let her apologize to her father in an apology that would be false, but the fact of this choice remains a detail rather than leading to an exploration of an inner emotional state. Because Maya seems to shield herself from herself, there is a compulsion in her actions the reader searches for and does not find. Don’t get me wrong. Maya will surprise you; the “stick-thin coffee-colored girl,” as she describes herself, packs quite a few punches for which nothing prepare you.
Perhaps because the novel is as concerned with human plots as it is with a place, Maya’s story is pulled away from her. As much as Roy details Maya’s widowhood and tenuous embrace of life in the present rather than the past, The Folded Earth is a novel about the mountains, about small towns, and about Ranikhet, in particular. Like other Indian novels in English that are specific to a particular place (I am thinking of the very regionally concerned novels of Amitav Ghosh), this one is firmly a regional novel even as its characters are gathered from scattered geographies. Steering away from the criticism often leveled against Indian writing in English, which critics claim is aspecific and unanchored, Roy’s novel is very much a novel of the mountains and of the Kumaon in particular. From its hand-drawn map on the inside cover, reminiscent of Hardy’s Wessex, this novel is driven by the seemingly small things that compel life in a small town. Although there is a predictable cast of “loony” characters such as Puran, the dhobi, and others, Roy manages to steer the novel away from being too driven by “local color” and the oddities of her characters.
Just as Roy converses with nineteenth-century British forbears in her regional interests, she also converses with many women writers who have examined the trials of women’s lives unfolding without the comforts of husband and family. I hear echoes of Anita Brookner and Edna O’Brien and other writers like them as Roy brings her Maya and her travails to life. Roy does so without slipping into that dreaded category “women’s fiction.” Roy writes beautifully, and because she does this is not a novel that can be read in a rush. Wonderfully precise phrases such as “the narrow spiral staired road,” “the air is clear enough to drink,” “swallows knife through the air,” or the “chirring of cicadas” bring the sounds and sights of Ranikhet and its surrounding mountains to accurate life.
Maya learns to love mountains, as her husband Michael told her she would, and the reader grows to respect if not love the qualities of small-town life Roy creates. Protected by the mountains and the army, Ranikhet is almost a relic. Almost. Mr. Chauhan finds its methods infinitely frustrating and tries to jerk the town into his version of modernity through the emblazoning of rhyming slogans all over the hills. Tiresome signs like “Keep Your Side, Don’t go Wide,” “Enjoy Thrills, of the Hills” are painted on rock faces and Puran, the town’s local idiot is singled out by Chauhan for cruel repackaging into the acceptable. But Puran is Corbett’s purest descendant and he eludes the efforts of Chauhan and his men. Dirty, unkempt, simple he emits sounds more animal than human. His relationship to the mountains where he grazes his goats and cattle and from where he rescues the fawn of a barking deer or an orphaned owl emerges as the wisdom this novel mourns. Puran’s knowledge—local and precise--is fast disappearing. Corbett knew its value, Diwan Sahib did, and so does Maya. But Ranikhet, remote and particular, is nevertheless buffeted by the forces of change, not least by the startling actions of our quiet widow who has become a “hill-person who was only at peace where the earth rose and fell in waves like the sea.”