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An Atlas of Impossible Longing, by Anuradha Roy

A history at risk as the waters rise

Deftly and sensitively narrated, this first novel is the story of three generations of a Bengali family and Mukunda, the illegitimate child of a tribal woman, who became from the age of six a part of their lives. The events span the first 50 years of the 20th century; and in the three sections of the book, the last spoken by Mukunda, the narrative is punctuated with key dates which link loosely the family's history with that of modern India.

Anuradha Roy's approach is skilfully managed. Pointing towards momentous public events, she also skirts them to focus upon the hidden lives of her characters. These are people outside the mainstream, often self-centred in their desires , yet touched into humanity by promptings to kindness and generosity.

When Amulya settled in Songarh - a small town with little of interest apart from a ruined medieval fort, mica ores and coal mines – the house he built, 3 Duganj Road, was an assertion of his yearning for isolation. Turning its back on the road, and Songarh itself, to face the south and the forest, it was a "secretive" house, with a silence so insistent that his wife, Kananbala, was driven to find "solace in talking to herself". Yet Amulya, who failed to understand the source of his wife's strange afflictions, would tend her each noon and evening, telling her of the day's news, to which she would respond with a sensible comment or the occasional obscenity.

Where Roy's narrative can be said to falter occurs in the final section, "The Water's Edge". According to the novel's dust jacket, this is "a love story". But one wonders if the passion between Mukunda and Bakul is entirely convincing, given that the middle portion is chiefly taken up with the velleities of the relationship between Nirmal, Amulya's son, and Meera, a young widow, and with the eccentric ways of Mrs Barnum the neighbour. Lightly delineated, the deep intimacy Mukunda claims to be the driving force behind his actions, as free of caste and religion he sets out to make himself in Calcutta, never seems anything more than the fond companionship of two lonely children.

That reservation apart, An Atlas of Impossible Longing is an attractive work. This is particularly the case in its imaginative rendering of time. Several strata make themselves apparent. There are the huge ideas of geological time evoked in the image of the mounds behind the ruined fort; there are the humdrum indications of change such as the marks of decay affecting the house; and there are, powerfully present in the landscape, the descriptions of the movements of the river in Manoharpur as it advances upon "the drowned house", in which Bakul's mother had died while giving birth and which she now inherits - the house in constant danger before the shifting and rising water. Behind Roy's novel must surely be the words of TS Eliot: "In succession/ Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,/ Are removed, destroyed, restored".

Shirley Chew is emeritus professor of English at Leeds University