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A Classical Rendition

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Maya, the narrator of The Folded Earth, is in her twenties. She has fled Hyderabad for the cantonment of Ranikhet in the lower hills of the Himalayas because the city of her birth has sad memories for her - a love-marriage devastatingly cut short by her mountaineer husband's death and strained relations with her parents. She settles in Ranikhet as a tenant on Diwan Sahib's estate and begins to teach the local school.

A love story is always welcome. A love story, as delicately and sensitively told as this one by Anuradha Roy is rare. Not every novelist is able to achieve the fine balance between telling a good story and weaving into it several kinds of love without disturbing the narrative pace. There's passionate love between couples (Maya and Michael, Charu and Kundan,  Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten), fickle love (Maya and Veer), parental love (Maya's mother for her estranged daughter, Ama for her granddaughter, Charu and Diwan Sahib's quiet fondness for his son), tender love for animals as if they were members of the family (Charu's for her cow, Gouri;  the simpleton Puran's for his fawn Rani) or the affection for an elder, such as  Diwan Sahib's friends have for him which makes them look after him when he is ill. 

Polishing two inches of ivory is a tough task especially when the novel deals with routine, every day existence in which nothing dramatic happens; yet there are subtle shifts from one day to the next, like the changing equations between Charu and Miss Wilson or between Charu and the Diwan.  The richness of this story lies in representing the thing-ness of things. For instance, Charu would every day, upon her return from school, buy the newspaper and help type Diwan Sahib's manuscript. But one day she discovers that the vendor has been instructed to deliver the paper directly to Diwan Sahib's home; a simple detail which nonetheless marks a shift in Diwan Sahib's relationship with Charu. The minute description of the flowers conveys the absolute harmony that Sanki Puran finds in nature. The forest around Puran was stabbed here and there by the first scarlet explosions of rhododendron and there was a white cloud of plum blossoms not far from him. Those patches of colour apart, his clothes merged so perfectly with the green and brown of the foliage that nobody else had noticed him.

The Folded Earth is like a Jane Austen novel, with its sense of bustling activity in the immediate surroundings and beyond, conveyed via conversations, or people travelling through the town, but the focus remains firmly on a few characters. It makes the novel seem deceptively simple with a pleasant but staid and placid tempo. Like Jane Austen, Roy too has strong women protagonists who represent the breadth of socio-economic classes. They have their moments of folly, but Roy makes it clear that these are exceptional women who have the confidence to make choices, abide by their decisions and their consequences. Both wealthy Maya and impoverished Charu, elope with and marry men of their choosing.

Anuradha Roy has the grace and generosity to listen to the people she observes, which must be why her characters seem so real. Ama, for example, mother of Puran and grandmother of Charu, is a tenant on Diwan Singh's estate, and the main breadwinner of her family. She is also the town gossip who can be inquisitive about Maya's status as a spinster and bitch with relish about the affair of a young girl in town.  But  she is blissfully unaware of her own Charu's love for Kundan, Mr. Chauhan the Administrator's bearer. And yet, as Maya discovers, Ama can be implicitly trusted to keep a precious secret.

One of the pleasures of The Folded Earth is its plenitude of fictional and real minor characters - George the engine driver-turned-cook, mountaineers Frank Smythe, Edmund Hillary, and Bill Aitken, innumerable scholars of Indian history and wildlife  who visit Diwan Sahib, Mr. Qureshi and the retired army officers, Miss Wilson's brother who works for DivineLite in Orissa, and  the politician from Nainital who had won election after election promising to serve the Hindu cause. Umed Singh was said to be a battle-hardened, canny politician ... . The list is long, varied and interesting. 

Contemporary fiction is focusing more and more on the ordinary life of ordinary people in metropolises. Small towns are disappearing from fiction as rapidly as they are from the landscape.  The Folded Earth stands out for its excellent picture of a small town in the Himalayan foothills. Many of the recent novels and short stories are pleasant to read, but they are rarely as nuanced as this one. Even more rarely do they have such a wonderfully choreographed cast of characters, each one imagined as a person rather than a flat caricature. This absorbing novel is never dull, not even in the dangerous middle part of a novel that is so often the litmus test for any book. The Folded Earth is pure pleasure, that old fashioned sort of novel in which one can immerse oneself; an absolute treat.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is a publishing consultant