Welcome back to Stephanie, my BFF and the only person I know who reads more than me (and she has two kids and a huge job)!
Unlike Andrea, our blog hostess with the mostest, I am NOT all things Indian. That said, when I found this book while surfing book reviews (my favorite past time after reading), my attention was grabbed and I just had to read it. An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy is the story of a house in rural Bengal and the three generations of family that occupy it beginning in 1907.
There is the patriarch, Amulya, who is a maker of perfumes and medicines using native herbs and plants. There is Kananbala, the matriarch, who, after decades of loneliness living in this pastoral setting, slowly sinks into a madness that evidences itself by a foul mouth that Kananbala and her family never knew she had.
To her husband – ‘”You dandy, who’re you f***** these days? Is it a Brahmo lady in a georgette sari?”‘
To her daughter-in-law – ‘”What a voice . . . You whore, why don’t you get a job on the streets?”‘
To Bakul, her small granddaughter – “Bakul had picked up a rich store of curses from her . . . the lisping toddler traded curses with the old woman and giggled with delight. If Kananbala called her a pat of cow***, Bakul call her an old donkey . . .”
There is the second son, Nirmal who is the widowed father of Bakul, who shares an attraction with the Meera, the widow Nirmal engaged to care for Bakul after the death of Bakul’s mother in childbirth. After the death of his wife, Nirmal takes up a nomadic life as an archeologist –
” . . . having provided Bakul with a mother who was not a mother and a brother who was not a brother, Nirmal had thought his duty done and made good his escape.”
And then there are Bakul and Mukunda. Bakul is a headstrong child but with a soft center resulting from the death of her mother.
“Bakul had her own tin too, which she kept under a layer of saris in her grandmother’s trunk. She opened it on days she needed reassurance . . . there was a large, frayed envelope in it, from which she took out a picture. It showed a house. Her mother’s house.” Mukunda is an orphan brought home by Nirmal after Amulya’s death revealed Amulya’s support for this boy in an orphanage since birth. “His place in the family was an ambiguous one. He ate their food, but on a demarcated plate; he lived in their home now, but in a room out in the courtyard; they gave him clothes, but hand-me-downs; he had homework, but he also had household chores.” These two grow up together, falling into an evolving and deep love, and are then torn apart by age old fears of a possible inappropriate relationship.
There are some great quotes in this book. Kananbala goes on a picnic with her neighbor, Mrs. Barnum. Neither speaks the same language so when Kananbala begins babbling ‘”Slut, whore, daughter of the devil, syphilitic hen”‘, Mrs. Barnum responds “Pity we can’t understand each other . . . we’d have a jolly time.”‘
And a visit to an astrologer produces ‘”A veritable atlas,” he said, his fingers tracing the longer lines on my palm. What rivers of desires, what mountains of ambitions . . . want, want, hope, hope,” the astrologer parroted, ‘this is what your palm says too, moshai[sir], your palm is nothing but an atlas of impossible longings.” He poked my lifeline and said, “Nothing but longing.”‘
In the end, it is Mukunda’s story of his love for Bakul and his struggle to return to her and the house in Bengal. It is a great story!
Simon and Schuster provided a review copy of this book for this post. All opinions are my own.
What are you reading and where are you going?