I imagine being Anuradha Roy would be a frustrating experience. No doubt people constantly think she is Arundhati Roy, and while positive comparisons may be flattering, the ineviable “I’m the other Roy” would be soul crushing. Of course, with The Folded Earth, Anuradha has beaten Arundhati for number of novels published, so that’s nice. But is this novel good enough for Anuradha to become the famous Roy? Certainly the judges of this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize think so.
An horrific event sends Maya from her life in the city to the foothills of the Himalaya, to a town called Ranikhet. Slowly, she builds a life amongst the other people already living there – from Diwan Sahib, an eccentric old academic with whom she helps organise papers; Miss Wilson, the principal of the Catholic school at which she works, and Charu, a young girl who lives in the neighbouring cottage. But life in the mountains is never as peaceful as Maya had once hoped, and a new arrival will force her to confront her past.
First things first – Roy has an excellent command of language, and her descriptions and evocations of a part of the world where few people live and where the natural world reigns supreme are gorgeous. More than anything else, this contributes to a sense of space that I felt keenly. Rainikhet, too, is brought to life with verve, and the clash of ramshakle tradition with people from new money with new ideas is highlighted in the geography of the town, complete with a little map in the front flap so you can easily follow the action.
The people that populate Ranikhet, though, are what make it what it is. This is a town full of eccentrics – starting with the old man himself, Diwan Shaib. As the stereotypical old man, he manages to yell at a lot of people, though it is clear he has a soft spot for Maya. When his nephew, Veer, comes back into town, it is clear Diwan is looking for a relation to lean on. The (and I use this term very loosely) mystery at the centre of the novel is whether Veer is simply using the old man to get at his supposed fortune, or whether he truly wants to get closer. There is also an awkward romance with Maya, and there is (again, a loose term) a twist at the end of the tale which reveals both Veer’s true intentions, as well as the discovery of a link to Maya she didn’t know existed.
I wanted to love Maya as a character, honest. Those opening pages, with her dealing with Michael’s death, and the complete rejection by her parents simply because he was Christian (an important reminder that, a lot of the time, racism goes both ways), highlight just how much potential Roy has as a writer. In many ways, you could take those opening few chapters, turn them into a short story, and have a solid, good story. Unfortunately, though, the rest of the novel fails to live up to this high standard. The plot becomes fractured, and while the majority is written in the first person, from Maya’s perspective, there are occasional jaunts into omniscient third, where we follow Charu. These are unnecessary and, in the end, jarring. There aren’t enough of these third person chapters to warrant a two narrator novel, and they stick out like a sore thumb.
Questions of love, and of female identity, are somewhere in here. Maya and Charu both fall in love with men that have the unfortunate honour of being intensely disliked by their lady friend’s parents simply because of their standing in society. For Michael, this is a question of religion, and for Charu, it is a question of employment. Apart from Maya, and one female cop, the female characters in The Folded Earth are constantly put down, highlighting the “traditional” role that women seem to play in this culture. It is up to people like Miss Wilson to educate the young women of the town, but the unfortunate political climate pits Christians against Hindus, and her work is less than admired by the external politicans blowing in.
As I said earlier, the strength of this novel is the writing itself. Anuradha Roy clearly loves language, and I love reading her language. But her characters and plot are messy, and fractured. The Folded Earth suffers from trying to be a widescreen novel in a 4:3 ratio. The vast cast of characters are never given enough room to breathe on their own, and as such the message of the book is lost. I’m not usually one to advocate longer novels, but if this were twice the size, it might be better. Alternatively, had Roy separated out her narrative strands and given them their own section, each one may have been stronger. Nevertheless, I’m curious to see what she does next.