REVIEW OF THE FOLDED EARTH
BY MANJU KAK. author of Requiem for an Unsung Revolutionary and First Light in Colonelpura
It was with curiosity that I first began reading The Folded Earth. After all it was about a few square miles of Kumaon I intimately knew — Ranikhet. And how many of us did! Since then, I have been unable to put it down.
No, it’s not the grieving widow Maya’s story that moves me; her loss of beloved Michael Secuira in a mountaineering accident at Roopkund lake. Nor do I relate to the overpowering attraction she has for her landlord, Diwan Saheb’s peripatetic nephew, Veer. For me the earth unfolds in the novel’s quieter moments that tell the chill tale of North India’s decaying hill stations. What will become of them? Will the relentless tyranny of the ‘Indian Gormint’s’ poor planning prevail? In this lament Roy joins the company of writers such as Allan Sealy whose elegiac novel — The Everest Hotel — was set in the adjacent Garhwal hills.
With the tenacity of an archaeologist, Roy digs into Ranikhet’s mica-laced soil to ask: are the rarefied worlds of colonial hill stations really falling apart as they grapple with inept modernity? But authorial judgments are withheld and it is in the unarticulated moments that the novel’s genius lies.
Quietly, almost subconsciously, the centrifugal force of the novel’s trajectory moves into Maya’s neighbor — Ama’s household. Both live on the periphery of the erstwhile Diwan of Surajgarh’s crumbling estate known as the Lighthouse. It is Roy’s exquisitely nuanced portraits of Ama’s challenged son, sanki Puran, her husband — the Diwan’s retainer — Himmat Singh, and granddaughter Charu, that provide the central motif for this. Maya’s well-intentioned literacy lessons to Charu ultimately propel her to escape the typical pahari girl’s future. In an effort to decipher cook, Kundan Singh’s love-letters to her, Charu steps into a new world.
Much of Roy’s craft is seen in her juxtaposition of just such small and seemingly inconsequential narratives set against the backdrop of ‘grand’ destiny. Kundan’s humble epistles find an echo in the more significant love-notes of Nehru to Edwina Mountbatten that reputedly lie in the safe custody of Diwan sahib — out of the grasp of sundry visiting scholars.
In consonance with her first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, Roy continues to unravel this lesser charted small town terrain with more certitude than perhaps a sociologist.
Through the satirical cameos — of Mr Chauhan, the Cantonment’s corrupt `Administrator’— writer of catchy slogans and avowedly determined to put Ranikhet on the tourist map; the legacy of Convent Education in St Hilda’s; its typical Principal, Miss Agnes Wilson; the electoral challenge faced by stalwart Hindu fundamentalist politician, Ummed Singh from young wool-merchant Ankit Rawat —the reader discovers how the times are changing. As Diwan Saheb says in his annual speech at St. Hilda’s where Maya teaches, ‘That is the forest now—it is a park, it is what is called a resource, a factory. It belongs neither to the people who owned it before, nor to the animals and plants that lived in it… You wanted me to call their calls for you—but I’ve forgotten their voices now. They have no voices any longer.’ Is his the mere voice of a dying man lamenting the loss of his world?
Soon cracks appear in the folded earth. Disparate stories come together to unpeel the essential truth of contemporary lives. Then suddenly, with the force of a tsunami, nature rebels, vomits what it cannot endure, and moves on with quiet ruthlessness. Ama’s shrewd assessment of Veer, the discovery of the Diwan’s treasure trove of papers, and Maya’s final deliverance from mourning happen in swift succession. And Roy scores a sixer. Almost as if with a quiet laugh she nudges the reader — you call this fiction!
At one level Roy’s prose resonates with the subtle strains of a mournful dirge for the Kumaon hills. At another, its Pickwickian humour infuses the charm of a 19th century English novel. For certain Roy doesn’t try to showcase her treasures; she simply says, this is what I see, and that is what I found.
A MUCH SHORTENED version of this review appears in Outlook, here.