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Worldly Calculations and Extraordinary Visions


Nivedita Sen

AN ATLAS OF IMPOSSIBLE LONGINGS
By Anuradha Roy
Picador, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 305, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXXIII NUMBER 6 June 2009

The metaphorical ‘atlas’ that describes the hand/ life/ character of Mukunda, the protagonist of this debut novel, can hardly subsume the ‘impossible longings’, the ‘pining for what is not’ that is also attributed to him. Notionally covering vast spaces and unexplored terrains, an atlas, with its taxonomical rigour in pigeonholing within precise longitudes and latitudes the names of countries, oceans, mountains et al, cannot contain the play of human imagination bursting at the seams that Mukunda exemplifies. But the seemingly erratic, somewhat inconsistent wording of the title is justified not only because it is understandably mouthed by an inarticulate astrologer in a dingy chamber. Heterogeneous inputs like lexical simplification and limitless creative possibilities, materialist concerns and a concurrently inexhaustible ability to dream, sleazy business and the pangs of romantic yearning, are yoked together, not by violence, but quite smoothly, effortlessly and credibly in the text. The concurrence and identical agenda of seedy pursuits and an unsullied, everlasting love, the destructive potential of filthy slums and profuse natural phenomena, the brute facts and liberating fantasies encased within the squalid bylanes of Kolkata as well as rural bowers of bliss merge to document a slice of life spanning the twenties to the fifties in vivid minutiae of detail.   The novel itself is ‘a veritable atlas’ in its panoramic ‘mapping’ of the myriad fantasies of its major characters who are simultaneously mired in the reality of their condition. The visionary sweep of Mukunda’s mind is ironically encapsulated in the static, lifeless images embedded in two other atlas-like artifacts.   The glass globe and the paperweight with the little red-roofed cottage and surrounding snowfall in Mrs. Barnum’s house are Mukunda’s window to the wide world. He is also the only character at Songarh (apart from Nirmal whose exotic jaunts and archaeological excavations are not charted) who is compelled to navigate his way out of the local and the provincial. Relocating himself after this destabilization, however, he merely manages to eke out a not-very-respectable subsistence as a builder’s assistant.   Faced with the prospect of demolishing the house in Manoharpur whose legatee is Bakul, his childhood companion/ sweetheart, and the insular house that had nurtured both Bakul and him and awakened and energized his virtually incestuous passion for her, he foregoes his attachment to another house that has been a very important signpost and support for him. This house does not belong to ...


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