Monday, 6 August 2018
Thapa could skim pebbles on any water surface and if there existed an Olympic medal for such a sport, he would have won it. After all, he hailed from a very poor part of Nepal where rocks and pebbles were the only objects in abundance. Just like Thapa, Shubhangi Swarup is also a champion skimmer and her literary pebble skims across various lives and continents, eras and fault-lines, creating an astonishingly good debut novel.
When Pangaea the supercontinent began to break apart around 175 million years ago, various land masses were created and they drifted apart, only to ram into other landmasses, thus forming new mountains, valleys and even continents, reforming Gaia as it existed them. Some of the collisions even created pebbles, possibly the pebbles which Thapa skimmed across waterbodies in Rangoon, like ducks. Did Shubhangi Swarup also help herself to one of those pebbles, which she has skimmed across four epochs, to create Latitudes of Longing, a work of fiction which is not only very good literature, but also a very good read?
Swarup takes us to the Andamans just after India’s independence, where Girija Prasad, a civil servant educated in Britain, lives, with his clairvoyant wife Chanda Devi, who dies in childbirth. Chanda Devi can talk to trees and see ghosts all the time and it is not surprising that their daughter is a female Mowgli. Rose Mary, an ethnic Karen girl handpicked (or rather rescued) by Chanda Devi to be their maid servant, helps Girija Prasad bring up his daughter who is packed off to a boarding school in the snowy Himalayas when she is of an appropriate age.
Thapa goes to the Andamans in search of Mary to tell her that her son Plato (whom she had abandoned as an infant) is imprisoned in Myanmar by the Junta and so, off she leaves the Andamans to see her son and possibly rescue him from his captors. Having helped Mary locate Plato, Thapa goes to Kathmandu where he finds (or rather rescues) Bagmati, a bar dancer (who might strip if the money is right).
Swarup’s pebble then lands in a no-man’s land between India and Pakistan in the Himalayas (not far from Kargil and Siachen), amidst the Drakpo tribe. Apo, the village elder is agile and active, though very old. He loves Ghazala, a Kashmiri woman, amost as old as him, as much as he detests the mechanical threshing machine which a Kashmiri trader has sold to his family. When Apo goes to do battle with the trader, he discovers that his love interest Ghazala is the enemy's grandmother. A new chapter begins for Apo and Ghazala.
When I started wondering what happened to Girija Prasad’s clan, I ran into Rana, a scientist, embedded with Indian soldiers posted on Siachen, analysing glaciers, talking to plants kept in a greenhouse and trying to figure out if the Himalayas are sinking or rising. Rana is Girija Prasad’s grandson.
Swarup is a very good story teller and keeps the yarn spinning at a fast, even pace. Of all characters, I liked Rose Mary the most, her natural rescilience and beauty amidst so much personal tragedy and grief, an amazing counterfoil to the convulsions around her. Latitudes of Longing is not a thriller, and is not even meant to be one and hence the description, unputdownable, would not be apt. However, I did finish this 300-odd page book over a weekend and enjoyed it thoroughly. Swarup’s language is unapologetically beautiful and lyrical and one gets a sense that a new star is on the horizon.