Imagine, if you will, that a story is a creature. Human, animal, or something else, it doesn’t matter. Just a creature that is being asked to do the author’s bidding. (You are forewarned that this analogy could fall apart at any point; there is no need to get attached to it.)
In the first and longest of four parts of this particular story called Latitudes of Longing, by ShubhangiSwarup, the creature is not merely acquiescent, not merely obliging, but positively, beautifully devoted. Sentences have a lyrical quality, at times soothing like water at the lake’s edge, at others, startling like the ocean spray. Thoughts appear like sparkling gems: “Islands are mindless chatter in a meditative ocean.” The words force you to sit up and take notice, savour the images they evoke. The story guides you through the Andaman Islands with the intrepid, mild-mannered, Oxford-educated botanist, Girija Prasad, and his clairvoyant wife, Chanda Devi, who sees ghosts and talks to trees. Without other characters to distract us, we are allowed to assimilate gently like one of the many insubstantial ghosts that reside on the islands. Like them, we observe this unlikely couple’s relationship grow in the delicate balance between science and metaphysics, each gradually learning the other’s language as they understand the language of the islands they inhabit. “The life of an equal couple in the latitudes of longing and the longitudes of trepidation has hitherto been a rare, undocumented phenomenon — like a whale giving birth in Antarctica or white elephants mating in South Asia.”
The story allows us to care deeply for this couple and, eventually, their child. It shows us the microcosm of their world and the pull that keeps them on the islands — the spirit of place — as well as the indescribable shock of earthquakes, tsunamis and the macrocosmic, temporal and spatial expanse of Pangaea. And then the story moves on.
While quite at home in the Islands in the first part, the story is less so in the second — called ‘Faultline’ — set in the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma (now Myanmar). Here we meet Plato, son of Mary, a mostly silent caretaker at the Girija-Chanda household. Mary’s search for her son, who was taken away from her when he was an infant, moves the story slowly forward. Yet it repeatedly stalls on Plato’s musings and hallucinations as a prisoner who is relentlessly tortured by the junta for inciting revolt among university students. Here, the story, too, seems inclined to rebel as it takes on more overtly political tones and an erratic pace. The infant gecko embalmed in a piece of amber is a symbol of too many things all at once: of past and future, East and West, of the speed of geological upheaval and the trickle of resin, of movements and stasis, seeing and unseeing, and of Burmese politics. The burden is too much to bear for one so small: having withstood the collective weight of time and the surface of the planet, it collapses under the weight of meaning and metaphor.
In parts three and four — ‘Valley’ and ‘Snow Desert’ — the story decides to go off with Plato’s friend, Thapa, to Thamel, the tourist hub of Kathmandu, for a while. Haunted by a loss, Thapa finds solace in finding stories and caring for Bagmati, a stripper at a bar. Ammonites and nautiluses drift through the narrative, “Premonitions of our past … Ghosts of our future”, but seem far less potent in their presence, sacrificed to a more stilted narrative voice.
The story then leaps to a part of the Karakorams that is neither Pakistan nor India, where we are witness to an awkward octogenarian romance between village grandfather, Apo, and Ghazala, the mother of a Kashmiri trader — awkward in part because it reads too much like a young person’s idea of an octogenarian romance; not insensitive, but perceptibly inexperienced. To quote Apo, “For the youth these are tragedies of love … At my age, it is all a comedy.” There is also the hurried appearance of the scientist grandson of Girija Prasad and Chanda Devi, bringing things full circle to remind us that our Earth both destroys and nurtures, obliterates and preserves.
In its latter sections, the connections and relationships between characters become thinner and more tenuous, perhaps as a deliberate echo of the geographical distance between the Andaman Islands and the Karakoram mountains, but in the process, rendering them distant and unrelatable. Geological metaphors, planetary calamities and the epic scale of time reflected in the minutiae of the planet that were so poignant initially, now seem repetitive at best, contrived at worst. And the ease with which the supernatural wove through the lives of Girija Prasad and Chanda Devi is all but lost as the story proceeds: the cheemo or Yeti is as unsure of its role as we are of why it is there and whether the story is much improved because of it. Lyricism interspersed with political commentary sit uncomfortably in each other’s company, the former seeming a mere formality to maintain stylistic coherence without its earlier success.
To return to the analogy, the story has slipped away from the author. Any attempts to rein it in, tie up loose ends, reintroduce tropes and characters or curb its tendency to verbosity, seem insufficient. It is wilful and has too much to say about too many things without letting one’s mind or eye rest at any point, forcing us to lose focus. Nor is it able to recapture the musical refrains of its beginning. After such a unique and promising start in the islands, the story crumbles somewhere in the faultline, and by the time we reach the later sections (if you will pardon the pun) it completely loses the plot.
Latitudes of Longing