This week we're reading Anuradha Roy's AN ATLAS OF IMPOSSIBLE LONGING. We were introduced to the book by the esteemed publisher Christopher Maclehose, whose imprint at Quercus Books (UK) has just published the book in the UK.
ATLAS is a beautifully written multi-generational saga that, oddly, is reminding us, in its charting of the centrifugal forces acting upon a family, of "The Cherry Orchard." This excerpt below has been lent to TMP by the author herself:
“Look, a skeleton!” one of my workmen exclaimed.
However busy I was, and however many buildings I was building, I always supervised each one’s first day of digging. That day I sat on a tin folding chair on the building site, shaded by my usual large, black umbrella by then so worn out that the sun came in through its many minute holes as if through a salt cellar. The week before we had cleared out the last of the debris from the crumbling mansion we had demolished, and work on the foundations of a new building had just begun. I had been arguing with my manager about some detail in his accounts when I heard the workman’s voice: “Look, a skeleton!” After a pause I heard another labourer snort with disappointment, “Hah, just a dog or cat, Nandu, carry on.”
I looked into the tumbled earth and, within a tangle of bleached weed roots, I saw an almost perfectly preserved brownish skeleton of what must have been a dog, with the mouldy remains of a blanket and an aluminium dish from which it must have eaten all its life. I sat on a stone next to the grave filled with disproportionate grief for this dog I had not known, for the family that buried its dish and blanket with it because they could not bear to part the dog from its possessions. I thought without reason of the children that may have pranced around with the dog in that vanished mansion’s garden.
There was a house once whose garden I knew, every last tree, and where the stairs had chipped away and which of the windows would not shut. The ophthalmologist asked me once, “Do foreign bodies ever interfere with your vision? Floating black specks?” And I thought, not bodies, houses, and not foreign, ground into my blood.
“Shall we carry on, Babu?” the labourer had enquired after a bemused pause. The sight of me sitting practically in the dirt next to the dog’s grave had startled him.
I could not imagine shovelling the dog out with its things like the rest of the rubbish we were daily heaping into trucks and sending away.
Eight families now live in slabs, one on top of the other, over those bones and the dish, which I planted deep in the foundations. They know nothing of it, naturally; skeletons have no place in new apartments.
People are afraid of ghosts in old houses. I know it’s the new ones that are haunted, by the crumbling homes they replace. Old houses don’t go away. They lurk crumbling and musty, their cobweb-hung rooms still brooding over the angled corners of shining new kitchens and marbled bathrooms, their gardens and stairwells still somewhere there in the elevator shafts.
Left to myself – despite my profession – I would let old houses remain exactly as my memory told me they always had been. Termites would write their stories across ceilings and walls, their wavering lines mapping out eventual destruction. Once the termites had dissolved the houses, returned them to the earth, a natural cycle would be complete.
I know all about houses and homes, I who never had one.
I am Mukunda. This is my story.