The genre of literary fiction in the Indian subcontinent has always been hard to come by. I think fondly of fiction by Ruskin Bond, Vikram Seth, and Amitav Ghosh. Then I think a little more because I want to think of women. I think of Arundhati Roy. I stay in that little bubble, re-reading The God of Small Things, over and over.
In late 2018, I chanced upon Latitudes of Longing, a debut novel by Shubhangi Swarup, a work of literary fiction by a woman from India. I read it out of hope, if nothing else, and I closed the book, finding myself with a newfound love for the subcontinent, for the land, for its magic and its myths, for the earth and its offerings. And then I read Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field earlier this year and felt it all over again. Felt the rush of a brown woman’s story being told to the rest of the world.
Latitudes of Longing was published in the US in May 2020. This crossing of borders demands attention. Swarup’s book explores the silence of the earth over centuries; and in this silence, finds a song to sing. The opening paragraph of the novel reads:
“Silence on a tropical island is the relentless sound of water. The waves, like the sound of your own breathing, never leave you. For a fortnight now, the gurgle and thunder of clouds has drowned out the waves. Rains drum on the roof and skid over the edge, losing themselves in splashes. Simmer, whip, thrum and slip. The sun is dead, they tell you. Seeded in the sounds is an elemental silence. The quietness of mist and the stillness of ice.”
I find myself pulled into a whisper, a grandmother’s bedtime story, a folktale from an era long gone, and into the pulse of the earth itself.
Latitudes of Longing uses the topography of landscapes to tell stories that reflect the topography of desire. Desire that stretches out all the way from man and woman to mother and son, man and god, and relationships that come with no name or label.
The book is divided into four distinct parts—Islands, Faultline, Valley, and Snow Desert. These four geographical sections follow four different stories in four different landscapes and time periods. The stories travel across the latitudes of the Indian subcontinent, beginning in the post-colonial Andaman Islands and moving on to the politically charged Burma, the tourist-infested Nepal and finally, the snow-clad mountains of Ladakh. The stories are tied together by characters, who rise from one central narrative and branch out into their own individual tales. This is represented by the underlying symbol that guides all the stories into one unified novel—Pangea. Swarup shows a very specific interest in the idea of Pangea, the unbroken supercontinent that encompassed nearly all of the earth’s land, and uses this symbol as a metaphor for all of humanity itself.
Islands, the longest of the four sections (and arguably, the strongest), follows the story of a husband and wife living in the Andaman Islands in the 1950s. Girija Prasad, works with the newly-formed Indian Government’s forestry department while his wife Chanda Devi is a clairvoyant, speaking to the British and Portuguese ghosts that roam the post-colonial house they live in and to the trees that seem to flourish around her. The love between this man and woman is rooted in their love for the earth, though in very different ways. While he loves the earth for the science it stores, she loves it for the secrets it holds. They are joined by only two other characters—a young Karen widow from Burma, Mary, and later on, their daughter, Devi.
Mary finds her story in the next section of the book, Faultline, where she travels all the way from the Andaman Islands to Burma in search of her long-lost son. Her son, the self-proclaimed ‘Plato’, leads a rebellion. Swarup adds a strong political element to the novel, tying it to the political chaos and protests of Myanmar in the 1970s. In her quest to see her son, she is joined by Plato’s friend Thapa. In doing so, we segue into the next section, Valley, which follows an older Thapa in Nepal, struggling to make sense of both his life and the lives of the people around him. He journeys from Nepal—he site of the infamous opium trade—to India, where he meets Apo, a village patriarch. This makes way for the final section, Snow Desert, that traces Apo’s story of love with a Kashmiri woman while in his sunset days. The author seamlessly incorporates another political climate—the traumatic partition of India and Pakistan.
Latitudes of Longing is a story that is deeply rooted in the natural world; but it occasionally crosses over to the supernatural. Folklore constantly peeks out and the book is scattered with stories of turtles that turn into boats and children of the sun falling in love with the daughters of rain. She continually shifts between life and afterlife; so much so that at certain junctures, one might even get the nagging feeling that the ghosts of the British Raj are given more depth in characterization than the very-much-alive characters in the latter parts of the book. But the protagonist of the book, undoubtedly, is nature itself. Weather patterns, landscapes, and disasters are almost humanized, and one feels the uncomfortable itch of love, pain, and sympathy not only for the humans and ghosts, but also for the earth itself.
Swarup builds a world where creation and destruction co-exist, where the joys of humanity clash with its struggles, where beauty meets its ruins, and yet, there is no sense of tragedy. The narration is done in a measured pace, almost like Swarup is listening to the rhythmic pulse of the earth as she writes her words; like the earth is guiding the characters and their lives, and there is nothing the reader can do but read. She leaves no space for hypotheticals, alternatives, or what ifs. The plot of every narrative is directed by a disaster, and there is no plot without the disaster.
The narrative does not attempt to patronize or terrorize its readers. It simply seeks to tell a story. Swarup uses her metaphors as literally as possible, giving birth to a uniquely lyrical style of prose that flows like a gushing, overflowing river— it makes a lot of noise, it destroys everything in its way, and yet, I couldn’t help but celebrate its existence. Latitudes of Longing, even as a story, is a lot like the rivers it contains within it. It starts out with great intensity, but somewhere along the way, it loses its course. And while it ultimately joins the expansive ocean of imagination, the journey to this ocean is at least slightly turbulent.