Shubhangi Swarup’s first novel traces geographies of desire
A promising debut that weaves together multiple lives into an exquisite matrix of natural and supernatural phenomena
One of the keys to unlocking Shubhangi Swarup’s debut novel, Latitudes Of Longing, seems buried away, in a throwaway remark, deep inside its opening pages. Early on, Girija Prasad Verma, a scientist employed by the first government of independent India to set up the National Forestry Service, realizes, after spending a year at his posting in the Andamans, that “no island is an island": “It is part of a greater geological pattern that connects all the lands and oceans of the world." This statement, profound in its simplicity, conjures up an image of interwoven lives, giving the novel its restlessly meandering structure.
Divided into four sections (“Islands", “Faultline", “Valley" and “Snow Desert"), the book plays with ways in which it connects its different parts. The characters, at least the major ones, are linked by genealogy or filial ties, but their affective bonds are the strongest, linking them across geographies and time. From the Indian Ocean islands to Burma (now Myanmar), Nepal to the no-man’s land separating India from Pakistan, the setting covers a wide canvas, mostly regions of inclement weather, scarred by natural disasters. With tsunamis, earthquakes, avalanches and tectonic shifts strewn over its body, this is a wounded novel, bristling with metaphorical energy.
The inaugural section, “Islands", is the strongest. The story of Girija, ardent natural historian, his wife Chanda Devi, who sees ghosts and speaks to trees, and their daughter Devi, inheritor of her father’s clear-eyed scientific temper, is told with an assurance that signals the arrival of an accomplished voice. The coming of the newly-wed couple to the island, their myriad misadventures, including a stillborn boy, and induction of a Karen girl, Mary, into the fold of their unusual family life, sets the story into motion—a momentum that the rest of the novel doesn’t always manage to keep up.
As a journalist, Swarup is a natural storyteller. Her background as a virtual reality film-maker makes her as dexterous with using flashbacks, jumpcuts, or quick glances at a future that is decades away. She knows where to withdraw, leaving the reader to put together the missing pieces of a puzzle. Girija and Chanda appear to be speaking in riddles at times, their interiority may feel baffling, and it isn’t easy for either of them to yield their deepest confidences. Several miracles or beguiling accidents befall them, caused by a retinue of ghosts that haunt their bungalow or Chanda’s psychic intuitions. But it isn’t difficult still to suspend one’s disbelief for the first 100-odd pages.
In the subsequent sections, though, Swarup seems to let go of the tightly wound thread of her narrative, allowing it to unspool in far too many directions. In Burma, we meet Mary’s long-abandoned son, a student leader who has rechristened himself Plato. Incarcerated by the junta for treason, his life is an endless sequence of torture cells, solitary confinement, physical battering and unrelenting resolve to fight back. Plato’s friend Thapa, a drug smuggler trailing his own tragic past, takes us into Kathmandu, a city on the verge of being destroyed by a ferocious earthquake, where he meets “Bebo", a strip-bar dancer and sex worker young enough to be his daughter. In the final section, Apo, the universal grandfather and elder of the Drakpo tribe, finds his heart in peril to the charms of Ghazala, a Kashmiri widow living with her trader grandson on the edges of his community in the no-man’s land. The unfolding of their story brings back memories of Love In The Time Of Cholera, though the spirit of Gabriel García Márquez, especially his magic realist mode, is palpable all through Swarup’s novel.
While Swarup’s ability to hold the reader with her stories is undeniable, Latitudes Of Longing may strike as too copious, especially in its middle sections, where the focus tends to shift unevenly from individuals to political churns. If the narrative’s thread keeps slipping out of our consciousness, Swarup does try to gather it and put it back in our grasp. But such structural and thematic slippages would have benefited from more careful editing.
No character seems to acquire as much depth and definition as Girija and Chanda. Shrouded by faith and reason, the rhythms of the natural world and mysteries of supernatural forces, their lives remain solitary and unique, in spite of the love they find in each other and the world around them. Their earthly lives and afterlives are the only intimations of perfection that Swarup’s vision of a flawed, crumbling universe seems to allow