The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy
Nestled in the foothills of the Himalaya, the small village of Ranikhet exists within itself. Its inhabitants live simple, hard-working lives without a hint of anonymity; some are poor, illiterate “hill people” while others are respected, titled men of a bygone India. The village is so self-contained and its visitors so few that there's rarely a stranger among them. Their strongest connection lies in the natural world around them; the wildness of nature and of life reflected in it. This is where Maya, a young woman disowned by her parents and widowed far too soon, seeks refuge from her troubled past. Whether she is running towards or away from her insatiable demons is unforeseeable. As she hides herself within the simplicity of village life Maya forges relationships with those around her, primarily her landlord, an ex-diwan, and the neighboring family who are also tenants on the estate. Yet, as Maya begins to feel she is finally becoming rooted in the familiarity of her situation changes uproot the village in the form of political disquiet, not to mention an elusive new relative who has suddenly returned to her elderly landlord’s life.
This is the foundation for The Folded Earth, Anuradha Roy’s second novel which was long-listed for the 2011 Man Asian Prize. It’s the foundation, but as the story progresses so much more reveals itself in the complexities and heartwarming nuances of the village and its full cast of characters. This is an ideal read for a book club, as it has me aching to divulge all the little details of the characters that stayed with me and to discuss the meaning behind some twists and turns of the novel. I’d love to immerse myself in all the lessons I learned from the characters and the elements of their personality that resounded most deeply within me – young Charu, who educated herself and left the only world she ever knew behind in pursuit of her love; Mr. Chauhan’s witty street signs and his animosity toward poor Puran; the shameless gossip and unflappable matriarch Ama; and Maya's late husband Michael, who is at once missing and ethereally present throughout the story. It would be easy, though, to divulge too much in a simple review. It would take some of the joy out of discovering, when you first read The Folded Earth, the characters, the Himalaya, the story, and Roy’s considerable writing talent. And it is a joy – all of it.
What it came down to, for me, was the invaluable opportunity to step into a world vastly different from my own, to try on the shoes of not one unique character, but an entire village full. Roy took subjects that every reader will be at home with – loss, love, loneliness, and the feeling of being misunderstood in the world, among other things – and she folded them into a place that readers might find to be, culturally, a bit new. While she lives in the real Ranikhet (located within Almora in Uttarakhand, India) Roy experimented with the boundlessness of fiction in order to present a slightly altered version of the village in the novel, a change which allowed her the opportunity to approach additional topics relevant to India that may not have been as prominent in the Ranikhet of the real world. In this way Roy presents not only a look into a uniquely different India, but she educates the reader on both conflicts and harmonies within the country. The result is a book that enchants its reader and continues to enlighten them long after the final page.
Roy's writing is lyrical as she glides effortlessly through comedy and tragedy alike. The amount of focus she gives to the personalities of the book's characters seems, at times, to allow the novel's plot to become secondary. In that way The Folded Earth becomes a book of the world, a book about human nature and the journey of self-discovery, while providing a heartfelt tribute to a treasured place rarely noticed amid the hills, the folds, of the earth.