Set in Ranikhet, a few miles from the Kumaon I intimately know, I read The Folded Earth with curiosity. Pages turned, it’s the novel’s quieter moments that tell the chill tale of north India’s decaying hill stations that resonate, not the story of the grieving widow, Maya, nor that of her attraction for Diwan sahib’s nephew, Veer. Roy joins Allan Sealy, whose elegiac The Everest Hotel also asks: is the way of life in colonial hill stations falling apart as they grapple with inept modernity?
The arc of the novel’s trajectory lies in Maya’s neighbour Ama’s household. Both live on the periphery of the erstwhile diwan of Surajgarh’s crumbling estate, The Lighthouse. Roy’s nuanced portraits of Ama’s challenged son Sanki Puran and granddaughter Charu provide the central motif. To read cook Kundan Singh’s love-letters, Charu learns to read with Maya’s help, thus escaping a typical pahari girl’s future. Kundan’s epistles echo love-notes of Nehru to Edwina that reputedly lie in Diwan sahib’s custody.
Through satirical cameos—of Chauhan, the cantonment’s ‘administrator’ and writer of slogans to lure tourists to Ranikhet; of the poll challenge faced by Hindu fundamentalist Ummed Singh from Ankit ‘wool’ Rawat—the reader senses the changing times.
While authorial judgements are withheld, cracks appear in the folded earth. Then, nature rebels, spewing what it can’t endure. Ama’s shrewd assessment of Veer, the discovery of the Diwan’s papers, and Maya’s final deliverance from mourning happen in swift succession.
As with An Atlas of Impossible Longing, Roy unravels the small-town terrain with certitude. At one level, her prose is a dirge for the Kumaon hills. At another, a Pickwickian humour infuses it with robust charm.