Anuradha Roy’s previous two novels (An Atlas of Impossible Longing & The Folded Earth) earned awards and acclaim for taut narratives and a pared-down, controlled writing style. Those books used houses and rivers and mountains as metaphors for claustrophobic and enigmatic relationships and here, in yet another finely written book, it is the sea, and specifically, the fictional town of Jarmuli that appears like a character, drawing the book’s human characters towards it, sometimes with seeming treacherous intent.
After a brutal opening, aching in its intensity, the narrative unfolds in matryoshka style, revealing layers of the past like Russian nesting dolls. The present-day story spans five days charting the characters converging on Jarmuli, a temple-town by the sea that is both familiar in its tea-stalls, tourists and temple guides and yet suggestive of a certain creeping menace. Even the train bringing holidaymakers and pilgrims to Jarmuli is not free of incident as a young woman who gets off to buy food for a beggar is
assaulted by a pair of men and fails to return to her carriage as the train pulls out, her horrified and panic-striken cohort of elderly co-passengers unable to pull the faulty emergency brake in time.
The young woman is Nomi who, with her cargo pants, braided hair and tattoos, has clearly come to India from somewhere far off. Norway, we soon discover via her surname of Frederiksen and interior monologue references to foster and adoptive mothers. For all her apparent carefree ways, Nomi has for long been haunted by memories of Jarmuli where, as a six-year-old, she either lost her mother or was abandoned by her. This is left ambiguous in a gut-wrenching scene that shows a hungry and exhausted little girl, instructed to stand by a boat, watching her mother disappear across the beach with a strange man. With characteristic self-assured brevity, Roy writes no more than: “Her voice thinned and flew in the breeze. And then she was gone.”
With chilling certainty, the child is soon herded along with a few other girls to an ashram where her ears are pierced and she gets boiled rice and suffocating hugs from the women minding them: ‘love’ of a sort, with the inevitable price attached.
Nomi’s fractured memories of growing up as a virtual prisoner reveal a harrowing story of sexual and physical abuse with the main perpetrator being the guru of the ashram, an influential godman with political connections. Her manner of escape to a new life abroad would naturally lead one to hope that she manages to overcome the horrors of her past but Nomi is irreparably damaged, as victims of childhood abuse usually are.
It is no surprise then that Nomi’s journey around Jarmuli has her colliding in various violent ways with the book’s other characters, particularly Suraj, the photographer Nomi has hired who, in wrestling with his own emotional demons, ends up violently attacking her in his hotel room. Loss becomes something of a theme as the book’s other characters also reveal themselves to be freighted in one way or another with things they have forfeited forever—husbands, lovers, physical and mental health. Some suggestions are left abstruse, possibly deliberately: the mysterious figure wearing yellow robes and sunglasses who stands endlessly meditating waist-deep in the sea and Johnny Toppo, the man running a tea-stall on the beach, who sings the same songs that Nomi absent-mindedly hums. Why she does not reach out to one of the few people who had been kind to her at the ashram remains cryptic but such perhaps is the deadening effect on victims of sexual exploitation.
This is a bleak, unflinching story about the terribly long reach of childhood abuse and its power to ultimately destroy. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could well have become a book too distressing to recommend but Roy’s quiet and chiselled writing style, reminiscent so often of Anita Brookner, keeps the reader engaged and, in the end, there is just enough redemption to prevent the closure Nomi seeks from becoming either convenient or trite.