Immersing yourself in an art form usually involves two opposing kinds of feelings. One is finding and falling into a groove, and almost forgetting yourself in the process – like a log being carried by a river’s current. But it’s seldom that smooth a ride, often interrupted with moments that require active exertion. Sometimes the log is caught in the bends of the river, and must dislodge itself.
Many pages of The Earthspinner by Anuradha Roy brilliantly capture the joy and struggle of creative release. Sometimes the entire experience of reading the novel seemed to fittingly replicate the rhythm of the artist – the flowing and halting beats of creating something. It chronicles the lives of its characters in their peaceful, pulsing mundanity, interrupted occasionally by moments of upheaval.
I found myself lost in the lives of these characters, sometimes even waiting for something to occur. But then when it did, I found myself overwhelmed as I turned the pages, almost regretting what I had asked for.
Perhaps if I were to describe this ambitious book and its expanse of themes in a single word, I would choose “change”. But it is also about the other side of this coin. “I thought my clay did not want to be a cup – to be put into a fire and transformed. Perhaps it was turning into puddles in my hands because it would rather go back into the earth,” observes the narrator in a moment of frustration, struggling to mould wet clay. “Maybe every substance knew what it wanted to be, and my clay had doubts about becoming a cup even as I was experiencing strong misgivings about being a potter.”
The book is also about resistance to change. It demonstrates how these contradictory states of being – sometimes staying too still, other times moving too fast – capture most of life. But The Earthspinner also captures the small, rare moments in between – where life’s rhythm feels comfortable. A moment captured best through the calendar of the artist in which, the narrator observes, time seems to flow differently.
A lonely chronicler
The book begins through journal entries. We’re acquainted with the lonely, retrospective voice of the narrator, Sara, who is studying in England. Her mind is consumed with thoughts of home, of her mother and a younger sister who is bitter about being left behind. Then there are people she can’t ever see again, such as her recently deceased father, the grief of which she describes in heart-wrenching prose.
Much of Sara’s time is spent in a pottery studio, and it is here where she first recollects Elango for the reader. It was in Elango’s shed, near his moringa tree, that she was first introduced to pottery, and in his autorickshaw that she was driven to school as a child. Sara also encounters a girl named Karin, “Malaysia’s Olympic hope”, who wants nothing more than to quit her training. But just when you might expect the author to begin moving forward, she plunges further into her memories – as if to say that the process of moving on requires confronting the past.
Elango, for anyone who finishes the book, will likely prove to be unforgettable. In many ways, he is the actual protagonist, and Sara is his chronicler. His life features two major love stories – one is a furtive relationship with a Muslim girl named Zohra, and the other his bond with the dog, Chinna. There is something strangely poignant about putting these relationships side by side (with the latter perhaps given greater attention). About saying that both kinds of love, however different, are equally significant.
When we return to England and to Karin, it is to find her also struggling with her own constraints in love, which both mirror and branch away from Elango’s. In the way the novel addresses stillness as much as change, it finds similarity in moments of difference.
An array of themes
The narration often seems to place disjunct things side by side. In the aftermath of a traumatic incident, Sara’s father starts talking about one of his three favourite subjects, geology. He describes the latest book he was reading, on igneous rocks and plate tectonics, to the frazzled room.
“Most of the Deccan plateau, where we were, was made of liquid rocks that had exploded from the belly of the earth and flowed over hundreds of thousands of miles, hardening over time. Such a very long time that you could not fit it into your mind. This land was a piece from the oldest continent on planet earth, did Elango know that?”
Just as there are windows of time so long one cannot fit it into their head, there seem to be events in the world so far apart, it is difficult to think of them all occurring together.
In today’s world and its overload of information, anyone familiar with doomscrolling knows the feeling of being dazed by an onslaught of information. Love and desire, religion and politics, climate change and animal rights – how can one person engage with all of it? Perhaps this is why metaphor exists – to understand some parts of the world in terms of others, to compress it all more comfortably inside our heads.
There is something reassuring about how Roy puts these seemingly distant themes on the page. She calmly places them side by side, not bothering to bind them together with absolute cohesion. Multiple stories are told without always being perfectly interconnected. Although everything that occurs in the world may not be of equal magnitude, we can keep deciding what is important to us. Perhaps there is simply something comforting in conversations about plate tectonics in the aftermath of tragedy, something relieving about stepping out of oneself to think about rocks.
The novel is somewhat deceptive in its strange fluidity, its lack of subservience to any one narrative convention. It takes on many forms, dividing itself between journal entries and novel chapters, peppered with letters, eventually returning to the journal form again.
The narrative voice is constantly flitting – it begins firmly in first person but briefly takes on third person, as though Sara becomes so engrossed in the story, she forgets she is telling it and becomes just one of its characters. The book moves between the past and present, between India and England.
Although I can’t be certain how much of this fluidity is intentional, it was interesting to note that the book begins with an excerpt from “I Won’t Come” by Kabir, including the lines –
And I’m platter
And I’m woman
And I’m sweet lime
And I’m Muslim”
The manner in which the book envelops seemingly contrasting themes seems to mirror Kabir’s proclamation. Even in the forms it assumes, the book is devoted to multiplicity. It is rich in myth and allegory, generous in fleshing out its characters. It might sometimes require patience, but it is a patience that will be rewarded by the amalgam of feelings that accompanies its end.
The Earthspinner, Anuradha Roy, Hachette India.