Shubhangi Swarup’s mother grew up in the Andaman Islands, an Indian archipelago. As a child, Swarup loved listening to her mother’s stories. As an adult, she traveled to the Andaman Islands to write her own story. She went two years after a major earthquake, in June, peak monsoon season, because it was cheap. She stayed in a guesthouse on a beach. There were storms for a few days. Tremors. Swarup called her dad. She was scared. The place felt haunted. Ghosts can’t harm you, her dad told her. (Don’t believe in ghosts? You don’t have to believe to be scared, Swarup says.) She got to work writing. “Ghosts were never intended to be part of the novel,” Swarup says. “But they were in my subconscious, and I had to make my peace with them.”
We’re glad she did.
In her debut novel, Latitudes of Longing, Swarup tells an experimental, sweeping, epic tale. The book is made up of four linked novellas. It spans several generations and cuts back and forth in time and across India—from an island to a valley, a city, and a snow desert. It’s driven by love stories of various natures, and you keep reading in part to see what will happen to the characters and how all their stories fit together.
Every character in the book lives around a tectonically active fault line. This was Swarup’s original concept. “And I didn’t cheat,” she says. She spent seven years researching and traveling to places that exist on a tectonically active fault line. But she says she wasn’t chasing a story. She was listening. Discovering stories. She wasn’t creating. She was “unearthing.”
This excerpt (which starts on page 18) is from Islands, the first section of the book. In it, we meet the newly married Girija Prasad (an Oxford scholar who studies trees) and Chanda Devi (a clairvoyant who can speak to trees). The couple, described earlier in the book as “strangers in a bedroom damp with desire and flooded with incipient dreams,” are based on Swarup’s own grandparents.
Oh, and you’ll meet ghosts if you keep reading. They weren’t what we were expecting either.
It is only at teatime that the two of them are compelled to sit face-to-face. For Chanda Devi runs out of things to serve and must force herself to be still. It is an art the bungalow has mastered. It has endured storms, earthquakes, and wars by simply not budging from the pinhead peak surveying the ocean. Sitting in the garden, watching a hibiscus sun set over an emerald-green archipelago, leaves the couple unsettled. It forces them to swim in the solitary world of thoughts, preoccupations, and visions. Yet it doesn’t feel lonely.
“Everything is here for a reason.” He tries to break the spell, pointing to the garden. “The lemongrass you brewed the tea with,” he says, sipping on his cup, “I planted it to hold the loose soil on the slope, to prevent flash floods in the rains.” She smiles. He is encouraged. “The lemon too…” he goes on. “To value a lemon is to value the wisdom of all creation. In the jungle, you can squeeze it over leeches that have latched on and they shrivel instantaneously. You can squeeze it over bites and wounds as an antiseptic. And when you are dehydrated, nothing revives you more than an entire lemon, especially the rind.”
“It forces them to swim in the solitary world of thoughts, preoccupations, and visions. Yet it doesn’t feel lonely.”
She is blushing now. Her cheeks are fuchsia pink, like the rosebush in front of them. He is perplexed. How can this talk of lemongrass and lemons transform the mercurial lady into a shy bride? There is an awkward silence, so he repeats himself. “I planted everything in the garden myself. It is all here for a reason.”
“Thank you,” she blurts out. “The roses are beautiful. Had it not been for your will, they wouldn’t have survived.”
It is his turn to blush.
It is only much later, as he’s whiling away the hours in his office, that he wonders: How did she know? She had arrived after the rose’s revival.
Days give birth to a new sky, harboring both the sun and the rains. Under the bright gaze of late morning, a weak drizzle endlessly wets the islands, fomenting mushrooms and fungus wherever it falls, on bark and skin alike. It is one of those days when you find yourself looking up at the sky, hoping to catch a rainbow. The air is heavy, and the heart is heavier still.
When the harsh sun and raindrops pour down like colored sand in the same hourglass, the phenomenon is called the “hour of the wedding.” In different folklore, depending upon the tellers’ longitude, latitude, dreams, dispositions, and eating patterns, different creatures are forced to tie the knot—foxes, snails, monkeys, ravens, leopards, hyenas, bears, the devil too at times. For hell, like everything else, is built by the domesticated few. The bachelors may keep the world spinning, but it’s the married ones that keep it grounded.
On the islands, the hour of the sun and rains belongs to someone else. Far from folkloric unions, it belongs to Goliath centipedes. Creatures one foot long with claws that can snatch men out of reality, taking them back to that moment when they left their mothers’ wombs, howling like newborn babies. The centipedes have no interest in settling down, least of all with humans. The islanders know this, for they’ve been bitten.
Crawling out from their sunless subterranean lairs, all these invertebrates seek is to bask in the sun and feast on the flurry of insects that dance after the first rains. But human beings, obsessed with mythic unions, cannot understand such a simple desire. When someone comes too close, they bite out of fear. And the schism grows deeper. Humans: once bitten, twice shy. Centipedes: shy once, biting twice.
Girija Prasad sits on the steps of his porch, dedicated to the act of sunning his toes. Often, officials find mold growing between their digits when they remove their jungle boots. It is his worst nightmare. A staunch academic, he fears turning into a specimen himself. But this morning, the ritual is an excuse to sit outside and gaze at his wife, busy in the garden.
“But human beings, obsessed with mythic unions, cannot understand such a simple desire. When someone comes too close, they bite out of fear.”
Chanda Devi is out in the vegetable patch, plucking out the day’s menu under the drizzle. She is the picture of grace and balance. As she sits on her haunches, her center of gravity seems to be her voluptuous derriere, which hangs in the air, precarious and unsupported. She holds on to an umbrella between her shoulder and cheek, using both her hands to weave through the growth.
She picks tomatoes with the same intensity with which she combs her hair, serves him his meals, and treads the unpaved inclines of the islands. It makes him nervous. He doubts the strength of his own hand when he offers it to her. He questions the virility of his appetite when he cannot finish the fifth roti she places on his plate.
As he watches her, the picture of all his yearnings takes a blow. Suddenly, Chanda Devi is on the ground. His wife has fallen in the mud. She is shielding herself with the umbrella and is using her hands to fend something off.
He runs toward her, barefoot. He’s afraid she’s seen a centipede or, even worse, been bitten by one.
“Where is it?” he shouts out. “Don’t be afraid, I will kill it!”
“Kill what?” she asks him, baffled. She doesn’t need his hand as she gets up and brushes the wet mud from her elbows.
“Where did it bite you?” he asks, anxious to get her back into the bungalow and squeeze a lemon on the wound before she faints from the pain.
“But I’m not bitten.”
She returns to picking tomatoes, unruffled. Why must he talk about killing all the time, she wonders.
He stands still, shocked. She definitely looked like she was in trouble when she fell. He couldn’t have imagined it, for he had been staring at her all the while. He returns to the porch, confused. He gives up on the idea of sunning his toes and heads inside. The ship that arrived this morning has brought him important mail—a journal that carries the map of the hypothetical Pangaea, an apparition he is eager to see.
But the master illusionist, the Indian Postal Department, has been up to its tricks again. Seated at his Andaman padauk table, he finds all the pages of the journal stuck together, bark-like in texture. He picks it up to sniff out the culprit. Someone, it seems, has literally spilled milk over his parcel. A can of condensed milk, to be precise. On a milk-less island like this, such cans are worth their weight in gold. Adamant and armed with a paper knife, Girija Prasad attempts to peel the pages apart one by one, a tedious and delicate task that could swallow up his entire morning.
“Men aren’t comfortable with their wives interacting with other men, especially naked, desperate strangers.”
Even in the inexplicable world of his wife, what happened outside doesn’t make sense. Perhaps she is too embarrassed to show him where she was bitten, he suspects. Perhaps it was just an insect, not a centipede. Perhaps the trauma of picking the vegetables, of murdering what could be plants and trees one day, gets to her at times. It isn’t something to fret over, he tells himself. Most women are oversensitive, which makes his wife just a faithful representative of her species.
The more he observes the female species from a distance, the more this hypothesis gains credence. As an adolescent growing up in Allahabad, Girija Prasad would keenly note the moments when the audience wept the most during the retellings of Tulsidas’s Ramayana. The men were forced to disguise their tears as sneezes and other discomforts, while the women were encouraged to turn their tears into a theatrical display of faith, though he never quite understood the timing of it. While it made sense to feel overwhelmed when Sita was reunited with her husband, Lord Rama, after her gentlemanly abduction by the ten-headed Ravana, or when she was banished from the kingdom by the very same husband only to prove an incidental point to a washerwoman, nothing could explain the timing of their biggest outburst. It would be after the book had been closed and the discourse had ended for the day. The women cried for no rhyme or reason.
Outdoors, Chanda Devi is relieved to be alone again. It was a close call for her. She used her umbrella to fend off the emaciated ghost wrapped in a flag, who has been following her through the patch, pointing out snails and playing dumb charades. Using twigs as chopsticks, he gestures to her to break the shell and gouge the soft flesh out for him, rubbing his belly emphatically. Death, the soldier had hoped, would rescue him from his weeklong hunger. Instead, it stalks him in the afterlife. Though surrounded by fat snails, the Japanese soldier cannot break a single shell and scoop the flesh out with his faint limbs and brittle, glass-like nails. He implores Mrs. Varma to help him. As does the Punjabi mutineer, sitting on the dining table beside her husband, insisting on his right to be served the hot malpuas first, before the “traitor who dresses and talks like the British.”
It isn’t she who is crazy. The place her husband has brought her to is a madhouse. But she is afraid to share her predicament with him. Men aren’t comfortable with their wives interacting with other men, especially naked, desperate strangers.
The time Chanda Devi takes to handpick, wash, chop, cook, and serve the vegetables for lunch along with freshly made rotis is the time Girija Prasad takes to unpeel all the pages of the journal from one another and confront the new hypothesis of his existence: Pangaea, under the influence of milk and salt-laden winds, has turned into a giant multicolored blot that resembles the female genitalia.
Chanda Devi knows she distracts him. It is evident in the way he fidgets in her presence, the way he restlessly shakes his leg. She knows she makes him nervous. She can smell it in his sweat, for she sniffs his laundry daily. His socks smell of hooves. His shirts have a heavy, earthy fragrance, like that of leaves, grass, and fruits crushed into the dark earth by the movement of animals, rains, and wind. Even in his smells, she senses no respite. Despite the pleasantly cool nights, the bedsheets smell of nervous sweat mixed with tropical humidity.
Added to the mix today is a new, lethal fragrance emanating from a single drop of mango that dripped onto his sleeve last evening. A ship from the mainland had arrived with a crate of the finest mangoes for Chanda Devi, ordered by her husband from the opposite end of India, the red soils of the west coast. The entire nation is up in mangoes in the month of June, from the southernmost tip to the edges of the plains. And Girija Prasad is eager to taste the royal variety of mangoes, especially after the rechristening. Previously called Alphonso mangoes after a Portuguese general, the newly elected representatives of the free nation renamed them Shivaji mangoes after the regional hero who valiantly fought off all invaders. Chanda Devi is touched. She washes and wipes the mangoes and displays them in glass bowls like a centerpiece.
“He may not see the ghosts that sit beside him, he may not recollect the other times the two have shared a mango in their various lives, but he too sees things she doesn’t.”
She watches him tuck in a napkin like a bib, roll up his sleeves, and work through the mango with a knife and fork, dexterously dividing it into cubes. Still, an errant drop slides down his fork to his little finger and then to his sleeve. Left to herself, she would have bitten the stem off, used her fingers to peel the skin and sunk her teeth into the naked fruit, all without staining her sari. But she feels self-conscious in his presence, so she picks at the cubes her husband has cut instead.
“When I ate it last, it was Alphonso. Now it is Shivaji,” he says. “Who would have thought that even mangoes would change their identity after independence.”
Chanda Devi, trained in the straightforward ways of Sanskrit literature, is oblivious to the English obsession with wit as a higher form of intellect. She interprets her husband’s remark in earnestness.
“We are the children of the soil, but they are the fruit,” she says. “They are more sensitive. Changes in government, affronts to their faith, it all affects them deeply, even more than locusts or worms.” She senses his surprise. “When I eat Hindu vegetables, fruits, and pulses, I don’t feel as bad,” she goes on. “Unlike Muslims or Christians, who only live once.”
“But all beings must die, irrespective of their religious beliefs,” replies Girija Prasad. “Muslim mangoes can hope for resurrection on Judgment Day, just as Christian mangoes can look forward to heaven. In all theological discourses, man can only speculate, never judge. Only the subject of the study—the formless, genderless almighty—bears that privilege.”
By defending Muslim mangoes, Girija Prasad is making a case for himself, especially the dietary habits he was forced to abandon.
Though she sits perfectly composed, a tidal wave of emotions has hit Chanda Devi, refusing to let her surface. He may not see the ghosts that sit beside him, he may not recollect the other times the two have shared a mango in their various lives, but he too sees things she doesn’t.
Later in the day, when her husband leaves her alone with the ghosts of Goodenough Bungalow, Chanda Devi closes the door to their bedroom for privacy. Old-fashioned in their ways, the ghosts will never enter a room when the door is closed or peep in when the curtains are drawn.
Alone, she retrieves the mango skin her husband had so carefully peeled half an hour ago. It reminds her of the bright-orange flesh the two had shared, the thoughts they had exchanged. She caresses the skin with her fingers, rubbing it and sniffing it in turn. Fibrous and wet on the inside, smooth, glistening, and fragrant on the outside. Is this what human skin is like? she wonders.
Excerpted from Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup. Copyright © 2018 by Shubhangi Swarup. Excerpted by permission of One World, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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