Shubhangi Swarup’s Latitudes of Longing will likely stand out as one of the most ambitious novels of the year. With a self-assured voice, Swarup creates narratives on the cusp between life and death, between urban civilisation and untamed islands, between abstinence and union, and between loneliness and reprieve. Built over such uncertain geographies, the novel becomes a testament to possibilities – good and bad. These aren’t monolithic tales whose outcomes are determined at the outset. Instead, they show that “anything is possible, because everything is.”
Swarup splits the story into four parts that intersect with one another at times but largely maintain their independence. The first section, Islands, is set in the Andaman Islands in the two decades following India’s independence. Girija Prasad Varma is a scientist and the nation’s first Commonwealth scholar who is tasked by the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, with setting up the National Forestry Service in 1948. Posted to the Andamans, Girija studies trees, their origins, and uses. In time, a bride is arranged for him from the mainland. Chanda Devi and Girija are brought together by their different but complimentary beliefs – each drawing knowledge, at times sceptically, from the other.
While Girija searches for answers to questions like why a tree fossil previously only seen in Madagascar and Central Africa has been found in the Andamans, Chanda Devi engages with the ghosts on the islands, dabbles in premonitions and warnings for the islanders who flock to her for advice, and calms wild, murderous elephants. Both arrive at the conclusion that on this island “neither can make it alone.” It is Chanda who convinces him to take in a woman called Mary from the Karen community of Burma who has been left widowed after eloping and her child sent back to Rangoon because she has no way of caring for him.
Natural and supernatural
Alongside the story of their marriage, Islands chronicles the political and environmental history of the Andamans. Through the ghosts and historical sites on the island, Swarup tells the island’s tale of colonisation by the British, the Japanese, and ultimately the Indian mainland. The ghosts of Japanese soldiers and British lords roam the land, and are only seen and understood by Chanda Devi. The island people are also endangered by their proximity to water which leaves them vulnerable to tsunamis and other environmental disasters. The novel celebrates the natural world, and all the power it affords the imagination. It becomes a place for the mind to rest as well as invent new mythologies.
From the alternating violence and peace of the islands, Latitudes travels to Burma where Mary’s son, Plato, has been imprisoned. They haven’t seen each other in twenty-three years when Plato’s friend, Thapa, arrives to collect her from the Andamans. This second section called Faultline explores Burma’s troubled history in the seventies as protests against inflation and food storages are violently suppressed by the government.
In each section, a character is introduced whose story carries into the next. In Valley, Thapa is older now and emotionally invested in a much younger woman called Bebo. He journeys to India where he meets the elderly patriarch of a hamlet called Apo. In Snow Desert, the focus turns to Apo’s romance with a Kashmiri woman named Ghazala in his final years.
Silence and transformations
Latitudes is a novel with multiple thematic and tonal shifts whose cautionary undertone appears to be that paths are rarely set in stone and characters evolve with time and fortune. It isn’t driven by characters so much as it is led by their relationships to what lies outside themselves – ghosts, the natural world, other people, storytelling, governments. It is likely that readers will walk away with a layered understanding of relationships rather than individuals in the book. Swarup is particularly interested in how people are transformed by one another. Girija invests a lifetime of silence in matters of affection, and Bebo invests a lifetime in forgetting certain kinds of emotions. But when paired with others, they are surprised to find those defences weakening and lifelong habits challenged.
One of the central preoccupations of Latitudes is silence. The novel opens with the line, “Silence on a tropical island is the relentless sound of water.” Throughout the text, different kinds of silence are noted. There is “larval silence” before dawn, the silence that precedes separation and follows childbirth, the silence in which “lies...resignation”. There are meditative silences pregnant with anxieties about impending events, purposeful silences undertaken with the wisdom to postpone conversations to more suitable moments, and disciplined internal silences which protect against madness. For Girija, the silence of swimming in the Andamans’ clear waters takes on the importance of a prayer.
In many ways, Latitudes is better described as a series of interconnected short stories. We start with expansive landscapes that gradually move into narrower straits – which can leave the reader feeling like the stakes of the novel are lower at the end than the start. Some of the strengths displayed in Islands do not carry forward into the rest of the book. In particular, Snow Desert feels disconnected from the other sections. It’s always a strange experience to read a novel whose parts intersect at a very small number of places. But there is no doubt Swarup’s debut is exceptional. When taken apart, the novel is a series of well-sculpted sentences that tell convincing stories. There is a dual comfort with both sentimentality and pragmatism in her style which is compelling. Latitudes has established Swarup as an Indian writer to pay attention to.
Latitudes of Longing: A Novel, Shubhangi Swarup, HarperCollins India.