The last two books I’ve read have been wonderful, but I wouldn’t consider either of them high-end fiction. They were more like time spent with friends, both old and new. When I started The Folded Earth I was struck immediately by Roy’s elegant yet simple prose. It flows so well, and is just beautiful. Here is the first paragraph (it’s not long): “The girl came at the same hour, summer or winter. Every morning I heard her approach. Plastic slippers, the clink of steel on stone. And then her footsteps, receding. That morning she was earlier. The whistling thrushes had barely cleared their throats, and the rifle range across the valley had not yet sounded its bugles. And, unlike every other day, I did not hear her leave after she had set down my daily canister of milk (3).” Isn’t that nice?
Maya is our narrator, and the setting is a mountain town in India called Ranikhet. Maya is originally from Delhi, where she lived with her husband Michael, until he went to climb a mountain and died. After that she moved to Ranikhet, which is actually near the mountain on which Michael perished. She becomes a schoolteacher at the village Christian school despite not actually being a Christian, though Michael was, and settles in to become a member of the community. As the book opens I think Maya has been in Ranikhet for about six years. I’m about halfway through the book at this point, and the supposed major plot based on the back of the book stuff, the “power-hungry politicians threaten [Maya’s] beloved mountain community” plot line. So far, that stuff has been percolating in the background, and I’m not sure what’s going to come of it. And honestly, if things continued as they have been so far, with Maya spending time with her village compatriots, that would be okay. I don’t want to know about these power-hungry politicians. I am enjoying spending peaceful time with the family Maya has cobbled together in her adopted home.
We have been learning about Maya’s relationship with Michael in flashbacks. The two were apparently star-crossed lovers who gave up their families to be together. I think it was an Indian caste problem, but the details haven’t been revealed yet, other than mentioning in passing that Michael was Christian, and that Maya’s father didn’t like Christians much. What I do know is that six plus years after Michael’s death his wife is still mourning him, and it’s terribly sad. Just before I paused in my reading to work on this post in earnest, Maya has begun seeing Veer, her neighbor Diwan Sahib’s nephew, recently returned to Ranikhet. Veer is some sort of mountain climbing guide for tourists, and as such Ranikhet is a good home base for him, and there has been some speculation that he has returned to his former summer vacation spot to take care of his uncle as he approaches the end of his years. Diwan Sahib is probably Maya’s best friend in the village at the start of the novel. He is much older than she, and had a governmental post of some importance during the British colonial era of India. As such, he often has visitors of importance, but Maya is his favorite. They read the papers together in the afternoons, and share rum, and Maya has been editing his biography of Jim Corbett, a famous big game hunter who Diwan Sahib had passing acquaintance with years ago. Other important folks are Charu, the village girl mentioned in the first paragraph. She was once one of Maya’s students at the school, but was abysmal, and eventually dropped out. She lives with her grandmother, Ama, and “slow” uncle, Puran, and seems to spend most of her days taking the cattle and goats out to graze and home from grazing. She meets a boy early on, Kundan Singh, who is a cook for the manager of a new hotel in town. The manager and his wife end up returning to Delhi and taking Kudan Singh with them. His letters are what finally convince Charu to let Maya teach her how to read.
The only significant “politician” character so far is Mr. Chauhan, who is some sort of local official, and has been portrayed thus far as something of a benign fool, though I think that this is about to change. He spends his days painting slogans on rocks and billboards around Ranikhet, with such catchy sayings as “Walk in Nature Zone, It is Health Prone” and “Mountains are Fountains of Joy.” There are more. I might recommend reading this book on the basis of being able to mock these ridiculous slogans alone. He thinks that this graffiti of his will promote tourism in Ranikhet and stimulate the villagers to take better care of their home (i.e. keep it clean for the tourists). Puran, Charu’s uncle, becomes the focus of Mr. Chauhan’s rage as the chapters go by. Puran likes to let the family cattle and goats graze and eliminate wherever they feel like, and this makes Mr. Chauhan very angry, as does Puran’s general appearance and odor. At one point he takes all of Puran’s clothes and burns them. The last full chapter I read ended with the words “he resolved that this time he would teach Puran a lesson he would never forget (160).” And this is concerning, because Puran seems like a nice fellow, and one who has no defenses of his own.
So far, I definitely recommend this book to everyone. I can’t think of anyone who I would think would not enjoy it. That may change, of course, but I’m hoping not. More in a few days or whenever I finish The Folded Earth.