An Origin Story: Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup

In the Acknowledgements of her debut novel, Latitudes of Longing, Shubhangi Swarup writes that her muse is “our unassuming planet, a being that bears more beauty, magic and resilience than this human mind can fathom.” It took Swarup about seven years to somewhat gauge this being and paint a picture of it in words.

Latitudes of Longing comprises four interconnected stories, though numerous human and non-human characters inhabit the novel’s eccentric landscape. Shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature, the novel is a philosophical lesson in the laws of the universe, a meditation on love and longing, and a topographic narrative experiment. At the heart of the novel is, I believe, an origin story.

Beginning and End, and Beginning

Girija Prasad, a "diligent documenter of the plant kingdom", is invested in researching the ancestor of all continents: Pangaea. He is adamant on drawing his own map of the Andaman Islands, where he lives with his clairvoyant wife, Chanda Devi. Girija's search is an originary one, an attempt to know how it all came to be. Swarup writes,

Only a fool would consider the shores of continents, sandbanks and parched patches the ends to the unbroken surface of water. At best, they are breaks and pauses. Or mindless chatter. Islands are mindless chatter in a meditative ocean.

Bound with this search for the origins of mountains and islands, is the idea of birth. Girija and Chanda's daughter is born out of her parents' most cherished dreams and memories. With birth, there is also its flip-side, death. In a jungle, the couple encounters a particular variety of palm which is "documented to flower only once in its lifetime, after which it dies."

There are other originary tales in the novel too, drawn along a single volatile faultline on earth, which is Swarup's topographic and narrative setting. Girija and Chanda's story comes full circle at the end of the novel, which is also a beginning.

Names and Naming

On the human timeline, what usually follows birth is naming, for everything that exists for us must have a name. In the last section of the novel, Apo narrates, to Ghazala, the story of how the Valley of Blood Apricots got its name.

Apricots in the valley bore a red drop in the flesh, close to the seed—a reminder of a Sufi's quest for his beloved.

Apo and Ghazala live on no man's land, an imaginative intersection somewhere between India, Pakistan, and China. This land is claimed by each of those countries at different points in history. What follows this claiming is, of course, naming and renaming.

In section one of the novel, one meets Lord Goodenough, who embodies the unsupervised kleptomaniac desire to capture, to colonise, and to name. This power-play comes at a violent cost that is to be borne, for generations, by human beings and nature alike.

Writing and Storytelling

In section three of the novel, Plato tells his friend Thapa,

Many writers spend a lifetime writing, yet they suffer like you. When they write, it is about their own life. That is art's biggest tragedy. . . [W]e can't tell a single story of which we are not the centre.

This is both true and false for Swarup's own novel and, I think, it is an important point of reflection. The novel is about the vast expanse of the universe, but it is also about the minutest of organisms that form a micro-universe of their own. At the centre of it all is the thinking human, the history-maker, the storyteller.

This is perhaps the reason why succeeding sections in the novel become increasingly dense with stories, such that by the end you almost feel chocked by them. Yet, Apo says,

The best stories are the ones that are still to come. . . Close enough to hear, smell and admire. Yet out of reach.

Finally, as I said to a friend, Latitudes of Longing is almost like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things had a book baby with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, whose not-so-distant relative is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude

However, like all (book) babies, it develops its own character traits and personality. This review scratches only the surface of everything and more that this novel is.
Latitudes of Longing: A Novel by Shubhangi Swarup, published by HarperCollins Publishers India, 2018.

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