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Turning and turning in the widening gyre

This could easily be a hopelessly tragic tale, the urn made with bones and blood instead of mud baked in the kiln, but the author resists the temptation.
Last Updated : 04 September 2021, 20:15 IST

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Award-winning author Anuradha Roy’s fifth book is a tale of hope shaped from the mud of a potter’s village. It’s an exquisite portrayal of empty-nest, loneliness, broken relationships; the quest of an artist that’s as ancient as the art itself, his love and defiance of social divisions and how he nearly paid for this audacity with his life.

Roy’s prose flows like a river with vivid imagery and simple clarity. Every word of it captures the humble surroundings of the potter Elango’s village of Kumarrapet, right from glimpses of an auto-rickshaw ride to school to a young girl’s mud-caked fingers at the lakeside.

The novel begins with the narrator Sarayu (Sara) writing a letter. She tells the reader how her sister Tia complained about Sara having everything easy, while she had to manage three more years of school and time at home with her widowed mother. We know the opportunity Sara had missed to repair her broken relationship with Tia after their father’s passing and the promise of a new friendship at the basement studio of the English university where she has gone for higher studies.

Yet, we’re properly hooked to the story when Sara groans over carrying her old life “in an ever-present backpack that makes me ache from its weight” unlike her Malaysian friend Karin Wang. At which point, Roy transitions from a word artist to a canny storyteller.

An earthly tale

The narrative then gradually shifts to the Hyderabad neighbourhood and the adjacent potter’s village, introducing Elango the gifted genius with the stubbornness of a devotee who wouldn’t like to commercialise the inherited gift of pottery. Roy, thankfully, keeps Indian politics out of this earthy tale, using it only to mark the passage of time. By those markers, we know that the story takes place between the idealistic times of the late seventies and early eighties when Indian society was yet to be seduced by the charms of market economy, a milieu in which Elango’s character perfectly fits.

Roy’s characters are clearly etched. We can relate to their struggles with loneliness, troubled memories, helplessness and manipulativeness. Stereotypical as they may seem, those like Elango’s neighbour Akka, his brother and sister-in-law Revathi, and Taatha, the local landlord, are not dark or demonic but are representatives of a divided and insecure society. Karin’s, on the other hand, is a free spirit that revolts against parental control and social conventions, someone who’s exhorting Sara to break from her past.

The dog Chinna stands out as a symbol of abandonment. While he may not make sense of his own abandonment “over and over again,” Chinna isn’t any different from many human beings languishing in their lonely aboard with elderly people for company.

Roy has resisted the temptation to be sidetracked by the romance between Elango and Zohra, choosing instead to stick to the simple yet powerful narrative of the story, thereby letting the story do all the drama than making it overly dramatic. More fascinating is the way she connects Elango’s dream to create a giant earthen horse with his love for a Muslim girl.

Of hope and survival

She could’ve perhaps made it a hopelessly tragic tale, the urn made with bones and blood instead of mud baked in the kiln, but here again, Roy displays optimism without compromising honesty in storytelling. No deception, no convenient ending with blood and gore smeared on the pages, and, importantly, no mass riots to drown out the actual human tragedy these characters must deal with.

And so, in the end, ‘The Earthspinner’ turns out to be a tale of hope, survival, love thriving in a different place from where it originated and life going on in peace in a foreign land, in the echoes of loneliness and replaying of the past. Even in his abandonment and inability to recognise his previous owner, Chinna the dog still has a home, probably without admirers, but safe enough for him to spend his time in peace.

Perhaps what resonates more strongly is the message that art can both preserve memories and heal wounds with time.

Art could also be a gift that is passed on to the next generation and other cultures, a way for it to survive the transitory human life. In that sense, The Earthspinner presents itself like a pot, starting from the ground, extending and expanding up towards the sky and the world around.

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Published 04 September 2021, 19:30 IST

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