Appreciation of the novel ‘Latitudes of Longing’ by Shubhangi Swarup
Beware! This novel can make you high. High on nature, high on love, high on relations, and high on longings.
Even if I try to give a brief summary of the story, I’ll fail for sure because there is no one way to describe it. The novel ‘Latitudes of Longing’ written by Shubhangi Swarup has multiple stories set in multiple topographies, all yoked together into an intensely lyrical, beautifully narrated book. As the blurb reads,
“An astounding exploration of intense longings. Shubhangi Swarup’s novel begins in the depths of the Andaman Sea, and follows geological and emotional faultlines through the Irrawaddy delta and the tourist-trap of Thamel, to end amidst the highest glaciers and passes of the Karakorams.”
In this lyrically titled book, Swarup introduces a multitude of characters and their emotions all connected to nature. The story sweeps through four stories set in four different timelines and topographies named Islands, Faultlines, Valley, and Snow Desert. The first story revolves around a newly-married couple, Girija Prasad Varma and Chanda Devi who are living in an old Bungalow on the Andaman Islands. Girija who’s a scientist gets intrigued by his wife who can see ghosts and tame mad elephants! He is impressed by her interesting dreams and strange foresight to predict danger. The whole village starts worshipping her as a goddess but for Girija, Chanda was his wife who translates the language of trees to him.
The second story is about Mary and her son Plato. The love and affection Mary has for her ‘long-lost’ son can be seen throughout the story. Set in Burma the story not only talks about the struggles she faces to get her son released from prison but also comments on caste and bigotry. It also talks about Mary’s past about how she ran away from her abusive husband and ended up in the Andaman Islands where she worked as Chanda Devi’s handmaid.
The central character of the third story is ‘Thapa’ who was Plato’s only friend in prison. The story is set in Thamel, a commercial neighborhood located in Kathmandu. The story starts with this line “Cycle rickshaws go where the law doesn’t”. Here we meet an older version of Thapa and Bebo, a bar dancer. When Bebo insists Thapa to tell her a story from his past he remembers his journey to Karakoram ranges where he met ‘Apo’, a village patriarch.
The last story in revolves around Apo and Ghazala, an old woman he loves. This octogenarian love story marks the end of this book. Apart from these four main stories, there are multiple short stories that are carefully stitched into the plot. There is one about a turtle and her mother who turns into a boat and then to a woman, a yeti who seeks human companionship, the ghost of an evaporated ocean, the Path of Eternal rain, and the list goes on.
Author Shubhangi Swarup amazes you in a million ways and undoubtedly this is one of the best works of fiction that came out of India. This magical realist novel will change the way we see people, landscapes, relations, forests, oceans, and faultlines. Latitudes of Longing has won the 2018 Tata Literature Live! First Book Award (Fiction) and was also shortlisted for the 2018 JCB Prize for Literature.
After 7 years of traveling through each place mentioned in this story, collecting all the nuances of human relationships, she has written an astonishing, brilliantly crafted debut novel. I can’t wait to read more works by her, till then I’ll re-read this one and all her news columns which are as funny and exciting as this book.
Click on the link below to grab your own copy!