In Indian novelist Shubhangi Swarup’s celebrated new novel “Latitudes of Longing” one of her characters opines:
“That is art’s biggest tragedy. We can imagine god, god’s enemies, ideologies to fight over, but we can’t tell a single story of which we are not the centre. That is the root of all the world’s problems, my friend. But you cannot put yourself in someone else’s shoes until you remove your own.”
Her novel, which took seven years to research and write, is comprised of four stories with overlapping characters. You will want to put it on your ”to-read” list for 2019.
The idea of the novel, she told a reporter in India, came to her from her own travels and stories her mother told her.
“My mother was born in the Andamans and often told me stories about how the mountains and seas co-existed there and the different creatures of the land. I grew up in Bombay in an urban and privileged setting, and hearing these stories filled me up with curiosity,” she said.
The novel’s four stories are each set in a different geographical setting, where nature occupies center stage and is a character of its own.
Swarup is not shy in explaining the path she took: “I wanted to tell stories of nature and bring in different perspectives through a grander narrative, so I weaved characters out of the elemental forces and natural history. But this was tougher than it seems. It is somehow considered experimental to give nature the centre stage it deserves, when that is one of the biggest truths of our lives. The current conventions of storytelling can be quite stifling — artificially plotted, severely restrictive by their formula. I wanted to move away from them.”
And move away from such restrictive conventions she did, which is what makes her novel so compelling. It deserves a wide readership not only in India but in the rest of the English-speaking world as well.
The recent murder of a mentally-unbalanced Christian missionary intent on telling dark-skinned Asian “heathens” about a make-believe pale-skinned god of the West (the young and misguided American missionary was killed by a Sentinelese tribe in India after he illegally ventured onto their land, against the laws of India) made shocking international headlines.
Although Swarup does not write about this incident in her novel as it happened after her book was published, her book delves into some of the issues at stake when West meets East.
In terms of being an optimist, the author has strong beliefs.
”I believe that if one cannot imagine a better future, it will never become a possibility,” she told The Wire reporter. “Our vision of the future is so human-centric right now. It revolves around hybrid cars and virtual reality and A.I. Only when we start to look at the story and not just moments, and tell the story of Earth instead of just us, will we move forward towards coexistence.”
About climate change, Swarup doesn’t mince words either, saying without mentioning Trump’s name: ”Nature doesn’t recognize political borders. Yet, the generations before us have been so occupied by this schizophrenic view of the world, that our politics prevent us from coming together to save species and forests.”’
And this Indian novelist with a vision and a voice adds: ”The current response of our governments reminds me of Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned. Each and every one of us has a crucial role to play. As a writer, I use my stories to expand the reader’s horizon to include Earth’s history, to make forces of nature as intimate as any other character one cares for in the book. This is the task I give myself, and my question to the reader is: what is yours?”