The Earthspinner

Anuradha Roy

Mountain Leopard Press, £16.99

Review by Nick Major

What would happen to all our wild, unhinged thoughts if they didn’t get indulged once in a while? One shudders to think. But if art has any use at all, perhaps it provides an outlet for the myriad fantasies that consume our minds, preventing the spread of too much insanity on the planet. In a sense, Anuradha Roy’s intriguing sixth novel, is about two artists’ constant negotiation between fantasy and reality.

Actually, it has two-and-a-half protagonists. Elango is a potter and rickshaw driver in Kummarapet, India. His young apprentice, Sara, is a girl whom he drives to school. Chinna is a stray dog, who wanders through their lives, providing solace to the battered humans. Sara is given first-person narration, but Elango’s perspective is offered in the third. Much of the story is set in 1977, although Sara narrates her story when she is a university student in England, years later. These changing perspectives might, at first, seem baffling, but it works. The novel’s world becomes clay on the potter’s wheel, being viewed from different angles in space and time.

The big political event of 1977 was the fall of Indira Gandhi. Sara recalls the jubilation in the country at the start of the premiership of Morarji Desai: "while our parents talked about an end to the brutalities of the Emergency, what interested me and my sister was Mrs G’s successor, a humourless old man who drank his own urine as a tonic." Sara and her sister sing a song about their new leader: "Dear Mr Desai, would you like some tea?/ Oh no, little girls, I’d love a glass of pee."

Rightly, politics is treated with both seriousness and light-heartedness. The religious tension between Hindus and Muslims in India is encapsulated in the secret relationship between Elango, from a Hindu background, and Zohra, a Muslim. When Elango decides to mould a giant terracotta horse, he searches his imagination, through Greek and Indian myths, to find out where the idea came from. He imagines himself "a potter trapped in an epic of his own, a woman at its centre, two blighted lovers, their union thwarted by warring tribes".

The project takes over his life. He asks Zohra’s grandfather, a calligrapher, to inscribe the horse. This turns out to have consequences that reverberate through the years, for better or worse. When he leaves town, the novel subsequently shifts more permanently to Sara, and becomes a mini bildungsroman. In England, Sara uses the university’s pottery studio as a place of familiarity in a strange land. The characters in Roy’s novel are constantly being disoriented in the world, forced to find their place once more.

The plot shifts again, but Roy never loses control. Her writing can sometimes become a little prosaic, and a few scenes, including one where an old chauvinistic Hindu woman incites a riot, seem forced. Nevertheless, it’s worth persevering. Near the end the style improves and the characters take on a sharper focus. Darius, a minor character, is described as having a body that "has been assembled with more joints than necessary … he is liable to trip over his long limbs and fall any minute, like a puppet tangled in his own strings".

Darius is the boyfriend of Sara’s one friend at university, Karin, who is also caught between different cultures. Sara spends a lot of time listening to her friend talk about her life; it just confirms her "ideas about the nature of the cosmos, that it’s hell-bent on doing things we can neither anticipate nor prevent". Growing up, for Sara, is a realisation that our desires are always compromised by that old foe, reality. It’s insights like these that make The Earth Spinner such a lucid and enjoyable novel.