Latitudes of Longing is an award-winning debut novel by Mumbai-based journalist, Shubhangi Swarup. Lyrical prose and sweeping landscapes of Southeast Asia coupled with scientific interest make this work an absolutely groundbreaking experience.
Monsoons, cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and musings of volcanic activity and continental drift serve as a vibrant backdrop for this “novella in four parts.” Four disparate stories are connected like a baton being passed between runners in a relay race. The main character of the next story is briefly introduced in the current story before taking the lead on the next leg of the journey. And then there’s the inclusion of Darwinism: “If the evolution of life was guided by survival, the movement of continents was guided by an imagination that no life form would be capable of comprehending.”
The first story, “Islands,” follows an Indian scientist and his clairvoyant bride as they establish themselves in an Andaman Island colony in the late 1940s. Their cottage is inhabited by mostly polite ghosts, however, one annoying slaughtered goat bleats into the night. In an arranged marriage turned love story, Chanda Devi saves her husband from a crocodile and the Oxford-educated Girija Prasad converts to vegetarianism for his wife — and to quiet the goat. After some time, Girija’s longing for his wife is answered and we eventually meet the family’s nanny, Rose Mary, who takes us to Burma.
“Faultline,” part two of the book, takes place in 1975 Burma and provides background on Rose Mary, her abusive husband, and the son she was forced to give up as a baby. Twenty-three years later, her son, self-named Plato, is in prison for being a communist revolutionizer. Plato asks his coffee shop friend, Thapa, to retrieve his mother from the Andamans so they can meet and she can help him get out of prison.
In the third part, “Valley,” sixty-year-old Thapa travels to Kathmandu around 1980 to smuggle drugs across the Himalaya. Thapa hooks up with Bebo, an aspiring exotic dancer who is so much younger than him she could be his granddaughter. The main characters in both “Faultline” and “Valley” are defined by their longing for food. Extreme hunger drove Rose Mary to commit an act of desperation and extreme hunger drove Bebo to attach herself to Thapa — that and bedtime stories. On one of his smuggling trips, Thapa is introduced to Apo, the patriarch of a hamlet in the Drakpo region of southeastern Tibet.
The fourth and final part of the book, “Snow Desert,” takes place on the Tibetan plateau. Eighty-seven-year-old Apo roams the mountainside spinning his Tibetan prayer wheel in search of his next wife who he has decided will be Ghazala, the old Kashmiri widow. Completing his journey of discovery, Girija Prasad from “Islands” appears as a ghost to his grandson, Rana. They discuss the seashell Rana still keeps from his mother, Girija’s daughter who was sent to the mainland for her education. They also discuss science and how some mountains are formed from volcanoes, unlike the Himalaya which were formed by plate tectonics. Girija also appears to Apo, closing the loop between past, present, and future.
Interspersed between the main story segments are vignettes of folktales, flashbacks to childhood, and changing weather patterns that either soothe or unnerve the characters — people and planet. Through all of the far-flung adventures, the planet is heaving, shedding, and morphing into something new where mountains fall, islands rise, and continents slowly crash into each other.
These collective stories deepen the understanding of the eternal longing suffered by the people, their ghosts, and the planet. Humans long for love, food, and freedom. Ghosts long to die again or live again, and the planet longs for eternal change across its many latitudes. Everyone longs for someone or something.
Latitudes of Longing
One World, an imprint of Random House
May 19, 2020