Study Guide

An Atlas of Impossible Longing

by Anuradha Roy

An Atlas of Impossible Longing Summary

Chapter Summaries

Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary

Anuradha Roy’s first novel to be published in the United States, An Atlas of Impossible Longing (2011), is set in India and follows the lives of three generations of a middle-class family. Carol Haggas, writing for Booklist, described Roy’s debut novel as being “incandescently evocative” and “filled with wrenching tragedy as well as abiding passion.”

The novel is divided into three parts. The first part is called “The Drowned House.” In Chapter 1 of Part 1, the story focuses on Amulya, who is described as a learned man who left his family’s home in Calcutta twenty years ago to set up a business in a small country town at the edge of the jungle, Songarh. Living with Amulya is his wife, Kananbala, and their two sons, Kamal and Nirmal. The business that Amulya has established in Songarh produces herbal potions and pills. At the opening of the novel, it is 1927, and Amulya is sitting uncomfortably at a party given by some of his workers. Amulya feels obliged to be at the tribal celebration so as to demonstrate his understanding and acceptance of local customs. But Amulya is not a social person and is anxious to leave. When he is finally able to excuse himself, it is late.

Kananbala is waiting for him. She attempts to disguise her anger and suspicion that her husband has been flirting with local girls at the party. Kananbala is frustrated because her husband spends less time at home than he used to, and she spends most of her time in the house with little to do. There are no neighbors with whom Kananbala can develop relationships. Larissa and Digby Barnum live across the street, but they are British, and the two families do not speak to one another; there are both language and cultural barriers between them. However, because she is bored, Kananbala often watches the Barnums out of her bedroom window. She keeps tabs on the strange clothes they wear and how they treat their Indian servants. Mr. Barnum is...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 2 Summary

Nirmal has been married for a year and a half now, and his wife, Shanti, is expecting their baby. Nirmal, who has been teaching at the university, has become interested in archeology and is applying for a job with the Archaeological Survey of India. In the midst of his filling out the application, he begins to reflect on the changes in his recent life. He expresses his awe to Shanti of the dramatic transitions he has gone through. A year and a half ago, he was single. Now his is married and about to become a father. A year and a half ago, his mother was normal. Now she is confined to her room because her communications with her family have become so radical.

The focus moves to Nirmal’s mother, Kananbala, who is sitting in her room and watching the Barnum family across the street. Mr. Barnum is in a bad mood and yells at his servants. When his wife approaches him and tries to quiet him, Mr. Barnum slaps her across the face.

On several other occasions, Kananbala takes note of the various fancy dresses Mrs. Barnum wears each night that she and her husband go out. Kananbala waits up for them so she can witness their return. Mrs. Barnum often looks uneasy on her feet, swaggering across the lawn and having to be led through the front gate. Sometimes the Barnums entertain guests at their home. Kananbala watches to see who attends, hoping she will recognize someone she knew, but she never does.

Kananbala notices that there are weeks when Mr. Barnum appears to be out of town. For long stretches of days, Kananbala does not see him. During these absences, however, Mrs. Barnum continues to go out. Later, Larissa Barnum returns with a man Kananbala does not recognize. She can hear them laughing. One night, Mrs. Barnum points up to Kananbala’s window and waves. The stranger waves too.

This arrangement continues for a long time. Mr. Barnum disappears, and Larissa Barnum spends as much of her time as possible with the...

(The entire section is 656 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 3 Summary

Due to a lack of reliable witnesses, the police do not have enough information to bring anyone to trial for Mr. Barnum’s murder. After investigating the local population, the police discover that many people disliked the Barnums, but no one stands out as a possible suspect. The young lover, in the meantime, flees to Calcutta, and the police lose his trail. People who knew the man suggest that he might have gone to Australia. With this lack of information, the murder is quickly forgotten. The only one who thinks of it is Kananbala, who often worries about the story she made up about the night of the murder. She hopes she has not gotten anyone in trouble, especially not Larissa Barnum. Because she is not allowed out of her house—and rarely even out of her room—Kananbala has no way of hearing the gossip surrounding the case.

Nirmal and Shanti are preparing for their baby’s birth. In accordance with tradition, Shanti has returned to her family’s home for the occasion. Shanti’s mother had died when she was very young, so she will be under the care of her father and her aunt. Most of Nirmal’s family, with the exception of his mother who does not pay much attention to anything but her own thoughts, is anxiously awaiting the new baby—the first child of the third generation.

Manjula, Kamal’s wife, is not as excited, nor is she looking forward to the event. She and her husband tried everything to have their own child. Her sense of loss is increased with the anticipated new arrival. Majula thinks she must have done something to irritate the gods, so over the years, she has tried to make amends. She has fasted, prayed, and made offerings at both Sufi and Devi temples. Now she has been married more than three years and is somewhat resigned to being barren. As she prepares to have a new baby in the house, she grows more stern. Her workload will increase, and she has no one to help her. She bemoans the fact that her mother-in-law...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary

The scene changes to Shanti’s family home in Manoharpur in rural Bengal. Her father’s home sits at the edge of a river that, to Shanti’s mind, seems to widen each year, slowly rising closer and closer to the foundation of the house. Her father tells her not to worry. The house is strongly built. But when Shanti walks along the edge of the river, she sees that the steps where she used to play with her school friends are now under water. She imagines seeing her childhood friends standing on the submerged staircase. When an image of her own face appears under the water, she runs away in fright.

Bikash Babu, Shanti’s father, is entertaining an old acquaintance and feeling slightly nostalgic about his past. When Bikash had his mansion built with its many pillars and Roman arches, he had a lot of money. Now most of that money is gone. Most of what is left is tied up in the house. Bikash refuses to notice how threatened the house has become by the rising river. He dismisses the concerns about the mildewed, crumbling, wet walls. He ignores the swayed ceilings, signs that the river has already saturated the foundation of the house and the moisture has been absorbed by the floors and the walls. Bikash explains to his visitor that he has had engineers examine the lay of the land around his house. They reported that the house was safe for at least another two generations.

A storm is gathering. As Shanti takes a nap, the wind picks up and bends the trees and slams doors shut. A maid is sitting out on the veranda to enjoy a few quiet moments between meals. She is surprised by the quick movements of the large, black clouds moving across the skies. After it rains for three days with no sign of letting up, people begin commenting on how unusual the weather is, even for monsoon season. Bikash yells at his servants when he has to point out that the legs of the chairs on the veranda are standing in water. He orders that the chairs be removed. A...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 5 Summary

The story returns to Songarh, where Mrs. Barnum has walked across the street to visit her neighbor, Kananbala. None of the other members of the family are aware of Mrs. Barnum’s presence because one of the servants opened the door to her and showed her to Kananbala’s room. Mrs. Barnum invites Kananbala to come for a visit. The two women do not share a common language, so servants must translate. What they do not vocalize, Kananbala assumes through gesture and tone of voice. Although she is somewhat startled by Larissa Barnum, she is also exhilarated by the idea of going out.

Without asking permission from anyone, Kananbala does what Mrs. Barnum invites her to do. She descends the stairs, walks out of the house, and...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 1 Summary

Eleven years have passed. Amulya’s household is now headed by his oldest son, Kamal. Nirmal, the second son, is living in another, undisclosed city. He has been traveling most of these eleven years. He stops at home only briefly to check on his daughter and then disappears again. He works as an archaeologist and has traveled all over most of Asia.

Also living in the family home are Kananbala and Manjula. The additions to the family include Bakul, Nirmal’s daughter, who is now eleven; Meera, a widow who was asked to come to the home to act as mother to Bakul; and Mukunda, the boy born out of wedlock that Amulya had once supported at the local orphanage. In his will, Amulya stated that Mukunda should be supported by...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 2 Summary

After not having seen his daughter for five years, Nirmal returns home. He tells Bakul that he has come back for good. The last time he saw her, she was only six years old. Now she is almost a teenager and has lost all the chubbiness of her childhood. He barely recognizes her except for her wildly curly hair and the color of her eyes, which are both characteristics from her mother. When he greets her, Bakul is standoffish. She does not trust her father; he is little more than a stranger to her. In addition, she is angry that he has not previously wanted to be home with her. Nirmal offers Bakul a gift, a stone the same color of her eyes, he tells her. When Nirmal is not looking, Bakul throws the stone into the water well.

...

(The entire section is 751 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 3 Summary

Nirmal is so distracted by Meera that he has trouble concentrating on his job at the fort. Every lunchtime he slips away from his office and goes in search of Meera, hoping to find her doing more sketches. One day he asks her if he can see her work. Meera is embarrassed at first but allows him to see some of her landscape drawings. In the process, Nirmal also glimpses portraits she has made of him. These sketches are more than mere images. They are created with passionate strokes and gestures, through which Nirmal interprets that Meera is in love with him. Nirmal suggests that Meera make sketches of the fort. Nirmal can use the drawings in his work, and he thinks this is another way to keep Meera close to him. Maybe if she is...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 4 Summary

The next time Nirmal and Meera meet at the fort, Nirmal brings a surprise. He hands Meera a lunch tin and tells her to open it. Inside, Meera finds fried fish, one of the forbidden foods. She is embarrassed and turns away from the food, but Nirmal insists that she try it. Reluctantly, she breaks off a small piece and turns her face away from him when she chews it. She is, of course, delighted, and the act of defiance fills her with joy.

Meanwhile, Mukunda is agitated by curiosity. He must find proof of either Mrs. Barnum’s innocence or guilt. He waits for the right time, when she is busy in another part of the house, and he ascends to her bedroom. He is searching for more letters when Mrs. Barnum discovers him. She...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Part 3, Chapter 1 Summary

The setting shifts to Calcutta and now the book focuses on Mukunda as he matures into adulthood. The longing mentioned in the title is Mukunda’s longing. He knows nothing of his family. He does not even know for sure the date of his birth. Although has lived in many different places, he has never really had a home. The closest he came to having a family and a home was when he was living with Nirmal and Bakul, but he was forced to leave them. This leaves him with very passionate longings to belong.

While in Calcutta at school, Mukunda made a friend with a young man his own age named Arif. When they graduate and Arif must leave the city, he introduces Mukunda to his landlord, who offers to let Mukunda stay in a room in...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Part 3, Chapter 2 Summary

Barababu sends Mukunda to an acquaintance, Aangti Babu. He is a somewhat unscrupulous businessman but he offers Mukunda a job. Mukunda apprentices under Aangati Babu, who buys and sells property; sometimes he tears houses down to sell pieces of it, but he leaves the rubble behind. Part of the business also often entails throwing people out of their houses because they cannot make the payments or have in some other way lost ownership.

With the influx of immigrants, there is a constant demand for housing, so Aangti’s business is very profitable. Mukunda learns the business, and eventually Aangati Babu trusts him with more complicated responsibilities.

When Mukunda turns twenty-three, his old business friend...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Part 3, Chapter 3 Summary

It has been twelve years since Mukunda left Songarh. He travels back in a train, the same way he once left all that he ever had as a home. When he arrives in Songarh, he is surprised at how small everything looks: the train station, the town, the streets. He has grown used to living in Calcutta.

He goes to Nirmal’s house, but Nirmal and Bakul are not there. A small boy answers the door when Mukunda knocks but says he cannot come in. He has been given orders not to allow anyone inside the house. Mukunda finds out later that the thugs have been trying to persuade Nirmal to leave his home by throwing stones at the doors and windows at night.

When Nirmal and Bakul arrive home, Bakul recognizes Mukunda...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Part 3, Chapter 4 Summary

Back in Calcutta, Mukunda goes to Aangti and makes a deal: He offers Aangti his house in Calcultta in exchange for Nirmal’s house in Songarh, plus some cash to make up the difference because the house in Calcutta is worth more. Aangti agrees, though he offers Mukunda a little less cash than Mukunda requested.

At home, Mukunda writes a letter to Nirmal; he does not tell him the details but only the results. The family home is now in Nirmal’s name. He can live there as long as he wants. Nirmal responds and tells Mukunda how grateful he is. In some ways, this makes Mukunda uneasy; he thinks Nirmal sounds weak. But Mukunda is glad that Bakul is now safe.

To make the deal go through, Mukunda must move his...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Part 3, Chapter 5 Summary

Two years have passed, and Mukunda is doing well in his business. He has grown accustomed to his wife’s absence and feels somewhat guilty for being so comfortable in his new single life.

One day, he goes to visit Aangti’s office to gather some papers. While there, he notices an old woman sitting in a chair but does not recognize her. But when he walks outside, someone calls his name. It takes a while to remember him, but there standing in front of him was Suleiman, the Muslim man who had left Mukunda his house. The woman inside the office is Suleiman’s wife. They go out for tea and exchange stories of the past nine years. Suleiman tells Mukunda of the hardships they have endured. Many people died; Suleiman has...

(The entire section is 578 words.)