The opening section of Shubhangi Swarup’s debut novel is set in India’s tropical Andaman Islands. Forestry Minister, Girija Prasad, marries clairvoyant Chanda Devi: he works with trees, she converses with them.
But the main character in Latitudes of Longing is the Earth. Humans are simply messengers to enlighten others about understanding the planet.
Chanda Devi also sees ghosts and can hear when changes in the earth will occur, changes like tsunamis and other storms. When Girija Prasad asks Chanda Devi about ghosts—he cannot see them—she explains why some people turn into ghosts while others don’t.
Ghosts do not live where they died. They return to the place where they felt the most alive. They have struggled, lived, and enjoyed their time there so much, they cannot let go.
The couple works together in the forest, he leading the way to examine various trees and she interpreting to him what they tell her. In one especially visual scene, Chanda Devi interprets a conversation between a banyan tree and her husband:
Teak was the most profitable timber in the world. If he could grow teak in the Andaman Islands, a perfect soil and climate for its growth, the Forest Department would be rich. But the banyan prophesied that teak would prove vulnerable to fungi the local flora had grown immune to. Girija Prasad considered the banyan’s views odd. He went back to his greenhouse and tested all the local forms of fungi on teak saplings. The saplings remained healthy. There was a reason why teak was considered to be the sturdiest timber in the world, exported to make railroads in Alaska and machans in Congo: it was impervious to infection.
Man manipulates different types of trees to create commodities, and Swarup warns about the violence to the environment. But not just the environment:
The British and the Japanese had left the islands. The Indian rulers had introduced something new to the archipelago. Something that had thrived for centuries on the mainland and symbolized the new republic in a way that even the tricolored flag couldn’t. Poverty. The islands were bursting with refugees from East Pakistan, from across the Bay of Bengal. More people were arriving every day. Without a livelihood for them to rely on, and no colonial power or cyclone to blame, poverty grew unhindered like a weed.
Nor just the Andamans. Latitudes of Longing spans not only the Andaman Islands, but also Burma, Nepal, Tibet and the Karakoram pass; the politics of these places plays into the story, too. The son of Girija Prasad and Chanda Devi’s housekeeper, a Burmese dissident who goes by the name of Plato, muses:
Burma, the country they are fighting over, is blessed with all the precious gemstones and metals of the world. Amber, emeralds, jade, pearls, gold, platinum, even the world’s biggest sapphires and rubies… to him, the value of gemstones—the consistency of imperial jade, the malleability of gold, the hardness of diamonds, and the vibrant pigeon blood that colors rubies—lies in metaphor. The rocks attain their beauty and hardiness through profound violence.
The characters in each of the locales change and are interrelated, sometimes in only marginal ways, but a couple make a full circle at the end. But one of the most fitting scenes in this novel written before Covid-19 occurs back in the section set in the Andaman Islands. Chanda Devi tells Girija Prasad: