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This reading group guide for The Folded Earth includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anuradha Roy. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In a remote town in the Himalaya, a young widow named Maya tries to put her past behind her. By day she teaches in a school and at night she types drafts of a magnum opus by her landlord, an eccentric scholar and a relic of princely India. Her bond with him and her friendship with a village girl, Charu, seem to offer her the chance for a new life in the village of Ranikhet, where lush foothills meet clear skies. As Maya finds out, however, no refuge is remote enough to separate her from her past. The world she has come to love, where people are connected with nature, is endangered by the town’s new administration. By turns poetic, elegiac, and comic, The Folded Earth is a multilayered narrative about characters struggling with their pasts even as they fight for freedom and clarity in the present.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The setting of The Folded Earth, particularly the author’s descriptions of nature in the Himalayan foothills, plays a huge role in the book’s narrative. In what ways does nature—from the weather in Ranikhet to the landscape—impact the story of The Folded Earth?
2. Why does Maya come to the small, isolated village of Ranikhet? Is it to escape her troubled past? Does she succeed? Do you think there’s any physical place a person can go to get over the past and begin a new life? If you had to start over, where in the world would you choose to go?
3. Maya’s parents formally disowned her when she married outside her faith and caste. How do the residents of the Light House come to be a surrogate family for Maya? What are the problems and rewards of being part of this makeshift family?
4. Roy describes two of her characters, Kundan and Charu, as both being “a child of the hills.” What do you think it means to be “a child of the hills”? Does it come with a particular personality or outlook on life? How might a person’s hometown come to define him or her?
5. Puran is called half-witted and an imbecile, he’s a kind of “holy fool” who creates mayhem, but he has a special gift for communicating with and gaining the trust of animals. What do you think the character of Puran represents in the novel? What important roles does he play?
6. Ama and Diwan Sahib, two central, elderly characters in the book, are from vastly different backgrounds. One is an unread, poor village woman, the other a learned aristocrat. What is the source of their mutual trust and unstated affection?
7. Why do you think Maya first falls in love with Veer? How is he similar to Michael? Is there any indication that he might have ill intentions?
8. Two of the book’s prominent characters, Michael and Maya’s father, play no direct role in the events, and we meet them only through Maya’s thoughts: the past seems as vivid as the present in her life. What does this tell us about the role of memory in the book?
9. Why was Jim Corbett’s life so appealing both to Diwan Sahib and to Maya? How do both characters try to live by Corbett’s philosophy? What does the act of writing about him say about the personalities of both Diwan Sahib and Maya?
10. Diwan Sahib and the General are relics of an old way of life in India. Do you think the new generation will learn from their mistakes? Can the younger people fully appreciate the old men’s glories and struggles?
11. Charu is illiterate when readers are first introduced to her, but she eventually learns to read and write, and she eventually escapes her small village. Did her evolution surprise you? What would have happened to her if she hadn’t been able to find Kundan in Delhi? Would she have been able to resume her old way of life?
12. Why do you think Diwan Sahib never shared the letters between Nehru and Edwina?
13. Given the heavy foreshadowing of political and religious unrest in the region, it’s a great relief when Ranikhet native Ankit Rawat wins the election. Do you think this victory shows that the village will remain intact? Or will these pockets of unrest cause further problems in the future?
14. For most of the novel, the situation for Miss Wilson and the other teachers and students at Maya’s school seems ominous. Do you think they’ll continue to be safe?
15. Where do you think Maya will go at the end of the novel? What will happen to Ama and Puran? Did Maya do the right thing in destroying Diwan Sahib’s will?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The author’s love of nature is evident on almost every page of The Folded Earth. Go for a walk outdoors with the members of your book group—even if it’s not quite as majestic as the views that Maya sees every day, find elements of nature that speak most to you in the place where you live.
2. From roti and biryani to mango pickles, The Folded Earth features a wide variety of Indian foods. Have each member of your book club bring an Indian dish to your discussion of The Folded Earth, and sample some of the delicacies described in the book.
3. Maya has many dreams that mirror her mood or predict future events. Have the members of your book club describe dreams they’ve recently had, and use a dream book or website to try to interpret the meanings of these dreams.
A Conversation with Anuradha Roy
You currently live in Ranikhet with your husband. What is your experience of the region? What would you like readers of The Folded Earth to take away about what life is like in contemporary India?
Young locals in Ranikhet often have the sense that life is elsewhere, and leave the town for cities like Delhi looking for the buzz, energy, and opportunities in them. In Ranikhet, by contrast, life is spartan, the weather is often harsh, the solitude can seem extreme to those unused to it. The pace is very different—everything takes more time—and it has none of a big city’s anonymity nor its aggression. If readers went to Ranikhet after being in Delhi or Mumbai they would get to know two very different sides of India.
It’s clear from the lush descriptions in the novel that you are deeply enamored of the natural phenomena of the book’s setting. How do you think the setting informed the events of the novel? What are some of the defining characteristics of “hill people”?
A big theme of the book is the place of wilderness in our lives—so “nature” in the book is not meant to be decorative, it is central to it. At the level of what happens in the book, many of those things could have happened only in these mountains: Corbett, the wildlife, the climbing.
I can’t generalize about hill people, of course, and nobody is isolated from urban influences any more because of TV and the media. But it’s striking how generally good-tempered and lighthearted the villagers are there despite leading such hard lives. It’s not just a matter of good manners—it’s their way of being. Most people there will sacrifice making more money for lying about in the sun in the afternoon for a snooze or chatting with friends. It’s as if they’ve discovered the secret of contentment without a single self-help book.
Maya thinks of Ranikhet as a refuge from her troubled past. Do you think she can ever fully escape? Are you drawn to Ranikhet for any of the same reasons that Maya is? How much of what you’ve written in the novel is informed by actual circumstances?
Maya and I don’t actually share anything but a propensity for long walks. Some things I experience obviously go into my fiction, in the sense that they can trigger a thought process or idea, but they are transformed as I develop the idea. The Ranikhet in the book is not the Ranikhet of real life. Not even the map. Politically, the things that happen in the book reflect disturbing trends in India as a whole, but are not specific to Ranikhet.
You describe Veer’s phone and Internet connection, even while characters like Ama and Charu live rather provincial lives. How much has modern technology impacted impoverished villages like Ranikhet? Do you think the divide between the haves and have-nots is increasing?
The divide between haves and have-nots is increasing all over the country. At the same time, modern technology has begun to reach remote places and is accessible to many more people than before. Village women used to be tongue tied when asked to speak on a telephone; now I see them using their own cell phones. Yet they might still be extremely deprived in their daily lives, doing hard physical labor, eating poor food, walking long distances to fetch drinking water. It’s difficult to make any sense of it.
Although many of the themes and subjects you write about in The Folded Earth are deeply serious, there’s a great deal of humor throughout. How do you balance the two?
I guess what is serious need not be grim, and this is true of fiction as much as it is of life.
You’re an editor at Permanent Black, an independent press that specializes in South Asian history, politics, and culture. How does being an editor differ from being a writer? Please tell us more about the press.
We started our press, my husband, Rukun Advani, and I, eleven years ago. It began with one book on our list, our own savings, and no work space but our dining table. We went through huge uncertainty at that time, not knowing if we would survive; gradually the imprint established itself and the list grew into 300 books by the best scholars on South Asia. But we still work at our dining table and are still independent.
Editing needs you to enter another writer’s head, see a text as the writer; writing fiction needs you to shut yourself into a world that exists only for you, one that you are creating. Editing needs empathy and outwardness; writing needs a cocoon. I couldn’t balance the two. I stopped editing and switched to designing our covers.
You left the ending of The Folded Earth ambiguous. Do you have an idea in your head of what might become of Maya after the close of the novel? Or what might happen to the village itself?
I know only as much as the reader does.
The Folded Earth is your second novel. What did you learn in the process of publishing your first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, and how does this experience compare?
The publishing process for Atlas was long and disheartening because of the number of times it was rejected, and that left me in despair. The excitement, newness, and thrill of it when it did come out were stratospheric, partly because it was so unexpected that from being universally rejected it would end up being translated into so many languages. The writing of The Folded Earth was as intense, but fortunately the publication process had more of the highs and fewer lows.
What’s next for you? Are you working on a new book?
I’m always writing. But for a long stretch I don’t know if what I am writing will shape into a book. That’s where it is right now.
Anuradha Roy is the award-winning author of The Folded Earth and An Atlas of Impossible Longing, which has been published in sixteen countries and named by World Literature Today as one of the sixty most essential books on modern India. She lives in India.