Siddhartha Deb grew up in a remote town Shillong of India and made his way to the United States via a fellowship at Columbia. Six years after leaving home, he returned as an undercover reporter for The Guardian, working at a call center in Delhi in 2004, a time when globalization was fast proceeding and Thomas L. Friedman declared the world flat. Deb is Associate Professor of Literary Studies, Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts. His reviews and journalism have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Guardian, Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, New Statesman, n+1, and The Times Literary Supplement.
1. The Point of Return
Set in the remote, northeastern hills of India, the point of return revolves around the father-son relationship of a willful, curious boy, Babu, and Doctor Dam, an enigmatic product of British colonial rule and Nehruvian nationalism. Told in reverse chronological order, the novel examines an India where the ideals that brought freedom from colonial rule are beginning to crack under the pressure of new rebellions and conflicts. For Dr. Dam and Babu, this has meant living as strangers in the same home, puzzled and resentful, tied only by blood. As the father grows weary and old and the son tries to understand him, clashes between ethnic groups in their small town show them to be strangers to their country as well. Before long, Babu finds himself embarking on a great journey, an odyssey through the memories of his father, his family, and his nation
Never at home
Review by Antara Dev Sen
The novel opens with an old man in a cold December dawn trying to go to the bathroom. Not a very promising beginning for a book.
But that is precisely what The Point of Return is all about-staring long and hard at the ordinary to discover how special it really is. It clearly establishes Siddhartha Deb as one of India’s finest new writers.
“You cannot be an exile in your own country,” he says, and offers the collective alienation, the wounds of betrayal, the craving to belong, the hurt of being rejected by your own country, by its people, its politics, its corrupt and inept administration, by its failure to be a safe and caring home.Through the eyes of Babu, the son of a middle-class, middle-level bureaucrat in the Northeast, Deb tells a story of India that one doesn’t often get to hear.
Of course, “the inaccuracies … can always be adjusted”. That’s what the government mechanism is for. For better and for worse-as Dr Dam, an upright and diligent “government servant”, finds out as he tries to balance what is right with what is expected and usually fails.
And it’s the story of his son Babu Dam (“Babudom?” Perhaps) trying to break free of this circle of discontent where personal lives reflect national history in a long-neglected part of the country, too distant from the centre of political power to be cared about, yet not far enough to escape its clutches.
An intensely political novel of rare sensitivity, with a structured disdain for chronology but a deep respect for history, The Point of Return brings us back in touch with the proper parameters of literary success.
Though backed by the stamp of Picador, it stands not on the billowing prop of marketing hype, but on the strength of its narrative, style and content.
It reflects the ethos of the younger Indian who can lay claim to his land but cannot escape its festering wounds. The Raj, the World Wars, Partition, sectarian violence, ethnic violence, language riots, the agony of displacement all seep into his consciousness and bind him to the matrix of India.
“Write many things, but don’t forget us,” says an embittered old man to Babu, the young journalist. “Remember.” Deb, who was once a young journalist, doesn’t let him down.
Deb’s experience interviewing the call-center staff led him to undertake this book and travel throughout the subcontinent.
The Beautiful and the Damned examines India’s many contradictions through various individual and extraordinary perspectives. With lyrical and commanding prose, Deb introduces the reader to an unforgettable group of Indians, including a Gatsby-like mogul in Delhi whose hobby is producing big-budget gangster films that no one sees; a wiry, dusty farmer named Gopeti whose village is plagued by suicides and was the epicenter of a riot; and a sad-eyed waitress named Esther who has set aside her dual degrees in biochemistry and botany to serve Coca-Cola to arms dealers at an upscale hotel called Shangri La.
Like no other writer, Deb humanizes the post-globalization experience―its advantages, failures, and absurdities. India is a country where you take a nap and someone has stolen your job, where you buy a BMW but still have to idle for cows crossing your path. A personal, narrative work of journalism and cultural analysis in the same vein as Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family and V. S. Naipaul’s India series, The Beautiful and the Damned is an important and incisive new work.
This book won the PEN Award
Two Ways of Seeing the Same India
Review by G. Sampath
In recent times, there has been no dearth of ‘India’ books that use easy generalisations as building blocks to construct a portrait of the nation that bears as much resemblance to reality as dieting does to starvation. The white man has been kind enough to bear some of this burden of explaining India to Indians, with a host of ‘India correspondents’, biographers, historians, and NRI coconuts (brown outside, white inside) taking a passage to India, and taking a passage out with a book that has ‘India’ in the title.
In the past couple of months, however, two remarkable books have broken this trend of macro-pontification with their micro-reportage. Aman Sethi’s A Free Man was one. Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful And The Damned, which released in India this month, though in an amputated form, is the other.
Deb’s book comes adorned with a pink paper necklace. The necklace bears a message for the reader: “The first chapter of this book has been removed in accordance with a court order.”
Arindam Chaudhuri, the head of Indian Institute of Planning and Management, whose grinning face has bludgeoned its way into public consciousness by virtue of sheer advertising power, was the subject of the excised chapter, titled ‘The Great Gatsby’.
As Deb observes in a note appended to the book, “There is a sad irony to the fact that a book about contemporary India, while available in full in most of the world, appears only in partial form for Indian readers. But that in itself says something about the state of affairs in India these days, where critiques of the powerful and wealthy, no matter how scrupulously researched, are subject so often to intimidation.”
Indeed, a deep sadness pervades the multiple narratives through which Deb seeks to present his impressions of 21st century India. He meets Indians from across the social spectrum: NRI entrepreneurs seeking security in million-dollar houses built on farmland-turned-SEZ-turned-residential real estate; farmers bankrupted by seed dealers who are themselves victims of forces unleashed by the free market; fresh-faced village youth who join a steel manufacturing sweatshop, and are reduced, in a matter of years, to shriveled, dried out shells of the men they used to be; a middle-class girl from Manipur who dreams of ‘making it’ in a city that barely acknowledges her claim to ‘Indianness’.
Deb’s prose has the transparency of a glass of cold water. It is refreshing, without being distracting. Sample, for instance, his description of workers in their ‘barracks’ at a steel factory near Hyderabad: “The men appeared shabby and their bodies looked worn out by the work, shorn of flab without being muscular. Some of them carried pots of water to go behind the barracks for a shit. Others pumped small stoves to get the fire going for their evening meal. There was no hint of domesticity about the food being prepared, nor any sign of pleasure. They chopped the vegetables mechanically, smoked a cigarette or a beedi, and urinated into the gutter.”
Perhaps the saddest story of all is the one you won’t find in the book — that of Arindam Chaudhuri. On the surface, his is a self-made success story of new India: starting off as a middle-class youth with one small business school set up by his father, Chaudhuri today is an enormously wealthy man presiding over an empire that traverses education, media, publishing, films, and public relations. Or so it seems. We can’t be sure, because we are allowed to have only Chaudhuri’s word for it. Indeed, what Deb does, and does well enough to piss off Chaudhuri, is to lay bare the pathos of this success story.
In what ought to be the defining quote of the book, Chaudhuri informs Deb, “I don’t like an image of me that isn’t me.” In a curious twist of irony, it transpires that Chaudhuri, the successful tycoon, is no more successful than the successful projection of an image of success. If his image crumbles, his entire business model and success story, both of which rest on this carefully constructed persona of Chaudhuri as an uber-successful businessman, might begin to unravel. Hence the intimidation through defamation suits, and the millions spent on advertisements to prop up Brand Arindam.
But what kind of success is this — one that is entirely image-built? There is a word in English for an image that has no basis in reality: ‘mirage’. As Deb observes, Chaudhuri’s “was the face of the new India.” His story, which is also the story of contemporary India, is about the victory of appearance over reality. It is the story of how appearances give rise to aspirations, which, when they fall short of realisation, give birth to another regime of appearances.
Reality itself is banished from such a world, by a court order if necessary. To enter reality, one has to go into exile. It is perhaps sadly fitting that in such an India, there is no place for a story like the one Deb seeks to narrate.
It is a truism that India after economic reforms is not the same country it was pre-liberalisation. A small minority that has benefited from it, and happily dominates the media, does for India what Chaudhuri does for himself — project a mythology of success, especially to moneybags abroad. This writer has personally met foreign investors who, taken in by the hype, land up here all excited to be a part of the ‘India story’, and then experience a series of emotional states that must be familiar to students who end up in B-schools promoted by fast-talking ‘visionaries’.
Remove the beautiful wrapping that is Shining India, you get Rotting India. The beautiful and the damned are not two Indias; they are two ways of seeing the same India. Do not miss this book.
3. An Outline of the Republic
Intrigued by a disturbing photograph of a woman, a young journalist in Calcutta embarks on a quest to learn the story behind the violent incident captured on film – a strange odyssey that leads him to a volatile remote corner of India mired in civil strife and sustained by timber, drugs, and guns. Yet the truth he hopes to uncover is as uncertain as the mysterious woman he seeks, smoldering dangerously on the border between illusion and reality. A gripping standalone thriller.
An Outline of the Republic was a finalist for the Hutch Crossword Award in India and a book of the year in the London Daily Telegraph.
‘Far-away’ is Perhaps Closer than Previously Imagined.
Review by Niranjana Iyer
The republic of India is often imagined in the shape of a diamond, with Kashmir and Kerala marking the north and south, and Bombay and Calcutta defining the western and eastern regions respectively. Such a map, however, would be incomplete; north of Calcutta lies a fragile strip of land (no more than twenty miles wide) that connects the Indian ‘mainland’ to the seven hill states of the north-east. Bounded by Burma, China, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, these states form one of the least-explored regions of the world, and are the setting and subject of Siddhartha Deb’s An Outline of the Republic.
Amrit Singh is a Delhi-educated journalist who works for a sleepy Calcutta newspaper named (inappropriately enough) the Sentinel. Going through the newspaper files, he chances upon a photograph of a young woman being held at gunpoint by two masked men. A note states that the woman is a porn actress killed by a north-eastern rebel group named MORLS, as a warning to those engaging in “corrupt activities.” Posted to the region on a routine assignment for the Sentinel, Amrit decides to privately investigate the photograph, partly out of curiosity and partly because a German acquaintance hints that his magazine in Tubingen will pay well for an article on the picture. The story, Amrit is instructed, must portray “the mystery and sorrow of India through the story of the woman in the photograph.”
North-eastern India, the reader learns, is rich in oil; the locals, however, have not benefited from the oil wells constructed by the Delhi government. Rebel groups are hence numerous, and have long been fomenting minor trouble, so as to convey their frustration and resentment to the central government. Deb introduces into this real-life scenario the rebel group MORLS (Movement Organized to Resuscitate the Liberation Struggle), which casts itself as a guardian of morality. MORLS’s activities include ordering women to dress modestly, forcing prostitutes to give up their trade, and threatening drug users with violence unless they kick the habit.
An isolated event in a remote location is thus revealed to be no less than a microcosm of the global conflicts of our age. Boundaries and borders—both physical and imagined—are fragile; nothing is one-sided in this novel. The German magazine is guilty of desiring to reduce India to a snappy sound-bite, but Amrit Singh, in search of an easy-to-market story that might grant him financial freedom, is no less culpable. The Delhi government may have suffered under the rule of imperial Britain not long ago, but is now quite content to take advantage of a far-away people in a far-away place.
As Amrit travels to the state of Manipur, and then across the border to Burma in search of his story, reality and illusion begin to blur. The woman in the photograph might not have been a porn actress. She might not be dead. The photograph might have been staged, either by the Indian government to discredit the rebels, or by the rebels themselves, as a warning to the local population. As Amrit goes deep into the region, the difference between the center and the periphery too becomes shadowy—Delhi is no longer the locus, but an unreal and increasingly irrelevant place.
Shades of Heart of Darkness indeed; in fact, An Outline of the Republic is prefaced by a quotation from Conrad “Do you see the story? Do you see anything?” Amrit is always searching for an objective truth, the real story under the layers of narrative, and the novel never veers from the viewpoint of a dispassionate observer.
This self-consciously journalistic tone, however, sometimes leads to the prose taking on an “explaining” note. Manipur is described as having “the highest rate of educated unemployment in the region, rampant drug use, promiscuity, AIDS, and regular violence with government forces as well as ethnic clashes.” Describing the diversity of passengers on a bus, Deb writes that it “felt like a microcosm of the region, indeed of the nation.” At its best, however, the novel is a clear-eyed declaration that nothing less than the truth should do—however complicated and elusive that truth might be. A subtle exploration of identity and conflict, without a whiff of exoticism, An Outline of the Republic is a timely addition not just to writings on India, but to the literature of the peripheries of the world, making the reader question whether ‘far-away’ is perhaps closer than previously imagined.