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Outsider Perils

An original ambition matched only by the author's skill.

Outsider Perils
Outsider Perils
The Point Of Return
By Siddhartha Deb
Picador India Pages: 227; Rs 395
For most Indians, Partition has a singular meaning; it refers to the splitting of the country into two in ’47. It’s easy to forget the second Partition as East Pakistan became Bangladesh and another wave of refugees shuttled between borders again, paying the necessary toll in blood.

With little effort, Siddhartha Deb could have rehashed a Tamas for the times. But Deb—journalist, migrant several times over, debut novelist of startling maturity—has a story to tell that deals with borders and boundaries while going far beyond them. The book opens with the first generation’s travails already past, entombed in indifferent silence. For Babu, the narrator-in-chief: "It was not a question of roots or origin." Babu’s done most of his growing up in Rilbong—Shillong thinly fictionalised. The Northeast has already "emotionally seceded into its own space"; its Bengali immigrants have the first intimations that the certainties of their lives are built on quicksand.

Babu’s father, Dr Dam, has struggled with the problems facing a government servant quixotically bent on being honest even as he aspires to the ultimate in middle-class security, a house of his own. As he dwindles, beset by the many humiliations visited on those not rich or powerful, Babu begins his difficult journey backwards into time. His attempts to excavate his father’s life may be the only way he can make sense of his own. In ‘Rilbong’, the question of who’s an outsider is mirrored and parodied endlessly as Adolf Hitler (his namesake, at any rate) rules the streets. The epithet "Dkhar" —foreigner—is hurled at Babu’s head as the tribals, themselves branded outsiders in indifferent India, struggle to assert themselves. Babu knows there’s no way back. But there are also memory’s claims: "People think that those who have gone away have relinquished their rights to the place left behind."

This is not so, insists The Point of Return, as it cuts through time zones, political upheaval and borders in pursuit of one family’s truth. The book displays an original ambition matched only by the author’s skill; if Deb has any more stories to tell, I intend to be in the listener’s circle.


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