View from the precipice
Author: Siddhartha Deb
Price: Rs 495
Genre: Political thriller
'I was going the wrong way, he had said, and the road seemed to offer little to challenge his view'...these are the random thoughts that enter Amrit, a young journalist's head, as he makes a precarious journey through borderline North Eastern states in India. And for many reasons, as a reader, one feels the same sense of futility with the story that Amrit is trying to chase.
Based somewhere in the early 90s, (as the portable typewriter that he carries around would suggest,)Amrit, a correspondent of a Calcutta-based newspaper called Sentinel, is urged to go to the unexplored borderline states and look out for 'light' stories. Nothing beyond adventure travel, folk and festivals, his editor warns.
But Amrit, disappointed by his own idleness, looks at it as an opportunity to explore a world caught in turmoil. He's spurred on further when his German acquaintance, Herman shows interest in a picture about an Indian woman, tied and captured by two masked men from an insurgent group called MORLS. The men announce that they would be shooting the woman as punitive action for acting in a porn film.
Herman sees potential in the story that could be then forwarded to the German magazines he knows of. He expects a story that would be emblematic 'of the mystery and sorrow of India through the story of the woman in the photograph'
It wouldn't need even a journalist's instinct to see this as a pretty weak premise. There's a terrible lack of conviction to the story that Amrit is following and at many points, the events around him appear more relevant than the story itself. Which means the author's attempt to weave in an interesting political thriller, with various characters providing leads to the story, fails to engage. And it doesn't help that the narrator, fighting his own past demons, remains mostly a detached, cynical narrator, barely interested in the people he meets.
Where the novel scores heavily is in its topographical descriptions that provides glimpses (the images come in flashes) into this fragmented, peripheral world that is ' just too far way' for anyone to be concerned with. The apathy, in turn, means a life of constant dread, despair and disillusionment for the people of this otherwise, lush hinterland.
There are several disconcerting accounts here....
Like one gets to know how most of these parts being severely low on voltage manage to generate only dim yellow lights, which feels like ‘the onset of a fever, a sickness….’
Similarly, the desperate state of unemployment around these regions strikes you when you see young, educated people masking themselves, while driving rickshaws. As explained, it is an attempt to keep one’s identity hidden and suggests a search for a better life.
There are more such striking moments in this otherwise languorously paced novel.
To summarize, An Outline of a Republic (also called Surface) is not a wholly engaging read but that is, I suspect, mostly to do with certain creative choices made here. Otherwise, Siddhartha Deb strikes you as nothing but an astute, insightful and talented writer. The fact that Deb grew up in a lower middle class family in the North-East allows him to go through his subject with a certain amount of assurance and control.
Yet, for most part, this elegant novel remains too elusive and unsentimental to touch at the heart of the matter.