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Siddhartha Deb's latest book is a layered look at the times

From the Partition to the Bhopal gas tragedy, Siddhartha Deb spans decades to tell a story about a changing country and its people

With chapters spanning the Calcutta of 1947 (above) to the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984, Deb’s novel is divided into four sections.
With chapters spanning the Calcutta of 1947 (above) to the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984, Deb’s novel is divided into four sections. (Getty Images)

Siddhartha Deb’s latest novel The Light at the End of the World is a shoo-in for 2023’s end-of-the-year lists. A wildly ambitious work spanning 450-odd pages, the novel is divided into four standalone sections, their key concerns converging in the stunning conclusion.

In 1859, a British soldier encounters a Himalayan anti-colonial rebellion where there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. In the Calcutta of 1947, a veterinarian stumbles upon an ancient secret connected to Vedic-era technology. On the eve of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984, an assassin ponders the potential Butterfly Effect of his target’s impending demise. And in the Delhi of the near future, a former journalist named Bibi is on the trail of her former colleague, a man determined to prove the Indian government’s involvement in a labyrinthine conspiracy involving top-secret weaponry, medical experiments, detention centres and possibly, even aliens.

There’s a lot happening on the page in each of these sections, and it is to Deb’s credit that he never loses the reader’s attention despite the sometimes-challenging plot density. My favourite was the section set in Calcutta around the time of the Partition, where Deb is particularly good with the aura of foreboding.

The Light at the End of the World By Siddhartha Deb, Context Westland,  458 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799
The Light at the End of the World By Siddhartha Deb, Context Westland, 458 pages, 799

Whether it’s a scene situated in the past or the near future, we know that Deb is talking about the present—and it is this conversation across time that is the trickiest aspect of writing a novel like The Light at the End of the World. You not only have to capture the nature of life from a century ago, you have to do it with subtext that speaks to the contemporary moment. In other words, your allegory has to be broad enough to make sense to a broad range of people, but also specific enough for a pointed allusion — which is this novel’sgreatest achievement.

In a conversation with Mint Lounge, Deb discusses his return to fiction after a decade, his relationship to journalism, the writing and themes that interest him, and the politics of our times.

Most of your novels have journalists, ex-journalists, and lapsed journalists. Take me through the early years of your journalistic career in India of the ‘90s.

I think the journalism that I did back in ’94 in Calcutta at The Statesman was really important. India hadn’t completely embraced neoliberalism by then, Calcutta was probably the second real city. Journalists were anti-establishment, they weren’t people with money. Your salary was not very big, but people respected you. And you had power, you could question the government. Before this I was an unemployed young person but while working at The Statesman I felt that people took me seriously as a professional. I felt that I could make a difference but the feeling disappeared quickly once I came to Delhi because the journalists here were much closer to power.

You’d once talked about how older Delhi journalists would often discourage you — because you don’t belong to a prominent family.

That was a recurrent theme. The elite strata’s pretty closed in Delhi and it was especially so in the 90s, before neoliberalism was adopted in real earnest and the market opened up in a big way. People in Delhi always had great ambitions, but not in terms of doing great work. It was more in terms of moving up to the next rank or earning more money. I found this very disenchanting and so I left The Indian Express. I was offered a job at The Times of India. They said I wrote well and wanted me to review new restaurants and bars but I wasn’t interested in doing that, so I turned the job down.

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I wanted to write longform reported pieces and so I wanted a place where I could learn how to do that. My eventual boss from that period, Kai Friese, was very generous in this aspect—he allowed me to do the stories that I wanted and gave me the space I needed to grow.

I was fascinated by the usage of advertisements (both real and fake) in the novel. They seem to keep the reader on their toes and in the loop on public opinion. For example, the ad about ‘Patanjali Putrajeevak’, a faux-medicine for mothers who want sons. Tell me a bit more about how you started thinking of this as a literary device.

In the context of advertisements, I have two opposing impulses that I have tried to balance in this book. One is that of the kind of advertising you see in India in really shitty bathrooms. The ‘sex weakness’, the hydrocele, etc. I’ve found these fascinating: absent from polite conversation but clearly a powerful strand of people’s existence. As a novelist, I want to bring that level of grit into my books—plus the idea of masculinity is one of the themes I wanted to explore. The other is that advertising is such a powerful modernist device. You can see it in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, in James Joyce’s books. Even with postmodernist novelists like Don DeLillo, whose work I admire….

The X-Files, of course, is par for the course for a novel in which government-involving conspiracies is so prominent. What are some of the real-life events of the last few decades in India that you feel belong to that X-Fileszone of cloak-and-dagger?

I think paranoia is a better word than conspiracy: Paranoia is one of the defining aspects of the politics of our times. And I don’t think this paranoia has come out of nowhere, suddenly. In the novel’s internal logic these things are connected — colonialism, Partition, 1984, all those things are represented as contributing to that sense of paranoia that we find ourselves grappling with today.

The paranoia used to be submerged but now it’s out in the open. Just like in India, in election campaigns conspiracy theories used to be only hinted at, now they’re being stated outright. And this emergence has been concurrent with the emergence of the Hindu Right.

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In your 2011 nonfiction book The Beautiful and the Damned, we met Esther, a Khasi woman from Manipur living in New Delhi, working at posh places like the Shangrila Hotel. And in this novel, Bibi’s roommate Moi is another woman from the Northeast living in the Delhi of the near future, working at restaurants and bars. Could you talk about the transformation Delhi has undergone — or is it just more of the same?

No, the situation has certainly changed. The Delhi that Moi lives in is several degrees beyond Esther’s Delhi. Because it’s set in the near future there’s two decades separating these two—a lot of reviewers seem to have missed that. This is an India that has discovered a super-weapon and is planning to use it. This is an India that has already sent a piloted mission to Mars. For Esther, Delhi was the point of escape from being poor and marginalised in Manipur. But for Moi, this is inadequate—it is no longer enough to escape to Delhi, because the place has become so inhospitable for people like her (or for any minority, really). For her to lead the life that she wants, she must escape India itself and that realisation drives many of her life choices (like looking for a foreign-born man who will be her ticket out of this country). Esther was India Shining, India Rising. This, Moi’s India, is something else entirely.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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