The Point of Return

Siddhartha Deb

Ecco, 2003, ISBN 0060501510; 320 Pages, Hardcover $24.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Blair Mahoney

Since Salman Rushdie brought Indian fiction to the consciousness of the Western reader with his Booker Prize-winning masterpiece Midnight’s Children, a large number of Indian writers have attracted attention in the publishing centres of New York and London. Earlier writers of Indian fiction in English such as G.V. Desani, R.K. Narayan and Anita Desai had achieved some prominence and favourable critical attention, but it was not until Rushdie’s breakthrough 1980 work that the floodgates opened.
Rushdie memorably coined the phrase “The Empire writes back” to characterise the phenomenon of writers from former British colonies who go on to beat the English at their own game, in their own language. Since Rushdie, writers such as Amitav Ghosh, I. Alan Sealy, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Chandra, Amit Chaudhuri, Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra and Jhumpa Lahiri (to name but a few) have received awards and acclaim (and, in some cases, very large advances) for their writing. Now Siddhartha Deb can be added to the list of “Rushdie’s Children,” after producing a powerful debut novel: The Point of Return.
Deb’s apparently partly autobiographical novel delves into the world of official corruption and ethnic violence in India’s remote northeast. The setting is an unnamed town which is presumably based on Shillong, where Deb grew up. We see the tribulations of the suffering Dr Dam, whose struggle to implement much needed reforms in the Indian civil service are continually thwarted by corruption and venality. We also meet Dr Dam’s son Babu, who at times takes over from the third person narration to detail his occasionally strained relationship with his father.
The first section of the novel, “Arrival,” which accounts for half the novel’s total length, is written in reverse chronological order, starting in 1987 and finishing in 1979. While not as extensive as the backwards narrative used by Martin Amis in Time’s Arrow, its chapter-by-chapter implementation allows Deb to introduce characters in a context that denies us a full understanding of their situation, while simultaneously coloring our perceptions of the lives we are about to see unfold in reverse.
In The Point of Return we are introduced to Dr Dam when he suffers the first onset of the illness that will cripple him, and then go back in time to the rather prosaic situation of Dr Dam collecting his pension cheque. Deb evocatively portrays the needless hindrances and humiliations visited upon the hapless claimants at the pension office:

Work, that is the disbursement of money, did not begin until after lunch, although the pensioners had to hand in their Pension Payment Orders (PPOs) at counter three by eleven o’clock in the morning. The counter closed after the clerk had accepted the PPOs and given out numbered, round brass tokens. What happened between eleven and two when the numbers were finally called out was uncertain, but in some ways it was the most important procedure of the day. It usually ended with some of the supplicants being summarily rejected, while the lucky ones were given slips of paper they exchanged for checks at counter five. A slightly different system was followed for those who received cash – these were people whose monthly pensions amounted to less than three hundred rupees – but barring the few who claimed to have a close relative among the clerks, the entire sequence was fraught with that strange mixture of tension and boredom that only a practiced bureaucracy is capable of producing.

As we go back in time, we gather further such vignettes, accumulating a wealth of detail on the frustrations faced by Dr Dam as his sense of rectitude clashes with the petty bureaucracy and corruption that surround him.
The reverse chronological order of this opening section isn’t a mere gimmick employed by Deb. Nor does it serve the function of heightening suspense in the manner of the film Memento, which gradually moves toward a shocking revelation which calls into question everything seen before. There is no shocking revelation in The Point of Return. Rather, the reverse chronology is an approximation of the nature of memory, which is what Deb’s novel is really about. Although the dust-jacket proclaims that “The Point of Return is a stirring novel set in India in the 1970s and the 1980s about a father and son whose relationship is shaped by tides of violence,” it is not really about India at all, nor is it about Dr Dam and his relationship with his son Babu. It is about memory. Memory and migration. Migration and its concomitant notions of exile, belonging, home, and the crossing of boundaries:

Perhaps this is the true return, the completion of a cycle set in motion long ago, and if it seems lonely, maybe it is because migration is a reductive evolutionary principle where the sprawling, oppressive family gives way to its streamlined nuclear descendant, to be replaced finally by the individual straining at the limits of memory.

In his straining after memories from his childhood and his later dissection of the nature of memory, Deb’s fictional character Babu evokes nobody so much as Marcel in Proust’s A la Recherche de Temps Perdu. And in his examination of migration and the arbitrariness of borders, Deb recalls Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadowlines, which also deals with the split personality of Bengalis torn apart by Partition. Deb’s epigraphs for the novel, taken from Ursula Le Guin and Herman Melville, comment on the elusive nature of the concepts of home and belonging, setting the scene for what is to come.
In The Point of Return, Dr Dam is forced out of what was to become East Pakistan after Partition, and was later to become Bangladesh. But Dr Dam and other displaced East Bengalis cannot find a place within the large agglomeration that is India, thrust from of their adopted home by tribals who wish to demarcate their own homeland and expel those who would contaminate their isolationist purity. Dr Dam is forever trying to build a home for his family, but is frustrated at every turn, watching as his physical constructions succumb to the same fate as his mental conception of home, destroyed by either bad luck or the vicissitudes of bureaucracy and corruption.
The migrant, the person who doesn’t belong anywhere, is a staple figure in recent Indian fiction, and in The Point of Return, Deb provides a disquisition on the subject in the persona of a family friend, Dr Chatterji. Discussing the forlorn state of the Bengali minority, Dr Chatterji contends that no matter how long they remain in their adopted home in the hills, they will remain foreigners:

“We are a dispersed people, wandering, but unlike the Jews we have no mythical homeland. Nor do we have their achievements that would make the world recognize and fear us one day. My two brothers have not been here for years. They left as soon as they could, but they found Calcutta too narrow, too alien, after their childhoods here. No doubt you face the same problem. One of them lives in England now, the other in Belgium. They send photographs of their houses, their cars, and their fair children with red cheeks who write Shubho Bijoya in English every year until the time comes for them to grow up and leave their homes. My brothers chose that way to become safe, to go where it began, to the European countries, so that with each passing generation they will become whiter, safer. Stronger.
“As for the rest, the majority, who will not have enough intelligence or money or strength to take that route, they will dwindle and die here. Some of them will move to the suburbs of Calcutta, crowded together in the East Bengali ghettos. They will never look back to what they left behind, here or in Bangladesh. In Calcutta they will be mocked by those who didn’t suffer from Partition or are more educated, they will be disavowed even by those East Bengalis who have become genteel.”

Dr Chatterji’s lengthy speech articulates some of the notions of displacement that have been, up until this point, largely implicit – Dr Dam is not a character much given to reflection, and the young Babu has yet to theorise his experience, as he will in the closing chapters.
The second section of the novel, “Departure,” returns to 1987. Its three chapters take the reader forward in time, to the last days of the Dam family in their adopted home prior to returning to a previous adopted home, where they will be looked after by Dr Dam’s younger brother. The narration here, as in the first section, shuttles between the third person and the first person observations of Babu, as he struggles to portray the difficulties and indignities faced by his father. This unstable narrative voice is an effective stylistic approximation of the difficulties we have in accessing our past, with our memories invariably a curious mix of subjective and objective viewpoints, formed from within and without as we remember photographs and other people’s stories about ourselves as well as those memories which we access “directly.”
“Terminal,” the third section, instigates the more reflective part of the novel – we might almost call it the meta-novel – with a series of brief musings on the topics of hometowns, maps, history, ships, memories, travellers, dreams and airports. “People think that those who have gone away have relinquished their rights to the place left behind, are gone forever,” writes Babu in the chapter “Hometown.” But, he insists, the migrant is not as cut off as they might appear, especially the migrant who is also a writer. It is through the act of recalling his hometown in this novel that he says “I truly become the place. I am my own hometown.”
In the final section of the novel, “Travelogue,” Babu returns to his hometown after an absence of ten years, and attempts to reconcile what he actually sees with the narrative he has been building from his memories. It is in this section that he reveals the constructedness of what has preceded, the third to first person shifts in narrative, as Babu contemplates his role as author and the problems that he has faced in writing the story of his father:

Perhaps it is the biographer who is at fault. You will notice that I find it impossible to say anything of his life away from the town. Without stories, without photographs, I can only imagine him as I have always seen him, in this town….What went before, in the years other than those spent here, I don’t know. There are only images in my mind, a scrap of scenes to be wrested free somehow, to be retained against the excesses of history, of time.

It is only in this concluding section that Babu is able to approach more directly the terrible instances of violence that punctuated the life of his family. What was hinted at obliquely in the earlier chapters is here provided in detail: the assault on Dr Dam when he inadvertently breaches a public curfew declared by the tribals; the assault on Babu when he and his friend, against their better instinct, attend a concert after dark; the murders.

The Point of Return is a powerful and beautifully written novel and deserves to be appreciated in its own right, but I would like to conclude with a few observations on the marketing of “Indian” fiction to Western audiences.
“I, too, am a translated man,” says Salman Rushdie in an authorial intrusion in his novel Shame. “I have been borne across. It is generally believed that something is always lost in translation; I cling to the notion…that something can also be gained.” What he fails to add is that he is also a translating man, an author who supplies a vision of India to Western literary markets, who translates the exotic landscape of India into a language comprehensible to the readers in the West. What Rushdie emphasises about the process of translation is its ambiguity: something can be gained as well as lost; translation can be a two-way process. Like Rushdie, Deb translates Indian history and tradition for a Western audience, making it accessible and knowable through the use of a familiar literary form, one which we might identify as postmodernist. At the same time, however, Deb is translating postmodernism by removing it from its Western context and making it into something strange and new.
The literary critic Graham Huggan has claimed that “the metropolitan publishing industry…has placed its stake in the postcolonial as a convenient device for the merchandising of exotic – culturally ‘othered’ – goods.” That is, publishers have observed the increased prominence of “postcolonial” writers and wish to capitalise on the commercial possibilities in publishing them. Once published, however, the novel must be presented in a manner that will make it recognisable as an “exotic” product. Therefore, the cover of The Point of Return is adorned with the cliché of the wall with peeling paint, a visual tie to the Picador paperback edition of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which is intended to convey something of the faded elegance of the Raj. The central picture of a beturbaned Indian man further indicates the setting of the novel. The quotations on the rear of the jacket place Deb within the “pantheon” of recent Indian fiction, and include praise from Pankaj Mishra and Amit Chaudhuri. Accompanying these blurbs are review excerpts from leading British publications the Times Literary Supplement and the Independent, giving the “metropolitan” stamp of approval to this postcolonial product.
The exotic skin in which Deb’s novel is encased is of course peripheral to the words within, but it does influence the way in which his work is approached by an audience. Hopefully it will be appreciated as more than just an exotic curiosity, and recognised as an excellent meditation on the nature of memory and of the elusiveness of home.

--Blair Mahoney
9 May 2003


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