(Published in Outlook, June 2005)
[I admire people who can compress everything they want to say about a book like Surface into 300-odd words and walk away satisfied that they’ve addressed all the issues neatly and tidily. Me? I get five paragraphs, each worth their weight in gold in these days of shrinking print, and it still isn’t enough: there was a lot about Surface that needed to be placed in context, queried, held up for closer scrutiny, etc etc, and no, this review didn’t get the whole job done. Something tells me there’s a reason why I’d never make it as an ad copywriter…]
Rs 495, 262 pages
In his first novel, The Point of Return, Siddhartha Deb wrote: “History, dragged so far from the metropolitan centres, from the rustic mainlands, will tell you nothing. In the North-East, the way I remember it, history lies defeated…”
The only possible protagonist for a novel set in a region where the past has no meaning is a man for whom the future holds no promise. Amrit, the narrator of Surface, is a journalist who has passed beyond discontentment to indifference. A stray “foreign contact” offers him a faint glimpse of redemption, if he can write “a portrait of the mystery and sorrow of India”. It’s an improvement on the first assignment he was offered, the story of shit in Calcutta: “a wonderful reduction of the city I lived in to one choice epithet”. Now, more nobly, Amrit has to uncover the truth behind the photograph of a woman identified as a porn actress and paraded by an insurgent group in Imphal as a warning against immorality.
His journey is briefly interrupted by the tale, preserved in an old journal, of the suicide of Jim, a British soldier who saw action in Burma. Jim doesn’t survive his discovery of the great secret of empire, how it’s “wonderfully arranged, all straight lines and precise rules and stiff spines, and how that all becomes a big lie when you move to the edge of the empire and run loose in the jungle with guns and knives”.
It’s the only truth that Amrit will surface with, as he moves through a dismembered world of betrayals and lies: “…[The] region had been forgotten by the world, and in the absence of connections with what lay beyond, an entire society was trying to recreate itself from selected memories and incomplete knowledge.”
Nothing is as it seems; the motives of the rebels, the story of the woman in the photograph, the promising foreign contact, even the shining hope held out by a mysterious effort called the Prosperity Project. There are no easy conclusions in Surface , just the dwindling prospect of redemption. And in the heart of this darkness, Deb finds a new set of horsemen for the apocalypse: dereliction, amnesia, corruption and apathy.