The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Point Of Return By Siddhartha Deb, Picador, Rs 395

The later decades of the 20th century have been especially hard on the Indian subcontinent. A painful Partition, the birth of a new state from the wrecks of war and several small and big insurgencies, every event accompanied by large-scale displacement of human population and its resultant agony. Siddhartha Deb’s The Point of Return is the private history of one, very ordinary man caught up in these processes of history. Displacement, the gut-wrenching pain of leaving one’s “home town”, “that definite point along the earth’s curve” which marks the “confluence of childhood hopes and a faith in the future”, is both the novel’s locus and also its raison d’etre.

The novel is also a moving tale of a father and son — Dr Dam and Babu. Dr Dam is a refugee, one of the hordes who moved westwards after the formation of East Pakistan. A veterinary surgeon, Dr Dam escapes the penury that was the lot of most refugees of that time. He finds employment with the animal health department of a state government, buys a plot of land for his parents and settles his brothers. By the time he gets married and has a son, Babu, Dr Dam is already 44.

The age-difference probably explains why father and son never have much to say to each other. The relationship is also not helped by Dr Dam’s rather crusty ideas about how a “government servant” should behave — which includes never allowing his son to use the office car or using his influence to procure cheap cement for his house. The relative peace and quiet of life in the small hill-town in the Northeast, however, looks to be increasingly disrupted by the political movement for the rights of the local “tribal” population and the anger against the “settlers”, especially refugees from Bangladesh. Both Dr Dam and Babu are roughed up. A fear — not merely of violence, but a nameless, inchoate terror — grips their lives, makes them avoid certain streets after dark and forces them to move house to areas with a greater concentration of the migrant population.

Billed as a novel, The Point of Return is more of an autobiography (hardly surprising in a debut novel) or even a biography. For like the protagonist Babu, the author too was born and grew up in a small town in the northeast of India, studied in Calcutta, worked as a journalist in that city, and later moved to Delhi. Indeed, Deb leaves enough pointers to make all this fairly obvious. What is interesting therefore is what he rather carefully omits to mention — the name of his “home town”. Interestingly, there are clues aplenty about its identity — the reference to its being called the “Scotland of the east”, and even the various localities referred to — Rilbong, Garikhana, Police Bazaar. So why does Deb take so much care to emphasize in the disclaimer, “the home town…is largely a product of my imagination”' Why is he so shy of mentioning, dare one say…Shillong'

The answer perhaps lies in Deb’s thesis about the operation of memory. “Memory is about what you decide to remember, so that you can make sense of what you have irrevocably lost...Change a name there, add a street, put in the rain, as if by doing this there was something that could be reached, a way for the waste to be negated.” The telling of stories thus becomes, in the novel, an integral way to rewrite and rechart the landsape of a lost-beloved city, so that it becomes a city of the mind.

For Babu, writing becomes a way to make sense of, and even exorcize, the past. It is the only way he can get rid of the fear that taints his childhood memories, like the “taste of blood on his tongue”, the only way he can get on with life in other towns, and finally, the only way he can understand his father.

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