The Point of Return, by Siddhartha Deb

Picking up the pieces of a partitioned existence

By Eleanor Birne
Sunday 02 February 2014 03:55

The first novel by Siddhartha Deb is about the search for home. It opens with an old man falling down. Dr Dam takes a "plunge away from the world he had always known" on to the carpet. This fall – the result of a stroke – recalls his earlier plunge: his decision, in 1947, to leave behind his home village in East Bengal in order to emigrate to newly partitioned India.

Resident inside the redrawn borders, Dr Dam works as a veterinary doctor in a local government department until forced to retire on his 60th birthday, when he is packed off with a "plastic VIP briefcase". Since moving to India, he "had known only temporary places of various kinds". His son Babu (the rest of the family, and his wife, hardly appear) spends much of his childhood on trains and buses between one town and another. Dr Dam decides to put an end to this transitory existence and build a house on land he owns in Silchar, "a last-ditch attempt to find a resting place". By the time he moves to this house, he has lost his strength and health as a result of his stroke.

Like most post-colonial writers, Deb deals in fragmented things: here, Dr Dam's collapsing body and a broken-up, post-Partition north-east India. The novel is not chronological. It refuses to take its characters neatly from A to B. Life here is not like that; history does not operate in straight lines. The prologue is set in 1987; part one opens in 1986, but the book works backwards, so that the last chapter of the section is set in 1979. The headings of the four parts draw attention to the novel's theme: Arrival, Departure, Terminal, Travelogue.

After his move to Silchar, Babu starts reflecting on his own version of home. He speaks wistfully of the hill town they left behind, the site of most childhood memories. He recreates its atmosphere and its geography: the police bazaar, the government buildings and the Bihari cobbler where he and his father used to get their shoes patched every Sunday. But, he says, "Memory is also about what you choose to remember".

Slowly, Babu reveals the darker elements and racial tensions of life there. On one of their visits to the cobbler, Babu and Dr Dam were attacked by demonstrators protesting about the presence of "foreigners". He recalls "Adolf Hitler", the Nazi leader of the cricket club who prevented non-tribals from playing on the team. When Babu returns for a visit years later, "Hitler" is minister for youth affairs.

Because of the fragmentary nature of The Point of Return, the main story is not always easy to follow. We never learn Dr Dam's first name, and at times the language can seem over-formal. The writer is interested in maps more than people. Yet the novel succeeds in its main aim, which is to give a voice to the dispossessed: those "50,000 people who fled in the night with bundles on their backs". Dr Chatterji, a former neighbour of Babu, expresses it forcefully: "We are a dispersed people, wandering, but unlike the Jews we have no mythical homeland."

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