Siddhartha Deb returns to fiction after over a decade with The Light at the End of the World (Context/Westland). Like a hall of distorted mirrors, the book reflects in intriguing, unsettling ways the contemporary reality of India – and traces it back to many moments of apocalypse in the nation’s history.
In a conversation with Scroll, Deb, who teaches journalism for a living, spoke of arriving at the form of the novel, what fiction allows him to do, and his ambivalent relationship with the news. Excerpts from the interview:
What was the original impulse for writing this novel? How long did it take you?
I wanted to read a big South Asian novel that engaged with the strangeness of our times in a formally inventive manner. I did not think that the realism dominating literary fiction was capable of quite handling this. I wanted something weird, something crossing over from literary fiction to genre fiction and back, something that moved between past, present, and future, and because this book didn’t seem to exist, I just began writing it.
It took seven years, but the writing was mostly done during my summer breaks from a full-time teaching job, in between parenting and journalism. It was finished, with a terrible sense of timing, just before the pandemic of March 2020.
The Light at the End of the World is a set of four narratives that revolve around four moments in Indian history. There’s Delhi of the 2020s, the days leading up to the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, Calcutta on the brink of Partition, and a British expedition to the Himalayas two years after the Revolt of 1857. What connects these four time periods?
There is a tendency in the West to think that climate change is finally ushering in the end of the world, but that is only because the West is finally beginning to be affected – to loosely quote Bibi in my novel, the bills run up over centuries of colonial plunder are finally beginning to come home!
But the world has ended many times for people all over the world – in South Asia in particular, colonialism, Partition, the Bhopal disaster, and the fascism-laced present are four such world-ending moments – and that is what connects the protagonists trying to make sense of their time.
Of course, I was also drawn to the different settings, the different challenges, and the different modes of storytelling allowed by these four sections – different but connected. There are also some submerged plot lines running through all four sections, but these are for the readers to notice and to play with, if it comes across to them.
Are you mapping a trajectory that explains how we arrived at the nation as it is now, how we got to new India?
Yes, that’s true – it is a trajectory running from past to present to near future. But, because of the arrangement of the stories, the reader experiences it not as a neat journey from past to present, but more in the way of going back from the near future to past after past before reemerging again into a blinding light. This is important to me because it emphasises the continuities between different time periods and stresses that we are not done with the past, no matter what we might think.
There is a strong sense of apocalyptic doom in the book. While we do live at a time of climate collapse, I wondered what else went into this strain of the novel, what that allowed you to explore. Were you also thinking of other novels or films as you wrote this book?
I am drawn to vulnerable, marginal characters. To juxtapose them against massive historical, economic, and political forces is to emphasise how enormous their struggle is. It gives the storytelling momentum, gives the characters a deep sense of self, and it does so within a larger context that is very rich and layered. Finally, there is the fact that all the narratives play with genre elements and veer away from realism even as they are set in such powerful historical and “real” moments. That playing with realism, twisting it and making a warped realism out of it, was one of the dominant impulses behind writing this book.
The influences were many – Italo Calvino, Quarratulain Hyder, Thomas Pynchon, the Strugatsky brothers, China Mieville, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, Roberto Bolaño, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, Nnedi Okorafor, Victor LaValle, Karen Tei Yamashita, and Afrofuturism in general.
Could you speak a bit about the many parallel and shadowy universes that you hint at in the book, a world of dreams and mythical creatures, a world that is not explained by reason – but which appears to be a counter to the “lies the world is mired in” and its excessive violence
These parallel, shadowy universes are for me possible zones of liberation, magic worlds that offer potential freedom from the oppression of our present-day, dollars-and-cents, profit-and-loss, machismo-and-militarism, end times. The more I worked on the novel, the stronger this occult or uncanny element in the novel became, almost pushing its way into the realist, historical framework.
Amitav Ghosh has written about how ghost stories became particularly prominent in colonial Bengal as a mode of subtle resistance, and it is true that many Bengali ghost stories are really talking in a coded way about famines. I think for me too the shadowy universes were a way of writing back to the oppression of the masters of past and present.
Was it easy to arrive at the form of the novel?
It did not arrive easily at all. It took time, patience, and courage. Or silence, exile, and cunning, to use James Joyce’s trifecta. But I wanted to write this playful novel, against the pressure of mainstream publishers and agents in the West who just wanted a repeat of The Beautiful and the Damned. But I’ve always felt that the whole point of being a writer is to be free to experiment, to be free to fail, and playing with the form of the novel was liberating and pleasurable. There was a joy in the transitions from section to section, and a joy when they all fell into place.
As a non-fiction writer, you have written on contemporary India’s inequalities and its delusions – aspects that you revisit in this work too. What does fiction allow you to do that non-fiction does not?
My non-fiction and fiction play off each other. Non-fiction takes me to amazing places and people and stories. It takes me out of my head, out of myself, and introduces me to the wonder and courage of other lives, often people who are not formally educated or people who have conventional exteriors and really rich inner lives. That’s one of the reasons I love reporting.
But non-fiction based on facts can only access certain truths. It cannot go inside other people’s minds, it cannot step into the shadow realms, and that is what fiction can do with such dexterity. Fiction allows me a wider range of language and styles. It can capture entire universes, and when it comes off, it can be transcendent, outlasting the moment it is written in.
Fiction is an exploration of all that is uncertain and unfinished in human life, what is grey and shadowy, whereas news leaves less room for nuance. In our time, it is also an immensely polarising force. As a novelist, how much are you inspired by the news?
I have a very ambivalent relationship with news, even though I obviously love journalism and still have a child’s notion of reporters as heroes and adventurers. I think I do an excellent job of not following news, of filtering out most of the noise, while remaining relatively alert.
I need that imaginative space to do my writing, especially since I was not writing a straightforward social realist novel about India’s present with this book. I think when you let imagination lead in fiction, it can uncover deeper truths than that available to the news. One example of this in the novel would be its “China Flu” – which was written before Covid-19 entered the world. Another would be its serial waves of demonetisation.
Your first novel, The Point of Return – a moving work of art and memory – was about the uncertain place of Bengalis in Shillong, about the violence they faced in the absence of land to claim. What made you write that book? Given that questions of identity have become even more explosive in the region, how do you look back at that book?
I think that novel was written from a deeply personal place, of feeling a terrible sense of longing for the place I was born in, but also of trying to find out whether I was capable of writing a novel at all. The thing I’ve resisted is the notion that Bengalis, particularly upper-caste Bengali Hindus, are unique as victims. When I reread the novel recently, I was glad to see that the characters are nuanced even when they are on opposite sides of the political divide. History has been cruel to many of us, to the tribal and to the refugee, to the migrant and to the indigenous, and for me, the only way forward is to embrace the truth that we don’t have just one, “pure” identity. My first interview for this novel was with K Mark Swer for his radio show in Shillong, and I feel very moved by that love from the place where I was born.
It distresses me to see the recent violence around questions of identity in the North East, of course, but this is true on a much larger scale in far wealthier and far more powerful societies – in mainland India and in Britain, in Europe and in the United States.
I would prefer a happier, just world where my first novel, or my most recent novel, has no relevance beyond questions of art, but since we don’t live in that world, I must take my experience and use it for others who are both like me and not like me.