In a 2023 too familiar with the phrase, as both rhetoric and reality, “the end of the world” could almost seem a blasé utterance. Climate change, the pandemic, unceasing political crises, even locust-swarms (and a side arc that cuts through the more gritty overtones: organising orcas) – the science-fiction/dystopian apocalypse is intermingled with the fabric of the everyday.
To enter that narrative via fiction, here and now, is a task that is as monumental as it risks being mundane. Perhaps in response to that challenge, Siddhartha Deb’s The Light at the End of the World eschews any conventional genres or conceptions of doom and destruction. The novel heaves instead with a scattered bedlam of realities – over four stories, traversing years, spaces, and narrators – to scribe the many pressures under which the order of the world cracks, time and time again.
Did demonetisation not dismantle the economic ground beneath the feet of India’s citizens? Isn’t the gas tragedy of Bhopal as much of an apocalypse as the pandemic? What possibilities did the Independence and the sub-sectioning of the subcontinent bring to a close? Are there limits to our faith in the knowable and lines past which reality itself can be erased? These questions around conclusions are the tentative threads that link the four stories of the novel: City of Brume (and the closure to its arc, the eponymous coda of the novel), contemporary present. Claustropolis, 1984, Bhopal. Paranoir, Calcutta, 1947. The Line of Faith, Himalayan regions, 1859.
More is less
Crises come compressed in the pages, which gradually spin backwards in time to hungrily gather threads that constitute India. In the Delhi of “City of Brume” (Q: Why brume? A: Deb has a penchant for unexpected words and turns of phrase), demonetisation spins into surgical strikes and bleeds into the onset of the “Chinese flu” that runs amok the aftermath of the attacks on JNU – as ex-journalist Bibi is forced back to her investigative roots.
“Claustropolis” takes us to Bhopal on the precipice of the gas tragedy: a hit-for-hire narrator leads us through a dash of religion (he cites Manu), a dose of masculinity (he believes he is the “erect lund of the nation,” a preoccupation incessantly driven home by forceful similes: cottages rub against each other like “testicles,” his tongue lies like “a limp cock”) and a glimpse of horrifying worker conditions (and some potential starts at the equivalent of unionising).
Nineteen forty-seven is staged pre-independence, with veterinary student Das mediating the heavy conflict of religious animosity pre-Partition, coping through his dreams of driving a secret “Vimana” that the Committee promises will bring harmony (or is it the MacGuffin, a weapon of mass destruction secreted away by international criminals? cue the entry of global politics and subtext); and in the meanwhile, Savage Freud clinics, the uncertainty of nation-making, even the trials of daily student life rummage around the pages.
By the time we make our way to 1859, we’re as lost as British soldier Sykes, whose company’s mission to locate the revolutionary Magadh Rai (which takes us into the mires of the war of 1857) is derailed by a mysterious White Mughal, in whose mad castle of experiments every “line of faith” is tested: Sykes debates deserting, considers turning native, even starts to see things he cannot believe – his company suddenly clawed, winged, even robotic.
Clearly, in Deb’s memo, more is less. This is a novel of too much, on too many fronts. Setting aside the content, Deb is also blending forms and tropes in eccentric ways: mystery sneaks in via Bibi’s hunt for a missing reporter, myth twists around the vimana of harmony, something of the super-hero crouches in the figure of the Monkey Man, sci-fi and fantasy shape walking automaton tigers even as horror hides behind their footsteps padding around in the dark. The level of the sentence and the word also see play: twists of phrases like “step by stepstep” (repeated, in case you fail to notice) co-exist with gargantuan sentences stretching across pages (also recurring as a tactic).
Too often, these are only haphazard experiments. But through it all, The Light at the End of the World never loses sight of its task: constructing an assemblage of socio-political catastrophes. Down to the throwaway detail of the #BrahmAstra developed by the Ombani (ahem) Labs, not a page nor a line forgets this preoccupation. Even when you wish it would. Especially when you wish it would.
Admittedly, Deb is impressive in his overwhelming effort and dedication to telling and retelling these episodes and incidents. He pairs a serious commitment to detail and throws in contrivances that align the story just so, all in the name of recording yet more disaster. Like his decision to focalise a hitman in “Claustropolis,” whose assignments lead him from Delhi to Bhopal, for instance – a precise move that bookends the segment with the massacre of Sikhs in the national capital and the gas tragedy. Or how Bibi’s withheld response to her mother’s loneliness transforms the classic idiom into “as the waters rise, as the cities choke and the fish seller hangs himself, every woman is an island.” These ideas would be novel, even promising, were they not so deliberately turning every inch of plot, character, detail – even turns of phrase! – into vessels for cataloguing institutional disasters.
The political, historical, and social
One senses that the novel is led by the urge to remind its reader that everything carries traces of the political-historical-social. But in the process, events are turned into nothing more than sources of evidence for the larger stake they represent; they are scoured of all the ambiguous, complicated, and multiple meanings they could hold. What are the forces that compel Bibi to respond to her mother so? Will abruptly discovered corpses – one a Hindu and one a Muslim – not evoke questions and feelings beyond “if one corpse is a Hindu and one a Muslim, then who are the defenders and who are the killers?”
To afford more space for these threads of life – the effects and the people – will only offer better and stronger scaffolding for the political valences that the novel tries to draw out. One suspects that this will also immediately integrate and animate some of the links between the plots and the politics: were we intimately familiar with the shape and structure of Bibi’s anxieties and desires, would we be more easily convinced by her general sense of distance from the world and her impatience for her mother’s loneliness? Equally, if we had more insight into the religious animosity (beyond the fact that there is some) of the streets of “Paranoir”, would we also immediately grasp the complex problematics of the scene with the corpses, which Deb has to instead explicitly spell out for us?
If the novel fixates on socio-politics, then, that too is skeletal. Sometimes, even condescending (against the novel’s will?): Moi’s aspiration to be rich by marrying a man from the West is laughed off as “rubbish fantasy…of self-improvement that is reassuring in its tawdriness.” Complexity is written off with ease for an “interest in the larger context” (which Moi lacks, lest we forget).
As if to compensate for the bald storytelling, the novel expends effort on making its implications – that is, what precisely is so meaningful about an instance – too clear. The subtext of an encounter between two working-class folks is dragged out into view by the speaker: “How was it possible that two nearly illiterate patients at a municipal hospital could talk such high philosophy, in such complex language, when all those people educated in computers and English had not very much more to say than kill all Muslims?”
And god forbid factory watchtowers who are not clearly equated to “temples to the factory gods.” Or: “Maybe we’re not human beings?” Bibi says when a captcha test fails twice, and then also clarifies: “The captcha tests can’t tell the difference between us and computers.” Perhaps the novel can’t tell either, since it data-feeds us at every turn. It’s almost as though The Light at the End of the World were far too nervous that you will miss what it wants to say.
A rush of confusion
This façade of perfect control shatters only when the novel enters its most slippery territory, primarily in the last two segments: sliding between reality and imagination, pages upon pages balancing us between both. Is the Vimana-MacGuffin actually just the skeletal dinosaur-rorqual hanging from the ceiling of a museum? As Das glimpses the “antlers and tusks” and “makes his way to the cockpit,” reality can become what our dreams make of it. Was the Committee ever present? Is there a real automated tiger stalking Sykes? Does he hear the “clicking of claws” or is it all fantasy?
It’s a rush of confusion, shaky bewilderment settling in, propelling shock, surprise, even horror at the uncertainty – a fever haze of events, settling into the dust as horses stampede away into the blank horizon. Do look away when the novel interrupts itself to add “he had lost his ability to distinguish between illusion and reality.” Squint and shun the “Wait, what is this that I am saying?” that rudely interrupts an unstructured, anxiety-ridden monologue tripping between prophecy and introspection. And there is Deb’s most seductively compelling proposition: what is reality but a thin veneer we drape around the world to make sense of it?
Regardless of the brief reprieves, the end of the novel cannot come too soon: humdrum lights and sounds of the world extinguished in a blackout, Bibi sitting on a beach. And it offers much-needed solace. Perhaps there was never any light to be found at the end of the world? Perhaps a reminder that all there is, at the close, is you face-to-face with the magnitude of the world? Maybe a fleeting impression that you are only too ephemeral…? This quiet lack of clarity in the conclusion – one wishes desperately for more of this across the novel. Less foreclosure, less of an intent gaze on an end goal, less sharp emphasis. Here, in this ending, is the first real opportunity for the reader to take a breath and ruminate, to meaning-make without writerly signposts and directions in a strongly fenced sandbox.
At its best, fiction affords us what living occasionally makes difficult: the opportunity to distil, to ruminate, to contemplate. But The Light at the End of the World is interested in neither reflection nor refraction, too caught up in flooding your senses with all the clarity it believes it already possesses.
The Light at the End of the World, Siddhartha Deb, Context/Westland.