In Why Finish Books, a piece that forms part of his advice column on literary traditions, state of the craft and reading, Tim Parks suggests that it is perfectly all right to leave a book halfway. This certainly doesn’t indicate boredom; on the contrary, Parks notes that readers will persist reading as long as they derive some enjoyment and mystery from the book. Parks for his part, doesn’t prefer defined endings, citing, instead, ancient myths and legends that offered several possibilities and often left endings ambiguous.

I was reminded of Parks’s essay while reading Ranbir Sidhu’s Deep Singh Blue; a novel that follows his first collection of stories, Good Indian Girls (2013). If, for the first half of the book, the reader follows the book’s protagonist, Deep Singh, through his confusions, and somewhat predictable alcohol-induced road meanderings, at times with Lily, or often without, it is with the hope that Deep isn’t just another aimless, angst ridden, horny teenager.

Partly through these meanderings, when we journey into his mind, Deep indeed appears more than what immediate appearances concede, and this isn’t just because he reads Spinoza (in particular, his Ethics), a revelation that comes early on in the book. It is one specific sentence of Spinoza’s – that echoes wearily with Deep and also appears to reverberate through these early pages – which make you realise that there may just be more to the book than is apparent.

The unchanging 1980s

It takes some effort though, but the persistence is worth it. Moving from one Valley town to another in north California, pushed on primarily by his father, Deep is rather lonely, and as he confesses, always getting into one fix or another. There was the time, Deep recollects early on, when the act of helping an old lady, an escapee from a nursing home, leads to his arrest. But otherwise, the mid-1980s, the Reagan era in California, and the US all appear slow and unchanging – even the weather, where it’s always hot in this novel, and the terrible political incorrectness of the times. These years now seem a different era altogether.

Ranbir Sidhu’s time references work for the most part; though I was a bit curious at the passing reference of the town (where Deep lives, in north California) being “home to one of the largest ICBM bases in North America”. A map I looked up showed such bases to be in other states, near enough, but not in California. But otherwise, it’s the music – lyrics from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and The Cure, and other offbeat political cues, such as a John Birther type spouting anti-Communist nonsense, that makes it clear.

But it isn’t really till you are well into the second half of the book, the pages where Deep’s brother Jag vanishes without a word, ostensibly on vacation, where the action fast forwards, and you find yourself invested in Deep. It is also where the setting of the book becomes immediately clear: it’s June 1984, judging from Uncle Gur’s announcement of the BBC radio broadcasts on Operation Bluestar, when the Indian army launched its operations against terrorists holed up in Amritsar’s Golden Temple.

Breakdowns and break-ups

Deep is hard to like but only at first – and that, precisely, is what works for this book. For all the contempt and weariness his parents induce in him, thanks to their endless dinner time quarrels and their strange efforts to get the brothers married to conventional Punjabi (albeit gum-chewing) women, two relationships matter to Deep; the one with his strangely silent, wildly eccentric, older brother Jag, and his love for Lily, an older, married Chinese woman, whom he meets in college. Sidhu’s exploration, deft and empathetic, and also at times deliberately obtuse, of the dark side of their personalities has the reader intrigued, and hooked.

Deep senses his brother’s loathing of him, yet he stops short at the sudden realisation that his brother was once very different: a boy who took him on strange outings, and who drew pictures of outsized machines in the desert. As for Lily, her “darker side” is more mysterious; it is just as hard for Deep to fathom her reasons for tailgating a Chinese looking family on the expressway, scaring them out of their wits, as it is for him to figure out Eddie, her husband.

These two fixtures in his life, especially his brother, fall apart almost at the same time, leaving Deep to grapple with the consequences. And though Deep’s response isn’t the kind Uncle Gur would expect: a hearty clap on the back, a swig of whiskey, all for Deep to be a man; the realisation of the ground shifting under his feet make him read his own life, and things around him, more clearly – at least, to the extent a “larger, open-hearted engagement with the world” is possible for a seventeen-year-old.

Sidhu does strangeness, even madness, well. His earlier collection of stories, Good Indian Girls, had received much critical acclaim, with its description of characters who are eccentric, dissatisfied, and seemingly obsessed with the inexplicable and the unfathomable. In the title story, Lovedeep tries to declutter herself, but she cannot shed being a good Indian girl, pliant and submissive precisely at the moment when her life is in danger at the hands of Ian, the internet psychopath with the violently shaking arm.

In The Discovery, the narrator finds himself cutting out words from newspapers and library books, for he believes such words never really existed, that they were figments of a game he played as a child with his sister. The narrator’s growing obsession with tracking down such “notwords” eerily evokes Jag in Deep Singh Blue, the brother who senses that everyday advertisements and news articles hide behind them more sinister voices.

And while the narrator of Sidhu’s short story may be hard to fathom, as is Jag, you might feel by the time you reach this novel’s end, a sneaking, unwilling sympathy for the world’s eccentric, abandoned and little understood people.

Deep Singh Blue, Ranbir Singh Sidhu, to be published by HarperCollins India.