Review: The Light at the End of the World by Siddhartha Deb
Using tropes from science fiction and magical realism to build a fictional cladding around historical and contemporary events
“I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there’s lots to write about. That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated, what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature,” writes one of the protagonists in Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
It is a dilemma, I imagine, many authors, regardless of their location, grapple with. Instances of brutality and injustice abound in the present and past, and the pandemic and climate change have further inflicted miseries. But how does one weave these into a novel without merely reciting a litany of misfortunes, let alone attempt to produce “good literature”?
Siddhartha Deb’s The Light at the End of the World uses tropes from science fiction and magical realism to build a fictional cladding around disparate historical and contemporary events. It begins in Delhi in the near future, where Bibi, a former journalist, navigates grim, polluted streets along with a job that exemplifies existential angst. One day, a shady man in a labyrinthine farmhouse orders her to find her ex-colleague Sanjit. Long presumed dead in a car accident, he supposedly has access to secrets that conspiracy theorists would drool over — mutant creatures, experimental weapons, engineered viruses, and alien wrecks, among others.
Just as Bibi encounters a breakthrough, the story somersaults to Bhopal in 1984, a few days before the world’s worst industrial disaster ever unfolds. It then pirouettes to Calcutta on the cusp of India’s independence, where a “Committee” is trying to resurrect a Vedic aircraft that could end war, famine, and riots. The next episode transpires in the aftermath of the revolt of 1857 in the eastern Himalayas. A concluding section attempts to bring these tenuously connected tales together.
Deb’s experiments with the fictional form are distinctive and tantalising. While some of the stories are grounded in everyday life, with lots of intrigue, others are steeped in whimsy and the fantastical. The parallels the book draws between events across space and time enable a novel depiction of oppression and resistance. By dwelling on improbable counterfactuals rather than just recorded history, it builds anticipation regarding how things might have unfolded differently. It has an unconventional structure that often takes unexpected turns and plays with reversals of expectations.
However, much of the book’s novelty is ensconced in reams of mundanity. The first section, City of Brume, attempts to create a dystopian universe, but reads akin to a report on Delhi that foreign journalists write at the onset of pollution season while sheathed in masks and cocooned amid purifiers. The headlines of the past few years — demonetisation, extrajudicial killings, citizen registers, trolling, Aadhaar cards, pandemic — smother the narrative and set it firmly in the past rather than the near future it purports to be.
Claustropolis: 1984 follows a hitman who has participated in the anti-Sikh pogrom following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination and is on a mission in Bhopal. With the excessive use of repetition (“My last nights in Bhopal, in Bhopal, in Bhopal”, “Blow by blow. Block by block. Block 25. Block 26. Block by block.”, etc), Deb attempts to infuse a hypnotic tone to the chapter. He also tries to depict the hitman’s mental landscape with violent language (“The railway tracks screamed a long, piercing cry as they were raped by a train going to Indore” and another too controversial to print). But to what end? Delving into the mind of an efficient assassin could have made for an interesting story, but 80 pages of indoctrinated savagery without a sliver of insight? Bludgeoningly monotonous.
As the novel progresses, the purported mysteries at its heart, perhaps intended to tie its disparate threads together, become more apparent in bits and pieces. However, after 400 pages, these are stretched rather thin — by the concluding section, there doesn’t seem to be much scope to conclude. And for once, the book fulfils the expectations it sets.
I would imagine myself as a member of the choir Deb is preaching to. Yet, I found his sermon overbearing. It reminded me of blogger Terry Mapes’s quote that journalism conveys facts, while literature conveys truth. The Light at the End of the World, for the most part, seems like an exposition of facts interspersed with fiction.
The parts of the book I found most engrossing are where Deb departs from disaster and dismay. Paranoir: 1947 takes a flight of fancy on an all-healing Vedic aircraft, though there are references to starvation and sectarian violence. It is only in the last section, The Line of Faith: 1859, that the novel takes a refreshing leap away from the incessant chronicling of historical events. But like the rest of the stories, the suspense it painstakingly builds suddenly deflates amid a slapdash climax.
With its smorgasbord of tropes, readers will find many similarities between the novel and other works, such as Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. A review excerpt in the book’s blurb compares it to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s oeuvre. However, where Marquez infuses his narrative with levity, Deb sways between the extremes of being overwrought or chaotically whimsical. The comparisons to other celebrated works would also come with similar caveats.
The Light at the End of the World had the potential to concoct the most compelling of universes. It serves seemingly unsolvable mysteries, thought-provoking ciphers, and imagination-defying connections that breach temporal and spatial boundaries. However, it fails to fulfil its enticing promises.
Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.