Breaking New Ground: Siddharth Deb's The Light at the End of the World--A Book Review

Original, entertaining and epic, Siddharth Deb’s first novel in 15 years will not disappoint

By Aditya Mani Jha Updated: Jun 22, 2023 19:11:13 IST
Breaking New Ground: Siddharth Deb's The Light at the End of the World--A Book Review Nina Subin

If ambition is considered the primary marker of literary worth, we can safely say this: Siddhartha Deb’s third novel The Light at the End of the World is one of the most original works of fiction to come out of India these last few years. The four novella-length sections that make up this book are all set in different parts of India at different points in time. Taken in conjunction, they present an unforgettable picture of India perpetually under siege but also perpetually rebelling to free itself, whether the adversaries be white-skinned colonizers in the past or brown-skinned CEO robber-barons in the present.

In the opening section ‘City of Brume’ (set in the Delhi of the near-future) we meet former journalist Bibi, tasked with finding her ex-colleague Sanjeet because his conspiracy theories are proving to be inconvenient to Bibi’s present-day clients, a shadowy mega-corporation called Vimana. In ‘Claustropolis: 1984’ we meet an assassin hot on the trail of his target, a whistle-blower threatening to expose security vulnerabilities at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. ‘Paranoir: 1947’ follows a conscientious young veterinary student in 40s Calcutta as his work connects him to the mythical Vimana, the vehicle of the gods—which may yet prevent the looming genocide in the Indian subcontinent. And finally, ‘The Line of Faith: 1859’ sees a British soldier on a quest to locate a legendary anti-colonial rebel called the White Mughal—whose rebel army isn’t what it appears to be.

There are common themes across all four sections—quests, outlaws, majoritarianism, ‘manufactured wars’ and government conspiracy theories, a la X-Files (the connection with the TV show is even referred to directly by Deb in the first section). But each section has a different voice and a unique narrator with unique motivations and points of view. Deb’s voice is strong, assured and malleable, equally effective while dissecting a marriage as it is satirizing governmental overreach or media frenzies. 


He is also a bit of a throwback in this era of short, clipped sentences—he is not shy of unleashing serpentine, multi-clause phrasings that engulf several worlds within its coil. Like this 95-word monster that begins by describing the Delhi winter fog and ends with an indictment of India’s political and media eco-systems: “The fog is a paintbrush, erasing the marks on an old, much-used canvas, erasing the streets, the cars, the malls, the hotels, the schools, the slums, the ministry buildings, the police cells, the army bases, the airport, the aircrafts, the malice of the glossy-haired anchor, the banal evil of the mask-like prime minister, erasing the ruins from the 20th century, the ruins from the 16th century, the ruins from the 11th century and the ruins from the third century BCE, erasing a countryside already erased and erasing a nation that has failed by every measure.”

I’m not a 100 per cent sure if the ‘banal evil’ bit is a deliberate nod to Hannah Arendt (whose Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on The Banality of Evil is one of the more famous books on the Nazis). But I would be inclined to say so, because Deb’s kaleidoscopic novel is extremely good at incorporating academic concepts within its narrative framework. For example, the real-life case of ‘The Monkey Man’ is a prominent plot device and at one point, Deb offers up the following: “A sociologist at JNU suggested that the New Delhi Monkey Man was a case of the return of the repressed, an eruption of the uncanny, an embodiment of all those marginalized people ... feared by urban, upwardly mobile India.” 

This is a reference to the real-life Aditya Nigam’s essay Theatre of the Urban: The Strange Case of the Monkeyman, which Deb summarizes in the paragraph quoted above. The Light at the End of the World is full of fun little segues like this, ‘deviations’ from the centre that are, in fact, not deviations at all. Rather, they’re vital, supremely entertaining parts of this puzzle-box of a novel. And the payoff to this puzzle is spectacular, trust me. 

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