Book Review: Surface by Siddhartha Deb

My review of Siddhartha Deb’s Surface, that appeared in this month’s India Today Travel Plus. My brief was to focus on the travel aspects of the book. And it was eventually published with the title “Beyond the Surface”. Comments welcome.

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Pursuing the Unknown

Amrit, the protagonist of Siddhartha Deb’s second novel, Surface, is not at heart a traveller. He whiles away too much of his time and doesn’t usually see very far beyond his eyes. And in the end, his frustration with the outcome of his quest would leave a genuine traveller disappointed.

But what Amrit has in common with many travellers is his pursuit of the elusive – even illusive – unknown, which has always enjoyed a strange and compelling pull on travellers of all hues. Amrit stakes his professional future on this pursuit, right from the motivation to travel to India’s northeast based on an obscure German publication’s freelance assignment to his reluctant plodding along the trail, unable to forsake the quest even after leaving motivation behind in Kohima.

The assignment seemed straightforward on the surface: find out what happened to a young woman who had vanished in Manipur after being accused of pornography and paraded publicly by a vigilante insurgent group as a warning to others. Yet, as the novel’s title and theme indicate, this is a region where little is as it seems. Once Amrit begins probing he finds himself in a murky world where celebrated social workers have feet of clay, brawny military men yearn to be writers, infatuated young women are the firmest idealists, writers are forced to be counterfeiters, and where he himself continually struggles to find secure emotional and intellectual footing once he is beneath the surface.

Amrit begins his mission in Guwahati – an “old city…with the wide severe river that rested like a somnolent Leviathan next to the shapeless modern settlement, and the temple up in the hills where they performed animal sacrifices throughout the year” – and gradually makes his way through the Assam plains into Dimapur on the Nagaland border and from there to Kohima, where he pauses for breath and renewal before moving, now almost reluctantly, to his destination, Imphal. Unsurprisingly, as he is forewarned in Guwahati itself, the trail carries on to the smuggler outposts of Moreh and Tamu, on the Indian and Burmese sides of the international border.

Chunks of Surface are written with a journalistic or travelogue feel, as Siddhartha Deb plays with the blurry boundary separating fiction from fact. But Deb’s travel writing ranges frequently from the evocative to the dull, both of which can be found in the sentence, “tribal villages appeared in the countryside, conical reed hats on the men, the passing glimpse of brown breasts on a woman as she stooped among the plants.”

And yet, despite the choppiness, Deb deftly captures the feel of the northeast, from the challenge of finding a working telephone in Dimapur to the way a sudden burst of violence or a bandh can bring all life to a stop. Like so many before him, Amrit too feels an unaccountable attraction for Kohima, that “hill town with its pine-scented outskirts and tribal villages perched like bird’s nests on the surrounding mountains”, which despite being “taut with violence, anger and bitterness”, possesses a twilight that brings “a strange peace to the clouds brilliantly coloured by the…setting sun.”

When pursuing the unknown, being at ease with yourself and your place in the world often helps to prevent despair. The novel’s uneasiness with both brings an indefinable dissatisfaction for both reader and protagonist. But although Amrit fails to understand that most classic of travel’s commandments – that the journey matters more than the destination – Surface holds on to it, and that is finally the novel’s redemption.

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