Interview: Siddhartha Deb – ‘Our present crisis did not arrive out of nowhere
The author’s latest novel, The Light at the End of the World, explores the past, present and future of India by interweaving and connecting different times
Your novel traverses between India’s past, present, and future, going as far back as 1859. What did you want to achieve by interweaving these different timelines and time periods?
I wanted to make the point that our present crisis did not arrive out of nowhere, that past, present, and future are connected. As a fiction writer, I was also drawn to the richness (as well as the darkness) of past moments, and how little had been done in the vein of the fantastic with moments like the Sepoy Rebellion, Partition, and the Union Carbide disaster. I wanted to play with the storytelling possibilities and challenges of trying to write a Partition occult novella, an Eastern Western set in the time of the Sepoy Rebellion, and a noir located in Bhopal, and then pull them all together through the frame story set in an apocalyptic near-future Delhi.
How long did it take to arrive at the narrative structure of the novel? Did you treat the four different sections dealing with different time periods as stand-alone stories, and how did these sections come together at the end?
The novel took seven years to write, and it was perhaps not until year five or so that I knew for certain what the overall structure would be. I wanted each novella to be stand-alone up to a point. At the same time, I was aware that there were connections, that the stories were influencing and bleeding into each other. It was challenging, but it was also great fun.
At the beginning of the first section, there’s a quote from an unnamed political prisoner: “India is not a nation. It is a prisonhouse of all possible nations.” How much did contemporary India seep into your novel?
There’s a lot of rage and anguish in the novel, especially in the opening pages. Some of those elements will probably appear familiar to South Asian readers, and among them, there will be divided reactions that will be revealing of how they see present-day India. At the same time, it’s a novel – and not a realist novel. It is interested in intersecting the grim reality of our times with imagination, including the uncanny, the occult, and the supernatural. You must also understand that as someone who moves between India and the United States, I see how the grim reality of India simply does not make it across to the west, and if it does, it is rapidly forgotten. To them, what I’m depicting is fantastic, until it begins to appear in their lives, as happened when the air in New York resembled that of New Delhi right when the novel came out in the United States.
You’ve extensively written about India over the years in your non-fiction work, in your essays and reportage. How did your travels within India and what you experienced and reported help in writing this novel?
In my non-fiction so far, I have always tried to work with truths and facts, reporting and researching every detail to make sure I get things right (although those who critique me, whether on social media or through lawsuits, will disagree). I love reporting; it makes me listen, it takes me into the rich, often embattled lives of others, and it makes me interact with people who fall far beyond my usual social circle. That reporting sometimes haunts me, as in the case of Bhopal, and it has bled into my fiction. In this novel, I tried to go further into territories first glimpsed in my non-fiction, adding imagination to fact and experience. I don’t think I could have written the novel without those years on the road and my journalistic work.
It’s a somewhat intuitive process, the result I think of many influences: Conspiracy stories heard while reporting, people met in the course of one’s life, ghost stories read in childhood, songs heard, particularly from the rich folk traditions of South Asia, particularly books read and films watched, and stories exchanged with friends and family and strangers. Elements from all these things suggested themselves in the course of writing each novella, and eventually, I began to see the connections between them, and the pattern as a whole.
You have said earlier that storytelling alone cannot save the world and it can also easily be co-opted by capitalism. What is the role of contemporary readers and writers, and novelists to help create a shared space of the imagination where there’s more empathy and understanding of the human condition across geographical, religious and class divides?
You mention empathy and understanding – those are the fundamental requirements. To that, I would add a sense of openness, a willingness to be surprised, by oneself, by others, by the books one reads and by those one writes.
You’re also a teacher and a cultural critic. What do you think of the quality of fiction, especially that written in English, coming out of India?
I wrote this novel because what I wanted to read didn’t seem to exist. But I’m sure other writers feel the same way. I have, of late, been reading some incredible work, published and unpublished, often written by people historically on the margins of the Indian nation, and that feels very hopeful to me. These include The Night of Broken Glass by Feroz Rather, Deep Singh Blue and Dark Star by Ranbir Singh Sidhu, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh, The King’s Harvest by Chetan Raj Shrestha, The Other Man by Shashank Kela, Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, and Funeral Nights by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih.
Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.