Point of Return
By Siddhartha Deb
Published by Ecco
March 2003; 0-060-50151-0; 320 pages
Through the small opening in the grimy pane that separated clerk and pensioner, an impasse had been reached over the responsibilities of the minister in charge of the veterinary department. There was no reason for the minister to be aware of this particular set of papers, the clerk repeated, or even of the person trying to push the papers through the opening, he suggested a little more sarcastically. Dr. Dam, however, insisted that everything was in order. The file that would validate his claim for full payment had been sent directly to the Treasury by the minister's personal assistant, he said.
"She told me so herself," he said. "She told me the minister had asked the Treasury to process my papers immediately."
The clerk shrugged. "Your order will come back," he scowled. "What do I care? Won't get a paisa," he muttered in a lower voice, dropping the red booklet onto the pile gathering in front of him. "Next," he called out, the word rising with authority over the shrunken heads in the dim corridor, arousing into sudden motion those who had not yet handed in their papers.
The clerk's voice sank back into a customary monotone while he quickly scanned the last of the pension orders, offered through the window by nervous, fragile fingers. When he looked up, he saw the obstinate, elderly man in the background, still watching him from a distance. He felt his irritation resurfacing. "Move back. Let the others get to the window," he cried out, sinking back into his seat and picking out one of the numbered metal tokens that were impaled on a long spike on his desk.
The widow to whom he handed the token, a small woman whose eyes barely came up to the counter, brought her fingers together and bobbed her head. "Thank you, sahib, thank you, you'll see to it that I get my money today, won't you?" she muttered and some of his ill temper was assuaged.
Babu was embarrassed to be standing in this prison of paper-crammed cubicles with his father, feeling trapped by the pensioners as they flapped around awkwardly, filling up the passageway with their birdlike bodies. Experiencing at first hand the humiliation of being old and at the mercy of the state, he felt a sudden empathy for his father, who suffered this every month. But, feeling the minutes wasting away, he wished he could be somewhere else. The narrow corridor was lit by electric lights even in the morning, while beyond the teller windows all he could see was an endless sequence of rooms, disturbingly similar, like a series of receding reflections in parallel mirrors. Outside, Babu knew, the streets were full of people, the town and its inhabitants alike released from the long hibernation of winter by the touch of spring.
The pension office was located in a hollow between the Additional Secretariat and the Governor's House, along the small road that ran from Police Bazaar toward the State Central Library situated inconspicuously at the heart of the government section that bordered the main commercial zone of the town. On his walk to the pension office, Dr. Dam, therefore, was forced to revisit those imposing structures of power he had been so much a part of until the year before.
The Additional Secretariat had been built some years after the Principal Secretariat, when the hill region broke away from the state of Assam to form an independent political entity in 1972. The new hill state found itself with an old capital town -- after all, the town had been the capital of Assam from the time of the British -- and although it welcomed possession of the old building, it felt the necessity of erecting fresh monuments to the vastly different political aspirations of the hill people. The time of its self-assertion had left its mark on the architectural style of the Additional Secretariat and you could read the seventies in it as surely as if the decade was etched onto its facade. It was a rather large administrative complex for a town of this size, a poseur of a big city office block whose white concrete and tall glass panes had been beaten into a template of dull stains by the monsoon weather.
Towering over the street, the view from its windows reduced pedestrians passing below to mere specks. When Dr. Dam and Babu had passed the building earlier in the morning, their anonymity was not challenged by the slightest flicker of recognition from within. They had walked on and waited for the turbaned military policeman directing traffic to wave them through to the pension building, where they joined the flow of hopeful pensioners: bent old men with memories of office, widows who put thumb imprints on official documents, and disabled men of an uncertain age who lounged around with a faint aura of alcohol about them.
Work, that is the disbursement of money, did not begin until after lunch, although the pensioners had to hand in their Pension Payment Orders (PPOs) at counter three by eleven o'clock in the morning. The counter closed after the clerk had accepted the PPOs and given out numbered, round brass tokens. What happened between eleven and two when the numbers were finally called out was uncertain, but in some ways it was the most important procedure of the day. It usually ended with some of the supplicants being summarily rejected, while the lucky ones were given slips of paper that they exchanged for checks at counter five. A slightly different system was followed for those who received cash -- these were people whose monthly pensions amounted to less than three hundred rupees -- but barring the few who claimed to have a close relative among the clerks, the entire sequence was fraught with that strange mixture of tension and boredom that only a practiced bureaucracy is capable of producing.
Set in the remote northeastern hills of India, the story revolves around the father-son relationship of a willful curious boy, Babu, and Doctor Dam, an enigmatic product of British colonial rule and Nehruvian nationalism. Told in reverse chronological order, the novel examines an India where the ideals that brought freedom from colonial rule are beginning to crack under the pressure of new rebellions and conflicts. For Dr. Dam and Babu this has meant living as strangers in the same home, puzzled and resentful, tied only by blood. As the father grows weary and old and the son tries to understand him, clashes between ethnic groups in their small town show them to be strangers to their country as well. Before long Babu finds himself embarking on a great journey, an odyssey through the memories of his father, his family, and his nation.
The Point of Return poignantly explores the precarious balance of familial relationships built around secrets and the intrusions of political conflicts outside the control of individuals. From start to finish it is a powerful, moving, and unforgettable story.(back to top)
Siddhartha Deb was born in northeastern India in 1970. He has worked as a journalist in Calcutta and Delhi and has written for Lingua Franca, the London Review of Books, New Statesman, and The Guardian. He came to New York in 1998 on a literature fellowship and now lives in the United States.