"The Point of Return"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 08, 03)
"We [Bengalis] were not perfect, we are not perfect now and never will be. We were insular and narrow-minded, with a false sense of superiority when we first came here [to Assam]. We saw the honesty of the tribal people as stupidity, and through that we taught them our own deviousness. That is the irony that we should have learned to be more human only when they became less so."
In this sensitively imagined and astutely observed novel, Babu, son of veterinarian Dr. Dam, reminisces about his father's life, trying to understand him--at least to the extent that sons can ever understand their fathers. Acutely aware that men of every generation are molded by the events and experiences which occur during their own lifetimes, Babu recognizes that though he and his father have shared many events, their views of these events are vastly different, in each case conditioned by their separate, though sometimes intersecting, pasts.
The Dam family is ethnically connected to Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, which became a separate country during the Partition of India in 1947. Part of a cultural minority which was threatened by religious and social upheavals there, Babu's grandparents and father were among the lucky ones who managed to escape the war there by fleeing to Assam, a remote, northeastern province of India nestled between Bangladesh and Bhutan. The Dams have faced innumerable obstacles in their desire to carve out a home in Assam among tribal people whose own cultural traditions were repressed by the previous British occupiers and who now regard the Dams, and Bengalis in general, as interlopers. As Babu tries to understand his father, he does so as someone who was born in India, someone who has never known the places which were home to his father and grandparents and which shaped their lives and still live in their hearts.
Deb's straightforward and often elegant prose is particularly effective in that it does not direct attention to itself. Lacking the lush description so frequently found in novels with Indian settings, it mirrors instead the more mundane realities of life in this mountainous province. Deb also concentrates on universal values and the father-son search for understanding, with the result that the novel is less exotic, despite its unusual setting, than some other Indian novels, but more accessible to readers from other cultures and more potent in its observations about life.
In an ironic twist, the author uses his clear, straightforward style to provide Dr. Dam's personal history in a chronology which, though linear, moves backwards in time, telling of events which begin in 1987 and end in 1979, as Babu, aged seventeen in 1987, recalls what he knows of his father and the events and people which have influenced him. The overall effect is a bit like reading a famous, old children's poem, but doing it backwards: "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost/ For want of the shoe, the horse was lost/ For want of the horse, the rider was lost/ For want of the rider, the battle was lost/ For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost/ And all for the want of a horseshoe nail!" In this novel Deb is collecting "horseshoe nails" of reminiscence in an effort to keep the "kingdom" of his father's memories, some of which he himself shared, from being lost after his father's death.
When the novel opens in 1987, Dr. Dam has just suffered a stroke, mere hours before the family planned to leave the town in Assam where they have been living. A veterinarian who has been an honest and devoted civil servant all his life, serving at one point as director of the veterinary and dairy department of Assam, Dr. Dam has been a remote presence in Babu's life, Babu feeling his father to be too bound by absolute values, rules, and procedures, and Dr. Dam feeling that Babu is overconfident and stubborn.
Living in retirement and at the mercy of a bureaucracy which degrades the elderly who have contributed to the system during their working lives, Dr. Dam, before his stroke, spent hours waiting in stifling offices to collect his pension and deal with officials who are more concerned by who someone knows than in servicing their clients. As the novel moves backwards, the reader, through Babu, sees the level of graft and corruption under which Dr. Dam has managed to maintain his integrity as a public servant. Always hoping that his contributions would lead to better, more efficient, and honest government in Assam, Dr. Dam, in retirement, realizes that he has failed in that goal. The family's middle-class life has become less and less "middle-class" with each passing day, as they try to deal with his medical needs and his rehabilitation as a result of his stroke. Adding particular poignancy to this turn of events is Dr. Dam's family history as the oldest son, supporting his brothers and sisters for years after their emigration from East Pakistan, and postponing his own personal happiness and his marriage because of them.
Dr. Dam's stroke has profound effects on the family, and Babu, in particular, and the second half of the novel takes the reader from 1987 to the present, as Dr. Dam struggles to walk again, and Babu learns the necessity of subordinating his personal goals and dreams for the good of his family. When their town in Assam becomes dangerous, the family moves to Silchar, to a house which was supposed to be the retirement dream of his father, but which turns out to be closer to a nightmare in terms of its construction, space, and level of privation. On the eve of his departure for Silchar, Babu reflects, "People think that those who have gone away have relinquished their rights to the place left behind, [and] are gone forever .Me? I return every day, sometimes under the cover of sleep, at other times stepping in full daylight across the chicken's-neck strip that divides where I am from where I was, when a certain smell or song or face emerges from the city's contested grounds." In confronting the dangers and leaving the "home" where he grew up, Babu experiences the same uprooting and sense of loss as his father did a generation before, bringing him closer to his father and making the old man's life a bit more understandable to Babu.
In the conclusion of the novel, years after the death of his parents, an older Babu pays a return visit to the town where he grew up. "I came back to find an end to the story other than Dr. Dam's death, and to find something that would recover the voice of the boy who had left with dreams of another future where he would be free and successful and unafraid of his alienness In the streets that had once been so familiar, [I expected] there would be two ghosts, one that of my father, the other of the child that was me. I thought it would be a way of seeing the two of them closer together than they had ever been in actual life, without the wall of fear rising between them, without each trapped in self doubt."
Deb's point of view mirrors the real-life experiences many of us have as we seek to understand our parents. The reverse chronology is much like the history we all create for them as individuals as we try to combine our present experiences with whatever knowledge we have of their earlier lives in an effort to find common ground and understand who they really are, or were. At the same time, we are also living our own lives. Our own changing experiences ultimately affect what we think is relevant about their lives and influence our understanding of our loved ones. With its focus both on a man coming to terms with his father's life, and on the yearning for home, even after it is gone, Deb provides observations which expand our own views about the elements that determine our characters while giving us new insights into universal truths.
- Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Point of Return at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Wikipedia page on Siddhartha Deb
- Quarterly Conversation with Siddhartha Deb
- Reading Guide for The Point of Return
- The Modern World review of The Point of Return
- Reading Guide for The Beautiful and the Damned
- The Guardian review of The Beautiful and the Damned
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About the Author:
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.