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A first-timer with a point of view...

Setting his debut novel, "The Point of Return" in North-East India, non-resident Indian journalist-writer Siddhartha Deb brings to fore a fictional tale retracing the time of East Pakistan forming into a new nation, catapulting numerous refugees to the Indian side, only to face alienation and uncertainty. SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY talks to the writer who says the event was no less painful than the partition of 1947... .

HE CONSIDERS himself "a writer with some hesitation", but his debut novel has the chisel of a seasoned novelist. He hails from a second-generation peasant family, taking refugee in North-East India during the configuration of Bangladesh and has seen in his father's eyes a taste of how troubling the ideas of home and belonging can be, but asks you with all seriousness, "are we all not haunted by the ghost of cartography"? It is on these two universal experiences - of feeling at home and being estranged from one's surroundings - that Siddartha Deb pins his hopes of finding readers for his debut novel, "The Point of Return", published by Picador.

"I have been interested in the manner in which a nation formed on a makeshift operating table can continue to redefine itself through the enforcement of fresh boundaries, internal as well as external," says this Columbia University alumnus. His book is knitted around exactly this theme as its backdrop, peppered with a moving tale of a son's relationship with his retired father, a refugee-turned-Government employee, placed in a nameless North-Eastern town, which has recently become the Capital of a newly formed tribal State. As the father, Dr Dam wearies in life, Babu, the son, begins to understand a little better what his father has gone through and begins to retrace his long journey from childhood right up to his experiences in the present, including his endless fight with the bureaucratic corruption and indifference that surrounded him in his work. In simple, yet pertinent description, the writer essays the son's effort at pulling together both his own family's life and the turbulence of the years that followed Partition.

Deb says, through the character of Dr Dam, whose identity spills across national and state boundaries, he wants to show that such a person is always going to be "a misfit in this state-imposed schema".

"But this is true of the entire North-East; all its people, whether indigenous or migrants, seem to have an uncertain, tenuous position in a nation where the lines of identity seem to be very rigidly drawn," opines this New York resident. Married to a fellow writer, Deb, who himself grew up in a lower-middle-class family in a remote hill town, did many an odd job to perch himself where he is now, have many similarities to the novel's son, but he denies having stitched in any autobiographical element in the pages.

There is very little that is autobiographical. I used some of the elements of my childhood in Shillong, as a jumping-off point, but what came out of that process was a completely fictional product, with characters far removed from people I have actually known," defends Deb. The name he mentions as a neighbouring town to the novel's fictional town is Rilbong, a neighbourhood he actually stayed in his childhood in Meghalaya. Yet, he has "no intentions of presenting a factual picture of life in Shillong in the `70s and the `80s".

"What I wanted to do is use my memories of the town I stayed as a template for some large questions on identity, belonging and nationhood," says this promising writer. After doing book reviews and journalism, which includes writing for The Guardian, The Independent, The New Statesman and Financial Times, etc, Deb, though a bit hesitant, is now enjoying his new status of a writer. So much so, he is already onto his next novel, again set in North-East India, which he laments has not really figured in much writing in English.

"The second book, where I am taking even more liberties with actual geography than I did with the first one, is a quest novel of sorts. So, it involves a long journey with many itinerant characters, with a mystery at the heart of the story," informs the writer. If what would follow has the assets of the one already rolled out, then readers, it is worth a wait.

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