Outline of the Republicby Siddhartha Deb
Intrigued by a disturbing photograph of a woman, a young journalist in Calcutta embarks on a quest to learn the story behind the violent incident captured on film a strange odyssey that leads him to a volatile remote corner of India mired in civil strife and sustained by timber, drugs, and guns. Yet the truth he hopes to uncover is as uncertain as the
Intrigued by a disturbing photograph of a woman, a young journalist in Calcutta embarks on a quest to learn the story behind the violent incident captured on film a strange odyssey that leads him to a volatile remote corner of India mired in civil strife and sustained by timber, drugs, and guns. Yet the truth he hopes to uncover is as uncertain as the mysterious woman he seeks, smoldering dangerously on the border between illusion and reality.
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An Outline of the RepublicA Novel
By Siddhartha Deb
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright ©2006 Siddhartha Deb
All right reserved.
They gave me the vaguest of assignments before packing me off to the region, introducing the subject late one night in the company urinals. It was a dimly lit room, the lowpowered bulb dangling from the ceiling creating more shadows than light in that space where all things spoke of age and ill maintenance. The brass fittings were tarnished, the toilet seat broken, the marble tiles cracked and stained, but Sarkar made the job seem urgent as he sidled into the stall next to me. "Get ready to leave soon, Amrit, maybe the day after tomorrow," he said, shaking slightly and drawing short, urgent breaths as he pissed into the toilet bowl.
I ignored him, but he had already veered away from my assignment to the business of seizing untapped opportunities in the region by launching a new edition, so that I heard disjointed words and phrases -- "markets ... subscribers ... captive audience" -- spiraling upward against the tinkling sound of urine falling on porcelain. The water from leaking bowls and the partially clogged gutter lapped at our feet, and we had to walk out of the bathroom on tiptoe. We made our way down the stairs, past the administrative floor sunk in darkness and the peon in charge of the office keys,nodding in his chair, to the night cars hulking in the open quadrangle at the back. The drivers on duty were playing cards, sitting cross-legged on a sagging string bed, out in the open instead of in the dispatch room that smelt of diesel, engine oil and the greasy after-trace of fried food. A small square of sky was visible above us, framed by the crumbling edge of the Sentinel's century-old building, the smooth slate surface of the night dimly reflecting the halogen lamps on Central Avenue.
"The region's untapped, Sarkar?"
We had been sending a dak edition to the region for thirty or forty years. In the morning, well before the first shift came in, one solitary subeditor sat with the paper and prepared the dak edition, transforming outdated news into fresh, relevant information by the simple expedience of advancing the datelines by a day and adjusting all references to "today," "tomorrow," and "yesterday" in the reports.
"What?" Sarkar was already in the car. "Oh, I see," he said, sprawling on the backseat of the Ambassador. He raised his voice as the driver started the car and the printing machinery behind us jerked into life with a series of heavy thumps. "Be positive, Singh. Do something different for a change."
Like everybody else in the office, Sarkar called me Amrit except when annoyed. Then it became "Singh" to my face and "the mad Sikh" behind my back, and I saw myself briefly through their eyes: black shell glasses, wild untrimmed beard, no turban, six foot tall in a land of short men. Some of the younger subs and reporters thought I didn't understand Bengali, and I had heard them say on occasion that a Sikh without a turban -- someone like me -- was equivalent to a Bengali without a brain.
I didn't care too much about what they thought. My enemy was within, alert to the slow decay of my ambitions with each day I came into work, sometimes telling me that the very age and repose of the Sentinel building had seeped into me. I was a discontented man, but without the will or belief to act on the impulses that seethed inside, and the gibes of the young journalists floated by like the days and years spent at this job.
Sarkar asked the driver to wait so that he could have the closing words in our brief exchange. "Look, Amrit. This is a special opportunity, this series on the region. Testing the waters, that kind of thing. We begin with your stories, perhaps we can send you again, and, who knows, maybe the old man will want you to head the satellite edition we will set up there eventually."
The old man was dying, though. The paper, part of a fortune acquired by him after a beginning selling life insurance door-to-door, was far from his thoughts as they cut and patched his body at the most expensive hospital in the city. And eventually was as good as eternity at the Sentinel -- just as the immediate departure Sarkar had spoken about turned out to be a month from the day he first mentioned the assignment.
It took them that long to make up their minds to send me to the region, which was a good thing because it gave me time to set my own little scheme into motion, for the photograph to make its way into my hands. And provincial though I was in many ways, I had foreign contacts -- one foreign contact, who had come into my life abruptly a year or so ago. I got in touch with Herman the German when I found the photograph; a magazine he wrote for was interested enough in the image -- and the story behind it -- to send me an advance for initial expenses, along with a note as to the kind of article they would like. "Something exemplary we are looking for," their instructions said. "A portrait of the mystery and sorrow of India through the story of the woman in the photograph."
The note made me nervous. The burden of its expectations was heavy, especially because in the assignment and promised fee, I sensed a possibility of breaking free from the pattern of my life so far. It was a start, a small first step toward cutting loose from the office that increasingly resembled a wreck, leaving behind the debris of Central Avenue once and for all. For a while I had been thinking of quitting and working on my own, but it was Herman the German who showed me that there was a clear, discernible way toward such a goal, even as he pointed out to me that the Sentinel was a dead end ...
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Meet the Author
Siddhartha Deb was born in northeastern India in 1970. His first novel, The Point of Return, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His reviews and journalism have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Guardian, The Nation, the New Statesman, and the Times Literary Supplement. He came to New York on a literary fellowship in 1998, and now divides his time between India and New York.
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