Point of Return: A Novel

Overview

Set in the remote, northeastern hills of India, The point of return 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 ...

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Overview

Set in the remote, northeastern hills of India, The point of return 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist (starred review )
“Magnificent.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“The interplay of political events and intergenerational conflict is wonderfully portrayed.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Deb’s touch is sure, his voice pure, his understanding faultless.”
New York Times Book Review
“Siddhartha Deb has imagined a kind of Indian Don Quixote.”
Booklist
"Magnificent."
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Deb’s touch is sure, his voice pure, his understanding faultless.”
New York Times Book Review
“Siddhartha Deb has imagined a kind of Indian Don Quixote.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“The interplay of political events and intergenerational conflict is wonderfully portrayed.”
Booklist (starred review )
“Magnificent.”
The New York Times
What holds the novel together, what provides its many heart-stopping moments, is the pathos of a failed father-son relationship. Babu, sometimes merely disaffected, sometimes downright cruel to his milquetoast father, is the novel's narrator. Dr. Dam's life, as his son sees it while he is growing up, is a series of failures. — Suzanne Ruta
Publishers Weekly
An "inept archeologist of memories" is how Babu, the narrator of Deb's elegiac debut novel, describes himself in this perceptive, if convoluted, tale about a generation gap between father and son in 1970s and '80s India. Babu's narrative unfolds in reverse chronological order as he tries to do justice to his father's life. Dr. Dam, a Hindu veterinary surgeon, has to flee his native Bengal when India is partitioned in 1947. He moves to a northern hill town in the state of Assam and becomes a civil servant, one of the few who is conspicuously upstanding in a corrupt postpartition bureaucracy where bribery and thievery reign. By the time Babu is born in 1970, Dr. Dam, now aged 44, has changed. He still has his old-fashioned rectitude (which Babu finds embarrassing) and Nehru-inspired ideals of national unity (which seem increasingly irrelevant as sectarian violence blooms), but he refuses to challenge the ineptitude around him. To Babu, Dr. Dam's servility in dealing with high-ranking, unrefined superiors smacks of a colonial mentality, remnants of his youth under the Raj. Babu learns much later about a long-ago pivotal incident in which his father felt duty-bound to reveal graft and paid a terrible price. Deb draws a sharp, memorable picture of the misunderstandings between father and son, exacerbated by rapid changes in India's political and cultural landscape. The structure of the narrative sometimes makes it hard to understand the chronology of events, but Deb convincingly shows how Babu comes to admire and mourn his father, and movingly dramatizes the immersion of individual lives in the flow of history. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This debut novel traces the life of a young Indian named Babu, focusing on his often uneasy relationship with his father, Dr. Dam. The story begins after the veterinarian has retired and then reverses, a distinctive approach that proves effective. By regularly refusing to make the ethical compromises that his fellow bureaucrats often deem acceptable, Dr. Dam has distinguished himself as a civil servant. His refusal isolates him from both his colleagues and his son, and, as Babu soon discovers, this alienation runs even deeper. Not only is Dr. Dam a refugee from East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), but he also lives with his family in a remote northeastern Indian village, which suffers from violent ethnic strife between indigenous people and so-called foreigners, mostly Bengalis like the Dams. Because Dr. Dam never exploits the system, Babu ends up inheriting only his father's sense of alienation and must find his way back from a strong sense of not belonging. Ultimately, Babu's moving account of his family's history becomes a powerful metaphor for India's struggles to overcome its colonial past and reconcile the differences that political violence have engendered in the northeast. Recommended to broaden collections of South Asian fiction.-Faye A. Chadwell, Univ. of Oregon Libs., Eugene Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A rambling debut by Indian-born Deb concerns the troubled recent history of his homeland, seen through the eyes of a young man whose father fled Pakistan as a refugee. One of the bloodiest civil wars in history took place in 1947, after the British ceded control to the new states of India (overwhelmingly Hindu) and Pakistan (largely Muslim, with a significant Hindu minority). The ensuing conflict cost over a million lives, and many times that number were displaced from their homes. One of these was Doctor Dam, a Hindu veterinarian whose family had lived for generations on a farm in East Pakistan. After the Partition, Dam settled in the neighboring Indian state of Assam, bringing his father and three of his brothers along with him. Trained under the British, Dam thought of himself as a public servant above all else, and he soon became a significant figure in local government, organizing farmers' cooperatives and working out programs for the efficient harvesting and distribution of milk and crops. His innate sense of propriety and his unwillingness to abuse his position for personal gain, however, made him something of an anomaly in the new regime-which was rife with nepotism and corruption-and even created tensions between Dam and his son Babu, who considered his father's notions of duty excessively "British." Babu narrates the tale in reverse chronological order, beginning with his father as an old man struggling to secure his pension and following him back through the turmoil of the nearby Bangladeshi war in the 1970s. Although primarily about one man's life, the tale mirrors larger struggles (poverty, religious conflict, official neglect) that faced India, as well as the archetypalgeneration gap that fathers and sons struggle with everywhere. Deb's badly organized account suffers from a tangled plot that often seems more meditation than narrative-and ends up as an uncomfortable amalgam of family saga and historical novel. Agent: David Miller/Rogers, Coleridge and White, UK
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060501532
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/2/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Siddhartha Deb

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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Table of Contents

Prologue: 1987 1
1. Arrival
The Pension Office: 1986 7
Highway Journey: 1984 32
The Minister's Chambers: 1983 72
Wedding Season: 1982 98
Foreign Visitors: 1981 119
A Tale About Tigers: 1980 136
Blackout: 1979 147
2. Departure
New Year's Eve: 1987 157
Learning to Walk: 1988 172
Night Journey: 1988 195
3. Terminal
Hometown 207
Maps 209
History 211
Ships 213
Memories 215
Travelers 217
Dreams 219
Airport 221
4. Travelogue
Learning to Run 225
The Local Archive 247
A Lesson in History 272
Leaving Home 291
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First Chapter

The Point of Return
a novel

Chapter One

Arrival

The Pension Office
1986

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.

The Point of Return
a novel
. Copyright © by Siddhartha Deb. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

Set in the remote, northeastern hills of India, The Point of Return revolves around the father-son relationship of a willful, curious boy, Babu, and Dr. 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 family 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.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does Dr. Dam tell Babu he does for a living? What are some of the privileges and tensions that Dr. Dam experiences in his profession? How does his professional responsibility conflict with his transportation of cement to Silchar?

  2. When Babu accompanies Dr. Dam to the pension office, they encounter a lame man, who tells them: "Bengalis...[n]o use for Bengalis, always coming over the border." How does this exchange allude to the racism that Babu and hisfather endure? What does the conversation reveal about the political situation in northeastern India following 1947?

  3. How does Dr. Dam's Town Milk Supply Scheme work? Why does Dr. Dam's milk supply scheme provoke Leapingstone? Why do you think this episode persists in Dr. Dam's memory until his death?

  4. "Strange kind of wedding isn't it, where everyone does their own thing? Strange kind of family." How does Babu feel about his extended family? Discuss Babu's visit to Silchar when his uncle Ranen teaches him to swim. Why does this episode create such tension in Babu's extended family?

  5. Why does the visit to the dairy farm from the Danish academics Knudsen and Nielsen seem to provoke such concern on the part of the Indian intelligence division? What does the government's reaction suggest about their feelings toward foreigners and outsiders?

  6. Siddhartha Deb, the author of The Point of Return, has written his narrative in reverse chronological order. How does this narrative progression affect you as a reader? Are you better able to understand the importance of past events by seeing them in terms of their effect on the future?

  7. When Dr. Dam becomes ill, how does his relationship with Babu change? What are some of Babu's new responsibilities? How does the family come to depend on relatives like Anil and Biren? Were you surprised by Mrs. Dam's response to some of Biren's demands?

  8. "People think that those who have gone away relinquished their rights to the place left behind, are gone forever." Discuss the importance of place and one's hometown in The Point of Return. What motivates Babu to tell his story? Why does he feel compelled to record his homeland? What is his homeland?

  9. What is the significance of Adolf Hitler, the captain of the local cricket club who becomes the dominant leader of the tribal students' union? How does he impact Babu's sense of his identity and his feeling of belonging? When Babu encounters Adolf as an adult, how does their exchange affect him?

  10. How do you interpret the ending of The Point of Return? How does Babu feel about his birthplace? How has his conversation with Dr. Chatterji affected him? What has he learned in his return to his hometown? Do you think he feels like he belongs there, or like he's a foreigner?

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, the Times Literary Supplement and the Boston Globe. He came to the United States in 1998 on a literature fellowship and lives in New York.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2003

    Beauty and Humanity make for a superb read

    Debs first novel is an eye opener; the type of book that changes the way one looks at his/her surroundings, as well as reflect at his/her roots. A true classic of the 21st century. His writing immerses us in a dark, rainy and cold world where life exists among the puddles. The characters as well as the atmosphere seem to flow from the pages and form around us naturally, without rough descriptions or departures from the story. Everything is seamlessly intergrated into the flow of the life within the novel. The story instantly picks up and throws us into an unfamiliar world, yet one that is easily imaginable. With Deb at the lead, the trip seems to follow a thread through time; a mystery of where he is taking us, as well as who is taking us there. Anticipation mounts as details drip from the pages like slowly brewing coffee. The story really shines in his expression of humanity; characters are real and their thoughts and emotions can be felt althought not written. This book shows how a book can expresses a story without degrading its quality with words. True stories are expressed with emotions, and Deb perfectly expresses these emotions here. "Commercial truckers preferred to sleep through the day and pull out at night in large groups, headlights blinking and swaying against the dark slopes rising towards an equally dark sky, lit up on winter nights with the pinpoints of celestial travellers." (Deb, 42) Review Based on U.K. Release.

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