“Do we always want to finish a story,” asks the narrator of An Outline of the Republic, Siddhartha Deb’s second novel, “or do we prefer to stop at a point where the story still makes sense to us?” The question goes to the heart of this book–a novel about the elusiveness of meaning and the slipperiness of stories, which stops at a point that, in a sense, seems short of its intended destination.
Amrit Singh, a frustrated journalist at a decaying Calcutta newspaper in the early 1990s, sets off for India’s northeast on a quest for a woman in a mysterious photograph. The seven states of India’s northeastern region are usually described in tourist brochures as “picturesque,” a euphemism that accurately suggests both charm and underdevelopment. Amrit sees mainly the poverty and bleakness of the region, the violence lurking beneath the surface, the widespread “feeling of things about to collapse.” He portrays a forlorn land, one “forgotten by the world,” populated by people who are “provisional, uncertain…their personalities determined by the whimsy of immediate acts, so that no story taking place in that region was ever quite complete, no individual a rounded figure, and the outline of the region itself was traced by blurred, fluid boundaries that shifted back and forth with each fresh incident.” The reader does not realize it at the time, but the narrator has just, in the novel’s opening pages, described the book we are reading.
Amrit has stumbled upon a photo of a woman captured by terrorists and condemned to be executed; he has been persuaded by an acquaintance to track her down and write her story for a German magazine as one emblematic of all the mystery and the heartbreak of India. The assignment appeals to Amrit, promising a way out of the journalistic stupor into which he has sunk. He travels to the region, ostensibly on behalf of his Calcutta paper, hoping the story will set him free from his drudgery and breathe new life into his career. But Amrit is a somewhat frustrating narrator, all too content to while away his time in seemingly pointless activity, a writer who sees experiences as “merely transient moments flitting by as they transformed themselves into memories.” His journey in search of Leela, the elusive woman in the picture, takes him across the region, but it is marked by indirection and ennui, and at the end of his travels he finds himself on a “spot on the periphery where I [had] found myself without knowing how I had got here, as if I had sleepwalked my way to the edge of the republic.” Sleepwalkers rarely tell the most compelling of stories, which is the central problem with Deb’s narrative.
An Outline of the Republic is a novel of the peripheral. It is set in a peripheral region, tucked away in the farthest reaches of the Indian republic, neglected and strife-torn. It is told by a peripheral narrator, at the margins of his profession, suspended from his job by a once-prestigious newspaper itself descending into failure and irrelevance. It features a succession of peripheral characters, their lives lived on the edges of anything that could remotely be considered central to the region’s affairs. Even its plot is driven by a peripheral device, a photograph of an obscure figure that prompts an unlikely commission from an unknown foreign publication, leading the protagonist into a quest whose fulfilment never seems likely and may itself be peripheral to the author’s concerns.