"They gave me the vaguest of assignments before packing me off to the region, introducing the subject late one night in the company urinals." So begins the story of Amrit, a young, disillusioned journalist at a Calcutta daily, a Sikh, who finds a disturbing photograph of a woman and decides to investigate the story of her life and the violent incident captured by the photograph. His research takes him halfway across India, to a region of seven hill states bordered by China and Burma, where drugs, guns, and timber sustain the crumbling economy and where militancy and insurgent movements brew, threatening to spill over into a larger conflict. Amrit's journey is as uncertain as the woman he wishes to find, interrupted by odd mishaps, intrusive strangers with disturbing stories, false leads, and, above all, disquieting rumors about a man running something called the Prosperity Project a man who may have the answers to all Amrit's questions.
A dramatic and tense narrative that sheds new light on India at moral, political, and social crossroads, An Outline of the Republic is a suspenseful, epic novel that traces the boundaries between illusion and reality, and the lives of people caught in the middle.
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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
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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Reading Group Guide
"Herman seemed convinced it was a good story: sex, violence, political turmoil, the remoteness of the border, with the World War II campaign against the Japanese like a heavy, detailed backdrop in an old painting. These were Herman's terms, not mine." But encouraged by the prospect of working for a German magazine, eager to escape the confines of his routine at a Calcutta daily, journalist Amrit Singh sets off to investigate the story behind a photograph of a young woman being held captive by two machine-gun-wielding insurgents. His journey takes him to the farthest outposts of India, to a region governed by competing ethnic factions, corrupt officials, and various militias, to a place where nothing is as it seems, adrift in murky rumors of visionary man whose ideas promise prosperity and peace. As strangers with even stranger stories cross his path, as landslides, bus strikes and army checkpoints threaten to force him back, Amrit travels deeper into a besieged land, where "illusions mask an unbearable reality" in this atmospheric tale of fear and cynicism run amok.
- At the beginning of his journey, waiting in his hotel room, Amrit encounters the first of many strangers who wish to share their stories with him. Does Tripathi, the assistant manager in tea garden, have a covert motive for talking to Amrit? Is he looking for a means of escape? Can we assume that Joseph is also involved somehow? What does the suitcase contain in Tripathi's dream? What does it represent in Amrit's dream? What is revealed about Amrit's character when he finds photographs instead of money in the suitcase? What is the significance of his path toward the suitcase when Amrit find himself "moving like a piece in a chess match ... restricted by the arbitrary rules of the game'?
- As Amrit follows Robiul to his home, "a gap appeared in the pavement ahead of us, a missing flagstone with a flashing glimpse of the swirling, dark waters of the sewers below." Discovering another room in the Sentinel's obituary rooms, Amrit feels "as if I had stepped through a mirror." Could one compare Amrit's journey to that of Alice in Wonderland? Why or why not? Consider the images, metaphors and similes used throughout the novel. How do they hint at, or foreshadow, the reality awaiting Amrit at the end of his search?
- As Robiul waits with Amrit at the bus stop, he points out posters of local insurgents on the shelter walls, "the rising sun of their organization pasted like an indigenous brand name next to the advertisements for soap, washing powder, and cigarettes put out by big companies." Does the branded nature of the insurgents' poster distort or reinforce their image? Do you find the easy comparison between insurgency and soap disturbing? Does this image hint at other inversions yet to come? What does this image also convey regarding the pervasive effects of marketing in a globalized culture and economy?
- Who is the woman in mourning at the insurgent-lieutenant's cremation? By her description, voice and mannerisms, does she resemble another character in the novel? At the hotel, what does she request? She tells Amrit, "this is the story you are looking for" -- so why does he run away? Are her words -- "you'll never finish your story, do you understand, you won't get what you're looking for" -- prophetic?
- Rajan, the caretaker of the hotel in Dimapur, confides in Amrit of his former life as an assistant bank manager. When faced with army officers carrying forged banknotes, Rajan compares his shock to the "loss of religion ... as if some mad iconoclast had shown him how easy it was to dress up a doll or a book and genuflect to it and bombard it with empty rituals." How does this foreshadow Amrit's encounter with the Burmese filmmaker? How does it prefigure what we will get know about Malik?
- In the jeep ride to Kohima with Malik's wife, Amrit recalls a quote by Thomas Carlyle: "No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men." Do you agree? What words are used repeatedly to describe Malik? How does each speaker tinge his or her description of Malik to resemble what he/she would most like Malik to be? Why? What are the reasons why no one has seen Malik's work in person? What is the significance of the fact that no one, not even the Burmese filmmaker, can remember Malik's face? Would you describe Malik as a charlatan, a visionary, or as something else?
- As Amrit looks at photographs of the Prosperity Project, he "wanted for a moment to believe wholeheartedly in what I had heard of Malik and his project" despite his nagging skepticism. Why? Why does Maria say, "Who wants to look closer and find out that it's not true?" Do you think illusions are necessary or damaging to people trying to sustain hope in the face of an "unbearable reality"?
- In Kohima, Maria tells Amrit an "incredible Manipuri story" of a god and goddess who take human form to prove their love to each other. According to the story, what do people in Manipur believe "when things are very bad in our human world"? What will happen when this mythological contest is over? Maria finds the story quite romantic, but what does the story also say about the importance of myth during times of suffering? How do such myths function to make the uncertainties of life more bearable? Is there a difference between the myth of gods in love, and the story of the Prosperity Project?
- Both Tripathi and Minister Vimedo go to elaborate lengths to appear as though Amrit is interviewing them. Why do they seem desperate to share their stories with Amrit? How are they different from Captain Sharma, Mr. Das, and the Dimapur hotel owner? Do the last three appear to share Captain Sharma's view that "the absence of old rules and the ability to make up new ones" feels like "walking on the moon"? In Imphal, what does the engineering student, Meghen, mean when he says that to some people, "lower gravity doesn't seem like freedom, but a constraint they've always struggled against"? How do the medical students compare to all the characters Amrit encounters? What does each person's story tell us about the nature of human honesty and decency?
- From Euan Sutherland's memoir, what do we learn of the British contribution to the present political situation? Do Sutherland's accounts of the newspaper he edited, and of the soldier Jim, create antecedents to the ongoing narrative in An Outline of the Republic? How do Jim's actions reveal what lies beneath the veneer of civilization? How do Wright's actions reveal the inhumanity that can coexist with notions of civility? Does Amrit's search for the nameless woman in a photograph resemble Jim's work as "an amanuensis for the spirits of dead enemy soldiers"? How do both men fare at the conclusion of their self-appointed tasks?
- An Outline of the Republic follows the structure of a traditional quest novel, yet can Amrit, the protagonist, be said to be the hero? Are there any heroes? How would you characterize Amrit Singh? In Imphal, he observes that his notes were a "partial, incomplete account ... the guesthouse with the stripped rooms, the woman at the cremation had all been left out. By contrast there was much of Malik." Why did Amrit ignore the strangers whose stories hinted at a truth he had yet to discover?
- At Max Muller Bhavan, why does Amrit conceal from the Director the true nature of the Prosperity Project? He began his journey with the hope that the photograph would leave to his "best story yet." Is that hope fulfilled? Why do you think Herman the German encouraged him? In the last paragraph, Amrit comes to a fork in the road and chooses the path away from his home. What do you think becomes of Amrit Singh?
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 The Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, New Statesman, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, and Columbia Journalism Review. He came to New York in 1998 on a literature fellowship and now divides his time between New York and India. His first novel, The Point of Return, was published by Ecco in 2003 and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.