In Siddhartha Deb’s peripatetic second novel, Amrit Singh, a young but prematurely jaded journalist with the Calcutta paper The Sentinel, is looking for a way out: out of Calcutta, the routine of newspaper reporting, the darkness of his gloomy office cubicle and blinkered life. The opportunity comes with an assignment to head to the northeast of the country and open a branch of the paper there. His exile to this forbidding territory along the Burmese border turns out to be precisely the mission he’s been looking for.
Singh has his own agenda, you see. He’s stumbled across a photo of a woman being held by insurgents in the border town of Imphal, in the state of Manipur. If only he could track her down, a longer, more significant feature for a European magazine might be his ticket out. And so his journey begins.
An Outline of the Republic is an immersion into the heart of India—its washed-out roads and flea-bit hotels; its sundry characters with too much time and whiskey in front of them, too many regrets behind them.
Deb is a fluid, thoughtful novelist intent on retracing his steps around the periphery of his country—around the very idea of the nation itself. With his intimate portrait of a shattered, neglected landscape, Deb revitalizes a very Naipaulian obsession. “It was a town dissolving bit by bit into a state of nothingness,” Singh says of Imphal, “with each one of us in the town seceding in his own way from the blinding presence of the republic.” As young writers increasingly lay claim to different regions of India (Pankaj Mishra keeps returning to Benares and the Himalayas, and Amit Chaudhuri is enveloped in the sights and sounds of Calcutta), Deb rediscovers this faraway corner of the northeast.