Near the end, one of the characters in Siddhartha Deb’s Surface says, ‘To conceal surfaces under other surfaces is necessary’ and this is what the entire narrative is all about. Cloaked under layers and layers, this is the ultimate revelation that is dawned upon the reader – ‘projecting attractive images that concealed what lay behind’.
Scratching one surface, the reader is immediately burdened with another surface, for surfaces are the only way to survive in the region where corruption run rampant, college graduate work as rickshaw drivers, individual disappears in a thin air and poverty swallows everyone.
Amrit Singh, a discontented reporter working in a dilapidated office of the Sentinel, in early 1990s lands himself an assignment to travel to one of the remotest regions in the country in search of the story of the girl whose photograph falls in his hands in the newspapers’ archives. Armed with nothing more than the photograph imprinted with an enigmatic caption, ‘The MORLS leadership today exhibited a porn film actress as an example and warning to the people of the state. They shot her as punishment to impress upon the people the importance of desisting from all corrupt activities encouraged by Indian imperialism …’, Amrit embarks on a journey to unravel the region that ‘had been forgotten by the world’ and to seek his own redemption.
What seems to be a simple assignment on the surface quickly turns into the journey to the murky world with the unholy alliance between the insurgents, businessmen, and army. Literally, a journey into the heart of darkness of modern India, Amrit finds conspiracy and deceit at every stage. Everything turns out to be an illusion and counterfeit.
A political thriller cum the coming-of-age story; the journey of Amrit to the remotest locations in the hinterland also becomes the journey in the search of the self, ‘Watching that extended twilight from my hotel room, I could feel a similar pause in myself, a suspension between entrapment and freedom where I became aware of my inner state of being.’
During his travels, Amrit encounters several stories and people that slowly unravel the ugly truths hidden beneath the alluring exteriors. While traveling into the hinterland, Amrit watches the neglect, the apathy, the poverty, the disintegration of the region closely. Though the larger plot is bound by the single story of Amrit’s search for ‘a portrait of the mystery and sorrow of India through the story of the woman in the photograph’, other narratives occupy a large part in the book; thus, creating a sense of dissonance. But maybe that is the only way to project the chaos that has engulfed the region.
The narrative resembles the confusion in the region itself with everyone looking for a piece of a cake: insurgents, government, military; leaving behind the common man who lives perpetually in the state of abject poverty and disarray. Another narrative that becomes interlaced with the main narrative is the Prosperity Project and its Director, Malik’s connection with the insurgent group, MORLS. The Prosperity Project attains the status of a legend in people’s memories but no one has actually seen it. Does it really exist or is it another surface hiding something ugly underneath? But what matters is not its existence but what it represents – hope. ‘It’s enough just to be aware that somewhere things have changed for the better, so we can hold it close to ourselves like a wonderful dream during our long nights…Who wants to look closer and find out that it’s not true?’
A bleak commentary on the socio-political conditions of the North-East, Surface constantly questions every narrative put forward in the book. The characters keep moving in and out which gives the sense to the reader that they are as peripheral to the story as the entire region is to the republic.
The novel is crammed with multiple stories which are often left in between, dramatic characters who are quickly forgotten; the only thing that remains constant is the obscurity and that is the ultimate reality that the author brings forth through the narrative.
‘It was a town dissolving bit by bit into a state of nothingness, crumbling into an ocean of absence, with each one of us in the town seceding in his or her own way from the blinding presence of the republic.’