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 archetypal generation 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.