The Assignment

The approach to the farmhouse is not meant for walking, and Bibi feels that she is barely making any progress. The haze blankets her surroundings, giving her approach a dreamlike quality as images come into focus like memories and dissolve like dreams. Slashes of moss-green lawn, the sharp, blue inhalation of what is perhaps a swimming pool. Bibi wonders why swimming pool floors are always painted blue and if this has anything to do with the sky and the ocean. She wonders what it would be like to swim in the ocean and look up at a blue sky.

The farmhouse, or mansion, or whatever it is, looms in front of her, like a sunken ship raised for salvage

photo of a peacock

The following is an excerpt from Siddhartha Deb’s novel The Light at the End of the World, out on Tuesday from Soho Press.

Something is wrong with the eyeball in the sky as Bibi gets into the auto. It hovers behind a filter of pollution, a whitish, phlegmy disk so indistinct that Bibi does not know whether she is looking at the sun or the moon. Everything else has a sepia tinge to it, the present acidifying into a distant past, into some kind of warped, alternative 19th century that just happens to include mobile phones.

It makes Bibi think of her final reporting trip all those years ago, the rented four-wheel drive bouncing along the road snaking through the mountains toward the river valley, the windows open to the characteristic smell of the highways of the northeast, diesel-spiked rain and the occasional ghostly whiff of coal fires, tobacco, and potatoes. She is more than a thousand miles east of Delhi, back to the corner of the subcontinent where she grew up. But even though she has just left Shillong, the town she was born in, even though she is so familiar with this part of the country, she is gripped by a sense of weightlessness. All around her is the border slicing through the highlands and the rivers, an imagined line but one that bristles with guard posts, security cameras and electronic sensors, the angled upper edges of the chain-link fences topped with coiled razor wire. It has sectioned up this in-between, nowhere realm and its in-between, nowhere people, demarcating them as belonging to India, or to Bangladesh, or to Burma, or as undocumented, paperless, “D for Doubtful” individuals who belong to no government at all. India doesn’t want those it calls Bangladeshis and Bangladesh doesn’t want them, because Bangladesh, wracked by a century of famine, genocide, and authoritarianism is now at the forefront of climate collapse, its people dispatching themselves wherever they can to find a livelihood, to the Gulf states, Greece, and New York, but sometimes also just across the border, to India. Bibi is aiming for one particular edge of that border, traveling all morning past faded signboards advertising government loan schemes that no longer exist and chemical fertilizers that, apart from their toxic byproducts, ceased to be effective decades ago. She is searching for a detention center that officially does not exist but rumors of whose presence ripple far away in Delhi and surface in the murmurs of people back in Shillong. It is hidden inside an army camp, or is near an army camp, on that everyone agrees. All other details are contradictory, the detention center changing shape with the teller: sometimes it looks like a factory, with guard towers and isolated structures; sometimes it resembles a vast municipal hospital built in colonial times, connected by covered bridges and endless corridors; at other times it is a palace crumbling slowly into ruins. Clandestine trials are carried out inside this shape-shifting complex, she has been told, and yet prisoners have been known to inexplicably escape. The inside of the rented SUV reeks of sweat and fuel as it eats up the miles, but when Bibi steps out for a roadside tea break, the air is cold and the sky clear, the trees cascading in dark waves down the slopes of the hills. Bibi follows the driver past hunched miners, mostly undocumented, some no more than teenage boys, all of them drinking themselves into a liberating stupor with pale, milky liquor served in plastic cups. She enters the tea stall chosen by the driver and is struck by what she can only think of as a dimness to the people, all on the verge of fading away. The dimness is in the poor lighting of the stall, in the graying patina of the clothes worn by the customers and in the blurred outline of the faces around the rough-hewn, unpainted, wooden tables, everything feeling like a slightly unfocused memory, as if Bibi has traveled back in time but been unable to sync fully with this version of the past. Nothing, not the sweet tea and damp biscuits served in a chipped cup and saucer, not the barely legible newsprint pasted over the bamboo walls, and not the meager possessions of the people around her suggest that the world has moved much beyond a sooty, early industrialization. For all she knows, the British are still at their colonial outposts, meticulously recording the Mon-Khmer and Tibeto-Burman languages of the region after putting down the Sepoy Rebellion in the plains. The only moment of dissonance comes is when a mobile phone reveals itself in the blackened, calloused hand of a miner boy at the next table, a plain, gray Nokia, the cheapest and most common of mobile phones, but that glows in that tea stall with magic, that suggests a collision of different realities and trajectories, Bibi, these people, the Nokia, all shifting, sliding elements falling through a hole in time.

The auto sputters on in harried, laborious progress, Bibi’s memory of the highways of northeast India giving way to the reality of an overhead stretch of the Delhi Metro. A row of gunmetal carriages sits on the tracks, waiting to enter Chhattarpur station, dimly silhouetted in the November haze.

The AQI is 689 and rising. The driver is possibly only in his fifties, but he has been battered into old age, the scarf around his head like a makeshift bandage. He breaks into a series of wretched, hacking coughs and reaches for a dented Bisleri bottle wedged under his seat, its plastic casing wrinkled and translucent from repeated use.

South Delhi gives way to a cluster of temples, a giant Hanuman staring down through the mustard haze like someone who has been tear-gassed, his monkey cheeks distended, his mace raised in a retaliatory strike. There are high walls along both sides of the road, topped with broken glass and barbed wire. Traffic thins out into a scattering of SUVs and military trucks as they drive past hotels and weekend resorts and management schools, past mansion after mansion that goes by the Delhi name of farmhouse even though none of them have anything to do with farming. A white Hummer comes bursting out from some invisible driveway and is upon them before they even see it, the driver’s face a mask behind gleaming wraparound sunglasses. The auto driver curses and coughs as he’s forced to swerve. His engine stalls and he pulls at his gear shaft again and again, the rattle of the engine matching the rattle of his chest.

When he is unable to start his vehicle and slumps over, wheezing with the effort, Bibi pays him and proceeds on foot. The sound of her boots is her only companion as she walks past walls that get ever higher and increasingly more forbidding, the expanse of the properties unending, stretching all the way to the edge of the smoky world.

When she reaches her destination, she gives her name to the men at the guardhouse. Crackling walkie-talkies, interrupted by hacking coughs, attempt to find out whether Bibi is expected. Eventually, a guard opens the gate and shouts at her to proceed, forced to raise his hoarse voice because the haze cuts off sound as well as sight.

The approach to the farmhouse is not meant for walking, and Bibi feels that she is barely making any progress. The haze blankets her surroundings, giving her approach a dreamlike quality as images come into focus like memories and dissolve like dreams. Slashes of moss-green lawn, the sharp, blue inhalation of what is perhaps a swimming pool. Bibi wonders why swimming pool floors are always painted blue and if this has anything to do with the sky and the ocean. She wonders what it would be like to swim in the ocean and look up at a blue sky.

The farmhouse, or mansion, or whatever it is, looms in front of her, like a sunken ship raised for salvage. Dwarfish men, their uniform caps worn in an abject, servile way, are polishing shiny cars that tower over them. There is a European-style angel in black stone at the center of the portico. The angel’s wings are raised in anticipation of flight, its face pensive as Bibi approaches the glazed double doors, rings the bell and waits.

A liveried servant leads Bibi inside. Photographs line a staircase sweeping up one wall. On the other end, a picture window looks out to the back, at a second swimming pool glowing from underwater lights. Framed by that glass wall, seated at a round, wrought-iron table with a lacy white tablecloth, a woman taps at a phone. Two other phones lie in front of her, next to a laptop and a scattering of brochures in dark, restrained colors.

Outside, the haze has cleared slightly. A man shrunken into his uniform swabs the pool deck on his knees. A peacock struts on the lawns behind him, psychedelic feathers held out in a dance no one is interested in, a counterculture figure arriving far too late to a different kind of party.

Bibi becomes conscious of a great many other things as she joins the woman at the table and introduces herself. The rings glittering on the woman’s fingers as she texts, the reddish highlights in her hair. The wintry smell of freshly squeezed sweet lime juice. The woman’s name, Preitty, which Bibi thinks must be a made-up word, the end product, perhaps, of numerological calculations carried out by an astrologer. This room, this farmhouse, the smoothly pumping heart of a vast machine of which the office Bibi works in is only one node.

As Preitty rises and asks Bibi to come along, Bibi is assailed by two contradictory impressions. She senses the impregnability of the wealth and power on display, so secure and smooth that nothing will ever threaten it. And yet, there is also a fragility to it all—it will take no more than a single rock hurled against that sheer glass window for everything to come crashing down.

Up the staircase they go, past the sweep of the balustrade, floating high above the lit chandeliers. Giant panoramic photographs line the wall: a thin, two-dimensional woman with colorful bangles up to her elbows sorting through incense sticks in a dusty slum yard; a man rushing to board a tram on a Calcutta street, pursued by another man; red-coated colonial soldiers eating an elaborate meal at some remote mountain pass. The staircase turns sharply right, toward the back of the farmhouse, disorienting somehow. Bibi cannot make out Preitty’s table below, but she can see the blue of the swimming pool outside.

It is perhaps after they have climbed two flights that the farmhouse begins to shrug off the five-star aesthetic of its lower levels. Shorn of polish and glitter, the house is palpably older. The pictures on the wall are now portraits, small black-and-white studio photos of men related to one another, dressed in the same way, all individualities airbrushed out so that it looks like it is the same man appearing many times over, his eyes constantly fixed on Bibi as she passes by.

Walls of unpainted stone, damp and cold, close in as they progress farther. Bibi sees blind stairwells and windows opening abruptly on to other, apparently abandoned, rooms. Landings reveal sudden glimpses of the smoky sky above.

They pass another of the many uniformed, baseball-capped minions, this one cleaning the floor of a panic room. The door is made of reinforced steel, the interior equipped with a refrigerator, a treadmill and a bank of monitors. Another floor and another chamber, darker than the others, its marble floor slick with damp flower petals. The features of the deity are obscured in the gloom, but a man sits next to the idol, bent over the sharp glow of a smartphone. He looks up as they pass, his eyes little disks of red, gray hair cascading down to his wide shoulders.

Then they reach a level that is organized more rationally. All the doors now have to be opened by Preitty with an electronic keycard. The flooring is no longer marble or granite but shiny and plasticky, made for easy cleaning. A row of unmarked doors mark one side of the corridor, small, square windowpanes set in each door.

A lobby area opens up before them. It is small and utilitarian, with a sofa facing a television set mounted on the wall, the sound on the television muted. A man, small, pale, like a mouse in a children’s book, is sitting on the sofa, hunched in on himself. The glossy-haired news anchor eyes the man, jabbing his fountain pen for emphasis. His lips move at a frantic rate, outpacing the glittering ticker in which the most prominent letters spell out #AntiNational #Conspiracy #BrahmAstra.

The pale man stares at Bibi. He is perhaps Kashmiri. Head cocked to one side, tongue moving frantically, he is muttering away. Sounds that are almost words, but he keeps tripping up, stumbling like a drunken man trying to find his footing, the words decomposing into a random sequence of noises. Two fingers are missing on his right hand.

“I am un ram,” he says to Bibi as she passes. “Eadlines am India mam.”

Another flight of stairs is visible ahead. It is impossible, Bibi thinks, for this house to be so large, for it to have so many floors, for it not to have a lift to negotiate the floors. But they have reached their destination. In contrast to the rest of the upper floors, the study they enter is airy, with large windows on one side that look down at the swimming pool and the gardens at the back. A swing is suspended from the branch of an eucalyptus tree. It feels like the distance has been reduced again, the study only a few flights up from the ground floor, all the levels passed in between like scenes from a fever dream.

Inside the study, everything is expensive, from the heavy wooden desk with a green top to the Rolex on the wrist of the man sitting behind the desk. Because he is sitting well back from the overhead light, Bibi can’t make out his face. A distinct smell lingers in the air, an aroma of ginger and bay leaves and cardamoms. A cup clinks in the shadows. Bibi realizes she is smelling freshly made tea.

“That person who went to the Vimana office knew little of importance,” the man says. “The question is, what do you know?”

He is a thin man, this speaker in the shadows. His face moves into the light, and Bibi can see some of his features. With those ears sticking out from a bald head, he looks harmless, even comical. If someone were to put a pair of pince-nez glasses on him, he would have just the slightest of resemblances to Gandhi. Yet, as soon as Bibi registers the resemblance, it is gone, leaving her faltering like she was expecting to find a step where there is none.

“Sit,” he says sharply and is overwhelmed by a dry cough that goes on forever. Preitty makes no move toward the man but waits stonily as he takes out a handkerchief and hacks into it. When he has recovered, he sips his tea and clears his throat. Then he leans forward and addresses Bibi.

“This is not the first time something like this has happened to our interests. A stranger coming out of nowhere with unhinged accusations. A blog post or social media thread exposing transactional details not meant for the general public. An internal policy document sent to a black box site. Leaks everywhere, so many that any distinction between the false and the true becomes blurred, and always at a time most delicate for us.”

“I really don’t understand what any of this has to do with me,” Bibi says.

“You will,” the man replies. “By the time you leave, you will have understood a great many things. When we went through the drive, we paid careful attention to the material on it. We noticed the presence of your article, and we noticed, among the other documents, articles written by a man you once worked with, who came from the same obscure town as you. How could this be a coincidence?”

Before Bibi can say anything, he breaks into another coughing fit. Something he cannot get rid of is stuck in his throat. A hair, or the subtlest of fishbones. Spasms shake his body and tears stream from his eyes as he punches viciously at a button under his desk. The gray-haired man she has seen in the idol room appears, giving him a pill and muttering some kind of spell.

A gesture has Preitty reaching for the laptop on the desk. She swivels it around so that Bibi can see. A page from a blue passport, elegant Devanagari and Roman script assembled against striated lines and inscrutable bar codes. Preitty taps delicately at the keyboard. The photograph on the upper left corner leaps and shudders, magnified into a pixelated cluster of cropped hair, chiseled jaw and the sparsest of Ho Chi Minh goatees. In keeping with the mysterious injunctions of the passport-issuing authorities, both ears are prominently visible.

“What do you say now?” the man asks.

Bibi is aware of a pounding in her heart, a dryness in her mouth. “I knew him.” She has to swallow before she can speak again. “But not well. We overlapped briefly at the paper when I had just moved to Delhi. But Sanjit was on the city desk, I was on national.”

“So you mean to say you did not stay in touch with Mr. Sanjit or track his career when he moved on? Surely you couldn’t have failed to keep up with his meticulous reconstruction of conspiracies? Mass murder, torture, financial fraud, India nothing but a Brahminical, Kautilyan, capitalist state swirling with inequity and violence. I’m sure you read those pieces, were probably inspired by them in your admittedly far more limited articles on detention centers and uranium plants and victims of pesticide factories.”

“My articles are from a long time ago, sir.” Bibi’s voice is meek, deferential. “As you well know, I am no longer a journalist. And Sanjit died in an accident some years ago.”

“We know the story,” the man says. “What was it? That he was traveling in a Tata Sumo, a share taxi that fell down a ravine.”

“Spot dead,” Preitty adds. “Seven passengers and the driver. Somewhere in Assam or Nagaland.”

“What a stupid way to go,” Bibi says with a flash of anger.

“But did he really go?” The man signals to Preitty and she closes the laptop. “We sent people to check things out. The eyewitnesses turned out to be unreliable. The paperwork was a mess. How many bodies had been collected from the site? One set of documents said six, another said eight. There was nothing in the list of scrawled names to indicate that your former colleague was among those corpses, or that he had really boarded the Tata Sumo at Dimapur. An enterprising local website with an unpronounceable name ran a story that an army truck from the Rangapahar cantonment had deliberately rammed the Tata Sumo because a national journalist was on it, someone about to expose torture killings carried out by counter-insurgency units. In other words, a government cover-up. Of course! But we have our sources, and we know that no army truck was involved, and that the accident was a result of the usual drunkenness that plagues tribal people from the northeast. Then, we made further inquiries that uncovered other reasons for thinking that Mr. Sanjit is alive, although these details need not concern you. Not yet, at any rate. What we want you to do is to begin making some inquiries of your own.”

“What kind of inquiries? Why?” It is hard to hide the panic in her voice.

“You were good at finding people. Good at getting them to talk. Good at what you did. So what happened? Why did you stop? Why did you give it all up?”

“There will be an expense account,” Preitty says. “A generous finder’s fee.”

“It is not that others will not be looking for him at the same time. You are merely an extra dice being introduced into the game. A wild card, a free hit.”

“I can’t do this,” Bibi says.

“What choice do you have?” he says. “It’s not like you are making anything of your life. How old are you? You stay in what is practically a slum. Your mother lives on her own in a rented house on the outskirts of Kolkata. You send your mother money every month, but you’re not close, not to her or to anyone in your family. You’re a disappointment to them, and you’re an even bigger disappointment to yourself. You have no husband, no boyfriend, no children, no savings, no property. You’re not even young any more. You have no mentor to promote your interests, no godfather to protect you. You have no close friends apart from the waitress you live with. Who remembers you? Who will forget you?”

Bibi can see the peacock below in the garden, its tail feathers spread out. It looks all wrong, enormously large, as it begins to whirl. Its dance makes her queasy. She is surely too far up to be able to make out such details, and yet she can see the mimic eyes in the peacock’s tail feathers. They go in and out of focus, but then the yellow haze rises. It moves at the speed of an aircraft, blotting out peacock and pool with incredible swiftness until it hangs just outside the window, swirling mistily until something like the outline of a face, eyes wide in astonishment, forms behind the window pane. The wind shifts, the haze reappears, and everything is erased from her view.

Coughs possess the man’s body so completely that Bibi is filled with a tenderness toward him in spite of his recent threats. Preitty speaks into her phone even as the man waves them away. “Check the air filters,” she says.

The gray-haired priest shows up, unhurried, unflustered, scrutinizing Bibi as she is led out by Preitty. Then the door shuts behind her, muffling the man’s coughs and the priest’s murmurs. The way back is shorter, more direct, without any of those levels, as if Bibi has imagined it all.

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