Siddhartha Deb’s The Light at the End of the World might be the year’s most imaginative novel, a work of speculative fiction that astounds with every page.
Abraham Verghese wrote of the book at The New York Times Book Review:
“Extraordinary . . . I was in awe of Deb’s imagination and razor-sharp prose. The hallucinatory quality of his narrative reminded me of William Burroughs’s ‘Naked Lunch,’ while its apocalyptic trajectory had echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’ . . . That the novel invokes a glorious past, hints at a utopian future and contradicts reality could be the author’s way to protest an authoritarian government skilled in just that . . . Whatever the author’s intent, I felt privileged to have been on an odyssey quite unlike any other.”
What might an end-of-the-world playlist from the Indian subcontinent sound like? This novel was written over seven years, and I listened to a lot of music over that time. Bibi, the main character in my novel, also listens to music as she makes her way through a paranoid, smoke-filled, near-future Delhi of authoritarianism and doom. At some point, I created an actual Bibi playlist. In true Third World, decolonizing style, the Bibi playlist is jugaad or jerryrigged, cobbled together from videos and downloads of questionable legal provenance. It is her way of giving the finger to authoritarianism at home, dictating what one should and one should not listen to, and to global corporations abroad, also dictating what one should and one should not listen to. If a carpet is a portable garden to be taken on a journey through the desert of the real, a song is a paradise in time. Especially when that time feels like the end time. This, below, is a selection from Bibi’s playlist.
- “Revolution,” Nina Simone
The first song on Bibi’s playlist isn’t from South Asia. But Nina Simone has a larger-than-life presence among women (and some men) from the former Third World, and Bibi listens to a lot of Simone. “Revolution” speaks to Bibi in an especially direct way, connecting the tumult and hopefulness of a protest-wracked 1969 in the United States with Bibi’s apocalyptic present in India. Sometimes, Bibi watches grainy, black-and-white videos of a live performance of the song. Its jazzy, piano-inflected, call-and-response pattern gives Bibi hope, and the lyrics with their references to “air pollution” and “the Constitution” seem to magically gesture at her end-time India.
In an earlier draft version of the novel, a cover version of this song is performed live at a hotel bar in a remote island where Bibi finds herself. Bibi has made friends with the singer Luni, who has her own tale of heartbreak and illness and subcontinental drift, and at this moment Luni is singing just to Bibi, riffing off Simone’s lyrics. Around them, pandemics and superweapons and climate collapse and fascist strongmen loom, but for this moment, as Luni scats — “Well allright it will end it will end, well allwill endright allwell itend” — they can be free.
2. “Kinara,” Atif Aslam and Riaz Ali Khan
One of the odd side-effects of neoliberalism in South Asia has been the musical performances sponsored by Coca-Cola. There is Coke Studio India, Coke Studio Pakistan, and, most recently, Coke Studio Bangladesh. They are distinct from each other, but they also share similarities in their tendency towards hyper-nationalism funded by a western corporation, their Bollywood-influenced pageantry of elaborate costumes and shiny jewellery, and their relentless valorization of short, market-friendly riffs that often reduces South Asian classical and folk perfomers to no more than exotic backdrops. Yet I’m addicted to all three, and occasionally a song on Coke Studio becomes utterly captivating.
This song – Kinara means border, or edge, or coast, which speaks to the novel’s interest in boundaries, walls, and what defies them — starts off as fairly routine, fast-paced Urdu pop by the Pakistani singer Atif Aslam. Then Riaz Ali Khan’s voice,– deep, classical — comes in and begins the first of a number of magical transformations, with switches into Punjabi folk and back into Urdu pop. But what I love most is the transition in the middle where the song shifts into Man Kunto Maula. This Sufi song has been performed by every major qawwali artist (the most famous of them Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), and the lyrics are by the 13th-century mystical poet Amir Khusrau, who wrote in Persian and Hindavi and is buried in Delhi. “Ya Ali, Ya Ali,” Aslam and Khan sing, and it is easy to believe that time and space have been dissolved into something transcendent, that we have crossed the edge and are in another realm, more divine than human.
3. “Hum Dekhenge,” Iqbal Bano
Bibi listens to a lot of music based on the poetry of the Pakistani Communist poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who was exiled from his homeland and had his poetry banned by the US-backed dictatorship of Zia ul Haq. This song’s title translates literally to We Shall See, but what it is really saying is that We Shall Outlast Your Oppression. Written by Faiz in 1979 as a fuck you to Haq’s oppressive regime, the verses movingly juxtapose revolutionary left politics with Islamic eschatology. Bano’s was a defiant live performance of this defiant poem in 1986 in Pakistan – she apparently sang the banned verses in a sari, which Haq had banned as an unIslamic form of dress — with a hair-raising moment when the audience of 50,000 stands up in medias res and bursts into spontaneous applause.
But this song terrifies India’s Hindu-right establishment just as much it did Zia’s Islamic-right regime. In 2019, when it was sung by young people protesting the Indian government’s Citizenship Amendment Act – a legislation that in its targeting of Muslims has been compared to the Nazi Nuremberg laws – the song was attacked by stooges of the Indian government as anti-Hindu and anti-national. Leftist students are shown singing it in The Kashmir Files, a rabid, anti-Muslim film.
“All crowns will be flung away, all thrones uprooted,” the song goes. So terrifying for some, so hopeful for others.
Another Faiz poem, Bekaar Kuttey or Unemployed Dogs, has a distinctly different tone while remaining true to the poet’s revolutionary spirit. Faiz’s dogs are a majority, but someone has to give their sleeping tails a jerk if they are to wake up and chew on the bones of their masters. Bibi hears it in a joyous music video made by the Mumbai theatre group Swaang. It’s performed by a singer duo in the freewheeling, makeshift spirit of non-corporate art in India, the lyrics juxtaposed beautifully against shots of working-class Mumbai.
In the novel, the song is heard by a right-wing assassin who might be losing his mind as he tries to come to terms with his activities in Bhopal, just before the US-owned Union Carbide pesticide factory is about to spew out toxic gases in the worst – and utterly forgotten — industrial disaster in the world. In the novel, it is possible that the stray dogs of the Bhopal streets are actually singing this song. If the disaster is about to happen, if the portals are about to open in this end-of-the-world moment, why shouldn’t street curs offer us promise by singing of liberation?
This is a folk song, one that captures the heartbreaking internal migration of indigenous people in central India to the north-eastern state of Assam to work in the tea plantations set up by the British. In this song, Assam begins as a place of hope for the singer, a place without the sadness, hunger, and oppression of his homeland, which is why he is asking his beloved Mini to move there with him. But it’s not long before he tells us that his migration turned out to be a trick played on him by a local middleman and that his life on the tea plantation consists of backbreaking labor accompanied by abuse and violence from the Indian and British supervisors. This version of the song is by the Bengali singer Kali Dasgupta, his voice accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. It reveals, like most of Dasgupta’s music, the influence of the blues, and listening to the lyrics, it’s not hard to understand why.
6. “Bistirno Parore,” Bhupen Hazarika
Bistirno Parore, or Distant Shores, is a song written and sung by the world-travelling Assamese singer Bhupen Hazarika. It is a lament to the great Brahmaputra river – fondly called “Burha Luit” or “Old Red” in Assam – on why it keeps flowing in spite of the incredible suffering and injustice all around. Hazarika sadly ended his career cozying up to the Hindu right, but his most substantial work stands on a deep humanism and commitment to justice for all. His influences were manifold – local, like the radical poet, singer, and painter Bishnu Prasad Rabha, and global, like Paul Robeson, whom Hazarika was inspired by as a graduate student at Columbia University. Bistirno Parore was sung by Hazarika in Bengali and Hindi, but, like me, Bibi is most fond of the Assamese version. And of course, as you hear the song, you realize that the song is a tribute to Paul Robeson singing “Old Man River,” west and east, global south and north coming together once again in suffering and resistance.
7. “Shillong (Seir Lapalang),” Soulmate
Bibi grew up in Shillong, the capital of the north-eastern state of Meghalaya, and this is a song by a band from her musically inclined hometown in the mountains. Because Shillong, in spite of being thousands of miles from the big Indian metropolises, produces a rather large number of musicians (and novelists), it was hard for me to select just one song from its very large repertoire. (K. Mark Swer, host of a popular Shillong-based radio show, sent me a long list of English and Khasi songs from the region when I asked him for the most iconic numbers of the last two decades.)
Bibi’s playlist too includes quite a few Shillong numbers, but this one is representative. A bluesy rendition of a Khasi folk song, it feels deliberately uncontemporary in its rejection of the mainsteam sounds of Bollywood or US popular music. For the most part, the song simply features the legendary Rudy Wallang on guitar – and he is someone I saw perform when growing up in Shillong in the eighties – moody and ruminative until the music seems to stop completely before the haunting voice of Tipriti Kharbangar drifts in. It sounds like she is singing entirely to herself, and we’ve just caught a snatch of the song from a cottage while speeding by on the highway. This is another kind of defiance, self-contained, poised, going out into the world before coming home to itself.
8. “Shob Loke Koy Lalon,” Kaniz Khandaker Mitu and Murshidabadi
From the first season of Coke Studio Bangladesh, this performance features a Bangladeshi singer and an Indian singer, working across the national boundaries given to us by our colonial and post-colonial histories. Murshidabadi sings the words of the 15th-century weaver and poet Kabir, who composed his verses in Hindi, while Mitu sings Bengali verses by the 18th-19th century singer and composer Lalon Fakir.
For me, Lalon – along with Kabir and Bulleh Shah, the 17th-18th century Punjabi mystic poet – is one of the most significant poets of the subcontinent, a prophet poet. I have seen conservatives and right-wingers reduced to tears listening to Lalon, and I have watched, bemused, a video of Allen Ginsberg performing his triibute-poem-riff, “After Lalon,” at Albert Hall in London. Because Lalon is sung by so many different singers and in so many different styles, by men and by women, by street performers and by rock musicians, in Bangladesh and in the Indian part of Bengal, he feels wonderfully adaptable while always remaining himself.
This version of his probably most famous song, where Lalon takes on those who judge human beings by their caste and religion, feels incredibly perfect. It becomes a dialogue between Lalon and Kabir, a beguiling juxtaposition where they seem spiritually twinned in challenging the hierarchies of caste, class, and gender, and in the mystic paths they trace towards freedom.
Loosely translated as Mind, Who Will Take You Across the River, this song is in Sylheti, a Bengali dialect. It is the language of my father, looked down upon when I was growing up for its working-class, rustic, refugee, and Muslim associations. It is also a language full of folk songs, mystical and subtle, none more than this one with its central tropes of river, passenger, and a mysterious boatman whose name the singer does not know but who will take the singer’s soul across to the other shore.
You can see a baul folk singer performing this song, haunting and full of sorrow, in the Ritwik Ghatak film, Meghey Dhaka Tara (Cloud-Capped Star). I hunted down a scratchy recording of the song, performed by the legendary Ranen Roychowdhury, to listen to many years ago, and it eventually worked its way into the novel.
Bibi listens to the song, of course, but it features too in another section of the novel where it is sung by an actual boatman rowing down the Hooghly river in Calcutta. There is so much pain in the song, but also hope that the boatman without a name, who in my novel is also a boatman without a face, might indeed be able to take us to another, freer shore.
This is not one song but a medley of many songs performed by Arko Mukherjee in explosive fashion. Mukherjee is one of my favourite contemporary Bengali singers, and I love that this performance of his takes place at my favourite bookstore in India, Rachna Books in the mountain town of Gangtok. Mukherjee sings the Sufi qawwali “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar,” a folk song from North India, “Cherie“ by Baaba Maal, and a song by the 20-21st century Sylheti mystic poet Abdul Karim. It is a joyous performance, transformed into an MP3 by Bibi. When she listens to the performance, she can pretend, like me, that she is back home in the foothills of the Himalayas, momentarily free of the confines of her life in a massive, soulless city.
11. “Everybody Knows,” Leonard Cohen
It makes sense that Leonard Cohen, poet and zen practicioner and former resident of Chelsea Hotel, would be one of the few western singers in what is a mainly South Asian playlist. Deeply rooted in North America in its lyrics and vocabulary, the song is nevertheless inaugurated by an eastern, mediterranean Oud that I think must come from the years Cohen spent as an aspiring novelist on the Greek island of Hydra.
From a man who did bittersweet beautifully, who is the antithesis of what James Baldwin described as the white American tendency to believe that happy songs are happy and sad songs sad, this is a song that plays with opposites, mixes them up, and creates something entirely new. I listened to it on repeat after finishing the novel just as Covid 19 put us all in lockdown, struck by its prophetic lines about the coming of the plague and the war being over with the defeat of the good guys. But doom rendered in Cohen’s voice is sweet. Even through the haze of total defeat, he promises transcendence and salvation.
12. “I Dream It is Afternoon When I Return to Delhi,” Agha Shahid Ali
This is not a song, at least not yet. I read this poem by the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali in my early twenties, long before I had ever been to Delhi. It reverberated in my bones when I finally moved to Delhi and found myself working in the very landscape depicted by the poem, the area around the newspaper offices known as ITO where New Delhi begins a transition into Old Delhi. That was a long time ago. That Delhi is pretty much gone, and Ali himself is no longer alive, but I’ve held on to the poem along with my memories.
Why do I love this poem so much? Maybe the clue is in the title, which contains two words most important to me – “dream” and “return.” Those of us who have been displaced across countries and continents and centuries, who seem often to be on the losing side of battles for justice, dream often of return. This poem, part of a slim, dazzling collection called The Half Inch Himalayas, was important enough to me that it became important to Bibi. It functions, in fact, as a talismanic puzzle poem in the novel, a magic piece of verse whose meaning Bibi must decode if she is to make sense of her life and her times.
And so, although there is no song version of this poem yet, I know some day there will be. I am writing this as a way of manifesting that song into being, waiting for the day when someone will turn these verses into lyrics and will sing them. And so it should be, poem into novel, novel into song, loss into love, and oppression into freedom.
Born in north-eastern India, Siddhartha Deb lives in Harlem, New York. His fiction and nonfiction books have been longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award (An Outline of the Republic), shortlisted for the Orwell Prize, and received the PEN Open award (The Beautiful and the Damned). A contributing editor to The New Republic, Deb’s journalism and essays appear in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Baffler, n+1, The Nation, and Dissent. His new novel The Light at the End of the World will be published in spring 2023.