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Inside the heart of darkness

An agency reporter discovers the real meaning of the resource curse in the Congo

Anand Sankar 

This is not a story that one expects from an age that is connected so densely through the internet and social media. Is it possible any more to plunge into that black hole, emerge on the other side to a kaleidoscope of entropy and hope to make sense of it? For Anjan Sundaram, aged 22, pursuing a Master's degree in algebra at Yale, the "world had become too beautiful", and so he decided to enter one of its last remaining black holes:

When one spreads open a map of Africa, it is impossible not to notice its throbbing heart, the vast equatorial jungle cut by the broad artery that is the river. That it is a land of allure and mystique is putting it mildly. Natural wonders and resources apart, the region is home to some of Africa's worst unresolved armed conflicts. It is this milieu that greets Mr Sundaram when he arrives.

When he lands at Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic Of (DRC), Mr Sundaram describes the place as a standalone mass that attracts teeming millions, and whose roads end abruptly on the outskirts at an impenetrable jungle. Before leaving Yale, he forms a feeble connection with a Congolese emigrant cashier at the university; she gives him a point of reference in Kinshasa - her forgotten extended family.

The description of life in Kinshasa, even travelling in one of its minibuses, is by itself a definite assault on your senses. Mr Sundaram's initial descriptions force you to close your eyes every few paragraphs to take in the entire picture and its myriad characters. Even as he settles in with the family in their barely habitable dwelling in a decrepit suburb of Kinshasa, Mr Sundaram has to get to grips with life in the city, and find a job before his money runs out, which happens faster than he chooses - he gets mugged.

The narrative continues in beautifully layered prose and Mr Sundaram unwraps it one at a time. As a journalist, it is impossible not to connect with the author's anxieties as he desperately searches for a writing assignment; there even comes a point when he almost decides to be a foreign correspondent's "lackey" to get a break somewhere. Chance, though, gives him a better opportunity: he gets to work as a for the Associated Press.

The story of Congo unravels through Mr Sundaram's journey as a fledgling writer. At times it beggars belief how so much can go wrong in one place. While the DRC's post-colonial history is one chapter, it is the craze for resources - which is driven by booming consumerist economies - that is tearing the country apart. The Chinese, Americans, Europeans and, to an extent, Indians, are out to profit from the precious minerals and timber that the land offers. Everyone has their narrow interests in mind, and the Congolese on the street wonder if the mythical wealth to which their nation is home will remain just that - a myth. It is quite poignant when at one point Mr Sundaram prophesies that the world economy might grind to a halt if there is ever peace in Congo.

Mr Sundaram's genre is familiar; comparisons have been made with V S Naipaul and Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose book reportage is legendary. But Mr Sundaram feels closer, especially since he delves into the stories of immigrants who have come into Africa in search of opportunity. Africa - even the DRC - is home to a large population of ethnic Indians who occupy a very important stratum in the economic hierarchy. Little has been written about them, and it is apt that an Indian has made a foray.

While the author has an eye for detail, you do end up with an incomplete feeling about most of Mr Sundaram's travails. Ideas reach a dead end, journeys stop midway, characters come and go, and you ache to know what he might have found or what could have happened. There are just a couple of stories in the entire book that you feel reach their climax. But again, this is Congo and there is never going to be a complete story, unless you jump in yourself to make an attempt.

Anjan Sundaram
Penguin Books
231 Pages; Rs 399

First Published: Wed, February 27 2013. 21:20 IST