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The House with a Thousand Stories

Aruni Kashyap

Viking

Pages: 224 Rs. 399

Kashyap’s rich tapestry of memories and massacres

There is much to be admired about Aruni Kashyap’s debut novel, but it is most impressive in its adept juggling of the personal with the political, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  7th Sep 2013

Aruni Kashyap

ebut books, by and far, have a funny habit of glorifying the written word. Donna Tartt's The Secret History could well have been named Advanced Greek for the Stone-Hearted. Much before I was convinced of the author's brilliance, I was sure that if I didn't read a single Greek character for an year or so, I'd lose no sleep. Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics was bursting at the sides with lit-references, right down to the chapter names. Take a moment to think about the number of debut novels you've read where the young protagonist is a writer. It is rare, then, to come across a debut like Aruni Kashyap's The House with a Thousand Stories, which is wise enough to cede ground to the spoken word – at a place where this works like a charm, mind you.

The House with a Thousand Stories is set during a funeral and a wedding, held in 1998 and 2002, respectively. For Assam, the intervening years have been marked with unprecedented aggression on the Indian army's part – the people of Mayong (the Assamese village where Kashyap's novel is set) and elsewhere have seen loved ones disappear at night, never to be seen again. The surrendered ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) (called 'SULFA') rebels, now seemingly defanged, are living in fear. Kashyap describes how the mystique around the SULFA rebels only grew in such a scenario – because nobody wrote about them; they were spoken of instead.

"But everyone only spoke about the SULFA, didn't write about them. How they roamed around carrying guns. How they married whomever they wanted to, since the girl's family didn't have the courage to refuse them. (...) How they gave out information about the ULFA and conspired to kill them or to force them to surrender and take large bundles of notes from the government to become rich businessmen. How some of them were so respectful to women that no goons and roadside Romeos from nearby villages dared to even whistle at the girls in that area."

Not too long ago, Kashyap translated the late Indira Goswami’s last novel, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar, into English and wrote the introduction for the same. Writing for The Hindu shortly after her demise, Kashyap himself wrote, “Truly, when she spoke, 31 million people listened. May be more.” She would have been awfully proud of this novel, one feels.

That last line, in particular, is something you'd encounter in the middle of a rant or an impassioned speech – it would be mighty strange to come across something like that in the papers. But then, as Kashyap highlights repeatedly throughout the novel, the emphasis is on oral storytelling. Pablo, the protagonist, is miffed when his cousin Mridul doesn't fully apprise the other of his plans. The formidable matriarch Oholya-jethai's mysterious past is stubbornly protected by almost every member of the house – Pablo can charm and charm all he wants, but nobody is offering a sympathetic ear. Nobody is whispering the secret in his ears. And of course, Anil-da's incurably gossipy ways eventually bring tragedy to the wedding and the family. The transition from idle banter to genuinely destructive rumour-mongering is handled deftly, without a shred of superfluous sentimentality.

think Anil-da wanted everyone to know what happened in the kitchen. He wanted the guests who had come from faraway places to know and discuss and rip apart the matter to a million tiny shreds, enjoy the smallest morsels of it till it had vanished, till only the memory of its bitter taste remained. I think he wanted Aaita to know every detail of it as well. And, if possible, every exaggerated detail so that she would have died of a broken heart before the wedding and the Brahmin would tell us that we couldn't have an auspicious occasion in the house for another year."

And yes, we ought to celebrate a book which refuses to dish out allegories or settle for the easy answers when it comes to the geo-politics of Assam. Perhaps the most terrifying scene of the novel sees Pablo trying to assure an army officer that he was merely catching up with old friends; there was no political meeting in progress. The straws we clutch at when desperate are brought out beautifully by the author. (Crucially, even in this scene the Indian army hasn't been demonised outright)

"I knew I had impressed him even more, though he was already impressed by the fact that I spoke a British-accented English – with a deliberate slur – which I hated doing. When I spoke English elsewhere, I spoke without a Western accent, but I knew a pretentious British or American accent would help me impress him easily. Perhaps he'd be scared to touch me then, thinking I was too educated and since I was too educated I could have important connections."

Not too long ago, Kashyap translated the late Indira Goswami's last novel, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar, into English and wrote the introduction for the same. Goswami, apart from being one of the great Indian writers of recent times, was also wildly admired for her peacemaking efforts – to bring about dialogue between the ULFA and the government. She was that rare writer who enjoyed the rapt attention of an entire people. Writing for The Hindu shortly after her demise, Kashyap himself wrote, "Truly, when she spoke, 31 million people listened. May be more."

She would have been awfully proud of this novel, one feels.

 
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