Book Review

A Personal-Political Novel
The House with a Thousand Stories: Aruni Kashyap
Sowvendra Shekhar

Publisher: Penguin/Viking
Genre: Fiction
Extent: 226 pp
Price: Rs 399

I would like to believe that Aruni Kashyap's first novel, The House with a Thousand Stories, is a political novel. And I think I have good reasons to believe so. I have grown up listening to or reading the news from the northeast: gory reports of bomb blasts, separatist movements, people killed, bandhs and blockades.

Before Aruni's novel came to the stores, I came to know from the Internet that it was about 'extrajudicial killings'. Though I could understand what 'extrajudicial killings' meant literally, I couldn't understand it in the context of Assam . I further learnt – from previews on the Internet – that Aruni's book was about the ULFA. Hoping to learn about an aspect of Assam I hadn't known earlier, I picked up Aruni's The House with a Thousand Stories.

Aruni's novel is political. I found it outspokenly so. However, my dilemma now is whether I should consider it a purely political novel or more than that.

At the heart of the book is a wedding the protagonist, Pablo, a seventeen-year-old boy from Guwahati, raised with upper-class privileges and the ambition to clear the SAT and going to the US for higher studies, attends in the village of Mayong, far away from Guwahati both in distance – 'People used to refer to Mayong as Kalapaani' – as well as character.

Guwahati is a bustling city, the capital of the state of Assam, whereas Mayong is a village known for black magic, a place so small and sleepy where 'by eleven, people are fast asleep'. The wedding is of Moina-pehi, Pablo's aunt, the youngest female cousin of Pablo's father.

It took Moina's family quite long to fix her wedding, so long that Pablo's mother feared Moina too would become 'an old maid in that house'. Because of the stigma attached to an unmarried woman growing old in her parents' home, we come to know that this wedding is a very important affair in Pablo's family. Since it's a wedding, there's the usual hullabaloo: the arrival of guests, naughty – almost vulgar – jokes, like the one about a dog laying eggs, the pressure to present one's best, and gossip. And it is this gossip which throws open secrets the family had been hiding from others, and from each other, and unspools those thousand stories which are not of this family alone but of the entire Assam.

It is precisely this wedding that keeps me from calling this novel entirely political. Aruni has an eye for detail. This is evident as he describes each event during the days leading up to the wedding. The various rituals involved, like juron and the fish-touching feast, the goats kept for slaughter, the holes being dug to set up the wedding tent — nothing misses his keen observation.

However, it is his description of the members of the Bishoya family which deserves much appreciation. The spinster Oholya-pehi and her piercing 'I will poison your tea' gaze is as much a familiar part of our families as the young, fatherless man like Mridul who had had to, all of a sudden, grow up from someone 'who could sing songs ... on whom girls had crushes' to someone who 'had the air of old men' and had 'badly tanned from working in the fields'. Prosanto-da, 'the rebel lover', is as much a next -door person as the 'sassy, chirpy, constantly laughing' Karbi girl Mamoni. With characters like this – memorable, and easy to identify with – and wedding songs and rituals, I thought Aruni had placed his novel in the time-tested mould of most IWE novels — with huge, sprawling families and, perhaps, Indian exotica.

I was wrong. Don't forget, this book is called The House with a Thousand Stories. How could the book have an easy denouement without each of those stories being told, without those stories shaking up the reader as much as they shook up and altered the lives of the characters they belonged to?

So I came to know that Oholya-pehi was not wicked. She was tied up by her memories, memories that stung her 'like angry homeless bees'. As an old spinster staying in her father's house, she had to build an impenetrable aura around her. But the fact was, she was capable of loving, a love for which she wrote 'letters to a dead man for more than a year after his death'. Mridul's love was a secret. It wouldn't receive the sanction of either his family or the society. But such was the power of this forbidden love that he was ready to make a journey for it, even if it made him return 'defeated, dejected, pensive and brooding'. All these stories – thousand and more – are connected to each other by that one piece of gossip at the wedding that sets the ball rolling. And through this gossip – and the story behind it, of gory extrajudicial killings in the wake of the downfall of the ULFA – The House with a Thousand Stories leaves the safe confines of a novel about an Indian family and steps into the perilous terrain of telling stories about discomfiting facts and uncomfortable truths. The route is laid with booby traps and one wrong step by the storyteller could take the story into a wrong direction or end it forever. Aruni Kashyap not only walks this road with aplomb, but creates a story which is both political and personal. The politics in the novel is intimate; it blends in like the sound of the Brahmaputra flowing by.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar lives in Jharkhand, and his first novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, will be published by Aleph Book Company soon. He has also published fiction in Indian Literature, The Statesman Festival Issue, The Asian Age, Good Housekeeping India, Northeast Review, The Four Quarters Magazine and Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II, and a non-fiction piece in The Times of India.