Author – Aruni Kashyap
It is 2002 and young Pablo, a city boy who has mostly lived a sheltered and privileged life in Guwahati, is visiting his ancestral village for his aunt’s wedding. This is his second time in Mayong, in rural Assam, since 1998, when he had come for a few days to attend his father’s best friend’s funeral. As the wedding preparations gather pace, Pablo is amused as well as disturbed by squabbling aunts, dying grandmothers, cousins planning to elope for love and hysterical gossips. And on this heady theatre of tradition and modernity hovers the sinister shadow of insurgency and the army’s brutal measures to quell militancy.
In the days leading up to the wedding, which ends in an unspeakable tragedy, Pablo finds first love, discovers family intrigues and goes through an extraordinary rite of passage. Written with clinical precision, this gripping first novel announces the arrival of one of the most original voices from India’s North-East
Lately I have been into reading books by Indian authors. I am picking up books that are being talked about by my friends as well as book bloggers. This book is one such find. The fact that the story is based on my home state -Assam, increased my interest in the book by many folds. And I am glad I picked it up.
For his debut novel, Aruni Kashyap has taken the backdrop of the rural Assam in the late 1990s & early 2000s, when the state was under the thick, dark clouds of fear and uncertainty. This period is best known for the secret & brutal killings of ULFA militants/rebels and their family members, & even distant relatives.
The story, narrated by Pablo, moves back & forth in time (1998 & 2002), between Guwahati & Mayong (Land of Black Magic) during his two visits to his native village. It speaks about the atrocities that had to be borne by the people of Mayong. In fact, the story of Mayong was in general the story of rural Assam during that period. I too had heard similar stories from my cousins back in the villages of Sivasagar – how they had to live in the fear of both ULFAs as well as armed forces. The House with a Thousand Stories is a heady mix of characters & sub-plots (not detailed & hence not boring) that every Assamese can relate to – the confused minds of the youth, simplicity of the villagers, the customary bandh’s that have now become distinctive of Assam, the rituals & preparations involved in an Assamese marriage, insurgency, role of armed forces, etc. Also, with usage of Assamese words for aunts, uncles, etc. the author takes the reader into greater proximity of the Assamese culture.
In the story, the wedding becomes the centre stage where the entire drama unfolds. Old and dark secrets of the family get revealed, shattering and shaking up the beliefs and ego of a few people and a love story begins and meets its end too. It was the wedding of Pablo’s Moina Pehi (aunt), who at 32 had despaired of ever marrying. The wedding turns out to be anything but happy — a stray rumour brought in the wedding household by Anil Da (the most despicable character for me in the book), about the groom’s brother being a member of an insurgents’ group, scared Moina, the bride, so much that she drinks phenyl on the night before the wedding, to be later saved by her family. However, the wedding took place and she was sent off to the groom’s place. But the next morning, Moina is found dead in her husband’s home — lying naked in the bedroom, with flowers strewn around her.
The violence unleashed by insurgents and the brutal repression of it by the Indian armed forces had so scared the people that fear had become a part of their daily lives. And it could be felt throughout the story. In many instances the author has successfully & impressively portrayed the fear that his characters had to live with. One such detail is the patch of land around and under an electric pole next to the main village road that Mridul (Pablo’s cousin), like everyone in the village, avoids stepping on. It was here where the mutilated corpse of the brother of an ULFA member, secretly killed, and strung up on the pole to terrorize the people of Mayong, had fallen. Then there was the instance of the terror-stricken Mamoni, gang raped by few men of the armed forces, who left a trail of yellow liquid at the mere sight of a group of uniformed men or the sound of their boots.
In the story, Kashyap has delivered master strokes in painting the natural beauty of Assam. When Pablo talks about his visits to his native village, the author has taken the opportunity to portray the ambience, the scenery, the calmness, etc. that are characteristic of an Assamese village. And at these points, I could relate to him in many ways. I too had similar experiences of visiting the villages of both my father & mother. We visited regularly during festivals, weddings and in funerals, etc. and have some amazing memories of time spent there. Though I visit our ancestral villages even today, I hardly get time, in between my hectic schedule, to enjoy the beauty around me. The story brought back some happy and cherished memories.
A book/story/article often gives us a direction to form an opinion about a place and its people. And I am sure A House with a Thousand Stories will affect a lot on what people perceive of Assam, the Assamese people and their society and their struggle to rise above the pain & suffering of extremism and move forward towards the ray of hope. A must read.
Voice of the author:
I had contacted the author and had sent him some questions to know something more about his characters and his thoughts portrayed in the book. Below are his answers to my questions:
D&C – Why did you choose the name Pablo for the main character, because this is not a common name in our Assamese society and when the names of the other characters you had chosen are very Assamese?
AK – I wish I could explain why Pablo is called ‘Pablo’ and why he belongs to Guwahati, not Jokaisuk. When I ‘saw’ this young, seventeen-year-old Lee Cooper jeans-clad boy standing in front of me, eager to tell me about his doomed first love, he started telling me the story only after I called him by the right name. I called him Dhonti, he didn’t turn back. I called him Noyonmoni, he remained quite. But when I called him Pablo, he turned to face me with a smile on his face. There are many things in writing that are beyond your control. All you need to do is turn up at your desk and let it happen. Also, Pablo’s parents are west-facing. They speak in English at home, his mother wants him to enroll for his undergraduate in the United States, so on. It was natural that they wouldn’t name him Pitambor or Tonkeshwor. (Also posted here)
D&C – Is there any connection between you and Pablo? Are his experiences in the village inspired from your personal experiences?
AK – I do feel connected to Pablo because he belongs to my generation. It is the generation that was born around 1979. It was the year when everything changed for the worse in Assam because of the Assam Agitation and the formation of ULFA. We are also the generation who have no clue what it was like to live in a peaceful Assam. I feel connected to Pablo that way but I don’t like many things about him. I am not sure, but I think he is a bit nosy, and I don’t like nosy people. Yes, of course, the skeleton of the events and the characters are drawn from real life. That is the mainstay of fiction.
D&C – Why were all the women characters in the story so helpless?
AK – I am so glad you observed this. They are all very intelligent, promising and strong women who are victims of patriarchy. (Also posted here)
D&C – I felt the character of Prosanto da needed some more pages, maybe some details on his past life, why and how he went back to the woman who left him and in turn abandoning the one who helped him recover the pain of his past.
AK – I wish I could give him more space but since the book is written from Pablo’s perspective, I could only give that much space to Prosanto.
D&C – Is there any reason for using typical Assamese words in the story like Bozar, Jethai, Pehi without any footnotes/annexure on their meanings?
AK – That is because Pablo speaks like that. Pablo has grown up watching British, American and Indian TV programs. He reads British and American magazines and novels. But he also has parents who have trained him to use Tawoi and Aamoi, instead of Uncle and Aunty and he doesn’t mind that.
I don’t think footnotes are necessary in a novel. I understood much of the Snopes Trilogy without a guidebook on the history of American South by my side. I am writing for an engaged and intelligent reader and I know they would walk an extra mile.
D&C – Well said. And I loved to see the ethnic words we use in English print. Thank you for that.
D&C – What are you currently working on? Can you reveal its subject matter?
AK – It is a novel set in Assam 🙂
D&C – Wow! I will wait eagerly for this one.
Thank you Mr Aruni Kashyap, for your time and speedy response. Many congratulations on the success of your first book. I definitely look forward for your next book.