The House With a Thousand Stories | Aruni Kashyap

Out of the ruin

Aruni Kashyap’s first novel is about Mayong, a land that has withstood the Brahmaputra’s rage and a long-standing reputation, fostered largely within the state, that it is the Indian home of black magic. Assamese people recount many versions of Mayong’s history with relish, colouring it with imagination and heresy. In popular myth, Mayong is wet and enchanting.

In Kashyap’s The House With a Thousand Stories, Mayong is remarkably ordinary, but in the way a people used to unending military brutality and repeated betrayals by mutinous locals are ordinary. The Indian Army is omnipresent, although we never see its actions or hear its voice. Violence rips apart young men; dead bodies hang upside down from trees. The Ulfa has mutated to Sulfa (Surrendered United Liberation Front of Asom)—both glorious in their inability to offer hope to the people. Its landscape has the fertile beauty of any place through which a mighty river flows. The society is steeped in prejudices. Life goes on, and through a family which is grappling with larger realities, while in the throes of conflicts within it, we feel an undying will.

In the pages of this book, Mayong is the heart of rural Assam—bleeding and triumphant at the same time.

The House With a Thousand Stories: Viking, 226 pages, Rs 399
The House With a Thousand Stories: Viking, 226 pages, Rs 399

Pablo is a teenager who lives in Guwahati with his progressive parents. For the wedding of Moina, his father’s younger sister, he visits his father’s ancestral home in Mayong. His closeness to his first cousin Mridul is offset by Mridul’s closely guarded secrets. The remorseful and strong-willed women of the family fuel the drama surrounding the wedding. Oholya, the unmarried matriarch of the family, is a ruthless and indefatigable woman who is quite inexplicably loved by Pablo—nobody in the family can reconcile to a forlorn and indifferent Oholya jethai (an older maternal aunt). The village knows about her tragic past; and she soothes herself with an iron grip over the weaker members of the family. Lost personal mementos are unearthed, unpalatable secrets tumble out. Outside, ghastly acts of violence serially wound Mayong’s inhabitants.

For Pablo, a contentious and affectionate young man, it is a rite of passage. Much of what happens to him is inside a room in the beautiful, decrepit house where “The space under the bed wasn’t spared too. Instead of mosquitoes trapped in cobwebs, there was an old harmonium from the days of Oholya jethai’s youth when she was the subject of the biggest gossip in the entire village, a gossip that changed her for life. Besides the harmonium, there were iron trunks and I didn’t know what was there in those trunks." This room is a metaphor for the blighted lives in the house—and Pablo’s inner transformation is midwived here.

As the life inside this room, the lives outside it, and the people outside the home wither, Kashyap’s prose becomes more and more forceful. He does not allow the reader to see the events in the story from one vantage point. He lures us towards a judgement, only to gently twist away in the last moment, shaking our moral laziness, as everything combusts with catastrophic results in the climax. Kashyap leaves us with something sparkling in this wreckage—a quality common to all great tragedies.

The coming together of a family during a festival is a useful tool in fiction. Rituparno Ghosh’s Utsab, where a Bengali family meets for Durga Puja at its family home—one of his finest works—is just one example. The congregation allows for the easy set-up of conflicts and confrontations—it is an effective pivot for drama.

Structurally, Kashyap’s novel is not inventive. It is the author’s gaze on his people—autobiographical or not, it is unflinching and tender—that makes The House With a Thousand Stories the book it is. In tone, structure and sensibility Kashyap’s novel is similar to Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning work The God of Small Things, a book that spawned a genre of family narratives crafted from memory.

For many outside Assam, the state is a patchwork of stray news reports and books about insurgency and touristy exoticism. Kashyap’s novel humanizes it. The House With a Thousand Stories is a novel to savour.