The house with a thousand stories (2013) by Aruni Kashyap is a story set in Assam in the early 21st century that explores the complex relationship within a family and also weaves the stories of violence and bloodshed in the North-East India. I have been planning to read more literature related to North-East India and as soon as I spotted this book in the bookstore, I knew I had to pick it. The cover was also one of the reasons that made me pick up, I will be honest here. The book has narration alternating between two events which are four year apart and juggles beautifully between the personal and the political .
About the author
Aruni Kashyap is a writer and translator. He is the author of His Father’s Disease and Other Stories and the novel The House With a Thousand Stories. He has also translated from Assamese and introduced celebrated Indian writer Indira Goswami’s last work of fiction, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar . He won the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship for Creative Writing to the University of Edinburgh, and his poetry collection, There is No Good Time for Bad News (Future Cycle Press, 2021) was a finalist for the 2018 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize and 2018 Four Way Books Levis Award in Poetry. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, Athens. He also writes in Assamese, and his first Assamese novel is Noikhon Etia Duroit (Panchajanya Books, 2019).
Premise of the book
Papa said, “Let’s see who dares to touch Pradip Kanto Medhi’s son! And he is smart enough to deal with any situation. He knows four languages, for God’s sake!”
As if knowing four languages was equal to knowing wrestling, judo and karate! As if the army would check my CV before shooting; whenever they needed a body to prove to the officials that they had killed an insurgent, they would just shoot anyone at sight, plant grenades or an AK-47 beside it and call the press.The house with a thousand stories by Aruni Kashyap
Pablo is going to his village, Mayong in 1998 to attend the funeral of Bolen-borrta. He his the cousin of Pablo’s father and his best friend who died due to a sick liver after consuming alcohol mixed with horlicks. He did this when doctor had declared that even a single drop of alcohol would be enough to kill him. Pablo finds a good company in Mridul, his cousin and son of Bolen-borrta who is four years older to him. The events in his first visit to Mayong form the background of the drama which follows Pablo in his second visit to the village.
Mridul is a nonchalant and rebellious member of the house who is interested in guitars more than his course books. He is on the verge of becoming a rebellious lover by choosing to elope with a Nepali wine-brewer. He is mostly at loggerheads with his father’s sister, Oholya Jethai. Oholya-jethai leaves no stone unturned in humiliating Mridul and predicts that a drunkard’s son will always be a drunkard. Despite all the image damage being done by her, Mridul always tries to make up for his father’s image in front of Pablo.
After that night Mridul had started talking about his father even more, as if trying to undo the damage she had done. He didn’t know that he was trying to stop the cold from coming in through the cracks by pasting colored posters on mud walls?The house with a thousand stories by Aruni Kashyap
One impressive character in the book is Prosonto-Da who is a well-taught member of the family and too young to be Pablo’s uncle. He has earned a distaste from the family members owing to his decision of marrying a divorcee. Nobody in the family approves of the marriage and he is left with no choice but to leave home. Pablo holds him dear and at a high esteem. When he is troubled by the stories going around in the house, he looks out for Prosonto Da. There are tons of characters in the book and it took me a while to get comfortable with their names and though there was a family tree for reference, the Assamese names were something new to my ear.
Event 2 (four years later)
The second visit comes at the time of Pablo’s aunt, Moina-Pehi’s wedding. She was married off late and to an even older man because men in the house just forgot that she had grown up.
The book open as Anil da puts forth a rumor about Moina-pehi’s to-be-husband after returning from market. The book ends on the same day when Anil da makes the revelation. Anil da is a person whose words are to be taken with a pinch of salt as when he says he spotted a room long and hand fat python, it would be just a small snake!
The wedding is full of lot of dramas and stories. There are a number of guests from the family and elsewhere and the house is always buzzing with hullabaloo. What follows the marriage is a short-lived lust story between Pablo and a girl at the wedding whose memories would haunt Pablo for life for some reasons.
The house with a thousand stories, rightly so because there is always some some drama going on in the house, mostly created by Oholya-jethai whose religion is scolding. She owns the right to be furious at every other person. She has a kind of bitterness in her which seems piercing but towards the last do we understand the purpose, it has more to do with how we see woman who are unmarried and not earning. To maintain her credibility in the family and society, she has to keep a face that is controlling and authoritative.
Also Read: The radiance of a thousand suns
While discussing the thousand stories in the house, the book also narrates some incidents from the outside world which are mostly political in nature and this politics also affects the house. The turf of war between ULFA and the Government is not just limited to streets or offices, it also extend the courtyards of home.
But we saw the body first. Only in his red underwear. He didn’t have legs. They had been chopped off. He didn’t have legs. They had been chopped off. He didn’t have fingers. His only crime was that he was the elder brother of an ULFA member and the ULFA member, his brother, had refused to surrender to the Government and take the money that the Government was dishing out so that he could return to society by setting up a business.The house with a thousand stories by Aruni Kashyap
The book is filled with so many stories that I will be running short of words in describing them. Despite having so many stories, the book is quite short, only 224 pages due to which it feels rushed at quite a few places. I wanted to know more stories from the house and the eventual fates of the characters. The book gave me a bit of “One hundred years of solitude” vibes but it was quite short to actually compare the saga with the original book.
I really loved the book for its narration and inter-weaving of stories of different people, connected by the house, the house with a thousand stories. The characters had their flavor of their own. There were some haunting takeaways from the book, mostly related to ULFA. The most disturbing was the event when Pablo visits Mridul’s friend comes to know that his sister had been raped by an army officer. Living in a city, sitting on comfortable sofas, we often forget how much anguish is brought by these insurgencies.