Mridul, my friend, told me how life had changed in the village after people with guns started to roam around like rabid dogs.
Everyone in the family had been killed. Hiren, his wife, their two sons who were in primary school, his eighty year-old grandmother, his mother, his father and the maid who came to help them with the household chore from the nearby hamlet.
– The House with a Thousand Stories
Aruni Kashyap’s debut novel The House with a Thousand Stories (Penguin, Viking, India) is a poignant tale of human suffering in the backdrop of insurgency and draconian administration. Through the eyes of Pablo, the teenaged protagonist of the novel, Kashyap paints a picture of Assam between 1998-2002 centred on the gross violation of human rights by secret and systematic killings of relatives, friends, and sympathisers of ULFA insurgents.
The House with a Thousand Stories is set in Assam’s picturesque rural area of Mayong (in Morigaon district) on the banks of the Brahmaputra. Kashyap’s prose is crisp and surgically precise; he captures Assam with the insight and observations of someone who is narrating a story very dear to him. Kashyap’s mastery lies in his craft of story-telling—it shifts back and forth in time, oscillates between Guwahati and Mayong, and transcends all barriers of time and space to speak about the crisis that administrative atrocities and political high-handedness can inflict on common people.
A typical village by the mighty river with a horde of characters every Assamese can relate to, the psychology of the confused youth: trying to find a voice and holding on to an ideology, the simplicity of the villagers contrary to the complex lives of the Guwahati middle class, the customary bandhs that have been plaguing Assam ever since, the rituals in a traditional Assamese marriage, insurgency and its consequences: Aruni Kashyap paints everything onto his canvas in shades of black and white.
Pablo’s is a tale of loss and grief, of love and longing that desperately needs to be told. It does not only tickle your deep, hidden sensitivities, but it gives you a generous portion of food for thought: about Assam, about society, and about life.
Here is an exclusive interview with Aruni Kashyap through e-mail:
What was the experience of writing The House with a Thousand Stories like? To what extent is the novel autobiographical?
It was exciting and exhilarating. I wrote most of the book during the last year of my college, facing a wall in my small hostel room at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. When I wrote it, I was mentally travelling in Mayong, the special place where I have the best memories of my childhood.
It is not autobiographical at all but the skeletons of many characters are real.
You recently said that Amitav Ghosh had given you the confidence to write ‘Assamese novels in English’. You have woven the Assamese lingua-franca beautifully into your English prose, especially when the names of places like Bazaar become Bozar and the use of jethai, borma, da for addressing characters and relations. How difficult was it for you craft your tale in this way?
It was not difficult at all since I grew up inhabiting two languages, like a lot of my contemporaries. I told the story in the same way I would tell an Assamese friend, if we were speaking to him in English.
In The House with a Thousand Stories, we are taken through one of the most unfortunate events in the history of Assam through the eyes of Pablo– a sensitive urban teenager. Through what Pablo sees and feels, we realise how rural Assam had suffered mercilessly at the hands of the government backed killers as well as the Indian army—whether it’s people avoiding a certain patch of land beneath an electric post or a raped young girl shrieking with fear on seeing the army. But why does young Pablo never question the misdeeds of the insurgents, the heartless crimes committed by the ULFA in the name of a fight for liberation of Assam? Why does he never question the demand for sovereignty? Does he see only one side of the story?
Yes, he doesn’t and he would question, critique, after he grows up. Pablo is only seventeen and he doesn’t know much about Assam’s history. What he sees in the village is mostly a revelation for him, though previous conversations had prepared him in a way about what he should expect. Though he is very disturbed by the events, he hasn’t yet developed the intellectual artillery to critique or argue about them. In fact, he decides to tell the story because he is scarred by everything that happens during his trip. This is also the one of the reasons why the book is non-linear. There is so much trauma at the heart of this narrative and I was aiming to create a textual equivalent of this trauma. When a person is very disturbed, he or she can’t tell what happened in a straightforward way. Pablo also can’t say this in a direct, linear way. So he goes round and round, comes close to the point, steps back, and so on. Though he doesn’t question ideas of sovereignty and critique human rights violations by the army, he is responding to it at a deeper level that is demonstrated, for instance, in the broken sequence of the novel.
Where do you see the future of ‘Assamese novels in English’? And what’s your opinion on this entire debate on Indian writing in English vis-a-vis Indian language writing?
I think it is really for readers to comment on the “future of Assamese novels in English”. I would of course, continue trying to write more such novels or stories or poems.
I think this debate will cease gradually as more and more translations appear in English and other languages from Indian languages.
Every Assamese who has lived extensively in heartland India will testify to the common man’s ignorance about North Eastern India. From my own experience I can vouch for the fact that for a large number of heartland Indians, Assam still remains a jungle ravaged by militancy with a certain famous temple called Kamakhya. How do you expect your non-Assamese Indian readers to receive this novel? What has been the reception till date according to market statistics?
I don’t think about a non-Indian or a non-Assamese or non-Guwahati reader when I write so I don’t have an answer to this question. In fact, I am least concerned about readership when I write because I can’t deal with these boundaries. Fiction is a free place and I try to find solutions to questions that trouble me at a philosophical level. If I am worried about readership, I wouldn’t be able to complete my projects. My stories are for anyone from any country, gender or race.
I think it is too early to speculate on sales figures, and that is again, a question my publisher should be answering.
A Google search for ‘Pablo’ pops out two names—Pablo Picasso, the painter and Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord; Wikipedia says that Pablo is a Spanish male name. Why is Prachurya Medhi of Guwahati nicknamed Pablo?
I think Pablo’s parents should answer this question! They speak in English with each other at home, his father travels around the world, and his mother wants him to study in the United States after completing his class XII exams. What I mean to say is that they are very wealthy, west-facing parents, though they acknowledge and have roots in the village.
You know, writing also works in strange ways and it works best when characters you want to kill refuse to die, when characters refuse to love the character you want them to love, so on. When my writing is going on well, I feel someone is dictating everything to me. I am just my characters’ stenographer and in this novel, I took dictation from Pablo. He wasn’t alive in my mind when I thought of him as Bhaity, Gubindo or Putukon – all very-Assamese names.
Naming is important for me and I change the name of my characters repeatedly while writing a story. In fact, a few hours before my editor sent off the novel to the copy-editor, I changed the names of some characters. Then again, I decided not to. I think he thought I must be mad.
When I summon my characters, they should talk to me. And they don’t talk to me if I summon them by the wrong name. So I keep guessing their names until they respond.
This interview appeared in The Assam Tribune on October 19, 2013.