A state rocked by violence. A family with many secrets. But the threads don’t come together.
Few stories nowadays proceed chronologically, so Aruni Kashyap is not alone in teasing the reader with half a morsel of gossip at the opening of The House with a Thousand Stories. But he does make us wait a very long time to taste the second half. As an extended family gathers in an Assamese village for the long-awaited wedding of a daughter, one relative enters — in mournful glee — to share a rumour about the groom’s family, one that could bring preparations to a halt.
The narrator of this rambling family tale, Pablo, recalls two visits to his father’s ancestral house in Hatimura village. On the first — a condolence visit — his now-fatherless cousin Mridul persuades him to stay on for some weeks. In the second, four years later, he attends his youngest aunt’s wedding, arriving well in advance so that he can participate in all the preliminary activities.
The community is pinned between the fire power of the separatist ULFA and the money power of the surrendered ULFA, who are bankrolled by the state government. But often it is the armed forces that seem to scare people the most. This is not incidental background but essential to Pablo’s story, or one of his thousand stories. Soldiers in jeeps appear to Pablo and Mridul as they sit chatting on a rock or visiting friends, and they badly frighten a young girl cowering in a corner while the boys are talking.
While his elder maiden aunt, Oholya, rules the household with endless insults and prohibitions, Pablo hears and assembles family stories from his parents’ incomplete anecdotes, overheard conversations, and embarrassingly public revelations. His uncle Prosanto has left home till his aged mother should give him permission to marry the woman he loves. Mridul is courting a Nepali girl, against his family’s wishes. Moina, the bride, is afraid to marry her much older fiancé and join his cold and unfriendly family. At the same time, she is terrified that her wedding will be thwarted by her mother’s death, or that the owls and other omens that have appeared all week portend something far worse. And Oholya’s humiliating past is literally unearthed when the men dig post holes to put up the wedding tent.
The fiction is cluttered. There are more characters than a reader can understand and Pablo jumps abruptly from one time frame to the other. That’s the nature of memory, but perhaps it shouldn’t be the nature of fiction writing. The narrator takes too long to relate one thread to another and he often goes over the same ground. He knows what to put in but not what to leave out, perhaps. The writing itself would have benefited from some polish. And what looks like the central suspense of the narrative — the rumour about the groom’s family that could derail a wedding — is no such thing. The two halves of that rumour are simply bread on the outside of the sandwich, and the events of the middle do not organically fill them in.
On the other hand, Kashyap’s characters seem all the more immediate for that want of narrative polish. He seems to be a participant in his story, not disengaged enough to tell it with artistic restraint. Close-ups predominate, and the larger picture doesn’t effectively emerge, in spite of shockingly violent incidents. Pablo himself, after all, is not a true outsider-observer. He is from Guwahati, only a rattling bus journey away from Hatimura, and he shows himself closely connected to his family, living among their stories and forgetful of himself.
But the shocking story among the thousand is not the wedding, and it doesn’t end with the wedding. Pablo is the only one who holds all its threads, and he buries it in his fiction. That is not entirely forgetfulness, but a refusal to remember.