Writer Aruni Kashyap talks about his debut novel, and the burden of representing Assam

In a Ted Talk delivered in 2009, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie talked about “the danger of a single story”. “Show a people as only one thing over and over again, and that is what they become,” she said. Everyone is susceptible to the single story. The mainland understanding of Assam and the rest of North-East, ridden with stereotypes, is reflective of this. If there is a corrective to the danger of a single story, it lies in narrating many more stories. Aruni Kashyap’s debut novel “The House with a Thousand Stories” takes its name from the experience of joint families, where one is constantly surrounded by stories. But it is tempting to read it in light of Adichie’s statement.

The novel, set in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is narrated by its protagonist Pablo over two visits, first for a funeral and then a wedding, to his ancestral family house in Mayong in rural Assam. The shadow of insurgency hangs over these rituals like a lurid rumour. On these visits he discovers many things, about his forbidding aunt, secretive cousin and himself. Excerpts from an e-mail interview:

Can you talk about the origins of your novel? It seems to have been anticipated in a poem you wrote earlier, which also talks about an L-shaped house with a thousand novels.

Actually, The House With a Thousand Stories was born from a short story. I wanted to write a story about a seventeen-year-old boy called Pablo who would visit his ancestral village to attend his aunt’s wedding and fall in love; I'd titled the story 'Country Wedding', a horrible title, if you ask me now...

After I wrote about 10,000 words, I realised it deserved to be a novel, not a short story, not a novella. This decision created a new challenge for me because I had a different ending in mind for the purpose of a short story and since I can’t write fiction without knowing the closure, I had to halt the writing for many weeks until the closure arrived. After that it was very easy because everything sort of happened on its own. I just had to turn up at my desk every morning. As if Pablo stood by me and dictated the whole book to me. I am just Pablo’s stenographer.

How did you go about creating the character of Pablo? Why did you call him that and why was it necessary for him to belong to urban Assam?

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.

You have talked about how in the past your writing tended to carry footnotes and glossaries. When and why did you decide to do away with them?

Since I write in English also, and come from a state that finds little representation in the rest of India, I am expected to take up the burden of ‘representing’ various things in my fiction. Recently, some people told me that I should have provided more details about the history of the Assam-India conflict in my book so that people who read the book learn about it. It charmed me, but at the same time, I am very sure that I don’t want my fiction to be Assam History 101. I tried to educate people through my fiction and poetry when I was younger and very immature but I have learnt that the purpose of fiction is not to teach history, politics, geography.

Which writers have you been influenced by?

Toni Morrison is the writer I have learnt the most from. I read Beloved again and again before writing this novel to learn its structure, and whenever I reached a block, I would open any page of Song of Solomon, Jazz or Sula. Indira Goswami, Amitav Ghosh, Nadine Gordimer, Garcia Marquez, William Faulkner, Ashapurna Devi are some other writers who taught me many things.