Daisy Hasan revisits her growing-up years in Shillong to come up with a tale of four friends in The To-Let House
The story is set in Shillong, but the roots of the novel, in a sense, lie in Chennai.
The To-Let House, the intriguing, unusual debut novel by Daisy Hasan, first took form nearly a decade ago at a workshop conducted by Tara Books and the Goethe Institute right here in the city. Chennai.
What began as a book for adolescents (that was the focus of the workshop) morphed into something different in the years that followed — a darker, more adult tale of tangled lives and the struggle for identity set against the backdrop of the violence that plagues the North-East.
Yet Daisy’s association with Tara Books continued, and 10 ten long years later, The To-Let House has become part of the publishing house’s list, in spite of being a bit of a departure from its staple of children’s stories and books on folk art.
“Writing this book was a very intense experience,” says the U.K.-based author, who recently returned to Chennai for the launch of the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008-longlisted novel at Landmark. “It took a lot of time — ten years! – and several drafts, and Tara was very closely involved with its architecture.”
Set in the 1980s, the book captures Daisy’s childhood experiences in Shillong.
“It’s based on some of what I witnessed myself, though it’s gone through so many drafts that it’s almost unrecognisable as my experiences,” laughs Daisy. “But the emotional kernel remains — of growing up as an outsider but with a strong desire to belong, and having close friends in the indigenous population.”
At its core, The To-Let House features the relationship between four children who grow into adolescence together.
And although it no longer falls under the category of children’s fiction, it does provide an intriguingly complex yet authentic portrait of childhood — of the way children interact amongst themselves, with their parents and the world around them.
“I wanted to capture the consciousness of a child — which is quite broken and distracted — and the cadences of childhood as naturally as possible in the voice I adopted,” says the slim, elfin writer.
This unusual voice, and the host of wonky, volatile characters populating the book make sure this is not an overtly political novel — in spite of the riots and ethnic unrest that rumble in the background — but one about humanity, its frailties and its resilience.
“I believe that’s the most convincing way to describe what larger forces — of politics and violence — do to the individual,” says Daisy, who is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds mapping the response of South Asian women artists to conflict. “In some ways, the experience of the North East is unique, but in others, it’s very universal.”
This experience has also been explored by her sister Anjum Hasan — though in a very different style — in her well-received novel Lunatic in My Head and to a lesser degree in her recent Neti, Neti (which was also longlisted for the Man Asian Literary prize in the same year!, ironically)
“Oh, there was some serious sibling rivalry there,” laughs Daisy about the nominations, adding seriously: “But, it’s a very productive competition, you know, not paralysing. We try not to encroach upon each other’s work but, at the same time, we comment on each other’s writings.”
Up next for the writer is a project in a much-needed lighter vein — a graphic novel in collaboration with Tara again.
“I’m very excited, because Tara uses a lot of folk art, and it’ll be wonderful to collaborate with someone using an entirely different medium,” she says. “It’ll deal with migration, but definitely won’t be anything heavy or intense!”