Is an ‘ordinary event’ an oxymoron? Is an event a disruption of the ordinary? Must the ordinary remain eventless? The House Next to the Factory has given me answers I did not know were possible.
Having spent many years reading and writing about the ordinary, it is a delight for me to come across a collection of stories that is one of the most human and heartening embodiment of what language and narrative can do with the great paradox of the banal. This is a book where a man on a scooter suffers a serious injury, not from a riot, but from a grease-patch left in the middle of a road, possibly kerosene used in the madness. This is a book that asks whether literature is an immersion into the quotidian or a violation of it, only to show that literature is both, and that there really is no conflict between them.
Artistic representation, particularly that which happens through language, undergoes a radical change with modernity. Much of the grand sweep through time that defined epics, myths, and folktales begins to disappear, making space for the close and intimate shot of the moment. Crystallised through the solitary interiority of the modern subject, the modern short story becomes a natural magnet for banalities that were never imagined to be the subject for art in the past. Such representations of the ordinary easily draw in inanimate objects, elements least likely to stir with drama or turmoil.
But Sonal Kohli’s stories are special in that she does not hesitate to include human drama in her delicate evocations of the quotidian. It is the tantalising balance of stillness and the (never quite realised) lure of drama that makes The House Next to the Factory a very special book.
Kohli brings the marginality of the quotidian to loving and troubled contact with the lives of marginalised people. They imagine themselves to be small and minor; consequently, the throbbing drama of their lives hesitates to sprout. The evocatively titled ‘Other Side of Town’ opens with the manservant Johny Walker’s fear and confusion at a woman’s desire for him.
The street-cleaner, Rani, had suddenly kissed him, and “hurt and shame” had “crossed her face when he pushed her away”. There were fears he couldn’t dismiss. “She was a low-caste sweeper. What if somebody had seen them?” Fear and shame take a long time to dissolve, even as they start to grow intimate. “When he was heading out, she gave him a polythene bag to cover his head, but they were glad for the rain because no one would see him leaving her house so late.”
But nothing changes the trajectory of a burgeoning relationship as one’s insertion into the mundane niceties of a loved one’s life: “One day he bought an exhaust fan for the kitchen and put a twenty-rupee note in Rani’s palm to send for the electrician later. When she folded her fingers over the note, it quietly changed something between them. Johny Walker had never known what it was to be a part of a house or someone’s life in this way.”
In her sentences, Kohli touches the rarest of sweet spots, the near-invisible space between delicious intricacy and craftless innocence: “Mr. Lamba picked the skin off the tea”; “Her face was like a shrivelled apricot, her eyes were lined with kohl”; “bundles of clothes that looked like dusty pumpkins”; “He was handsome, though not good-looking”; “Roshan had lost his temper, face red, the many moles ready to pop like mustard seeds.”
Even more admirable is the way she adapts the naïve, sometimes thoughtless voices of her characters, embodying a deeply local vernacular. In the story, ‘Weekend in Landour,’ people who would perhaps have been described by others as ‘white’ or ‘European’ are called “foreigners,” evoking an authentic, localised Indian sensibility: “Two foreigners sat in a window smoking, a man in a kurta and a girl in a pink kameez.”
Life must go on while a story happens. As someone who teaches creative writing, I often find this a hard lesson to impress on aspiring writers. The lightly stirred eddies of life keep moving in the fiction of the writers scattered through these stories: Henry Green, R.K. Narayan, V.S. Pritchett, Amrita Pritam, Anton Chekhov. The swirl of art that comes alive in this constellation says a lot about the aesthetic of Kohli’s stories, drawing them into a tender and intimate tradition of world literature.
The House Next to the Factory; Sonal Kohli, Fourth Estate, ₹499
The reviewer’s novels include The Firebird (2015), The Scent of God (2019), and the forthcoming The Middle Finger.