Hopes and fears

Print edition : December 27, 2013

Residents of a village watch an Indian military convoy going to the Bhutan border in the Tamulpur area to help the Bhutanese army flush out anti-Indian insurgents. A file picture. Photo: ritu raj konwar

The book weaves the theme of insurgency deftly into the sights and sounds of life in Mayong village in Assam.

THERE is a sense of foreboding from the very start of the novel, spelt out in the evocative metaphor of rumours arriving at a wedding like unwanted guests. The symbolic trope of the wedding, where things go awry and all settled certainties are overturned, culminates in the stark final chapters where the tragedy cuts across the boundaries between the personal and the political. The overarching sentiment conveyed by Aruni Kashyap’s debut novel The House with a Thousand Stories is the influence of politics in everyday matters, sometimes in a grotesquely direct in-one’s-face manner and at times unobtrusively.

It is remarkable that Kashyap has been able to weave the theme of the insurgency and the consequent extrajudicial killings in Assam in the 1990s deftly into the everyday lives of his protagonists. The iterative use of symbols brings forth the grimness of the insurgency. The narrative technique of seeing the insurgency through the eyes of the boy narrator works well in conveying the intricate ways in which lives are caught up in the conflict. As the narrative unfolds, the evolving relationship of the narrator with his ancestral village helps chart the contours of the insurgency.

However, overall the novel comes alive through its characters and the intricate relationships between them. The author’s primary strength lies in characterisation as he populates his canvas with characters with varied idiosyncrasies and paints them with deft and confident brushstrokes. The most remarkable instance of this is his characterisation of Oholya Jethai, the dominating and mercurial elderly spinster of the ancestral household. Some of the most remarkable scenes in the novel include Oholya’s strident insistence that the family members adhere to conventions and her outpourings of rage against young lovers and rebels. The village’s response to situations of conflict and the clash of values is portrayed vividly through Oholya’s responses to crisis situations.

The portrayal of the father-son relationship needs a special mention both on account of the economy and the subtlety of expression. The protagonist Pablo’s relationship with his father outlines the contours of a culture where men are not meant to “show” their emotions. There are several episodes in the novel where the author demonstrates this with remarkable felicity of expression. One of these is when the young Pablo struggles to bid farewell to his father and observes that it feels strange to say goodbye to a strict father. Towards the end of the first chapter, Pablo notes, “Seeing Papa so happy and friendly was beyond my expectations. Papas don’t smile like that at their sons. Papas don’t behave like friends with their sons. Papas aren’t dramatic. Papas don’t cry.”

The young narrator’s struggles with established idioms of masculinity continue well into his adulthood. Against the backdrop of the insurgency, the novel charts the coming of age of young men struggling with mores and conventions. The novel establishes intimate connections between the political uprising and revolts in the domestic realm that unsettle, or at least challenge, established hierarchies of power. But in the end it remains an unfinished agenda; both the lover’s revolt against the social norms and the rebel’s challenge to the state only lead to a sense of despair. Pablo’s affair with Anamika never comes to fruition as her life is cut short by an untimely abortion. The unfinished love affair of Pablo and Anamika parallels with the tragedy that unfolds at the wedding in the ancestral household where Moina Pehi kills herself on learning that the family she is to be married into is related to the insurgents. The author observes in one of the final chapters: “The truth behind stories mercilessly ensured that certain things should remain unsaid between us forever.” However, the sense towards the end is not of complete despondency. It is noticeable that the novel ends with Pablo’s reflections on the Pablo-Anamika affair. The narrator observes, “‘Our story ends here,’ she had said, before leaving…. Branching out into five different directions, they were actually the prologues to another series of stories.” The connections between the various strands of the plot do not quite come through. At some level, the strands do not speak to each other to create a cohesive whole.

However, individual chapters and episodes stand out in comparison with the overall impact. One such remarkable stroke of genius is evident in the way in which the theme of the insurgency is introduced in the third chapter through the conversations between young Pablo and his friend Mridul. Pablo is instructed by Mridul not to walk past an electric pole in the village road and take a meandering road instead.

The fear and trauma of extrajudicial killings by the army is concretised in the symbol of the electric pole from which the body of a suspected sympathiser of the rebels was found hanging mysteriously one fateful morning. This is a brilliant technique the author has used to seamlessly weave the trauma of the insurgency into the everyday lives of the characters. The novel traces the changing face of the insurgency from being an occurrence out there to gradually becoming an integral part of everyday life. This is discernible in the scenes depicted in the latter part, which describe army trucks doing the rounds of the village and the army routinely questioning its residents. The impact of the insurgency is conveyed with a sense of urgency through a powerful set of images.

One such instance is the reaction of a woman on seeing the arrival of an army truck. “She wouldn’t stop, she kept screaming like a lunatic until she fainted. I saw the whites of her eyes; the irises of her eyes had disappeared. She was still sitting. I saw the pale yellow trail of urine sliding down on the courtyard.” The woman had been raped by four military men when she had gone to wash her clothes by the river. The powerful symbolism conveys the helplessness of the villager in the face of an onslaught by a demonic, militant state. Yet the author steers clear of writing an entirely grim treatise on the insurgency by using an occasional stroke of humour, which humanises his characters. This is evident in the scenes where Pablo tries to impress the army officials visiting the village with his accented English whereupon an official mistakes him for a Bengali and starts speaking to him in Bangla. These moments of comic relief help in humanising the characters and prevent the novel from becoming a dull sociological treatise on the insurgency.

The author’s language is evocative and tender. The narrative is strewn with metaphors and symbols that successfully bring alive the sights and sounds of life in Mayong village (in Morigaon district) in Assam. The occasional use of the metaphor is very effective in stylistically conjuring up a certain atmosphere. For instance, Pablo’s father breaks the news of Bolen-borta’s death to his wife in a “deadpan tone, as if he were reading the news on a government TV channel. As if he were a newsreader telling us how militants came and massacred hundreds who had taken shelter in a camp after prolonged ethnic riots.”

The metaphor conveys the sense of shock and attendant numbness that follows from a sudden demise of a loved one. But in some places, the author is over-indulgent in his use of metaphors and this jars the flow of the narrative.

The novel brings alive the human dimensions of a turbulent period of political and social upheaval with remarkable tenderness and sensitivity. What could have become a stark and grim political treatise is humanised by the author’s depth of characterisation, the occasional touches of humour and an abiding sense of hope and idealism that shines through the contours of tragedy.

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