Speaking about the premonitory arrival of three hooting owls on the roof of the family house in Mayong, Assam, Aruni Kashyap’s narrator says, “I saw their ash-coloured wings fluttering in the moonlight like suddenly revealed mysteries. Like unexpected twists in stories.”
The House with a Thousand Stories abounds in these mysteries and twists, and is also filled with the same aura of foreboding that permeates sentences such as these. Although Kashyap paints a portrait of a village family that is consumed with its own affairs—the cacophony of a family wedding softens to include stories of unhappy alliances, severed ties and lost loves—there is also the bloody, shadowy world of terror and violence that jolts this family rudely from time to time. In incidents such as the encounter with the army officers, Kashyap is able to deftly bring out the fear in the minds of the people through their silences, their downcast looks and most chillingly, through the delayed reaction of the traumatised Mamoni, who had been a victim of the army’s atrocities in the past.
In another sentence Kashap says, “The morning arrived with the speed of homecoming cows attracted by the irresistible smell of ripe jackfruits: quick, impatient.”
Much as one would be amazed by the many such statements coming from a city boy spending only so much time in his ancestral village, one is nonetheless convinced that Kashyap’s novel reveals a strong deep-rootedness in the earthy, organic life of the Assamese village that Mayong represents. While the novel is stridently full of action—the cast of characters belonging to this big, sprawling family rarely denies the reader a fresh piece of gossip or some new momentous event to partake in—it is also frequently ruminative, either reflective of a teenager’s confused longings or suggestive of the author’s wistfulness for a particular way of life.
Through the course of reading The House with a Thousand Stories, there is a sense that the breadth of the novel is panoramic, because of the anecdotes and unobtrusive references to the state’s history. Simultaneously, it is an intricate, microscopic glimpse into the lives of ordinary people. Kashyap painstakingly sketches out his characters —from the misunderstood “rebel-lover” Prosanto-da, who marries outside of the family’s consent, the tantalising, mischievous Anamika, whose fate beyond the novel’s pages comes as a shocking blow, and Oholya-jethai, whose characterisation may well be Kashyap’s finest: a peevish, misunderstood middle-aged woman, whose story as revealed in the end is heart-rending, pointing towards the author’s tenderness towards those most scorned, and revealing the transformative power of buried histories.
The novel revolves around the merry festivities leading up to a wedding, but the outcome of the wedding is nothing short of catastrophic. Closing the pages of the book, one is reminded that tragedies do occur, they may be relentless, that people who have lived full, vibrant lives will one day be consigned to the disappearing archives of memory, or, if lucky, to the room with the “forgotten almirah where old storybooks stood”.
Like Marquez’s Macondo, these are places which seem to exist only fleetingly, where stories are at once ephemeral and eternal.
Kashyap says of the great destructive urges of the Brahmaputra, “I thought back on the times when Bolen-bortta had been suckled by Aaita. Where we sat that day, we would have found a lush, green, crowded, rich village with granaries full of golden seeds sprawled in front of us. But the river took away the village, chunk by chunk, tree by tree, house by house, leaving an endless expanse of water before our eyes.”
The House with a Thousand Stories leaves one with the feeling that something is irretrievably lost, and yet, as the entrancing, languorous love scene at the end suggests, there is much beauty, more rarefied for being so transient, strained out in the process.