Secrets unravelled under the shadow of violence
Reviewed by Amarinder Gill

The House with a Thousand Stories
by Aruni Kashyap. Penguin. Pages 226. Rs 399

Aruni Kashyapthe protagonist Pabloís ancestral home has a life of its own.The village Hatimura is located in the quiet hamlet of Mayong in Assam. Pablo is a young boy raised in Guwahati, where bandhs are a way of life. He has visited the village only once to attend a family funeral. Now he is there to attend his favourite Moina-Pehiís wedding.The book moves between this present visit and the last one.

Life in the city is cool, while the village is custom bound. The family has many skeletons in the cupboard which come tumbling out on every visit. Pablo befriends his cousin Mridul who makes him enjoy the local colours. The cousins eat forbidden pork and go gallivanting all over the countryside. The reader is introduced to a myriad of characters ranging from Oholya-jethai, the spinster aunt with I-will-poison-your-tea looks, rebellious Prasanto-da, a grandmother given to fits of dying and squabbling aunts. Life in the village is laidback and propriety has to be upheld. It was uncommon for a woman to talk to her husband in a room in the day time.

As the book proceeds, the extended family is introduced. If the reader gets confused with the relatives there is a family tree to refer to. A House with a Thousand Stories is a contemporary narrative set in turbulent times. With his subtle style, Kashyap covers the insurgency in Assam. He writes about the ULFA demanding a separate state and the well-off SULFA who have surrendered arms and made it to the mainstream.

The House with a Thousand StoriesThe reader learns that the killings by the ULFA were highlighted, while the schools and hospitals built by them in an unfriendly terrain were not mentioned at all. The book is very precise about the men in olive green and their question: "Kya ho raha hai?" which filled the locals with dread. Rapes and violation of human rights by the forces find a mention in this coming of age novel.

In the background of such turbulent times, preparations for the marriage continue. Cooks are hired, traditions are followed, lavish food is prepared and the house has a stream of guests. In the milieu of wedding songs, bad omens loom over the house. Rumours about the groomís family cast their shadow over the household. Pablo finds himself attracted to the elusive Anamika. Forbidden love follows as he goes through a rites de passage.

The reader follows the hard life of the rural characters who have many mouths to feed and more daughters to marry. The novel has its humorous moments when Pabloís cousin belts out Hindi songs in an Assamese accent on his guitar and pehla nasha becomes pehla nosa. It is enjoyable when the grand dame of the house insists that the Brahmin must wear an underwear under his dhoti so that nothing is visible .

This a simple piece of writing that voices the story of a land torn by violence. The writer very carefully weaves an intricate tapestry of the characters and simple incidents of village life where Assamese and Hindi films are watched on a hired VCD and a TV borrowed from an acquaintance. This is a great debut novel and proves to be a pleasurable read.