Lessons On How and Why To Remember The Dead in Aruni Kashyap’s A House With a Thousand Stories

In this post, Maitrayee Sarma explores the enduring impact that violence impresses upon the minds of children, continuing to haunt them late into their adulthood. She particularizes the impact by reading Aruni Kashyap's novel against the operations of insurgency and counter-insurgency that marked Assam in the late 90s, and early 2000s.


Mankind’s worst conflicts are immortalized in literature that seeks to look at the world through a child’s perspective. From Amir and Hassan of Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” to Liesel and Rudy of Marcus Zuzak’s “The Book Thief”, the poignancy of war is perhaps best captured, or at least best remembered, when shown through the innocent eyes of a child. The loss becomes more palpable, the tragedy more trenchant. It is the same reason why the diaries of Anne Frank are still the most widely read account of the Second World War. Aruni Kashyap’s “The House with a Thousand Stories” (2013) works with similar tools in hand. The novel, set in the background of the insurgency and counter-insurgency operations that ravaged Assam in the late 90s and early 2000s, tries to capture the tension and uncertainty of the times through its adolescent narrator Pablo. The narrative goes back and forth between two timelines- the funeral rituals of a relative that the protagonist attends in his ancestral home and a wedding that he comes back to in his ancestral home for few years later as a matured teenager. Both seemingly private occasions become portals to larger questions about the public discourses on identity and nationhood that young Pablo is forced to tackle, rather unwillingly and with a taste of violence that is bound to leave the reader deeply disturbed.

The House with a Thousand Stories is a novel of memory. The personal memories that Pablo recounts are soaked in memories of a time that have often been shunned from the public memory of Assam. The violence he recalls was what is now referred to as the “gupto-hotya” or “secret killings”, which is an umbrella term for the numerous extra-judicial killings of suspected insurgents and their families as perpetrated by the Indian state in an effort to quell the secessionist movement of the ULFA. According to the most conservative estimates, about 2000 people were either killed, raped or sustained lifelong injuries, often in their homes, caused by ‘unidentified’ actors. There really was no “secrecy” about these killings, the only discreteness is in its status is perhaps in the public memory of the people of Assam. Kashyap’s representation of these times, especially in a language that would make it accessible to a mass audience, is an important step in honouring the ones who lost their lives in the hands of state repression. As the critic Amit R. Baishya has noted:

“Reading and engaging with texts like … House can propel forgotten or unknown events that happened in a so-called peripheral ‘background’ into the centre-stage of national conversation, reminding us that what happened ‘there’ uncannily repeats itself in the ‘here’ and the now.”


Source: Secret killings of Assam: The Horror Tales from the Land of Red River and Blue Hills by Talukdar et al 2009.


The unspeakable violence in the public manifests itself in a disquieting silence at his ancestral rural home that young city-bred Pablo has to reconcile with at different stages through what he calls “half stories." In one such instance, during his first visit to Hatimura, he notices that his cousin Mridul avoids walking over a stretch of a land under an electric pole for no real reason. Upon much pestering he finds out that not a long time ago, Mridul had seen a mutilated corpse hanging from the electric pole, a sight that haunts him forever, and out of respect avoids walking over the land which was once soaked with an innocent’s blood. Even before finding out the reason, Pablo is quick to comprehend the discomfort in Mridul’s meaningless superstition. The narrator notes:

“I wanted to defy him and walk on it but I felt, whatever the reason was, it wasn’t funny: it was serious and he was scared of something…I realized that the obstacle was invisible- the obstacle that made him avoid the portion of ground just under the electric pole…” (48).


This invisible obstacle was also one of class divide. Even though Kashyap is trying to give a witness account of the times, his chosen narrator is an outsider looking-in. Pablo is a city-bred boy, fluent in English, with dreams of going to college in America. Even though he empathizes with his relatives who find themselves at the heart of the conflict zone, he is aware of his privileged position. His relatives realize that too as they take reassurance in the fact that his fluent Hindi and English would mean that he is unlikely to be picked up by the army patrols and is also in a better position to communicate with them. During his first stay when there is unexpected violence in the village, Pablo’s parents travel from Guwahati the very next day to pick him up and pull him out of any imminent danger. Kashyap has clearly modelled his narratorial position on the basis of his own personal experiences as someone who also had a privileged urban upbringing like Pablo. The target audience of the novel is also clearly this same urban, middle class, English-speaking population that had the privilege to only know these events through “half stories”, just like Pablo, Kashyap the writer, and myself- an urban youth of Assam. The novel does not claim to provide any factual representation, but instead provides an affective experience, which is often melodramatic and yet perhaps not far from truth. Kashyap’s advantage lies in that no one really knows- official accounts of the violence are contested, never publicly discussed so much so that for an entire generation this period is lived through “half stories."

Pablo as an outsider gains most of his insights about these “half-stories” through rumours. On the one hand, rumours during these times were the way through which most news travelled, as they generally do during times when there is a breakdown of trust between communities and institutions. And even though he follows every silly story with the awareness of possible exaggeration, what he witnesses is distilled somewhere between fact and fiction, and the cacophony of voices that claim to stand for either or both. In a heightened moment of tension, when forces of state terror pose an immediate threat to the would-be bride of the family, Pablo finds himself in a state of shock, and incomprehensibility, which ultimately leads to a state of complete breakdown of language:


“There is government such rumours come to all wedding houses my parents heard the groom already had a wife there is law and order my child, please don’t behave like this do you want to remain an old maid like me there is law and order in this country this is just a small rumour please don’t cry such rumour co met o all wedd…” (168).


The memory that the narrator is recalling is foggy and disruptive like the narrative structure of the novel. He often gives away major plot twists before getting to that point in the story, constantly reminding the reader that even though the story is important, the details are not. Moreover, even as Pablo witnesses the unfolding drama in his village house, he is constantly reminded of his otherness, with his family members often telling him that he does not know or understand certain things, either because he is young or because he is a city boy. Several times in the course of the story, he expresses a desire to talk, have an open conversation:


“I wanted to talk to someone. Someone who wouldn’t speak in a judgmental tone about that ‘divorcee’. Someone who knew there was a different world outside the village.” (113)


So for the better part of the narrative, he listens in quiet confusion. Pablo is a part of this world outside the village, and it is to this world that he tells his story. There is also a sense that he is caught up in a setting where no one is really open to communication. The melodramatic actions of his family members, the numerous angry outbursts and dramatic exits from scene of tension, are very much attempts to escape their realities. Pablo cannot relate to this, and is thus constantly seen trying to coax some truth out of them in an attempt to understand the events unfolding in a better way. One way to look at this internal conflict that Pablo goes through is as a clash between traditional values and modernity, or as the back cover of the book calls it “heady theatre of tradition and modernity." When his mother expresses hesitation of his frequent travels to the village, he reminds her confidently, “Don’t you keep telling me yourself to go to the village, spend time there, get to know our culture? Then why stop me now?” (26)

Every ritual, superstition, song, piece of jewellery and recipe is noted by the narrator Pablo in painstaking detail and in a matter-of-fact fashion. It is almost as if the now older Pablo is grasping at straws, trying to recall everything he can before he is cheated out of the nostalgia by his own memory. Kashyap equates this with the devastating floods of the mighty Brahmaputra and the way it erodes villages with it almost every year. As the narrator reminiscences:


“I thought about the eroding banks of Hatimura. Would this village remain when I grow older, when the children of my children would suck at the breasts of their mothers?

I felt strange.

I felt small.

Time felt immense.” (81)


Pablo is wrestling with a struggle that is at once relatable for every child who grew up in the nineties in India as the economy opened up to new avenues of modernization, and yet as the same time it is a uniquely Assamese experience. As someone who was born a few years after the narrator of the novel and under similar material circumstances, the identity crisis that Pablo experiences is something that I can immediately recall. But unlike similar teenage experiences, it is one soaked in the blood of thousands. Kashyap’s narrator, like his peers, was not just fighting to honour his ancestry but also to honour and add some meaning to the many who seemingly were murdered senselessly. By bearing witness to the heightened tension in the public sphere which percolated into the private and led to abundant tragedy, Pablo is going through an important rite of passage for an Assamese youth. He watches and learns about the worst lot among his community, but in that same place he also consummates a love that ends before it could mature. While walking away from him, his lover Anamika reminds him that their story ends there, but as Pablo notes: “Branching out into five different directions, they were actually the prologues to another series of stories.” (224)

Kashyap ends the novel with these words, a bittersweet note as the preceding sections clearly reveal that Pablo’s love did not pass the test of time. But that does not matter. What matters is the story- the story of Pablo’s love, the story of Mridul’s feelings of being trapped in his own family, the story of the aunt who became a tyrant after being spurned by her lover- each story or rather “half story” inhabiting a world of its own. The impetus to share lies in a desire to preserve a culture’s identity and consciousness, which is not always factual but is represented through lived experiences, and for the Assamese people who have battled the threat to this very core of a civilization for about five decades now, the impetus is as urgent as the threat of looming ecological destruction brought forth by the mighty Brahmaputra.


WORKS CITED

· https://www.himalmag.com/secret-killings-of-assam-in-literature/

· Kashyap, Aruni. The House with a Thousand Stories. Penguin Books, 2013.




Maitrayee Sarma has completed her M.A in English from Ambedkar University and currently finds herself in between institutions. She hopes to be able to research in feminist narratology, narratives of nation building and simultaneously figure out ways to turn a few rants into academic interventions.

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