Critics in India were won over by Aruni Kashyap’s evocative prose when the 29-year-old Assamese writer came up with his debut English novel The House With A Thousand Stories, published by Penguin India, last year. In his book, Kashyap shed light on some of his state’s darkest secrets: the extrajudicial killings during the insurgency, the countless rapes and the unspeakable torture of civilians... The book is about young, music-loving Pablo, who enjoys reading classics and who grew up in Guwahati, Assam's biggest city. But what he experiences during a visit to his ancestral village to attend his aunt’s wedding changes his life forever.
Aruni, now an assistant professor at Ashoka University in Delhi, spoke to Khaleej Times on his book, his comfort zone, and reality coalescing into fiction.
What drew you to rural Assam, to the insurgency in the 1990s?
I wasn’t drawn towards rural Assam — because I couldn’t be drawn to something that is so much a part of my life. My relatives live there and, while I was growing up, we visited them very often, sometimes even two to three times a month. Actually, I feel most comfortable to write fiction set in rural Assam because my best memories of childhood are from there. I move out of my comfort zone probably when I write about Guwahati.
How long did it take you to find a publisher? Were you nervous? After all, you were dealing with a very sensitive issue…
Thankfully, my journey towards publishing wasn’t that tough. The story about Assam’s extra-judicial killings is a polarising and sensitive topic, so I was worried, but now I am quite happy with the response.
The discourse on insurgency was so common in Assam during my growing up years. Over tea and breakfasts and wedding feasts, there were conversations about militants and surrendered militants, extrajudicial killings and torture and forced disappearances and fake encounters and rapes and interrogation. We lived in this normalised sense of fear. After a while, you know how to live with it and also talk about it very normally.
But it was very disturbing for me to read the accounts of people who were tortured, reports of women who were raped and killed, families who are still waiting for their loved ones to come back. That shook me a lot and almost invaded the human drama in the novel. Then I had to make a choice: how much of anger should I allow to seep into the story at the cost of human drama? I, of course, opted to be partial towards the second one.
The book won rave reviews. Most critics praised your courage, apart from your writing, of course, with some even comparing you with Arundhati Roy…
That is flattering, but people like to make connections that are not very well thought out. It’s okay, I don’t mind it. The reviews were satisfactory but reviews are reviews. If people remember this book after 10 years, only then… You know, most of Toni Morrison’s early novels got terrible reviews.
Many feel that Pablo, the protagonist, is actually you…
That is because there is a tendency to try to prove how true fiction is and how untrue nonfiction is. It is hilarious. If you ask me about Pablo, in the last few months, I have developed a dislike for him for choosing not to fight for his love!
International newspapers, including The Guardian and The New York Times, want you to write for them on current issues in the northeast…
Yes, there is an added responsibility. People expect me to comment on northeastern politics and social issues. If something happens in Assam, I get requests to write about it and, sometimes, people even put pressure. But I am not a journalist, historian, political scientist or philosopher. I only know how to make sense of the world through stories. So, of late, I have chosen not to comment. There are people who know better and can comment better.
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