In several (a word here meaning: at least two) genres of Indian classical music, there’s this idea of certain ragas being associated with certain times of the day. If that notion had a literary counterpart, House Next to the Factory would undoubtedly be a collection of evening stories. They all have a soft, melancholic, dusky quality to them.
They are not big on strenuous action or sweeping romance (neither lusty vigour nor vigorous lust, if you will). This is more of a hill station collection (hill stations are in fact the setting for one of them). A chai-biscuit kind of collection. Masala chai, maybe. But still.
This isn’t a complaint in and of itself – not every movie needs to be a Salman Khan starrer, after all (most movies are not, but I digress), and I did read the whole thing in one sitting, for which its shortness deserves only partial credit. A story doesn’t need to be rich in plot / themes / character / writing, so long as it can find something to be rich in. If I had a complaint, it would be that the chai could stand to be a little stronger, that’s all.
The factory in the title appears to be a steel factory in Somewhere, India. It does not exactly lie at the centre of the collection the way one might expect, although it does make cameos in several stories. The house in question, which the collection opens with a description of, is a quiet, lonely thing. It has a neglected, forgotten aura about it even as a family lives there. The entire collection consists of stories about characters who are all linked to the family in the eponymous house in some or the other way (ranging from parent to ex-boyfriend).
Normally I talk a lot about “plot-driven” versus “character-driven” stories, because jargon makes me feel like I know things, but this collection defies those categories. Most of the stories here are not driven at all. There’s very little sense of motion, we are not going anywhere, we are standing quietly for a moment or two and watching. They are kind of like snapshots, if photographs could breathe.
It is not boring, even though most of the stories really do have very little in the way of events, let alone plot. Other stories of this kind that come to mind, for me, are “The Shroud” by Premchand, or maybe Amrita Pritam’s “The Stench of Kerosene”, except nothing in House Next to the Factory is as cynical as those stories.
They are sad, but it is a softer, more muted sadness – the downside of this is that these stories don’t really pack the same punch, or have the same staying power, that “Shroud” or “Kerosene” do. Kohli is not exactly trying to convince you that the ordinary is extraordinary – to be honest, she is not trying to convince you of anything.
She is interested in – meditating on, if we want to use blurbish prose – the nature of the mundaneness of life, sometimes even in the face of the life-changing. Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the ensuing riots play a role in the first story, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to claim they take a back seat, the lives of the viewpoint characters remain stubbornly,,,quiet. Smaller-scale. It’s interesting, and it’s not done badly.
Some of the characters from that first story – or their off-screen relatives and such – show up in some later stories too, although aside from that there’s no real link between them; you can easily read them out of order, although you would miss a few Easter eggs here and there if you did. One character in particular we see at a few different stages of her life, both from inside and outside her own head, although there is little difference between the two aside from the pronouns.
Only in the last story do we start to see a little of the bitterness underneath her placid veneer. It’s possible that what Kohli wanted was to show us a sort of gradual un-repressing of these feelings with age and distance, but if that was the case, it might have been nice to see hints of that earlier on, which I think could have been done even without violating the the fragmented nature of these stories.
Because they definitely are mostly fragments, which was an interesting, slightly unconventional choice. All of the characters feel like people you could know, or be. With the stories being so short, and so lacking in density, it’s not like we get to see rich explorations of each one’s inner lives. We just watch them for a moment, in one aspect of themselves, one story that they lived through.
So it’s less like getting to know someone – the way you typically do in novels or longer-form short stories – and more like meeting them in passing and listening to one story about them. I would recommend it to Humans of New York fans in particular, actually. Many of these fragments have the same unassuming poignancy, and the same brand of arresting-ness (Arrestion? Arrestocity? Perhaps I was wrong in my estimation of jargon-induced clout).
In my personal opinion this comes out the most in the story “Shirley”, which is my favourite – a story about a friendship between two awkward adult women who nevertheless try to support each other through personal tragedy. It depicted those people and that dynamic well, and in a way that was so touching.
It is clear from this and other stories that Kohli is capable of writing this kind of story– the kind that considers the human condition and serves as a paean to the ordinary and various other things that the book’s (other, more famous) reviewers have said of it. She does, however, miss the mark more than once, and there are a few stories in the collection that end up feeling flat and largely forgettable.
Which is, of course, only to warn prospective readers not to get their hopes up too much at the blurbs on the cover – good advice in most cases, really. House Next to the Factory is a nice enough book, and there’s probably even a story or two in there you’ll want to go back and read a second time, even if you have to flip past other ones to get there. It’s a quiet book, a teatime read. It’s light and often engaging and has a lot of strong moments. It’s not the next The Thing Around Your Neck, but does it have to be?
The House Next to the Factory, Sonal Kohli, HarperCollins India.