In “Skylark Girl”, the first story in Aruni Kashyap’s new collection His Father’s Disease, a young Assamese writer named Sanjib is invited to a conference in Delhi, to read from an English translation of one of his stories – this despite the fact that “he had never spoken a full sentence” in English. It’s a momentous occasion for him and his family, summed up in these lines:
“She thought this was the most amazing thing to happen to him […] For his mother, Delhi was very far. Delhi meant the army that ‘committed atrocities’ on the villagers in the Nineties. Delhi was for rich people. Its universities were first-class. Delhi was the stepmother who treated the people of Assam poorly.”
At lunch, Sanjib feels like a misfit, not understanding the names of the Mexican dishes; even when mingling with Arunachali, Mizo and Khasi writers, he discovers he is the only one among them who doesn’t write in English. He is an odd creature in this setting, easily picked out as “different” – he may as well have been born with leaf buds all over his body, and as it happens the story he has written reimagines a fable about a girl, Tejimola, who has just such a condition. If Delhi is a stepmother to Assam, there is a hostile stepmother in this fable too.
The symbolic undertones of the Tejimola story, as told by someone from a marginalised and often persecuted region, should be clear to anyone who cares to think about it. And Sanjib himself does try to explain: “We find inspiration in the girl who refuses to die.” But he also makes the point – when asked after the reading why he doesn’t write about something more immediate, more topical, about the violence and the insurgency in his state – that his Assamese readers wouldn’t expect this of him; he would be free to write about anything. As any artist should be.
This meta-story (one can conjecture that it derives at least partly from Kashyap’s own experience as a writer who is often expected to “represent” his region) sets the stage for the book: the nine stories that follow move between personal and political storytelling, between depicting and explaining, between the minutiae of lives and the larger picture against which those lives unfold. Throughout, one is also mindful that Kashyap (unlike Sanjib) has written these stories in English, for a largely urban readership that is comfortable with the language.
What are these stories “about”? There is no easy answer to that question, though one could very broadly say they are about the struggles of people from Assam (the exception being “After Anthropology”, where the background of the protagonist Raj – a gay Indian man with an American boyfriend – is not specified). Many of the characters are youngsters who have travelled far from their villages, who are (with varying degrees of comfort and discomfort, success and failure) enlarging the circles in which they move: from Guwahati, which is hours away, to the much more geographically and culturally distant Delhi, thence to the US to study.
But can one really break away from strife-torn roots and become a global citizen? One non-linear story, “Before the Bullet”, is not so much a chronicle of a death foretold as a death made almost inevitable by the nature of politics and military hegemony in the region: Even an English-speaking man who has returned home after completing a PhD in the US may be cut down to size if he is perceived as a threat because of his education.
The shadow looms
Those of us in the Indian “mainstream” who are sceptical about the prevalent narratives of nationalist pride have watched in recent weeks as violent government-empowered action has been directed at students and protesters in universities in Delhi and elsewhere. For many of us urbanites, the closest one comes to real danger is gathering a few dozen meters from the heart of the action with friends or acquaintances, making up the numbers, while staying always mindful of lathis and teargas. But for most of the people in Kashyap’s stories, atrocities by the “Indian army” – rapes, gratuitous killings – have long been a way of life. However personal and specific these stories are, the shadow of Assamese politics – the counter-insurgency, the life-defining violence of the ’80s and ’90s – is inescapable.
And so, the tone varies: in some narratives, e.g. “For the Greater Common Good”, the politics is more or less centre stage, directly affecting the characters’ lives. A milkman becomes unhinged after his cows are killed by the Army, shortly afterwards he is himself shot, and the official record proclaims he was a militant – as has no doubt been done countless times with voiceless people in many places and contexts. Kashyap conveys the sorrow of these events, while relating them with the matter-of-factness that comes to someone who has known about such things for a long time.
In other stories, the main focus is on something else (a family beset by a delusional, suicidal, drug-addicted son; a narrator trying to understand why his 39-year-old friend has been unable to consummate his marriage; a woman dealing with the strange “disease” that afflicted both her husband and her son) – but even in these subtler, slice-of-life narratives, the larger world is always watching from a distance, waiting to intrude.
A Minneapolis student finds a “Little Assam” in a town called Shakopee, where people party together but also talk about bomb blasts back home. A tale with suggestions of the supernatural – about ancient manuscripts that may carry a dark legacy – also hinges on a clash between rebels and soldiers. An exclamation like “Oh god, my daughter-in-law knows how to use a gun!” works as light comedy within a given context, but may also raise an ominous question about a character’s past or background.
There is something very free-flowing about the structuring of these narratives. Two pairs of stories involve the same characters but offer different perspectives: in “Minnesota Nice”, a young man, Himjyoti, tries to settle into life in America with a roommate named Mike and his girlfriend Neelakshi; later, in “The Umricans”, we meet these people again but this time the story is told in the second-person voice, and the focus has shifted. In “For the Greater Common Good” and “His Father’s Disease”, we similarly glean new information about the same people.
There are echoes between unrelated stories too: in “The Love Lives of People Who Look Like Kal Penn”, another young man attends a conference (this one in Michigan), but the Arunabh of this story is more worldly wise than the Sanjib of the first story, and copes a little better with cultural discomfort. There is also the recurring motif of an Indian abroad, puzzled by the American tendency to use certain words – “amazing”, “awesome” – and distancing phrases, or the term “it’s cultural” to describe something incomprehensible in a foreigner.
And every once in a while, Kashyap’s conversational, no-frills prose yields startling imagery: a woman seeing a bloodied face printed in a newspaper and imagining that the blood has seeped into the red lentils that were wrapped in the paper; another woman swimming compulsively and noisily across a pond because she doesn’t want to hear the sounds of her son making love with another man in his hut. At such moments, these stories strike a fine balance between being stark depictions of real lives and being as fable-like as the tale of the oppressed leaf-girl Tejimola.
His Father’s Disease, Aruni Kashyap, Context.