Book review

Sonal Kohli’s debut story collection, The House Next to the Factory, is a delight for short story lovers. The beautiful way in which Rabindranath Tagore defines short stories in one of his poems applies aptly to this book. In line with Tagore’s description, Kohli’s stories leave a sense of longing after you have finished reading and they can be seen as small stories of small events, exuding sadness and pain—neither highly descriptive nor very eventful. 

The stories in this book take place over a span of 30 years starting from the 1980s. Set against important historical events, they contain characters who grow up and appear and reappear in different stories. Therefore, the stories, as well as the characters, are loosely connected yet they are disconnected by a degree of separation. All the characters are linked in some way to the family that lives in the house next to the factory in the first story. The connections, which are not necessarily relevant to the development of individual stories, are extremely tenuous yet interesting at times.

The stories cover a lot of important issues such as caste, class, religion, family and politics in addition to a range of human emotions and experiences. That the stories don’t have much of a plot make them more beautiful than they otherwise would be. One can read them more than once just to appreciate the beauty of the text. Nobody can spoil this book for you as there is no huge reveal, nor are there any action-packed sequences. This book is about appreciating the beauty of the mundane. 

The stories portray the human condition in a beautiful way. Behind every face that you see in the crowd, there is a story. A story of struggle, pain, love and loss. Sonal Kohli puts the lives of ordinary people under the microscope to show the intricate nature of their existence. All the characters in this book have this way of getting on with life without complaining. They demonstrate an acceptance for the pain of existence that can almost be called numbness. 

What I really like about this book is that it deals with important issues without making the stories all about them. The narratorial voice is rather impassive—almost like holding up a mirror. However, the descriptive subtleties are such that in the first story (“One Hour, Three Times a Week”) I couldn’t miss Mr Lamba’s shock when he realises that a Hindu mob perhaps has burnt down his good Sikh friend’s house, or when he sees his students, Raghu and Anuj, imbibing the majoritarian political ethos of the time through their chanting of the slogan: “Your name will live, Indira, as long as the sun and moon live.” Reading this book is more like looking at a painting rather than watching a film. The author gives enough details and nuances to make you see what she wants you to see: a broken heart, a broken promise, the end of a dream, or maybe a betrayal. 

The story, “Other Side of Town”, is about a man falling in love with a woman from a lower caste and his inner conflict about his feelings for her and what society might think even though he himself doesn’t come from an upper echelon of society. On the other hand, “Morning Visitor” is about a well-off Brahmin woman who finds herself struggling to survive after her husband stops supporting her. She scrapes out a living by receiving donations from people who believe that giving alms to someone from a high caste will ensure a good fortune for them.

The story, “Shirley”, is about a woman who finds herself childless after years of marriage and how that nearly breaks them apart. Again, this issue is just a part of the story that highlights the struggles of those who don’t quite fit in with society’s expectations. 

The character of Kavya will remain etched in my mind. She appears in quite a few stories. Written in the second person, “The Outing” is told entirely from her point of view. Although not vociferously, her voice drops hints that her family doesn’t value her as much as her brother and her male cousin. “They are not sentimental about keepsakes—or about you for that matter,” says Kavya in “The Outing”. In “The Steel Brothers”, Kavya’s father and uncle talk about their hopes and dreams for their sons and how they will take over their business in the future but they say nothing about Kavya or her future.

The stories have a theme of muted sadness and unexpected betrayals. There is not a lot of exuberance or happiness in them. Nature exists but nobody is overwhelmed by its presence. Life goes on and nature simply exists alongside the characters without being overstated in any way. This slight disconnect from nature and from everyone else around gives a sense of isolation to all the characters. They are all a little sad and a little lonely. Which is the normal state of being for most people in the modern world. 

The theme of loneliness and betrayal pervades throughout the book. In the first story, “One Hour, Three Times a Week”, Mr Lamba thinks twice before asking his son for a favour and ultimately decides against it. He is so lonely after his wife’s passing that he takes up a teaching job, not for money but just to pass his time. In “Other Side of Town”, the employers migrate to another country without telling their house help—whom they treated like family—that they are leaving forever. In “Shirley”, a friend leaves without saying goodbye properly.

After finishing all the stories, I couldn’t help feeling that the author’s words are like the brush strokes of a skilled artist drawing something that appears unremarkable and mundane but once the painting is completed, you can suddenly see all the formidable details, contours and outlines. 

I highly recommend this book for those who enjoy vivid imagery and detailed prose rather than plot-driven, action-packed narratives. It is a beautiful collection of short stories and all the stories embody everything a short story ought to be.

Proma Gulshan is a contributor to Dhaka Tribune.


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