Interlinked stories on Delhi’s Denizens

Uttaran Das Gupta | Updated on November 09, 2021

Sonal Kohli’s The House Next to the Factory describes a changing Delhi through the prism of a typical post-Partition Punjabi business family

Rana Dasgupta describes driving his parents to Karol Bagh in the early years of this century in his mammoth study of New Delhi, Capital. Dasgupta’s father had lived in the famous residential and commercial district in west Delhi in the 1960s and wanted to revisit his old home. The trip, however, turns out to be a massive disappointment as they cannot locate the house. Karol Bagh, like the rest of Delhi, had been transformed unrecognisably by the post-liberalisation boom.

Capital is populated with hundreds of people caught up in the wave of globalization, either riding the crest or drowning. Several of these characters seem to jump out of Dasgupta’s non-fiction into Sonal Kohli’s debut collection of short fiction, The House Next to the Factory.

Kohli, who grew up in Delhi and has an MFA from the famed creative writing course at the University of East Anglia in the UK, describes a changing Delhi through a series of interlinked short stories about a typical post-Partition Punjabi business family. While the short biographical note on the book’s dust jacket tells us nothing about it, Kohli’s surname suggests that she might hail from such a family herself. But, even if that’s not true, families such as the one in the book are only too common in Delhi. They have almost identical stories—of arriving in Delhi in the aftermath of Partition, having lost everything, establishing themselves in the new city through sheer grit and labour, and enduring the effects of the windfall of Delhi’s economic and social expansion.

Fiction about these characters seems to be forming a new sub-genre among books about Delhi. Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society, Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, and Radhika Oberoi’s Stillborn Season are some examples of how Delhi and its denizens have been represented in contemporary fiction. While some of these are self-consciously in the tradition of Khushwant Singh’s Delhi and Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, others strike out an independent path. Kohli’s book falls in the former category—it begins with an epigraph from Desai’s novel and follows a similar episodic style of narration in its nine stories. It also explores similar themes, such as family relations, the position of women, effects of political and economic upheaval.

The first of the nine stories in the book, “One Hour, Three Times A Week”, is set in 1984—around the time of former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh riots that followed. But the cycle of violence happens almost in the background, entering into the lives of the characters—maths and English teacher Mr Lamba, his students Anuj and Raghu, and their eccentric family—only in snippets: a radio broadcast, newspaper reports, private recollections. “One of our Sikh workers from the factory came today with his beard shaven and his hair cut, my husband told us,” Raghu’s mother tells Lamba when he visits them after the riots. “He managed it just in time to escape the mob.”

Kohli does not plunge into descriptions of violence like Amitav Ghosh would in The Shadow Lines or Singh in Delhi. This allows her to employ a quiet voice for her narrative purpose that best brings out the internal struggles of her characters, sometimes with wry humour. For instance, in “Morning Visitor”, we meet Pushpa, a friend of Yamuna, the grandmother of Raghu and Anuj. A survivor of chronic domestic abuse, Pushpa breaks free from her husband’s toxicity when she retaliates. “But one day I returned his one tight slap with two,” she tells Yamuna, “a year’s resolve had gone into those slaps.” Her husband stops supporting her financially, but Pushpa, displaying amazing resolve for someone of her generation, strikes out on her own, stitching clothes for her friends and relatives.

The most striking story in the collection is “Steel Brothers”—the brothers in the title referring to Roshan and Kamal, Yamuna’s sons. This is a study of north Indian masculinity, a subject of great interest among scholars and fiction writers. Anubha Yadav’s novel, The Anger of Saintly Men, recently explored this theme through the lives of three brothers growing up in post-liberalisation India. Roshan and Kamal are from the previous generation, but they demonstrate the codes through which men define themselves—enterprise, hard work, and success represented by imported cars and children in foreign universities. And, there is a stunning lack of affection between them: “The brothers never hugged each other, there was never a reason to. When they wished one another ‘Happy Birthday’ every year, there was an awkwardness on both sides.”

Kohli’s linguistic skill, however, is also her weakness. The prose is too polished, too pat—often a symptom of writing learned in MFA courses. Though she employs different registers, and goes between first-, second-, and third-person narrators, somewhat like Jhumpa Lahiri in Unaccustomed Earth, there is really nothing to distinguish her use of language. There is no risk taken by the author and reading it can sometimes feel like a bath in lukewarm water in a Delhi January.

This quality also affects the plots of some of the stories—“Weekend in Landour” and “Kettle on the Hob”. Unlike Mr Lamba, Yamuna, and Pushpa, the characters in these are almost cardboard cut-outs. Bored with their lives in Delhi, they take a weekend off in the hills or go to Paris for a creative writing residency. Perhaps this reflects the lives of this generation, where nothing much happens, where the comfort provided by the financial gains of the previous generations makes existence somewhat stultifying. Sally Rooney explores this in her novel with great success, but Kohli does not really succeed.

There is, in fact, great promise in this book. Kohli’s prose can be a tool of greater purposes and she can find better stories to tell. One hopes she will in her future books.

About the Book

Title: The House Next to the Factory

Author: Sonal Kohli

Publisher: Fourth Estate

Pages: 185; Price: Rs 499 (Hardback)


Check out the book on Amazon


(Uttaran Das Gupta teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat. His novel, Ritual, was published in 2020)

Published on November 09, 2021

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