Extraordinary stories of ordinary lives

Assassinations, riots, the launch of the Internet, liberalisation, stock market swings, and more. In India, the Eighties and the next few decades were eventful, to say the least. How can writers of fiction reflect this in their pages?

One way is to place characters in the thick of the action, involved in or witness to cataclysmic events. Many have done exactly this, in strong voices that capture what it’s like to be caught up in incidents that change lives.

What’s often passed over is the impact on seemingly average men and women who have to navigate the eddies of political, social and economic changes beyond their ken. Characters who stoically do the best they can with the hands they’ve been dealt.

This is what one finds in Sonal Kohli’s debut work, The House Next to the Factory. Here, a businessman’s ball-bearing workshop is in decline because “even ten years after the government curbed the Sikh extremists in Operation Blue Star, few wanted to have dealings with a company in Punjab”. A private tutor looks at a greasy patch on the road and wonders if it is kerosene used by an incendiary mob. The Harshad Mehta scam turns a family’s “colossal holdings to rubble”. Such events happen offstage and are alluded to almost glancingly; the focus is always on the characters and their aspirations.

They belong to the bourgeois middle class and its assistants: small factory owners and their families, private tutors, domestic servants. For most, status and stability in times of transformation are uppermost. Relationships can be transactional, and family ties non-negotiable.

The nine stories in The House Next to the Factory form a cycle, dealing with episodes in the lives of those from and associated with a family that has settled in New Delhi after Partition. Starting in the Eighties, they wend their way through the next three decades, based in north India with excursions to Norwich and Paris. Most stories are told in close third-person, flowing in and out of characters’ minds — although, to create variation, there also are first and second-person narratives.

Often, Kohli places people in specific situations and proceeds to fill in backgrounds through their interactions and thoughts. Two brothers on their way home from their steel factory stop for roadside kebabs in their car. A couple visits Landour for a weekend. A mother and daughter spend one of the last evenings in their colonial bungalow before it is handed over to a real estate developer. This unostentatious yet effective technique illuminates entire lives.

In these open-ended tales, standard storytelling devices of conflict and change stay in the background. It’s the minutiae of daily life that are spotlighted, with characters moving through everyday circumstances, sometimes wondering how they got there.

A girl thinks: “You spend your evenings playing table tennis against the veranda wall, or embroidering with grandmother whom you like and dislike in turns, and after the factory closes for the day, you sit on the swing that the watchman’s son has slung from the neem tree.” Later, a recent arrival in Norwich feels that “the way sunlight broke through clouds and fell upon the row of identical brick houses and the plane trees that flanked the road suddenly reminded her that she was in England”.

At times, keen attention makes commonplace actions spring to life. In one story, when the narrator’s mother is changing channels, “she has to press the worn keys of the remote with both hands, and for a second it looks like she’s shooting at the TV”.

At other times, a seemingly laconic paragraph can contain a world: “He put the cups in the sink and helped his mother to the bathroom. Her skin had become loose and hung from her bones in thin pleats. A maid came twice a week to give her a bath.” Elsewhere, when a hotel porter smiles, “deep creases showed on his face, even though he was not an old man”.

Given the spare style, the sentences can sometimes tick to an unvarying metronome: “The living area was long and narrow, like a passage, with a dining table on the near side and black Rexine sofas on the far one. He and the mother settled down on the sofas. There was a money plant in the corner with large, waxy leaves.” However, the eye for illuminating detail never flags: note the Rexine sofa and money plant.

Significantly, a character in the last story tells another that he feels as though they’re inside a play by Chekhov. He’s specifically referring to a kettle in the house that’s on the hob all day to ensure a plentiful supply of tea, but the remark has a resonance beyond this.

Chekhov’s quiet voice creates effects through restraint, understatement and suggestion, especially in his short stories. The Russian writer’s delicacy and close observation have influenced many, especially William Trevor and Alice Munro, and shades of his style can also be found in the work of Anita Desai and Amit Chaudhuri. It’s in this context that one can situate Sonal Kohli’s work.

William Boyd once wrote of Chekhov that he refused to judge or explain, depicting life as he saw it in all its banality and tragicomedy. In the same way, as with the character in one story who carefully pieces a jigsaw puzzle together, Kohli’s book constitutes a vivid and remarkable picture of people who are often considered unremarkable.

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