Among the dozens of books that I have read this year, Sonal Kohli’s debut collection of short stories – The House Next to the Factory – strikes me as particularly special. It is a quiet book, offering the gift of attention to little details that go unnoticed in our busy urban lives. I enjoyed seeing the world anew through the sights, smells and sounds that she has captured.
A plastic bag cartwheeling down the road, a dog raising her leg to urinate on mint leaves in a garden, the aubergine-coloured lips of a businessman who cannot think without his cigarette, green dirt gathering under a thumbnail, a home tutor showing his students how to mark places on a map, the smell of exhaust from taxis and horseshit, dry leaves that sound like papads when crushed underfoot! Kohli has a remarkable talent for observing and describing.
Her stories are snapshots of lives that are made and unmade by marriage, war, miscarriage, widowhood, genocide, disability, and economic misfortunes. They are interconnected but not in an obvious or forced manner. They can be read in any order. Kohli evokes feelings but without any heightened sense of drama or suspense. Her style is subtle and elegant. The joy of reading her stories lies in the atmosphere they create, and the people they bring to life.
Kohli is kind to her characters. She attempts to present a picture of their inner world, in addition to their external circumstances, so that readers do not judge them too harshly for the choices that they make. They are doing their best to survive amidst the hardships of life, often in creative ways, finding solace in friendship, romance, travel and food. They come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, and Kohli writes confidently about each of them.
The nun who gives up her spiritual path, the grandmother who reminds guests to flush the toilet, the brothers who listen to Farida Khanum on their way back home from work, the girlfriend who subjects her partner to tarot readings and past life regression, pre-Partition neighbours from Pakistan who reunite in India, the woman with a parrot named Cuckoo, the man with a secret lover on the other side of town! Each one is memorable in its own way.
The House Next to the Factory has not received the kind of attention that it deserves. It is a work of unassuming brilliance, set largely in Delhi with pit stops in Lahore, Kapurthala, Paris, Landour, Mussoorie and the English countryside. The stories unfold against the backdrop of major events that have shaped Indian history but the author does not digress into political commentary. She keeps her characters’ immediate preoccupations front and centre.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.