Review: The House Next To The Factory by Sonal Kohli
Set largely in Delhi between 1980 and 2010, Sonal Kohli’s short stories are loosely linked by a family that lives next to a factory, and follow the lives of its members, their domestic help, tuition teachers, cousins, and lovers
It is hard to pinpoint what makes The House Next To The Factory extraordinary. Sonal Kohli’s debut short fiction collection is so quiet in its ambition that it almost resists inquiry. The act of examination itself feels like an intrusion. Most art is devoted to capturing its subject and/or its essence. Kohli does neither. The reader walks into a room where the faintest lingering of a scent remains while its wearer has long left. It creates immediate regret, longing and gives this collection an almost hypnotic pull.
Set largely in India between 1980 to 2010 Kohli’s nine short stories are loosely linked by a family that lives next to a factory in Delhi. They follow its members, their domestic help, tuition teachers, cousins, and lovers. Though set for the most part in Delhi, they are emblematic of all of India and consist of characters that are location-agnostic and therefore also relatable.
Against the backdrop of a changing nation, Kohli shows the stubbornly insulated daily lives of middle-class Indians, the everyday mundane routines that are barely interrupted. In One Hour, Three Times A Week, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination a small-time tuition teacher tends to his broken leg.
Then there’s Pushpa who makes a living by collecting alms from wealthy clients across the city who assuage their guilt by earning good karma.
Kohli keeps it minimal, staying away from the cliched dramatic signifiers of middle-class life and comes up with original, more detailed versions. Such as band-aids while wearing ballerinas to protect the heel from chafing, pegs of cheap whisky accompanied by thickly cut cucumber slices, avoiding piles of dung while walking. These are the unromantic gestures of Indian life so devoid of glamour and so ubiquitous that we are trained to ignore them, to automatically filter them out. Kohli does a fine job of removing those blinders. It’s these details that give her writing an ephemeral sense. The reader feels this spontaneity, like the setting was created just for the now and will not survive for long after. It is a most wonderful effect.
The high point of The House Next To The Factory is undoubtedly Kohli’s approach towards narration and her skill for dialing it down. In her hands, living rooms express themselves, marketplaces find emotional release, and always through the smallest, most understated gestures possible. In as few words as possible, she embodies the show-don’t-tell maxim; and she uses the most subtle of ways to show. In The Outing, Sister Celina switches on the television to get her elder mother to eat her dinner which is getting cold. It is masterfully done. In such simple act Kohli conveys the reversal of roles between mother and child, the mechanics of persuasion employed for old people, and the resignation that accompanies everyday chores. It takes her barely three sentences to achieve this.
A household help’s affair with a sweeper as his employers plan to immigrate to America succinctly captures India’s socio-economic transition post-Independence. Johnny is ashamed of his lover’s caste but, over time, agrees to live with her once the family leaves. They are leaving because their business is failing. Kohli shows how its ramifications carried on even 10 years after Operation Bluestar and how few were willing to do business with a company in Punjab.
Most fiction treats time linearly, some restructure it. Kohli compresses time. She makes the distant past, the recent past, and the present indistinguishable. Scenes across periods are woven together so effortlessly that the stories become snapshots where time stands still and the past and the present are seen together.
In Steel Brothers, we eavesdrop on a conversation about Delhi’s business class. On a cold and foggy Delhi evening on their way home from work, two brothers, co-owners of a business, make an impromptu stop. Over whisky and street-side kebabs, they talk about their aspirations and jealousies while the tension between them simmers. Kohli sets their mini rise and fall story to the beat of national events such as the Harshad Mehta scam. As the brothers talk, we get an unfettered view into the lives of the nouveau riche; the strains of doing business, being undercut by ruthless rivals, and the unrelenting burden of keeping up appearances. In typical Delhi fashion, all of this takes place inside a car while old ghazals play in the background.
While the stories work on their own, there are periodic glimpses into the lives of a few recurring characters. The collection ends on a high note with Kettle On The Hob which ties in with Kohli’s ephemeral style where the protagonist is still searching, still trying to come into her own. This story in particular is a great example of the recurrent themes that run through the collection: a sense of displacement and the underlying feeling of a character’s unease with their current environment.
There are times when Kohli’s approach feels too passive and the payoff at the end of the story feels like too little. But this does not happen too often. Indeed, The House Next To The Factory is a beautiful example of how much can be achieved through sparing prose.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha