Publisher: Tara Books
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Longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize in 2008, ‘The To-Let House’ is a brooding coming of age tale, set against the scenic yet volatile backdrop of Shillong in the 80s, when civil unrest against non-Khasi residents and immigrants was particularly high. Told largely from the perspective of young Di, a dhkar (outsider), the book follows her life and that of three other children – Addy, Clemmy and Kulay- growing up together on the grounds of a sprawling mansion.
The mansion belongs to May, an aristocratic woman clinging to the remnants of the privileged life she once led as daughter of a corrupt civil servant. Di and Addy take up residence in the ramshackle quarters adjoining the house, after their mother impulsively walks out on the girls’ father. She spends the rest of her life waiting for him to come for her, while the children bear the brunt of her rage at his apathy, and helplessly watch her succumb to depression. Life isn’t much better for May’s children, Clemmy and Kulay, who are caught in the hostilities between their alcoholic parents. Di is also abused by May’s husband, an act eerily echoed years later, when May’s middle aged boyfriend becomes obsessed with the adolescent Clemmy. As time passes, Kulay is steadily drawn into the folds of the Union, a group of young turks given to lynching, vandalism and terrorizing dhkars into leaving Shillong. As the violence mounts, old secrets tumble out of the woodwork, changing the lives of the two families forever.
Grim thought its subject, ‘The To-Let House’ had me hooked. There is a spare, almost elusive, quality to Hasan’s writing, that captures the loneliness of the book’s characters. It helps that the story is set where it is – the cold, rain drenched streets of remote Shillong ( weather that one character labels ‘misty-moisty’ ) seem an apt backdrop for the bleak story Hasan weaves for us. She draws us deep into the lives of her young protagonists, candidly exploring the petty slights, the juvenile cruelty and small betrayals that go hand in hand with friendship.
‘We are children just within reach of happiness but always falling short.”, says Di, before breaking our hearts with her story. ‘We are incoherent with magic and meanness and sting each other out of sheer concern.” In a world that seems utterly devoid of sympathetic or reliable adults – the men, predatory or plain absent; the women, alcoholic , violent or emotionally unstrung- the children’s ties with each other, however flawed, seem the only substantial things they can hold onto. While miles apart in terms of narrative style, ‘The To-Let House’ reminded me of two other moving tales of innocence lost – ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy, and ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ by Kiran Desai, both Booker prize winners.
On a parallel note, Shillong ( and its thorny relationship with dhkars) has been the setting for atleast two other recent, and well received books – ‘Lunatic in My Head’ by Anjum Hasan (also sibling to Daisy) and ‘Shadow Men’ by Bijoya Sawian.