» Book Review
Identity and Empathy in America and Assam
His Father’s Disease by Aruni Kashyap
Context / Westland Books, 2019
Hardcover. 184 pages.
In His Father’s Disease, Aruni Kashyap asserts himself as a master of the skill of empathy-building. This is no fluke. It is common to read the debut story collection of an author and feel that there is a lot of technical prowess—say of dialogue, or of voice, or of structure—but little sense that the characters are in fact alive, or come from a lived space. Kashyap, however, who is from the Northeast Indian state of Assam, has already established himself as one of India’s rising literary voices. He has published novels in both English (The House of a Thousand Stories, Viking, 2013) and his native Assamese (Noikhon Etia Duroit, Panchajanya, 2019) and edited an anthology of stories centered on the experience of insurgency in Assam (How To Tell the Story of an Insurgency, HarperCollins, 2020). It is no surprise, then, that in each of the ten stories in this collection, one reaches the end feeling completely immersed in the world Kashyap has created.
The stories in His Father’s Disease can be roughly divided into two settings: either a remote part of the Indian Northeast or a provincial American suburb that a Northeastern Indian has made their home. Kashyap addresses this dichotomy directly in “Skylark Girl,” a metafictional narrative of a Northeast Indian author being paneled at a festival in Delhi, interval-led with a folk story about a woman who is killed out of pettiness, only to come back to haunt the village as a ghost. During the panel’s Q&A session, a woman asks the narrator, Sanjib, “why [he] had . . . decided to write about this magical world, instead of the insurgencies, the violence, and the more immediate topical stories. [Sanjib finds himself] surprised by the question because . . . back home, his Assamese readers did not expect him to write about this or that topic. He was free to write anything.” Much like Sanjib, Kashyap’s stories are foregrounded by a Northeastern perspective, not because he wants to limit himself, but because he feels the freedom to write whatever he wants. Perhaps he chooses to write about Northeast India because this part of India is rarely portrayed in international literature.
Again, this is by no means a limitation. In fact, part of what makes Kashyap’s stories work so well is that they mine locations the author knows so well. The most successful story in this regard is “Bizi Colony,” which details the haphazard and troubling life of a youngster named Bablu, told from the perspective of his brother, who explains how Bablu’s glue addiction and penchant for violence affects everyone in their family:
“Long before my younger brother Bablu began telling our neighbours that Ma sucked Papa’s best friend Hriday Uncle’s dick while Papa was away on official tours to New Delhi, he would touch the breasts of our forty-year-old maid and ask her how it felt. When the timid Geeta-baideo wept, saying that she was the one who brought him up, washed his ass after he crapped as a baby, he beat her up with a cane.”
Bablu is a heinous example of a twelve-year-old, with all of the makings of a sociopath. He causes his mother to cry at odd times and take out her anguish at her husband, just as he causes his father to reflect after traipsing around the house, “‘Am I a failed father?’” The story is a melodrama; what saves it from the common pitfalls of that form is the sense that while Bablu sells drugs and associates with prostitutes, tarnishing the family name with no self-awareness, his behavior is fully his own. Glue addiction is a common problem in South and Southeast Asia, and there are children who seem almost born to be malicious in all parts of the world. No matter how heinous Bablu’s decisions appear, they are rooted in realism.
Kashyap also foregrounds “Bizi Colony” not as Bablu’s story, but as a story about the effect of Bablu’s behavior on his family. When “Bablu [breaks a] tall, thick juice glass on [Ma’s] head because she’d refused to give him money to buy Dendrite or Eraz-ex,” we don’t see it from Bablu’s perspective, but from the narrator’s, who doesn’t cry but “[feels] a strange burning sensation in [his] chest, and a strange, choking lump in [his] throat.” This distance allows readers to observe Bablu’s actions while still benefiting from the emotions and proximity of the first-person peripheral narrator, as if Bablu’s behavior is very much happening in front of us.
“The Love Lives of People Who Look Like Kal Penn” is another story that benefits from Kashyap’s command of point of view. The third-person narrative tells the story of a writer heading to an international conference in Michigan. He bonds with a woman on the plane, in a way that suggests a possible sexual attraction, until she says, “‘You know, you remind me so much of Kal Penn . . . you look like him, quite a lot, do you know?’”
I am a person of Indian origin, so I too receive this comment often. The actor Kal Penn is one of the very few people of Indian heritage who is prominent in American media, so people are quick to say that anyone who is South Asian looks like him. Therefore, I relate more than the average person when the narrator Arunabh is offended and frustrated by the comparison. The manner in which Kashyap arranges Arunabh’s reaction in language is what summons empathy for readers of any background. In the taxi after this encounter, Arunabh “[studies] his reflection in the rearview mirror, and more than once had considered asking Jim whether he saw any resemblance to Kal Penn. And he will always remember the fall colours, his first fall in America: the gold, the yellow, the orange, the red; the blue sky that was slowly turning grey; and his yearning for snow.”
By melding the reaction to a very particular moment, and the feelings evoked by the natural world framing the scene, Kashyap creates multiple spaces for a reader to react to or reflect on Arunabh’s experience. If they cannot relate to Arunabh’s gripes, seeing fall in a new country for the first time may resonate, and if not that, provide a sense of nostalgia through the colors, sensations, and feelings of fall in the USA.
Kashyap also employs this multi-pronged narrative approach to empathy-building in the titular “His Father’s Disease.” The story details the frustrations of widowed Neerumoni as she discovers that her son Anil is homosexual, much like her own husband. She repeatedly walks in on her son with men and finds herself bereaved. The village also reacts hostilely to her son’s sexuality. At one tragic point in the story, soldiers shoot Anil’s lover. The idea of the scene is harrowing enough, but what grounds it as a piece of literature is how Kashyap describes the aftermath: “The blood looked like a red rose blooming on the white bedsheet, and the room smelled like coconut water.”
In choosing such evocative language, Kashyap renders the moment not merely as a violent one, but one grounded in nature. The scents and colors give the reader a critical distance from an extremely emotional moment. The reader is allowed to come back into the scene with their own feelings attached to it rather than only those evoked by the violence.
The power of fiction is to make the reader feel as if these imagined characters are very much living real lives, and more, to feel connected to them even if they reside in completely different worlds. Kashyap understands that to write is not simply to get lost in the individual sentences, but to create characters that resonate. Anyone who reads fiction to explore emotional spaces, both interior and exterior, should absolutely seek out His Father’s Disease. They will find themselves not only intrigued, not only inspired, but utterly absorbed into the world of Aruni Kashyap’s imagination.