Sonal Kohli’s debut collection of nine short stories, The House Next To The Factory (HarperCollins India, ₹499), is tied together by a keen sense of place. Set in the 1980s, 1990s and noughties, these tales move from Delhi to Kapurthala, Punjab, to Norwich, UK, training their gaze on life’s little ironies and larger tragedies, shaped by events as momentous as Partition (Morning Visitor) or as personal as the decline of a thriving family business (Steel Brothers). The best writers of short fiction are masters at creating such telescopic narratives, and Kohli has honed this craft with care and attention.
The sheer ordinariness of the characters can be endearingly familiar. But Kohli’s voice, a studied imitation of the “show, don’t tell” theory that MFA students earnestly embrace, may come across as a bit self-same. The first story (One Hour, Three Times A Week) sets up the dynamics between a private tutor and the well-to-do family of his two young pupils with clinical precision. The barbs are all on point. The tutor is served tea one day without the customary biscuits, another time the dotty grandmother upbraids him for finishing the lessons five minutes short of the appointed hour. The ending redeems these calculated or thoughtless insults with panache. The story works perfectly, with the right seasoning of gravity and lightness, marinated just long enough to leave a lingering aftertaste.
But then, this recipe, if you will, is Kohli’s favourite bag of tricks, from which the rest of the collection draws its energy. It’s not a bad formula—but a formula it is. It may be best not to consume this collection in one go, as I did, but dip in and out, as one returns to a favourite drink now and then. That said, Kohli does take a leap in the last two stories—Weekend In Landour and Kettle On The Hob—where the air is thick with sexual and romantic tension. Part of the appeal of these stories derives from her gift of swooping in on one protagonist, to the near exclusion of other points of view. This strategy creates suspense, inscrutability, and keeps whetting the appetite of the reader.
For a debut collection, The House Next To The Factory brings fresh energy into the landscape of Indian writing in English. There is a clear signposting of individual talent, a sensibility that is quiet yet self-assured, and ready to take off, though perhaps not prepared to take on risks just yet. With her considerable gifts, Kohli is a writer to watch, especially if she moves to the longer form and sheds her reserve.
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