The House Next to the Factory by Sonal Kohli: Painting India on a small canvas

Cover image for The House Next to the Factory by Sonal Kohli There was talk of ‘clean, precise prose’ in the press release for The House Next to the Factory, a description that always snags my attention particularly when it comes from Carys Davies whose own style could be described that way. Sonal Kohli’s debut is a set of nine closely interlinked short stories that portray the changing face of modern India over three decades through the experience of one extended family and the people around them.

Yes, the initial burst of enthusiasm, Yamuna thought. Isn’t that why I’ve had you hanging round my neck for fifteen years now?

The collection opens in 1980 with two elderly women, childhood friends now connected by obligation rather than affection. Yamuna lives with her sons and their families in the house next to the steel factory, set up after she and their father fled Lahore after Partition. Pushpa has been less fortunate but there’s a caste obligation and Yamuna must contribute her share. At least Pushpa’s gossip is good. Yamuna’s grandsons’ tutor frets about the Sikh newsagent who shuts up shop after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The loneliness and isolation of living in an industrial area are brought home by her thirteen-year-old granddaughter Kavya’s outing to see an old schoolmate. As the business expands, the brothers lift their sights, building a new house to reflect their success which might not be on as firm a footing as they’d both thought after a few rocky stock market investments. Intergenerational change offers more opportunities although not much is made of it by some as Kavya’s on again off again lover accuses her. In the final story, thirty-year-old Kavya is in Paris, having endured five years of chaperoning from her mother after the discovery of her relationship, now entertaining the possibility of happiness.

They miss the comforting feeling of being inside a story, knowing their lives are being written out with thought and care  

These cleverly linked stories are set against background of thirty years of societal change in India, at least for the male moneyed middle classes. Politics is a background hum until violence erupts. The rigid hierarchy of caste is subtly conveyed; servants are treated as both children and chattel, arrangements made for them as if they have no lives of their own. Konali deftly interweaves her stories, revealing connections between apparently unrelated characters, snapping their piece of the jigsaw into place. It’s not until close to the end of a poignant story of friendship which reflects the diaspora experience that we learn that Hema is related to the family. And the writing lived up to that Carys Davies puff, short but vibrant word pictures shining out from otherwise plain prose, just how I like it. A pleasing end to my reviewing year. One more look over my shoulder at 2022 before it’s time to move on.

Swift Press: London9781800751316 180 pages Hardback

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