Daisy Hasan’s The To-Let House opens with a twin invocation — of Shillong, and of memory. Framed as a coming-of-age story pitched against ethnic tensions in Shillong, the novel, at its core, is built around recollection and remembrance of the city, the ‘to-let house’ and the ‘mansion’ to which it is attached. Launched at India’s Jaipur Literary Festival, To-Let House is Hasan’s first novel (which, as a front cover inscription helpfully reminds readers, was long-listed for the 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize) and traces two pairs of siblings — Di and Addy, Kulay and Clemmie — over three sections covering 1979, 1984-88 and, briefly, 1997.
Thematically, the two major plot strands converge over the novel’s central conceit: the outsider and the idea of belonging. Indeed, the mansion itself serves as a reminder of what it means to ‘not belong’ — from its architecture (hardly representative of indigenous construction) and beginnings as home to a British tea planter (a colonial alien), to its present-day occupants. May, the Christian matriarch who owns the house, her abusive ‘half-breed’ husband, dubbed the ‘Governor’, and their children are, at one point, branded traitors for harbouring dhkars (non-Khasis) in the ‘to-let’ house on their property. The Indian tenants, ‘Ma’ and her two daughters, are firmly on the outside looking in to begin with. Each character, it seems, is burdened with a terrible private loss that leaves them essentially rootless. Kulay is the most interesting of the lot, at first acting out as a self-conscious misfit, then joining up with an anti-dhkar group as a teenager. As a child, he wonders why he is so alone.
This question of belonging is put to all of them rather more forcefully as anti-dhkar sentiment mounts in the city, finally culminating in a riotous mob frothing at the mansion’s doorstep. Hasan is understated but insistent: she splices the crowd’s resentment and hostility with Kulay’s deluded visions of heroism — having found a cause to attach himself to — and introduces a highly personalised human element into the conflict. This sensitivity to the individual amongst the collective is a recurring theme in The To-Let House and proves especially useful in describing the charged isolation in which the most of the characters seem to live.
Hasan is at her best, however, when writing from a child’s perspective. The staccato sing-song prose she employs for Di as a nine-year-old is used to great effect in colouring in the world as it appears to the children. Domestic complications, dark family secrets and all sorts of mundane daily interactions are rendered in a studied impression of unsophisticated nonchalance, complete with occasional asides in rhyme — ‘A little clay hut/ With windows shut./ Yoo-hoo! Anyone inside?’
It is a pity, then, that stylistic tics unplug the reader from the text — the section of painfully stilted letters between teenage Clemmie and Di, for instance, that appear to serve little purpose beyond breezily filling in a year in the book’s chronology. Or the substitution of section breaks for a more explicit sense of continuity — a bluff that comes off as handy literary economy when it works, but is awkward and disjointed when it falls flat, especially when the narrative voice shifts and shimmies.
Hasan has assembled all the right parts of a great novel, but where The To-Let House falls short is, perhaps, in attempting to do too much — Ma’s subplot, for instance, is superfluous and a blind alley. Having invested so heavily in Di’s voice, Hasan loses control of her narrative reverie. Though she clearly revels in her use of language, a more restrained approach would have brought the novel into sharper focus. Still, a worthy and welcome debut.