Reviews / September 2010 (Issue 12)

No Easy Living: Daisy Hasan's The To-Let House

by Alice Tsay


Daisy Hasan, The To-Let House, Tara Books, 2010. 227 pgs.

"To start at the start is to start with cross-purposes and contradictions," Daisy Hasan writes some thirty-odd pages into The To-Let House. Then, after offering a series of potential beginnings, she appends the following note: "P.S.: To start at the start is to never actually start." A cutesy move in an often cutesy book, this is about as close as the reader gets to a user's guide to Hasan's experimental novel about four children coming of age in the eastern Indian city of Shillong. Perversely, one almost wishes that it came on the first page as a preparative warning rather than a belated observation that this novel—in case it has somehow escaped notice—begins in medias res and seems to stay there as well. As these lines suggest, the author's prose palpably delights in its own elusiveness, its continual refusals to show its hand.

And so it is only with oblique strokes that the plot begins to take form. Set in Shillong during the late 70s and 80s, The To-Let House follows the inhabitants of two buildings that share the same piece of land: a large mansion belonging to a corrupt bureaucrat's daughter and the run-down structure she leases out behind it that gives the novel its name. In the former lives May (the bureaucrat's daughter), her sleazy husband Governor, their daughter Clemmie and their son Kulay. The latter is home to the improvished Ma and her children, Addy and Di. This arrangement becomes the convenient centerpiece for Hasan's exploration of class conflict and ethnic unrest, the awkwardness of adolescence, dysfunctional family relationships, divided loyalties, sexual abuse, love and loss, the fragile concept of personal identity, the distorted realities created by the human mind and more.

To get all this into 227 pages, Hasan creates elaborate word-painting sequences, daubs of narrative held together by rhythms and sounds that resonate with the unsaid; perhaps "exploration" is a misleading word. Her world of Shillong is full of whimsy, Wonderland injected with a few sobering doses of malice and grief. Glasses of orange juice are "brightly bouncing," Ma "returns indoors and hears the faint sounds of her daughter's dreams," eyes "collide" and "crash" as painful discoveries are made. Characters have names like Hilarious L and Revise; May's pet is called Curiosity-the-cat. Even weather, that staidest of subjects, undergoes the relentless wringer of reinvention:

One day a visitor arrives at the mansion.

A storm.

A storm which crushes out the sun; which swirls the leaves in gay abandon and brings the small oranges to the ground; which tickles the tall, slender bamboo trees till they bend to the limits of their tickling sides and beg, "Please stop! Storm! Please stop."

"The writer makes the reader very much as he makes his characters," a young Henry James wrote in 1866. In The To-Let House, where so much depends on the reader's willingness to succumb to the flow, it's more like make or break.

The major question posed by Hasan's writing—and most experimental writing—is whether the unconventional artistic choices are gratuitous or not: is the stylistic flair clever, or too clever by half? The second question is whether the persistence of the first question is an answer in itself. Particularly at the beginning of the book, the virtues of her approach are unclear. Refusing "to start at the start," for example, she offers Di's retrospective voice instead:

We are always young, always in love, always splintering into pieces as we came towards each other.

We are children just within reach of happiness but always falling short. We are incoherent with magic and meanness and sting each other out of sheer concern.

Never mind that nearly every "always" lapses into "sometimes" over the course of the book. Though her musical ear is unerring, Hasan's textual euphonies often create suggestions of nuanced meaning that dissolve upon deeper inquiry. The imagery of splinters and stings here is evocative, and "incoherent with magic and meanness" is a nice turn of phrase, but they are emotion-tugging ornaments rather than heavy lifters of signification. The same could be said later on of the description of children with ears "smoky with sleep…trundl[ing] inside the quilt like three bits of ice" and the reference to George Orwell's novel when the year comes to be 1984. All too often, precision becomes the victim of vague atmospheric flourishes or the convenient backrest of allusions familiar to all.

But Hasan is never far off base, and the novel becomes significantly better in the second half as the writing focuses, dots begin to connect and characters start to become more than names with idiosyncrasies attached. The previously unsympathetic May, for example, is humanized late in the game, the self-denial of options revealing her to be vulnerable rather than high-strung and crazed:

No she will not return to the mansion just yet.

No she will not recall Clemmie from Benji's just yet.

No she will not cry quite just yet.

That is not to say that there are no more missteps; the novelist abuses her prerogative as an artist, for example, to make Independence Day the day in the plot when "many things decide to become independent of each other and declare their autonomy": the penchant for verbal and conceptual expedience mar Hasan's clear talent and shortchange her vision as a writer. The swirling, montage-like prose with which Shillong and its people are depicted, however, gradually finds its footing even as readers find theirs.

Still, when The To-Let House reaches the sudden clarity of its final pages, what is beautiful is not just their emergence from the slurried colors of the preceding palette but the way the descriptions of the scenes fuses smoothly and simply into the experience of the narrator, Di:
On the way, it begins to rain. I try to cut through the water but the rain is intense.

I enter a stationary bus, pulled up by the side of the road, and roll up the windows.

The glass gets steamy.

The driver takes out a rag and wipes the windshield.

Everything turns silent. The vast blue hills in the distance envelop the rainy town. The rain shatters the roof of the bus and then the hailstones come. I begin to wipe the glass with my hand. The dripping trees come into view. Their brown pine needles are soggy. The tiny white crystals hit the glass and happily dart to the road. The ash from the forest fires has turned white and the trees on the slopes look like they are flowing. But it is only the rain on the glass turning things fluid.

It is a rainstorm again, but not one whose high jinks are trying to steal the show. No emotion is revealed, and yet much is conveyed beneath the play-by-play of action and perception, the apparent detachment of the narrator from the scene. This is perhaps Hasan at her finest, finally nailing the complicated, paradoxically exact matter of saying but not saying that she has attempted all along. She can do it, she proves. There is hope that with her next novel she might blow readers away by doing it from the start.

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