BUT MY HOUSE WAS HERE AND OTHER STORIES is a collection of short stories by Gopalan Sellan who is a retired planter of Malaysian Indian origin. This is his first book of short stories in English although I gather from the author bio that he has written two other collections which were published in Tamil.
What binds these stories together is the estate, the life of the rubber tapper, the estate worker, if not directly then the second generation, the ones who have made it out of the estates, the sons and daughters. All of the protagonists are Malaysian Indians the descendants of those brought from India by the British during colonial times to work the agricultural estates as rubber tappers or in palm oil.
Probably the most powerful story here is the one that gives the collection its name BUT MY HOUSE WAS HERE in which a man sees the same elderly woman every day who asks for a ride to her house. The story she tells allows Sellan to fill in the reader on the plight of the modern day estate workers many of whom have been kicked off the estates where generations of their families worked due to the demand for land for development and the selling of estate land for this purpose. Unable to find work and used to a self-contained life wherein the estate provided schools, living facilities, a community etc., these displaced people become the poorest level of society and sometimes turn to crime.
Sellan also seems to have an ear for the dynamics of Indian family life-the conflicts, the squabbles, the power trips. Whether it’s the powerless retiree with no control of money given to him in THE OLD MAN AND THE THIEF or the son who can’t seem to appease his strict father in VISHNU or what I think is the second best story EVEN JILLRUBA IS NO CONSOLATION in which a young girl tries to bring peace to her fighting parents by shining her father’s shoes but only makes the situation worse.
A few of the shorter stories fall flat as undeveloped fragments only or existing only to deliver a punchline. The language here is very simple which can be both good and band. Ernest Hemingway is quoted at the beginning and I can see his influence in the short sentences and terse "just the facts mam" type prose. I’m a poet by nature and like flowery language to a degree.
I would also like to mention that all the proceeds for BUT MY HOUSE WAS HERE AND OTHER STORIES are going completely to charity.