A House is a Body is the first book-length outing for two-time O Henry Award-winner Shruti Swamy. Most of the stories have been published separately before in such journals as The Paris Review, but they take on a particular strength when arranged together in a collection. Some take place in India, others in the West, but the power of the book rests in those stories that subtly show how women have traditionally not been recognized for the nurturing roles they take up.
In “My Brother at the Station”, the narrator is left at home one night when her younger brother falls ill and her parents take him to the hospital. She’s young herself and has never been home alone at night. The dark corners of her house seem creepy, and her parents and brother don’t return for hours. Her brother is not seriously ill; her parents give him so much attention when there’s nothing wrong with him. Years later, pregnant with her own child, she spots her now-estranged brother at a train station. Her parents had cut him off years earlier, but she follows him until he exits at his stop, alluding to the reason as to why she hasn’t seen him in years.
If I called my parents now, they would urge me to speak to him, they would forget what they had promised each other and beg me to offer him money, however much I had, beg him to return home. So I switched off my phone.
But when he heads home, he looks back and the protagonist thinks he smiles at her. She alone holds this secret of her brother’s whereabouts.
Another compelling story is “Wedding Season”, in which Tejas and Al travel from the US to Mumbai to attend a family wedding on Tejas’s side. The two women are a couple, Al standing for Alberta, and Tejas’s family in India doesn’t know they are romantically linked. The women enjoy the festivities.
The wedding was noisy; they danced in the procession together in front of the horse. Al was clapping, laughing, sweating, in a gold sari and jewels in her hair, hands stained with fresh henna. Everything about her seemed pale and out of place, and Tejas, tugging at her own sari, leaf green and endlessly sequined, felt a strange, leaping feeling start at the pit of her, and move upward.
Tejas knows that she will never have an Indian wedding like this, and it isn’t her choice that she loves another woman. It’s unfair to be left out of this milestone celebration.
“The Neighbors” is chilling and tells of a budding friendship between the narrator and her new neighbor, Luisa. Both women have two young children. It’s a hot summer somewhere in the United States, and the mothers and children start to spend time together. The narrator notices a faded bruise under Luisa’s eye one day and the remnants of bruises under her arm another day. So one day the narrator rearranges her dupatta to reveal dark secrets of her own. She hopes to find comfort in another woman who knows what she’s going through.
Then I looked at her and realized she was refusing. Not only to say it, but to see, just to see it, to see me. Her eyes were hard and faraway, the eyes of a stranger—which, of course, she was.
These stories—and more—vary in theme and setting, but together leave the reader thinking about family relations, gender roles, and how sometimes cultures are not so different after all.