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A House Is a Body
By Shruti Swamy
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- ebook $10.99 $13.99 CAD
- Trade Paperback $15.95 $21.95 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around August 11, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction
“A House Is a Body will not simply be talked about as one of the greatest short story collections of the 2020s; it will change the way all stories—short and long—are told, written, and consumed. There is nothing, no emotion, no tiny morsel of memory, no touch, that this book does not take seriously. Yet, A House Is a Body might be the most fun I’ve ever had in a short story collection.” —Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
Dreams collide with reality, modernity with antiquity, and myth with identity in the twelve arresting stories of A House Is a Body. Set in the United States and India, Swamy’s characters grapple with motherhood, relationships, and their bodies to reveal small but intense internal moments of beauty, pain, and power that contain the world.
In “Earthly Pleasures,” a young painter living alone in San Francisco begins a secret romance with one of India’s biggest celebrities, and desire and ego are laid bare. In “A Simple Composition,” a husband’s professional crisis leads to his wife’s discovery of a dark, ecstatic joy. And in the title story, an exhausted mother watches, hypnotized by fear, as a California wildfire approaches her home. Immersive and assured, provocative and probing, these are stories written with the edge and precision of a knife blade.
A House Is a Body introduces a bold and original voice in fiction, from a writer at the start of a stellar career.
Don't miss Shruti Swamy's debut novel, The Archer (available September 7, 2021), which has already been longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.
Sudha and Vinod had a modest wedding. At their parents' insistence, Vinod had ridden in on a horse. It was wedding season in Delhi, and every night the streets were filled with the raucous dancing of the families of bridegrooms, the weather gentle, still a few weeks away from ferocious heat. Sudha's body was covered in turmeric the night before. She didn't think she would enjoy it, but there was the undeniable pleasure of being touched by so many loving hands. The turmeric was cool, and resembled in texture and consistency the river-mud of her mother's ancestral home, where she had swum summers as a girl. She also took a milk bath. How do you feel, her mother asked her, bathing her like she had when Sudha was a child, and because of this, Sudha had not felt any shame in her nakedness.
Fine, said Sudha. She smelled of bitter herbs, but tomorrow she was promised she would look beautiful. When she got out of the bath her mother rubbed her down vigorously with a rough towel.
And your wedding night?
What about it?
Are you ready?
What is there to be ready for? But then she smiled at her mother and her mother knew that she was just teasing. At night some weeks later Sudha and Vinod climbed up to the roof of their new flat to smoke a cigarette. From somewhere in a twist of road below them they could hear the brass sounds of the wedding band. They didn't speak, just passed the cigarette back and forth. There was a cap of smog that made the sunsets blaze with color but obscured the stars. Sudha took her husband's hand. It was thin and dry and warm. She had memorized the lines in his palm, cut deep as though in wood. She listened to the sound of his breathing. Once she had lain on top of him, very still, and kept her face close to his so that she could taste the air that came from his mouth, tinged with clove from the kernels he sucked for better digestion.
Do you find me handsome?
Yes, he said, smiling his kind smile, I find you very handsome.
I do too.
We'll have to stop smoking these things soon. They'll kill us.
Is that what you're thinking about?
No, he said. I was thinking about the time you tried to teach me how to swim and I nearly drowned. Do you remember?
How old were you, nine?
I was eight, you were nine.
Did you find me handsome then?
No. I wasn't thinking like that.
The music from the street faded. There were kites in the air, but who was flying them? It was late, and Sudha felt tired, leaning against the concrete railing, her lungs full of the smog of the old city. It felt close to dawn, though it was not nearly that late: the sky was a deep purple. Downstairs she took off her clothes, and lay down naked in the bed. Her body took to water, while Vinod's rejected it, and he had flailed his skinny arms wildly, his mouth gulped down lungfuls of river. At first she laughed, thinking it was a joke; then, with effort, she pulled him out. In her mind as she fell asleep: a cigarette, a river, a baby, and her husband's eyes, the same dark eyes of that drowning boy.
Do you love me? she said.
I love you, he said. He entered her. She had pushed her dress up around her breasts and pulled aside her underwear. She closed her eyes. Look at me, he said, but she couldn't look at him. When Dhritarashtra's mother coupled with his father with her eyes closed, her son was born blind. Look at me, he said again, but she still wouldn't. Fear, a sick-good feeling, tenderness, a strange terror. Hush, she said, and he bucked against her, breathing hard on her. The sound of his breathing was like a train she was trying to catch. She raced after it and she knew that if she could leap onto it, it would carry her away.
Should I stop? he said. Sudha—
Don't stop, she said, and thrust him deeper. He pulled out and came on her belly. They lay beside each other not touching. She didn't move to wipe his semen off her belly. It was warm, the air was warm, the sweat on his back dried against the sheets and thickened into the fabric. Things that seemed like they should be disgusting were suddenly not disgusting. She was amazed by this.
In July a black feeling returned and she left work early, rode the Metro home and sat on the hard divan in front of the television, muted, not really watching anything at all, sitting in the living room and gazing at the actors' lips shaping soundless words. Vinod found her like this and tried to speak to her, but she felt he was very far away. She was all blurry, translucent and unreachable, and she watched Vinod as he paced around the living room in great agitation. What is the matter? he said.
I don't know, she said. She could feel the voice in her throat, but it didn't sound like her own.
Should I call someone?
A doctor? Your mother?
She shook her head. I'm fine, she said. When she was a girl she would fall asleep on her arm, and turning in the night she would wake and realize her body had pressed the blood out of it, and heavy, it became a stranger's arm. In the minutes before the needling pain came, she would touch it with her other hand, running a fingertip along the skin of her forearm, the fine hair, the burl of her elbow. It was then the feeling arrived, but on those nights she had felt only the first pricks of it, the way a person crushed to death by stones might enjoy the first on his chest, the pleasant heaviness of them, the way they make the body feel smaller, or held in an embrace.
She did not know how to explain it, so she stayed silent until it passed, and then gorged herself on the cold dinner Vinod had prepared, sat in bed beside him, watching his fingers twitch in sleep.
Three nights later at dinner Sudha wondered what it would be like if Vinod died. The thought came suddenly, and afterward she was surprised she had never considered it before. It was a hard ball bouncing in the pit of her stomach, he won't and then he will and then but not for a while and then what will I do and then I'll have no one, and his mouth opened, and the pinkness of it inside, the dulled color of blood, but it was empty now, lips forming words, she could see him on the road, dying in a car accident, and she pushed out of her chair and went into the bathroom and screamed against a balled up towel.
He came into the bathroom, and touched her arm. It was smooth tile and concrete in there, and the evening was coming cool now after so much heat. He said her name. It felt nice to hear her name in his mouth, in his voice. She had been putting in long hours at work, which sometimes held the feeling at bay. Architecture was a worship of logic and clean lines; she worked for hours without stopping. Then the weight came. He said her name again. He was fourteen, she was thirteen, they were smoking their first cigarette together on a Bombay beach, far away from parents. He had a girlfriend already, not Sudha, but some other girl, Sudha was in love with Amitabh Bachchan. There were elephants on the beach and it was warm but not hot, the half constructed bridge hung out over the water, a bridge to nowhere. Thirteen was not too young to know you were happy, and it was a comfort to her now, to know for certain, for one moment, she had been. Later in the evening he cried in her arms in the bedroom, and she knew that he had decided to leave her, but she said nothing, just held his face in her hands and let him cry, wiping his tears away with her nightgown. He left three days later, and watching him, the dark of his hair hovering over his white-shirted torso as he had hailed a rickshaw, she felt for a minute that she would not be able to bear it alone. But soon the feeling dulled into tiredness. The heat dried everyone out. At the end of the day you felt you would crumble like old paper. If you cut open your veins, dry blood would pour out like sand.
Late morning, Sudha awoke, pregnant. She felt it suddenly, she knew, despite what the doctors had said. There was a thin film of sweat on her chest. She went down to the train station, fighting against the crowd at the ticket counter. Her body made decisions of its own accord, elbowing itself to the front of the counter and sliding her money, sweat dampened, to the sleepy man on the other side of the glass. Then she went to look for the right platform. The day had not yet reached its apex, still the sun was hot enough to make her perspire, even shaded as she was by the corrugated tin awnings. All around her the porters, with their red uniforms and perfect posture, climbed up and down the long flights of stairs to the platforms with suitcases balanced on their heads, travelers following behind, like children. She wiped her brow with the back of her palm. Her breasts felt sensitive and full.
She found her platform and waited. The train was due soon. A child approached her, barefooted and dressed in a shirt that was once white but now was brown. His eyes were lucid and rimmed with a yellow crust, teeth in his mouth crowded together. He stretched out his hands. Madam, he said, please madam, I'm hungry. Very hungry. He motioned to his mouth. She could sense the presence of a girl, his younger sister, somewhere behind, a girl in a dirty frock and the same bright, yellowy eyes. Please madam, food madam, I'm very hungry. Sudha had left her city eyes behind. She went to the stall where they were selling samosas and bought him five and then thrust them in his hands. And then he was off; the crowd had eaten him. She leaned over the tracks and retched a clear liquid and when the nausea passed she closed her eyes.
Where are you?
I'm on the train.
What train? Are you crazy? Mr. Malhotra is asking for you. The clients are here in fifteen minutes.
I have to go to Rishikesh.
But why? Where are you?
I'm on the train.
Well, get off the train.
I can't now. Tell him it's an emergency. Please?
I can't hear you. The connection is bad.
I said, can you tell him it's an emergency?
Okay. I'll tell him. Are you alright?
Everything's fine, Sudha said. The train clattered against the tracks. Outside the window, the wide green fields filled with afternoon sun, the nameless cities, villages full of children with no mothers. The train drew parallel to an empty riverbank, and the sky was full of birds and kites made tiny with distance. I'll be fine, she said into the phone, and said it again after her colleague had hung up.
She reached Haridwar in the evening. Her bag was small, but still she had to wrestle it from the hands of a porter, who had taken it from her as soon as she had disembarked. It was cooler up here. She felt drawn toward the river, not cluttered with pilgrims as it would be in Haridwar, but soft and empty in the evening light, unworshipped by droning priests and their strict adherents. In Rishikesh, a bend in the river. Birds, animals worshipped there, fish, snakes, ashes. Rishikesh, even the name in her mouth felt cool, like water running against a great thirst. She got a taxi. Haridwar was lighting up in dusk, and the sky got darker as they drove, the lights in Mussoorie like low stars against the black hills. It would be cold in Mussoorie this time of year. The town was made for honeymooners. She had gone there with Vinod before they were married. They had pretended they were in order to get a room. She had been wearing a sari to make herself look more wifely. Vinod brought brandy and they drank it from the bottle; later she had been sick.
When Sudha arrived at the ashram in Rishikesh they showed her to a small clean room with brick walls, and a window that looked out onto the sleeping river. She fell asleep and had a dream. She was a woman with two children. Her husband had died in a roadside accident. She lived now with the children at her husband's brother's house, in a small room beside the kitchen that had been intended for servants. She fed the children as best she could, but at night she remembered only the saddest part of the fairytale to tell them. The mother in that story was so poor that after she finished cooking for her rich sister-in-law, she saved the water she washed her hands with for her children to drink. The little bits of atta on her hands turned the water a milky white and that was all she could offer to her children's hunger. In the story the mother was a good woman and her sister-in-law was a bad woman and god treated them accordingly; punishing the sister-in-law with shame or death, and rewarding the mother with riches—she couldn't remember that now. All she could remember was the bowl of water the mother gave her children, how she watched her children raise the bowl to their lips and drink it, how she forced her lips into a false smile. How at night, the three of them sleeping in the same bed, not a bed but a narrow mat on the floor, breathed heavily in hungry, shallow sleep. She broke off in her telling, watching her children sleep. They needed new clothes. The little one, a girl, was just turning six, with the river colored skin of her father and thick dark hair that her mother had taught her how to comb by herself. Her brother, ten years old, looked like his mother. Someone had given him a pocketwatch. She had taken it away because she thought he would break it, but then he was so angry he wouldn't speak to her for days, and his uncle—her husband's brother—had prevailed upon her to give it back. They were sweet children. They went to school, they came with her in the afternoons to the houses she cleaned and sat quietly and did their schoolwork and sometimes the good woman she worked for would give them each a glass of milk. She worked for the good woman on some days, but the other women whose houses she cleaned wouldn't even allow her children inside, so she had to send them back to her husband's brother's house, pressing down, as she did this, a bad feeling, like shame.
The dream-woman remembered when her son was born. They were poor but her husband was still alive. She held her new baby in her arms and felt love and terror in equal parts. He was tiny—he had been born a few weeks premature. A warm, breathing creature in her arms but it was as if he was made of glass. What if she dropped him or he came by some way to harm?
Do you love me? her husband's brother said.
I love you, she said. He entered her. She had not taken off her sari, she just bunched it up around her waist. She closed her eyes. So many times she had done this now in the small hours of night, night after night, she no longer felt like crying. She hardly felt anything at all. Her mind climbed out of her body and observed the scene from the vantage point of the ceiling fan. With her eyes closed she could see two people moving together, just two dark bodies. Look at me, he said. She wouldn't look at him. When Dhritarashtra's mother submitted to his father with her eyes closed, her son was born blind. I said look at me, he grunted, but still she wouldn't. Hush, she said, and he bucked against her, breathing hard on her.
Want me to stop? he said, mocking.
Don't stop, she said. He pulled out and came on her belly. They lay beside each other not touching. She didn't move to wipe his semen off her belly. It was warm and everything in the room seemed simple and very real: the rattan chair, the clean floor. Things that seemed like they shouldn't be disgusting were suddenly disgusting. She was amazed by this.
Who had given the boy a pocketwatch?
She lay awake some nights. The bodies of her children next to her, smelling of rubbery sweat and soap and scalp. She touched their backs lightly with her palms. They didn't wake. If there was a way to stay like this forever, the three of them sleeping together on the same mat, the children happy in dreams and hunger forgotten, safe, and quiet. If there was a way to keep them forever, never growing old or ungrateful or sour or angry. Each moment became unbearable. If she could weave armor for them from her own skin and hair. She knew the hardness of the world, the meanness. She would carry it forever if she could, carry it alone.
One afternoon she looked at her face in the mirror she was cleaning. Her children were not with her. The bathroom was empty. It was a fancy one with a western toilet; she cleaned that too. Then she turned and there was her face. She looked at it for a long while; she felt as surprised as if she was looking at the face of a stranger. She looked older than she was, with gray starting in at the temples, and her skin folding at the corners of her eyes. She was no longer a girl, but she could see the girl of her face there, in the fullness of her lips, in the darkness of her irises, the soft folds of her eyelids, and that girl's face was pressed over her face like a ghost, the face of her daughter not yet grown or maybe a daughter who was not yet born, or just the face of any young girl, a quiet girl who absorbs everything she sees, everything becomes her, a girl so full of anxious love for the world she is bursting with it. And then another moment passed and her face was her own again, and she was relieved.
The girl was crying when she came home, but the boy was nowhere. Where is your brother? she asked the girl. The girl sniffled and wiped her face. She pointed to the bedroom, the one the uncle and the aunt shared. He said I couldn't come, said the girl, but I get so sad and lonely sitting outside waiting for him. But he won't let me in, he never lets me in.
The mother went to the door and opened it. She knew what she was going to see before she saw it—the uncle startled, the boy mute. She knew it, maybe she knew all along. But she had no other place to go.
Sudha woke up. The light was shining on the river, shining hard through the window. It was still early dawn. She dressed and went to the river. She was in the foothills and they were green. She climbed down the narrow concrete steps of the ghat until she got to the last one that remained above the water. It was always quiet here, an early morning stillness that lasted into dusk. For a while, she stood at the edge of the water. There was no one around. There used to be elephants in the jungle on the other side of the river—she had seen them through binoculars as a child. There weren't any more. The jungle was thinning out, even as the river swelled.
When she looked into the river she saw a face. The face in the water was dark-skinned like hers but had wrinkles around the eyes and mouth. She looked tired and sad, something in the eyes told her, dark but not dull, the small frown in her mouth, and she saw a sigh form on the lips of the face. The face looked like her mother's face or her grandmother's face, and yet she could find hers in it too. There was a moment where the two faces lay perfectly still on top of each other—and then the reflection was just her own again.
She let each feeling rush into her belly and lie there. He was there, knotted inside her and growing, in another month her skin would start to stretch to accommodate him as he grew lungs and fingernails, his little heart beating like a moth. She let dread wash over her, and love, and fear, and anger, she started to laugh though there was no cause, and she thought I must not be frightened now. She remembered the baby from her dream, the baby she held in her arms, she remembered her own mother. The feelings were a train, driving hard through the center of her, and when they blew clean through the other side, she felt empty of everything, except for him.
You haven't eaten anything," Reggie says. They can hear Maya with the baby in the other room; the baby is crying, then being hushed.
"I'm not hungry," says Mark.
"How now, gentle cuz?" Reggie says. She puts her hand on his rough cheek. Her face is sardonic as always, but there is kindness in it. Then Maya comes in with the baby, whose little cheeks are wet with tears. Seeing her father, the baby reaches her small hands out to him. Maya is wearing a sleeveless dress. Her eyes, thickly lidded, normally languid, now are red and tired.
"Will you hold her?" says Maya.
"No," says Mark.
Maya looks at Reggie, who opens her arms.
When she learned Chariya had died, Maya immediately left her small apartment. It was windy in New York; she wore a coat and gloves and a scarf and a hat. Daylight passed. She walked by men and women and looked at them with just her face exposed. But from this small expanse of skin they could read her perfectly. Her mind was stunned, her body hungry, a hunger that frightened her. She slept in her seat with a hand over her mouth while her body flew west: she was dreaming of being fucked. It was Reggie who came to get her at the airport, looking rough in the unfussy clothes of a farmwife, holding Chariya's baby in a carrier. Standing under the arrivals sign, Maya pressed tears back into her eyes with the heels of her hands.
Maya sits in the bathtub for a long time before she puts on the tap. It was Chariya's room, her sea-room, where she had taken long baths, and where she had given birth. Blue tiles, blue walls, blue towels, and a flat, gray light coming in through the window. With her foot, she nudges open the tap, which floods heat. She looks at her body, wavering under the water. What use is a body? There is no milk in her breasts.
"Maya." Mark's voice. It comes from far away, and she lifts her head above the translucent surface, and closes the tap. Then the house becomes silent. He says again, "Maya."
"I—I left something in there."
"My reading glasses. Do you see them?"
"No." Still she can feel him standing, pressed against the closed door. She says, "I found seven white hairs today."
"At my left temple."
"You're young still."
"Chariya is going gray."
"Was." From far away they can hear Reggie with the baby, cooing, the sound an animal makes. The sound of the baby's laughter. She has been fussy, getting her teeth in. But the last few days she has sensed the change in the house and become quiet.
"No," she says.
Five or six, dusk gathers quietly outside until the room is filled with it. White moths spread their wings against the windows, but from the inside they are just their shapes: black. When the baby cries, Maya takes her and rocks her against her body. Soon the baby is sleeping. Maya and Reggie begin to talk about Chariya. From the other room Mark listens to the fall of their voices. They are tender as they speak about Chariya.
"She'd just cut her hair. Did you see it?"
"No," says Maya.
An Electric Lit Favorite Short Story Collection of 2020
“A House Is A Body might be the most fun I've ever had in a short story collection.”
—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
“Swamy’s debut short story collection is rich, mesmeric . . . These are nuanced and quietly powerful stories about our most urgent and deeply felt experiences—grief, love, and desire.”
—BuzzFeed (29 Summer Books You Won't Be Able to Put Down)
“Equal parts elegance and sorrow, absurdity and sensuality. This book is magic.”
—C Pam Zhang, author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold
“Swamy connects the narratives through her clean prose, punctuating moments both surreal and eerily realistic.”
—Time ("Here Are the 12 New Books You Should Read in August")
“In this story collection that hops back and forth between India and the U.S., Shruti Swamy delivers a meticulous investigation of the pleasures, pains, and confusions that bodies afford—especially when those bodies belong to people of color. In the hypnotic, almost Lynchian title story (which previously appeared in The Paris Review), a Californian woman watches as a wildfire steadily advances on her home. These are closely observed stories that often turn into provocative studies about the absurdity of our entanglement with others.”
“Two-time O. Henry Award winner Shruti Swamy shows impressive range within the deceptively narrow confines (200 pages) of her debut short story collection, A House Is A Body . . . Swamy’s words readily dazzle, and the collection’s themes, including a haunting exploration of sibling rivalry, reveal themselves gradually.”
—The AV Club ("5 New Books to Read in August")
“The 12 stories that make up Shruti Swamy's A House Is a Body are mesmerizing in their richness . . . Swamy captures the full breadth of the human experience.”
—PopSugar ("26 Incredible New Books Coming Your Way This August")
“[Swamy] writes with sureness and grace. Her writing is more poetry than prose . . . The stories are rewarding for the elegance and lilt of the writing. Swamy takes you on an easy, well-articulated rides set in India, Germany, and the United States . . . If you love words, the way they can be used to describe objects and actions, the ways they can be assembled for effect, buy A House Is a Body. You will be rewarded.”
—New York Journal of Books
“The winner of two O. Henry Prizes, Shruti Swamy will publish her first short-story collection this summer, and you won't want to miss out on reading it. The 12 stories in A House Is a Body move between India and the U.S., focusing on women's interior lives and the ways in which their identities differ from the perceptions and presumptions of those around them.”
"Swamy’s pulsating prose produces riveting narratives. Her stories twist in subtle yet unexpected ways . . . The fallible characters in Swamy’s ravishing book are always falling into something and bravely grasping what they can on their way down in a frenetic attempt to pull themselves back up. A dazzling and exquisitely crafted collection."
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Spanning the geographical and social distance between India and the U.S., Swamy’s 12 tales illuminate her characters’ imperfections and struggles, ultimately forming an attuned and mystical exploration into the enigmas of being human.”
"Swamy writes with a cool precision that draws the reader into her debut collection . . the plots unspool in lovely lucid prose that has a poetic omniscience . . . Swamy is off to a strong start."
“This is one of the books I'll turn to again and again, to study the tapestry of the prose, which is so beautiful and original. And there is such a deep curiosity at work here. I couldn't stop reading once I'd begun, couldn't part with this clear, exquisite, intelligent mind, contemplating an endlessly troubled and intimate world. It made me love reading all over again.”
—Rebecca Lee, author of Bobcat and Other Stories
“I’ve been reading Shruti Swamy’s stories for a long time and so for me to have them here together is cause for great celebration. These stories are written with such rare patience and a restraint that they are at times, almost unbearably tense. That’s a story writer. Not a book to read in a hurry. Take your time, as Swamy did. No need for hyperbole, either. The beauty and timeless grace of these stories will always speak for themselves.”
—Peter Orner, author of Maggie Brown Others: Stories
"Shruti Swamy writes with a confidence and rich understanding that recalls such renowned storytellers as Katherine Anne Porter and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Her collection A House is a Body is the perfect book for lovers of the short story and for all those willing to lose themselves in Swamy’s thoroughly developed fictional worlds. Shruti Swamy is a rare talent and A House is a Body is a gorgeous debut."
—Laura Furman, author of The Mother Who Stayed and former series editor of The O'Henry Prize Stories
"Powered by intense imagery and jolts of frank sexuality, Shruti Swamy’s A House Is a Body blurs the line between fantastical and naturalistic storytelling with its tales of love, loss, and life lived across cultures . . . mesmerizing."
—Foreword Reviews, starred review
- On Sale
- Aug 11, 2020
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Algonquin Books