Author: NABINA DAS
LiFi Publications Pvt. Ltd.
The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped is a fine-layered collection of 17 short stories by Nabina Das, a Guwahati-born author with one novel and two poetry collections to her credit. Apart from the rich imagery that lingers on like a good melody, Das’ stories show a unique depth of plot and control of her characters. The reader feels the intensity of the stories through the complexities of the situations or characters.
Geographically, the stories are on a diverse map, sometimes a warped one. Das’ home state Assam features prominently. And although other places such as Bihar, Kerala, Bengal, New Delhi and the USA are also geographical markers for the stories, one feels a continuous movement, a search for belonging, and a need for anchoring throughout this book. The stories flow past their topographical signposts and boundaries and converge as one whole signifier of a place inhabited by common people the world over.
It’s a journey, like that of a flowing river. There is no restriction of time and space. The protagonists are always seeking a territory of the possible. They are exploring the unmapped as they chart the path of their evolution.
Twining Roses is definitely a book about coming of age, the cycle of life and death, and the fragility of events between a breath begun and ended. The stories especially probe girls and women trying to find themselves in the personal and communal histories and contemporary affairs of their times—ranging from Partition, the Assam student’s agitation, the tragedy of 9/11, etc. Their lives are woven around friends, families, passions and their relationship to each other going back and forth in time.
Water, water, everywhere
The narration in the book is lucid, as though a corollary to the ever present backdrop of water imagery in several of the stories. The significance of the mighty river Brahmaputra, which was an integral part of Das’ growing up, determines how any particular story may teeter between the discourse of the secrets of a lifetime and a revelation.
In “The House Of Childhood”, while watching “the sunset at the great bend of the river Luit” the Big Uncle explains its origins: “Son of creator God Braham—that’s why Luit is a man-river” and shares a secret about Mian-Bhai, his “son from another river”—a revelation at death. He passes away the same night.
Apart from “Waterborne”, we also see the water imagery playing a crucial role in “Women: Two Lives”, “The Smell of Rain”, and “Water’s Edge”. Death, purification and cleaning at birth, spiritual cleansing, the river as an escape route, and rain as the location for a painful episode, are some of the ways water percolates down the semantic of the stories.
For example, in “The Smell Of Rain”, for a nine-year-old Uma, the smell of rain becomes ugly because of its association with the loss of her mother. Water holds the promise both of freedom and of enslavement, its ripples inviting, and its depths mysterious and daunting, as portrayed by the surprises in the individual plots.
One sees the nurturing aspect of the river too, in stories like “The House Of Childhood”, “Waterborne” , “Woman-Two Lives”, etc. The river as a lover, a confidante, or a mother is the soother of all sorrow and pain.
One may say the plain chemistry of water itself is a quintessential symbol for regeneration, and a container of memories of characters such as Big Uncle, Darya, Suraiya, Amala and Uma. Loss and grief, pitted against resurgence and revival is almost a need in these stories.
Nabina’s language is intensely musical: the alliteration and onomatopoeia seen in expressions such as splutter, gargle or glide that grace her vowels and consonants; the mapping of puddles, lakes, rivers, rain or even a sprinkler, and in general, water, as a shape-shifting element. Evidently, she is a fine poet who is attentive to her craft even as a storyteller.
Even though the narrative is fast paced in this book, time tends to stop in them. The underlying gravity and subtlety of the dialogue, the humor and pathos, the wit and brevity of Das’ language linger on.
Of Houses and Materials
It is unavoidable that one also notices in the book “life” breathing through inanimate objects that accompany the human characters. The trunks, the harmonium, the roses, the houses, the books, the photographs—all tell a parallel story. The “house”, especially, is an important metaphor in this collection. A structure that is concrete as well as made of the finest strands of an imagined hearth. Assam, its urban and rural landscape, the author’s memories of childhood, early youth, and the long and partly violent agitation in her home state—all of this is also entwined in the twining roses of the title. It is a question of identity, of being the insider or outsider, and ultimately, also a proposition where the onus is not on the individual to prove her allegiance to any language, culture or ethos. The twining is a marker of how from one house to another, the theme of change or impermanence blooms like the roses. A search for “home” and not just a “house”, therefore, is tragic and lofty for someone like Mr. Abbas. The emptiness, the clutter, the feeling of at-homeness, and even homelessness embody what Indu or Mitra grapple with at an early age, Big Uncle and Mian Bhai keep a subtle secret, Gurudas itches to tell, Amala saves in her heart like a blemished jewel, Darya seeks in her loves and escapades, and Pushpo tries to reconcile with and perhaps fails.
Living in two or more places at the same time defines the coordinates of Das’ collection of stories. The nature-culture dualism in her stories, a rather likable binary, plays out effortlessly. The two female protagonists in “The House of Twining Roses” represent the two houses, two different ideologies, two life choices of women who grew together yet in different ways, like the two kinds of plant life around the house – the roses and the eucalyptus. The theme in each story too operates on two or more levels, I feel.
Trees and plants in this collection represent the powerful metaphor for growth. The imagery symbolizes something different in each story. They anchor ground to the sky. Almost all the characters in the book are firmly rooted to their birthplace while they explore new horizons. The trees and flowering plants also represent the personal transformation of the characters.
Missives as messages
Letters, messages, missives, etc., a running motif in Das’s collection, could be described as tools to pinpoint those coordinated discussed above. Stories such as “Homecoming”, “The House Of Twining Roses”, “The House Of Forgotten Youth”, “Pollen Of The Body” etc., comprise a stream of thoughts realized on pieces of papers, archival in their essence, and confessional in their mode. The letters document the space-time situation of the sender as well as the receiver. They connect the past to the present and often backwards. They evoke the question of belonging to a particular geography. The reader is beamed back to a place through a correspondence and then brought back into the present. Some of the letters serve as carriers of important source of information (“Waterborne”). These notes are footnotes to events, relationships and the stratification of the characters themselves where a gap is bridged.
Twining Roses is a reader’s delight but in a few places I felt that some characters remained somewhat in the shadows. For example, Mian-Bhai who is crucial to what Big-Uncle or his death reveals (“The House of Childhood”)—I found Das was a bit restrained in the portrayal of this character. Similarly, the bride in “The 9-11 Bride” is introduced to us mainly through a computer chat. Readers don’t get to know the psychological trauma Parveen was going through in her personal life as well as on the day of the attack. Her portrayal comes via the sister, and often intrigues the reader into asking more questions.
For this reader, The House Of Twinning Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped came as a well-crafted, compelling collection of boldly written short stories that one would like to go back to now and again. I would certainly recommend it to the reader of modern English fiction in India and elsewhere.