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The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and Unmapped; Culling Mynahs and Crows

Nabina Das; R.K. Biswas

Lifi Publications

Pages: 282;483 Rs. 250;325

On amphibious existence and the pitfalls of nostalgia

Two recent books, by Nabina Das and R.K. Biswas, respectively, offer astute and very different commentaries on what it means to inhabit a house, writes Sumana Roy.

Sumana Roy  21st Jun 2014

Both Das and Biswas focus on living spaces and trees.

ouses are strange beasts. They demand rent, EMIs, and a child's attention. On the level of metaphor, they hold stories and fears. And of course people, them without shoes. "Actually, there were two houses. Later it became one," that is how the titular story in Nabina Das's The House of Twining Roses begins. "Mitra's house was where the roses first grew and the other was where they were grown later," the narrator continues. It is this feeling of living in two houses at the same time that defines the stories in this collection. A double life is, of course, a rich life. Reading through Das's collection of extremely well-crafted stories, one has the fascinating sense of living this double life — people, rooms, houses, tastes, aptitudes and affinities arrange themselves in binaries, so that sentences carry their invisible twins with them at most times.

Indu and Mitra in "The House of Twining Roses" represent the two houses of course, and the two kinds of plant life around which Das structures this lovely story — the roses and the eucalyptus tree. "You mustn't miss the first house," Mitra's mother said. "Now this is your House of Twining Roses." This is the same person who writes this to Indu in her "next letter": "Really, Indu, our flirtatious eucalyptus — with slender small leaves, a smooth slim grey-white trunk, elegant branches like a woman's arms and the perpetual fragrance in its suave body — courts dreary looking passers-by carrying droopy shopping bags and dog-eared office files and spreads in us a faint excitement that is perhaps the seedling of youth in ourselves."

This sense of living the amphibious life is like a twitching nerve. Das mentions an "agitation" in the story, a political one, but she lets the word operate on at least two levels. There is the "youth agitation" in Assam, where "the agitators demanded deportation of those undocumented people back to Bangladesh or wherever the heck they were from"; but there is also the "secret" world of literature, Mitra's secret ambition to be a writer or "an archaeologist or psychologist". All three disciplines, literature, archaeology and psychology, are founded on the notion of there being at least two lives, two houses, and at least two sets of meanings for everything. Mitra "learnt the words 'fornication', 'abortion', 'pornography' and 'paramour' — like they were passwords to a secret society'. Nabina Das's success in these seventeen stories is in sharing with the reader something that is similar to "passwords to a secret society", a treat and a thrill in equal measure.

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It is also interesting to ask, even if only as a gesture in our vanity mirrors, why both Nabina Das and R.K. Biswas have chosen to name their books from non-anthropocentric perspectives — the rose and the birds, the mynah and the crow. As the mad killer in Biswas’s novel says, “What would you rather see, mynahs and crows or bird of paradise?”

Das spends considerable intellectual energy in exploring the trope of the house — apart from The House of Twining Roses, there are The House of Childhood, The House of Forgotten Youth, A New House for Mr. Abbas, and the sparkling story, Homecoming. One therefore comes from Das's stories to R.K. Biswas's novel Culling Mynahs and Crows (published by the same publisher) with rooms that are no longer one's own, houses that hold populations instead of people. That would perhaps be an appropriate metaphor to talk about expansion: room into house, people into populations, places into nations and the long short story into the novel. Biswas's novel is also structured around binaries: the central protagonists are two women who derive their names from Agni, fire. One is Agnirekha, the other is Agnishikha. Biswas places them in places that could be considered near opposites: Agnirekha, the ambitious journalist, in Calcutta; Agnishikha, an "innocent" girl, in Bisrampur. "Bisrampur" is a fictional place; in Bangla, "bisram" means rest, and it is interesting that the writer posits the pace of metropolitan life against the restful indolence of a town in Bengal's Murshidabad district.

n intelligent thriller, the novel brings the simple ambitions of happy domesticity in collision with the ruthlessness of soiled cities. The sections alternate between the two worlds, in two voices, and RK Biswas investigates what it means to be relatives of "fire", Agni. Apart from the narratives of the two interesting women, Biswas creates a unique narrative space for the "killer": it's a masterstroke to name him "Paglakhooni", a mad killer; the narrative tautology helps to question two things — madness and the concept of what it means to "kill".

The novel, like Das's collection, structures itself heavily around living spaces — the "Dak Bungalow (1988)", "Marital Home (1987)", "Home and Hearth (1987)", "Party House (1987)", "Broken House (1987)", "Mother's House (1987)", "Howrah House (1988)", "Housebound (1988)", "Fallen House (1988)", "Old House, New Home (1988)". Reading it in one sitting on a rainy afternoon, I was often tempted to think of the narrative as one moving with the abandon and abundance of fire — Is this the 'House' of Fire then, this life lived for one's self alone, a metropolitan life that is completely indifferent to the virtues of communitarianism? Biswas's credit lies in criticising the Bengali's malady for nostalgia, in showing us how the past wasn't necessarily as good as it looks in photo albums, and in showing us how all houses, in the end, are "Bhoot bungalows."

It is also interesting to ask, even if only as a gesture in our vanity mirrors, why both Nabina Das and R.K. Biswas have chosen to name their books from non-anthropocentric perspectives — the rose and the birds, the mynah and the crow. As the mad killer in Biswas's novel says, "What would you rather see, mynahs and crows or bird of paradise?" It is time we asked ourselves that question too.

 
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