The House of Twining Roses

by Nabina Das

Review by Smitha Sehgal

How did I precisely chance my way into ‘The House of Twining Roses, Stories of The Mapped and The Unmapped’ is a fond recollection. A striking volume of seventeen short stories by Nabina Das, a versatile poet, opinionated socio political essayist and writer, I had stumbled upon the imagery from her story ‘Waterborne’ in this volume one afternoon and got enchanted abruptly.
“…the border glittered and her sepia face floated like a translucent lotus in the afternoon’s radiance…” 
Charmed as I was, instinctively I knew I had to go for this collection, an immensely rewarding pursuit. Following her debut novel “Footprints in the Bajra” long listed in the prestigious ‘Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2011, this distinguished body of work is Nabina Das’s first collection of short stories.
The narratives resonate of an unmistakable harmonious lyricism, which comes with ease to an accomplished musician and poet. The stories take the reader by hand along the narrow lanes and roads of Amrawa, New York, Delhi and Calcutta; we inhale the heady fragrance of orange stalked Shewali flowers; we breathe the beel-jaan-juri (wetlands-canals-springs)of “Xunor Axom” (Golden Assam).
Nabina Das’s characters become one with you, there is a little piece of you in each story. The opening story ‘Home Coming’ sketches the anguish and hope of Pushpo. Her sense of alienation and grief mingled with an almost obsequious eagerness of an abandoned aged and arthritic mother becomes yours when ‘… crying, she tried flailing her hands like bird wings and fell. Hard on the hot tar. On her back. No more a bird”. 
Atif’s World’, a story of love and betrayal is a subtle take on crime and justice system, which leaves no room for reformation and rebirth. ‘After the Music Stopped”, a lyrical story on the deep enchantment of the protagonist with harmonium is an incisive sample of the author’s resplendent narrative.
“Beyond the protruded teeth, were the shiny bones of keys, its brass skeleton, under a cover that was dark nut brown, and carved with baroque grape vines and entwined flowers… It was like maze that invited Kon-moni to walk it on her own. It beckoned her to open up the cover and look inside the body of keys that more music in their hearts… she put her right index finger on a tooth with eyes closed, her heart a pounding tom-tom… T-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-i-i-i-i-n-n-n a fairy sound greeted her…”
Desire of the Pollen with its myriad characters whom we seem to have encountered in our own reflections of past enfolds us in rapture. It is also a story of coming of age and disillusionment.
‘…Deha, the body, said lover poet Hasan Raja, frolics like a calm river dolphin in the eventide of senses, pining for a home...”
I cannot but smirk at VS Naipaul’s presumptuous observation on women writing while reading the story Waterborne, remarkable for its water imagery and the incredible ease with which Nabina Das pulls off the narrative in the voice of Ken.
The title story “The House of Twining Roses”, is an absolute delight woven around the lives of a dreamy Mitra and a level headed Indu. The bunch of roses, luminous pink flowers of radhachura, the pale lime pickles and the tiny guavas that were feasted upon by the raucous crows even before they turned pink inside make this story a visual treat.
“ ‘… For us, roots are those that grow in the earth’s belly, and origins are where we find them to be growing’ Mitra wrote to Indu…”
Yet, succinctly, one cannot miss what it was for a child of late 1970’s generation to grow up in Assam, witnessing the prolific agitation spear headed by AASU.
The House of Forgotten Youth and the House of Childhood are tributes to houses where memories are collected, stacked and savoured before life catches up with in its whirlwind frenzy. Singapore Girl is another story packed with the flavour of Delhi, the whims of youth and most importantly reminds one of the easy shrugs with which Delhi changes loyalties and discards people whom it finds inconsequential. One cannot the miss the self-deprecating yet powerful punch line of the protagonist as the story ends.
Women; Two Lives is a window to partition history told in halting narratives by an old Amala picking up broken shards of old memories, piecing them together, once again seeing in the mirror of mind two smiling girls, Amala and Suraiya who read Toru Dutt together. Partition is documented history for our generation. The deep wounds left by it in the psyche of those who have lived through it, can never be documented enough; it can never heal enough; yet this story is a brave and sensitive effort at that.
Another subtly narrated story is “The Smell of Rains” told by little Uma. For her, grief is loss of mother inextricably mingled with the memories of a roof tearing blast at a busy marketplace in the huge and crowded city of Delhi. It is only fateful that this review coincides with the Court verdict this mid-February. Adolescence and Two Voices, yet again dazzle with the sunlight of youth with jaunty conversations of two child women coming of age. The 9-11 Bride is a story of loss and reconciliation of the protagonist with the loss of her sibling in the 9-11 attack. The plot as it matures, however take a different twist and though this story is one of grief, one feels deeply appreciative of the author’s ingenuity. Nabina Das has her own style of narrative, weaving in and out of the stories the flavour of Assam where the plot allows. About Aribam in one such story where she brings us the tale of a man branded insurgent and terrorist. A mention of this story and review is not complete without the alluring lore from Assam ‘He’s a liar, He is divine/ He’s a thief, He is mine- thus gasped Radha’. On a very personal note, one observes that the cover photo of this beautiful collection of stories where bunches of white roses bloom and the wall overlooking them speak volumes about bygone days.
An immensely promising writer from Asia, Nabina Das, has carved her own niche amongst contemporary Indian writers. Her writing reminds one of Maya Angelou’s words “Pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”