Nabina Das’s collection of short stories “The House of Twining Roses” are a compendium of delight. Read carefully they collectively speak on personal and communal histories. In fact, history seeps through the arcade of these delectable stories, whether it be the partition of the country, the Assam Agitation or the horrors of 11.9.2001. In between are stories weaving around families, friends, the mother son relationship, the passion for music in a child. There is an ‘ obsession ‘ if one might call it with houses.
How is a house the signifier of change, or a fleeting impermanence? At least there are three stories intricately woven around this theme. Then again there is the frenetic Hindu-Muslim question or identity. Nabina’s stories also speak of the diasporic Indian, the innocence of childhood as in one of the stories, the little girl watches a terrorist leave a bag, and innocently tells him that he has forgotten it – which leads to her mother’s grisly death. Violence or impending violence short circuit her stories with implosion, reminding us that this is universal. It recalls history- the partition of Bengal, it obliterates relationships, as in the last story on the WTC attack.
Although the stories are racy narratives, time stops in them, as in the story ”After the music stopped” where this little girl’s passion for music, embodied in the harmonium, makes the narrative come to a grinding halt, especially at the end when she ‘steals’ a harmonium at the end of a musical show. The Hindu-Muslim relationship in India is evinced in one of the stories, through its protagonist Atif, who is born Muslim but adopted by a Hindu bonded labourer. Atif is shunned because he is a Muslim and also because he has been brought up by a ‘ low caste’. In many ways these stories are societal reflections with history charting out their course. The narratives are subtile, humorous, and not overtly sentimental. She avoids the mawkishly sentimental or maudlin stuff. They are real, yet their realities are infused with human foibles, such as greed. The stories are set in Assam, Bengal, other part of the country or the world. This invests them with both regional and national identities.
There is an anthropomorphic awareness in these stories as ‘life’ breathes through inanimate things, the flowers or the stones, or the house, the roses, the harmonium etc. Yet there is pathos in these stories, whether it be a mother pining away for her truant son now abroad, or Atif trying to come to terms with his moral self and his existential predicaments. The dissembling leftist’s story is another one which speaks of a moral worth or for that matter the story of a charlatan, discovered only on his death bed, as in momentary act of self confession he regurgigates all about himself, how he made money and lived in short a pretty bohemian life, at the same time spouting idealistic ‘values ‘.
The stories are marked by brevity, wit and dialogue. They are not complex interventions of ‘ techniques’ out to befuddle a reader. But they seriously engage the reader with history and moral questions, in a loose world of immorality or, an amoral world. Who is responsible for all this violence? We do not know, or we do not care to know! Their perpetrators are ‘ terrorists’ or simply ‘ they’. However, in the process the innocence of a child is sullied, or inter personal relationships broken, beyond repair The story of Amala: ”Women: Two Lives” is a scorching example of this. She is compelled to leave behind her best friend, a Muslim girl in undivided Bengal. What are relationships in the face of existential truths, over which we have little or no control? Or, what are relationships against the juxtaposition of history?
The short story as a literary genre is not susceptible to a closed ending. A short story is a fragment of life. These stories leave you with disturbing question marks, but not till you have deliriously enjoyed each and every one of them. This is a very compelling and authentic collection, written in a very free flowing and transparent style.