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“Unto that Element”: Water Imagery in Nabina Das’ The House of ‘Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped’

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By Malsawmi Jacob 

There, with fantastic garlands did she come

Of cornflowers, nettles, daisies and long purples…

When down her weedy trophies and herself

Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;

And, mermaid like, awhile they bore her up…

Or like a creature native and indu’d

Unto that element: but long it could not be…

The above lines, describing Ophelia’s drowning in Hamlet, comes to mind on reading the death scene of Darya in ‘Waterborne’, one of the stories in Nabina Das’ short fiction collection, The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped. This is how Das describes Darya’s end:

“Darya entered the water. She was wearing a Kerala sari, gold-bordered, ivory-shaded…The border glittered and her sepia face floated like a translucent lotus in the afternoon’s radiance…She…reminded her godmother that she liked being waterborne.”

The lives of both the characters – Darya and Ophelia – end wrapped in beauty, without struggle against death.

In both cases, the non-resistance to death – neither of them can rightly be called suicide – are brought about through loss and grief. Ophelia had lost her father and Hamlet, the man she loved. Darya too had lost both her childhood fiancé Babu Verghese and her American sweetheart, Kenneth. Naïve and affectionate with deep emotions, both Darya and Ophelia see no more motive in living on after facing their respective loss.

Ophelia drowns unaware of her danger. Darya goes to the water she loved – that she was named after – to be borne away.

And this is only natural for the one named Darya – river or sea or ocean – an Urdu word. Darya loves being immersed in water, “loved being swayed and rocked by water, calmed and lulled by its ripples.” This resembles a picture of a mother rocking her baby to sleep; a suggestion of water as a mother figure, a lulling spirit. Just as Sita was taken back to the womb of Mother Earth when Rama was about to banish her a second time, Darya is carried away by the River Ganga on the day her beloved marries another. Adding to the irony of the situation, it’s also the time of a religious event when the wedding of God Shiva and Goddess Parvati is celebrated.

Kenneth, the protagonist’s American lover, seems to be madly in love with her when they study together at the university.

“I followed her around like a marooned sailor in search of water,” he states.

But his love cools after two years of separation. When Darya sends him letters from India, wanting to renew their relationship, he displays indifference “like a Buddha, calm and joyful about simple things.” He also informs her of his soon-to-be-held wedding.

Apart from ‘Waterborne’, water image abounds in this collection as in ‘Women: Two Lives’, ‘The Smell of Rain’, and ‘Water’s Edge’. Water in the form of rain, lake, and river play a crucial part in all these stories.

In ‘Women: Two Lives’, the river plays a double role. It is the route to an escape as well as the location of a horrible episode. Both the incidents happen on a boat on the river.

The story deals with the lives of two teenage girls – Amala, a Hindu and Suraiya, a Muslim –who were best friends during the Partition of Bengal. Their peaceful life is shattered by the communal riots that break out at the cusp of Independence. Earlier, when Mrs. Hamilton, her tutor, visits her home, Amala recites W.B.Yeats’ poem in what feels like a forecast to their departure through water:

            “I will arise and go now, for always night and day,

            I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore…”

The families of Suraiya and Amala try to get away from the city. As they set out of home at dawn, the sky is lit up by flames from the riots, giving it an eerie look. Two boats wait in the river. Amala’s boat sails through safely but Suraiya’s boat is burned. Most shockingly, Suraiya is raped by Alaaram, the obedient servant who used to drive the two girls to their tuition class.

Before the incident on the river takes place, Amala foresees it in a dream:  a ghost ship standing in the mist; Suraiya draped in a black veil, crying and waving at her from the ship. This is a powerful picture with water as the container of Amala’s memory.

Set in contemporary times, ‘The Smell of Rains’ recounts the memory of a nine-year-old girl.  Uma’s mother is killed in a bomb blast while shopping for Diwali festival with her daughter. Uma is spared because she waits outside while her mother steps inside the fateful shop, where the bomb is placed in a bag in a corner.  The young girl witnesses the havoc caused by the blast and records the gruesome sight. While she remains in a state of shock, it begins to rain. Uma, who is very sensitive to smell, remembers the “smell of the rain” thereafter. She hates rain ever since because of its association with the tragedy in her mind. Rain becomes ugly to her, with her mother gone forever.

In all the above instances, water is curiously linked with death mostly, except in ‘Waterborne’, where the image of water is also used in relation to birth and cleansing, both physical and spiritual. Darya is born in a ferry. She is bathed in the river water at birth, and then regularly afterwards. Later we see Darya and her godmother Imarti go to Vanarasi to bathe in the holy Ganga as a means of attaining salvation in afterlife: “Everyone believed salvation lay in those ripples.” This one turns out to be Darya’s last bath.

It is fascinating to note that this book also uses the image of water as a unifying factor. Throughout the collection, people of all groups, races, and religions are united through water. Water does not discriminate, we know. It welcomes and serves all alike. Imarti is an old Muslim woman from northern India. Radhammaa is a devout Hindu from the south. They speak different languages. But both women are fellow-travellers on water. In a sense, they share the same fate. Both are practically deserted by their families – Radhamma by her husband, and Imarti by her sons. There, on the water, the old Muslim woman helps the young Hindu woman in delivering her baby and even christening her Darya.

Those who resist this bonding have only themselves to blame. ‘Water’s Edge’ has a character who foregoes having what could have been truly a pleasant holiday. Madhavi and her family go camping by a picturesque lake in Upstate New York. Her husband and two children enjoy it, but she is cynical about the “American holiday,” and lets her fears rule her mind. Her children like befriending a loner who fishes in the lake but Madhavi suspects him of being a child-abuser. When she happens to stumble upon him on a walk alone, she flees from him in fear. When their little girl Tia wanders off, the same camper finds her and brings her back.  For Madhavi, the water’s edge is still not a soothing spot, the water being cold, the ground just unfrozen, and the air too nippy.

To sum up, in these four stories particularly, we see the image of water as a means of life and death, physical and (according to some beliefs) spiritual cleansing, and of unification of ideas and identities.

The water imagery is, finally, linked with the urge to write itself, as evident in the title story itself: 

A blue lotus and a swan used to swim together in a beautiful lake. Both were the best of friends. One day, a north wind blew and brought along hail and snow and ruined the lake. Storms broke banks and debris poured in. The lotus drifted away and got stuck in scum and the swan got lost on the choppy lake.

Mitra picked up the pen and mused. Whatever might happen in between, she can just jot down the last line.

The lotus and the swan met again under calm skies when the lake had healed.

Mitra would have to write how.”

Malsawmi Jacob has recently published her debut novel ZORAMI: A redemption song, which looks at the insurgency years in Mizoram and the resulting tribulations of its population. She is also a poet and has been published in print and online journals. Her novel is available on Amazon.

Nabina Das is a poet and writer currently based in Hyderabad. The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped is available on Amazon and Flipkart.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on Short Stories, themed around ‘Night’, edited by author, Sumana Roy.

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