“It rained the night they brought me to Bougainvillea House.” The woman in the book declared. That did set the mood of the story but I was not prepared for the surrealistic, unforgiving world I’d soon slip in. “Rain dripped. Limp, gray strands combed out straight from the algid scalp of house….hanging at the window, whispering scandal, a neighbour who would not go away. Beyond the mesh of water, darkness tucked the world out of sight.” Before long, I get swept into the swirling flood of wrath, deceit, dejection, past and present like a stray leave. It is an oppressive world that engulfs me: the mother, the daughter, the servant, earth, water, trees, rocks and the sky, all are living alike and pregnant with pain. “Rocks toppled, uprooting great chunks of earth, gouging out wounds. Bleeding runnels of water swelled into a flood and then sulked in a stagnant pool in which trees floated, their roots blaming the sky.”
Clarice Aranxa, an aristocratic woman of Portuguese descent, is a puritan with deep abhorrence of bodily passions and hot-blooded Indian prurience. She has led a life of purity with rare concessions to her husband who had betrayed her 37 years ago. She is living with her daughter Marion and her devoted old attendant, Pauline. Clarice has recently been diagnosed with a fatal motor neuron disease, ALS. Rapidly losing control over her muscles, she needs assistance in feeding, dressing and moving around. Her health oscillates between bad and worse but it is clear she is going to die soon. Even though frail and incapacitated, she retains a perturbing sang-froid in the face of death. Her plans for meeting with the Maker are meticulous, right from crème, powder, lipstick to the lingerie: “I’ve laid out my wardrobe for my positively last appearance above ground: Black raw silk suit, the one Lydia tailored for Christmas …. Ivory crepe blouse, with lace cuffs… Estee Lauder it’s always been for me, same as Elizabeth Taylor, and I’m not changing brands now…. My underwear must be white, of cotton. No slinky whorish stuff in the presence of our Lord. I don’t mind a little borderie anglaise let into the cups, it’s not disrespectful, but nothing beyond that. Not like Angie D’Monte, remember? They buried her in her nightie and you could see right through –the dark bits of her tits and everything.”
Marion, her daughter decides to move her to their old bungalow near a Goan beach, to make her last days peaceful. Her neurologist Dr Khan entrusts her to a cheerful young doctor to make matters smooth at Goa. Serene as it may sound, Bougainvillea House resurrects old ghosts from Clarice’s live. It seems a deep old wound is still raw in her bosom and to make matters worse, the wrongs inflicted upon her seem to have borne repugnant flowers that persistently mock at her now. In a surprising turn, the frail, incapacitated woman decides to put matters at peace in a chilling manner as the doctor responsible for her upkeep kills himself by jumping in a well; the same that had swallowed Clive, circa 1962. Slowly but surely, the realisation begins to creep on us that we could be rubbing shoulders with a remorseless psychopath rather than a crumbling old woman hurtling fast to her death.
Eventually, the intense psychological landscape gives way to a riveting murder mystery where Liaqat Khan, the neurologist, decides to play Sherlock Holmes. As death starts paying repeated visits, the hastily assembled team of a doctor, a nurse, a crook-cum-aide and a high-ranking police officer set to unravel the riddle. To his credit, Liaqat is smart enough to read her for what she is and eventually cracks the mystery too, but he fails to check a resolute Clarice from executing her last mission.
The book is clearly perceived in two halves the first of which is an intense psychological tornado driven by decades of angst, pain, memories, delusions, truths and half-truths. The character of Clarice assumes such strengths that it permeates the walls and roofs of Bougainvillea House. Her angst spills out of her thoughts and rides the very air of the bungalow, the beach, the doomed clearing amidst the grove and the dilapidated well to which we’d return again and again as if possessed. The many-layered, many-hued persona of Clarice Aranxa is one of the most memorable characters I have come across in recent works of fiction. Like a complex ball of tangled wool, she is mysterious, pathetic, terrifying, dignified and disgusting, all at the same time. “So many truths, to so many people, which one shall I choose for you?”
And it is probably the most haunting rendering I have ever come across on the human journey into that final night. Bougainvillea House can claim a place among the classics on the sheer strength of its exploration of a tormented mindscape.
Kalpana Swaminathan has an astounding repertoire of words and her control over the language is absolute. It is evident in the range of situations she weaves with precision and impact, time and again. Be it painting complex landscapes of human mind or writing clinical case histories, her brush is quick to deliver. In this case, she leaves the reader in no doubt of the morbid gloom clouding Calrice’s heart and she has effectively cast the pall as well as the magic across those pages. Her imageries are potent as they ascribe human emotions to the elements of nature which in turn amplify the human predicament. Her humour is both dry and black and forceful on each occasion. She is a realist who is acutely aware of life and many a nemesis that challenge it, including death. She naturally holds the reader in a trance and like a magician swings him with the swishes of her wand.
My verdict: It is a delicious double sundae consisting of a riveting crime thriller and an amazing psychological landscape. It is definitely one of the best works I have ever read in either case.
Author: Kalpana Swaminathan
Publisher: Penguin Books India