Bougainvillea House

Published in Books & Authors (Daily Dawn) on November 20, 2005

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By Kalpana Swaminathan Penguin India.
For more information log onto
ISBN 0670058297
346pp. Indian Rs395

“Clarice’s eyes, terrified, dilated, singed Sister Abby’s cheek with their heat as she bent over her. The soft tube slid smoothly down Clarice’s parched and slackly stirring throat. Its free end swung ignominiously out of one nostril. Sister Abby taped it down securely.”

“Original” and “graphic” are two words that instantly come to one’s mind when asked about this novel – Kalpana Swaminathan’s second book. The explicit nature of this book may be attributed to the fact that the author is also a surgeon. However, some readers may find the book a little morbid because of certain medical details.

The book starts and continues on a depressive note, though one’s interest does not falter because of this. If anything, Swaminathan’s descriptions of all things intangible are comparable to those of English classics: “My cheek went cold. My hands were steel claws digging in the sofa. My toes were ice chips. My tongue a thick paperweight of glass, words snowing within it with each noiseless shake.” Her comparisons are also quite innovative: “Memory is striped grey and black. It stalks, patient as a cat, lean and randy. It thrusts into me, fur, claw and needly white teeth, licking the back of my eyes with its rose-petal tongue. Memory is a cat, a thieving homeless beast that leaves behind fleas as it leaps from brain to brain. A wild, harsh, solitary thing.”

The story is based in Mumbai and Goa, the latter being where the Bougainvillea House is situated — the main characters (the Portuguese Aranxas) return to it after an absence of more than three decades. Clarice Aranxa has been diagnosed with a motor neuron disease in which the muscles weaken due to the destruction of nerve cells. However, her illness is aggravated after she shifts from Mumbai. Old, painful memories come rushing back once she moves into the house. Then there are several, much unexpected deaths and Clarice starts to suffer from catatonic phases.

On the other hand, her doctor, Liaquat Ali Khan, finds himself getting a bit too involved with his patient’s sickness. He is unable to fathom her character and behaviour which is not in any way a symptom of the disease she is suffering from. Though her nervous system is obviously affected, neuropsychology reveals that her unresponsive and insane reactions are not caused by her disease. Soon, the doctor’s wife begins to notice her husband’s visible unease and restlessness and complains about those “chudails” (witches).

However, the doctor’s curiosity gets the better of him and he is determined to find out what is wrong with Clarice. The novel is a psychological drama throughout and has a certain amount of suspense. It is largely through Clarice Aranxa’s mind that one unravels the plot. She is completely aware of the fact that she has very little time on her hands. Her thoughts are disturbed and chaotic because of a haunting past and the progression of her illness does nothing to put her mind at ease. In fact it is the exact opposite.

There are also several portions written by Dr Liaquat, Clarice’s daughter Marion, her maid Pauline, Sister Abby, etc., all of whom are important characters in the book who have distinct voices. Nowhere are any of the characters left floating in the air. They are more or less indispensable to the story.

However, several Indian reviewers are of the opinion that Swaminathan’s first novel Ambrosia for Afters was a much more remarkable piece of writing. In this book, some factors do not gel well as the mystery unfolds with the result that parts of the story sound incoherent and somewhat unconvincing. The doctor’s details about the patient in between chapters seem a bit irrelevant since one is already aware of the facts and so these can be easily skipped. They might have been added to create more interest but unfortunately they do not fulfill the purpose.

Conclusively, there is no real moral of the story because it just talks about psychology. According to some critics, Swaminathan is lyrical. Nonetheless, she maintains the sombre mood of the book and does not falter for the better part of the story. The plot manages to stay alive despite the frequent mention of death, murder, illness and suicide. — Ayesha Hoda


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