House of endless stories

The Top of the Raintree
by Kamalini Sengupta
IndiaInk/Roli Books
Pages 291. Rs 295

The Top of the RaintreeCome into my parlour said the spider to the fly’’ and in a similar vein, the house that holds Kamalini Sengupta’s treasure-trove of stories, The Top of the Raintree, effectively draws the reader in through the front door, backdoor, the garden and even the roof. Stylishly named the Rajmahal, this "creamy white" gorgeous turn-of-the-century Calcutta house on Chowringhee, also has an abundance of voluble and vociferous ghosts enjoying an unlimited, unpaid-for stay in its four floors, to help in the story telling by adding their own masala and mischief.

Even as we learn about the Rajmahal itself being resurrected from its first crumbling, and rebuilt with its Guru Granth Sahib room, and a conservatory filled with exotic plants, black and white marble flooring for the lobby, servants quarters right on top of the roof, naked marble women gracing ancient water basins, we meet one of its first inmates – Inderjeet Kaur, wife of the Rajmahal’s owner Sardar Bahadur Ohri.

As she traipses down the staircase one night to the lower floors to check out on her husband’s mysterious, nightly disappearance from the bedroom she scolds the lone pigeon who coos, telling it to ‘’Bladdy chup rah!’’ melding Punjabi with the English words she had learnt from her sons!

Spying on her husband reveals what no woman wants to find out about her better half! Years later his death is followed by other deaths in the Rajmahal. It has six families sharing space with the new Muslim landlords, the Malliks. Portraits of their lives, loves, hates and adventures are filtered through the mesh of British India and its aftermath.

Jack Strachey and his wife Myrna live in Number 4. Myrna has led a recklessly uninhibited life of sexual orgies with other men, but when ageing and memory loss attack her, Jack cares for her tenderly. You meet Proshanto Mojumdar whom the dismal indignities of ageing accost by making him run after quacks and expensive remedies made of crushed tiger bone, ginseng, and other dubious ingredients.

But the book’s most powerful gift is its unflinching exploration of all the corners and crevices of old age where there is no escape route—only acceptance, dread, debris, and often great courage and power. The writer seems to scan every scalding route of this most devastating, compulsory and lonely journey. But here too we are beguiled with great story telling – dark, sharp humour, tender details about her characters. Memorable are the surreal deaths of Petrov with vultures as company in the final journey, and that of Jack and Myrna under their alluring mosquito net.

Jack had decided to help death along when he remembered the way the Wentworths had died in their broken down house after endless litigation. They had become so poor and helpless that when the servants deserted them they lived on cups of tea and samosas bought from a roadside tea shop. They had died in the outhouse, decrepit, filthy and mad.

Dream imagery in the fiction is inventive. There is one using the raintree, which arouses Surjeet when she is in a troubled state of mind. Surjeet Shona, the youngest tenant, is a hybrid—compassionate and filled with concern about her neighbors in differing stages of dismantling. When a murder, malice and mischief overtake the house which crumbles in the end, we are left with hope, love resurrected from the ruins and pigeon droppings, and a mine of engagingly embroidered stories that leave us replete and delighted.