In this column, Saikat Majumdar discusses books from India that haven’t received due attention.
In the history of the Indian-English novel, the 1990s make up a strange and momentous decade. The Salman Rushdie phenomenon in the 1980s — beginning with Midnight’s Children in 1981 and continuing with the fatwa over Satanic Verses in 1988 — brought a spectacular kind of international attention to the genre, which gave it a great shot of health and also surreptitiously took certain things away. The economic liberalization of 1991 marked the official end of the socialist India imagined by Jawaharlal Nehru. But Midnight’s Children set a trend of national allegories, most of them by male novelists, which fictionalized various iterations of secular, Nehruvian India through moments of its history and prehistory. 1997, the 50th year of India’s independence, saw the publication of The God of Small Things, which, along with its author, Arundhati Roy, in many ways, looked forward to the paradoxes of 21st-century India. And the early 2000s, which belonged to the aspirations of software engineers in Bangalore and San Jose, found their breezy chronicler in the wildly popular novels of Chetan Bhagat, before imploding in the dark underbelly of Progress in Arvind Adiga’s crime-propelled Booker winner, The White Tiger. It was perhaps inevitable that the 1990s would combine the rushed climax of the 20th century with the paradoxical, self-destructive stirrings of the 21st.
Several things have drawn me to Sunetra Gupta, and to A Sin of Color: A Novel of Obsession in particular, published in the last year of the old millennium. Here, it is impossible to tell when the unique rhythm of the vernacular Indian language melts into the subtle lyricism of high European culture, or when the checkered landscape of rural Bengal intersects with the waterscape of punting in Oxford. You never quite know if the welding happens in real-time experience or in memory. Memory is embedded in the syntax of the sentences as much as in the sensibilities of the characters — a feature of the pervasive modernist aesthetic that shapes all of Gupta’s fiction. A resolute ode to the fiercely private and the idiosyncratic, A Sin of Colour is a sharp deviation from the tradition of national allegory that held Indian-English fiction in thrall throughout much of the ’80s and ’90s. And that fact has robbed this remarkable novel of deserved attention, then as now. But Gupta, recently in the news in a COVID-afflicted world for her distinguished research of infectious diseases at Oxford, represents an important strand of Indian-English writing that is almost lost today, with the exception of the various entanglements of the quotidian, the regional, and the private in the work of novelists as varied as Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, and Amit Chaudhuri.
“A young, true heir to Virginia Woolf” was what Kirkus called Gupta on the publication of A Sin of Colour, and beyond her languorous syntax, Gupta’s conception of time is intricately and wanderingly Woolfian. Debendranath Roy, nursing a hopeless, yearning love for his brother’s wife, Reba, leaves Calcutta to go to Oxford as a student, where he marries Jennifer, the plain but loving daughter of his landlady. He treasures Jennifer for who she is but is unable to fall in love with her, and one day he disappears, presumed drowned in the river Cherwell in Oxford, at a point in his life when he’s slowly going blind. The whimsical structure of the novel offers us, in an unpredictable order, the story of Reba’s daughter Niharika, who comes to Oxford as a student many years later, and strings a life of distinguished research and writing with passions of her own, alternately difficult and rewarding, in Oxford, New York, and, finally, Calcutta. The endless fracturing of narrative memory in this novel is an agent of mystery and intrigue. Is Debendranath dead? Perhaps or perhaps not, but we need to wait.
Gupta’s world is one of high culture, of a kind of lyricism that belonged to the pre-globalization era, when class positions were a clearer legacy of British India, much like the house called Mandalay in Calcutta that holds so much of the novel’s memories, a house built by a British merchant. We have become so used to fiction that conforms, directly or implicitly, to our contemporary values that an older world, suddenly made about a century old by a couple of accelerated decades, seems unrecognizable and, suddenly, unconnectable. But in the longue durée, Gupta’s novel embodies an important strand of what only feels irrevocably lost to Indian English fiction.
Saikat Majumdar is the author of three novels: The Scent of God (2019), The Firebird (2015), published in the US as Play House (2017), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism, Prose of the World (2013), a general nonfiction book on higher education, College: Pathways of Possibility (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019). His new novel, The Middle Finger, will be published in fall 2021.