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A sin of color : a novel of obsession
Publication Information:
Naperville, IL : Sourcebooks Landmark, 2001, c1999.
Physical Description:
279 p.
General Note:
Originally published in Great Britain under the title: A sin of colour.


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Debendranath Roy, presumed dead, leaves behind a pale, languishing wife and a mystery that takes 20 years to unfold. His hidden passion for his brother's wife, his own wife's unrequited love and his niece's obsession to uncover the truth create the beauty, power and tension of this story.

A Sin of Color tells the story of three generations, and of a house in Calcutta called Mandalay. It is to Mandalay that Debendranath's father brings his young bride after their wedding. And it is to Mandalay that Debendranath's older brother brings his own wife, the woman with whom Debendranath falls in love. Fleeing the house, his family and his ill-fated love for a married woman, Debendranath leaves for England. But he cannot escape his passion-and years later, neither can his niece, Niharika, a beautiful and talented writer.

Author Notes

Sunetra Gupta was born in 1965 in Calcutta and as a child lived in both Ethiopia and Zambia. She graduated from Princeton in 1987 with a degree in biology. She lives in Oxford where she divides her time between her family, researching infectious diseases and writing.

A Sin of Color was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award, a respected award in India; and nominated for the Orange Prize, the award for the best novel written by a woman in the U.K. Gupta's other critically acclaimed novels are Memories of Rain for which she received the Indian Academy of Letters Award, The Glassblower's Breath and Moonlight into Marzipan.

Reviews 2

Kirkus Review

A richly detailed narrative from Indian-born novelist/biologist Gupta (Memories of Rain, 1992, etc.) luminously explores obsessive love. Like an accomplished fabulist, Gupta tells a story that in its deft symmetry and evocation of transcendent emotion resembles more a modern fairy tale than a gritty reprise of adultery. The tale begins as young Bengali Debendranath Roy, trying to distance himself from his family in India, arrives at Oxford as a graduate student. As he settles into his boardinghouse room, he recalls how his older brother, a wealthy businessman like their father, married Reba, a woman Debendranath suspects he never understood. Debendranath then relates how he fell in love with the beautiful Reba, a singer of classic Bengali songs and the daughter of a distinguished intellectual and musical family. Though still obsessively in love with his sister-in-law, Debendranath marries Jennifer, his landlady's niece, and the couple returns to India for a year-long visit. Jennifer becomes close to Reba's daughter Niharika, but the visit only reminds Debendranath how much he still loves Reba, and shortly after he and Jennifer return to England he takes a punt out onto the Cherwell river, and-assumed to have drowned-is not seen again for 20 years. Niharika, scholarly like her uncle, also comes to Oxford and also commits Debendranath's sin of color ("a sin of proper beauty, and not some mean thing") by falling in love with married photographer Daniel Faraday. Niharika returns to the Calcutta home the rest of the family has abandoned and writes a novel about her uncle as a means of understanding his disappearance. She also meets an attractive Indian doctor she considers marrying. But when Debendranath suddenly turns up, and when Niharika meets Daniel back in England, love again surprises in ways that are unexpected but exactly right. One of those rare love stories that resonates with passion and intelligence.

Booklist Review

Gupta, born in Calcutta and living in Oxford, spins a tale of two obsessive loves within the same family. Deben passionately yearns for his older brother's wife and tries to escape his desire by fleeing to England. There he meets and marries an Englishwoman, but mysteriously disappears while punting down the Cherwell River. He is presumed dead, despite the lack of a corpse. His niece eventually travels from India, too, to study in England and visit with his widow. There she meets the great love of her life, a married man who is also the last man to have seen Deben alive, and who leaves her because of his wife and small son. In an attempt to forget him, she goes to study in America. This story of great, disrupting ardor is told in a languid, utterly predictable manner, which doesn't diminish its pleasures, however, for in a rendering of delicately shaded emotions, it is the trip that counts. --Whitney Scott



Chapter One It was not far from the railway station to the boarding house, and he was able to drag his trunk across the road and down the narrow street by halting every few steps to blow upon his frozen fingers and allow himself to be briefly immersed in the perverse fantasy that he might never see her again. It might be, he mused, that his family would fall upon hard times, and he would never be able to afford his passage home, that he would spend the rest of his life slaving as a schoolmaster in some obscure corner of Britain, while she, his brother's wife, would start giving private tuition in music and English to make ends meet, that their grand home in Calcutta would have to be auctioned, and the heavy furniture crammed like a herd of tired elephants into a small flat, where his father might have to share a room with his grandchildren, give up his expensive habits, resign from his clubs, and spend lonely hours on a narrow balcony staring out onto the street while the children did their homework and their mother perspired over a small kerosene stove as she prepared their evening meal.     He remembered, as he often did, the angle of her elbow stirring some bubbling potion in the small kitchen she had set up in an alcove of her private drawing room, which had been occupied before she came by a creaky upright piano, for it was in this room that they had received their music lessons when they were children. But although she was a gifted musician, his brother's wife had never learned the piano. She had had it removed and a hotplate and shelves installed in its place, and these she tended with such care that sometimes when he wandered in while she was not using it and his glance fell upon the rows of gleaming jars and the jaunty blue stove resting upon the slab of dark marble, he would feel that it had, in the stillness of the afternoon, the atmosphere of a shrine. The piano lay gathering dust in the hallway, and sometimes he would play for her upon it the few Western classical pieces he knew--she had a virulent distaste for Indian music played on the piano, and even for the use of the instrument in harmless accompaniment to Bengali songs. As he played, he would sense every fragile movement of her figure among the great shadows, and another small part of him would be obliterated by a yearning to trace very gently with his fingers the outlines of her face, to lift from her cheek, upon a gnarled nail, one of her precious tears.     And here he was now, in distant Oxford, as far away from her as he ever might be, as ignorant of the true nature of her feelings for him as he was on the first day that he came to love her, for no words had ever passed between them nor ever would besides those they had speckled so purposefully with the affectionate banter deemed proper between a man and his elder brother's wife, as painful to him as an army of ragged claws upon his tongue.     A young woman answered the doorbell, colored under his intense gaze, and called for her aunt. He was shown to his rooms, small and badly lit, with a faint but abiding smell of cold, overboiled cabbage, and letting the aching trunk handles slip from his fingers, he closed the door and seated himself upon the bed with his back to the whorled wallpaper, to drink of the chamber's still amber and think of her, his brother's wife, Reba.     Before long there was a knock on the door. It was the same young woman, the landlady's niece, she had come to ask if he would like any refreshment, although it was long past the hour that they served breakfast to their boarders. And so he found himself seated at the dining table before a pile of pale sandwiches, the September sun shining vehemently upon the frilly net curtains, and the landlady and her niece at the other end of the table, sipping tea. He ate slowly, fingering the scalloped edges of the plate and wondering whether Reba would have approved of this piece of china or dismissed it as a cheap imitation, while the landlady spoke of how chilly it was indeed for this time of the year, and her niece agreed with a shy turn of her cheek which felt, quite inexplicably, like an apple gently settling into his palm.     From that moment, Debendranath Roy began to nurture an uncertain inclination to touch the cheek that had turned so softly in hapless assent to his landlady's pronouncement about the weather, and although it never grew fully into a desire to possess and revere the person, the mild flutterings of his flesh on many an evening spent in her company provided a pleasantly ironical contrast to the dense, dark meshes of the desire that he had enshrined in the dead cabbage smell of his own chamber, and to which he would return every evening, so gratefully.     He had a photograph of his brother's family upon his desk, taken shortly after the birth of their daughter, whom they had called Niharika. In the photograph, Reba held her wrapped tightly in a shawl, while her twin sons stood on either side of her, and her husband behind her, gripping the back of her chair. Her face was turned to the infant, so that she appeared only in indistinct profile, and yet this was the one he had chosen of the two that he had been offered. He had chosen this one remarking that he particularly liked it for the impish expressions on his nephews' faces, and he had watched with cruel delight as her fingers had for a moment frozen upon the other photograph, where her face was very much more visible, which was the one she had thought he would be sure to choose.     "Who are they?" the landlady's niece had asked one evening as he helped her with her correspondence course in librarianship, "who are these beautiful children?"     "My nephews," he had replied.     "Is the baby a boy as well?" she had asked.     "It is a little girl," he had told her.     "She will be two years old tomorrow," he had added, for it was the twenty-third of November, and more than two months had passed since he had arrived in Oxford.     His landlady's niece reached out for the photograph. He buried his gaze in a pile of her homework papers while she scrutinized it, trembling with mild anticipation, as if this incident might mark some vivid change in his existence, and when he raised his head again he found that she was dusting it with the corner of her handkerchief.     "Jennifer, please--," he said to her "please do not fiddle with my things."     "I am sorry," she said, "it was very dusty."     "I like a bit of dust," he replied, regretting that he had spoken so harshly to her, when she meant so well. But taking the frame from her hands, he saw that that she had simply rubbed the dust into the corners; the effect was to him somehow obscene. And in that moment, he realized that he would rather that his whole life were left exactly as it was in that moment of terrible beauty when he realized that he loved her as he would never love any other woman, his brother's wife, Reba. For since then, he had taken comfort in any form of desuetude: the heavy breath of old unpolished teak, the freckled edges of the old mirrors, the limechoked cisterns, and the chipped ceramic. Decay had become nectar to Debendranath Roy on the day that he discovered that he loved his brother's wife. Often he would watch the failing light disperse upon the fine sheen of dust that gathered upon her musical instruments by the evening, and he wished that they themselves might be enwreathed forever in such a moist light. In the morning she would clean their gentle flanks herself and practice upon her delicate esraj for many hours, her dark eyes focused upon a point so distant that when he had first watched her perform, as a young college student, it had given meaning to the peculiar notion that infinity was where two parallel lines meet. There was not a day when she did not practice her esraj in the early hours, waking before dawn if her other duties were likely to consume most of the morning. It was only at the time of his mother's death that for weeks she did not touch her musical instruments, felt it inappropriate even to cover them, and he had seen her cast her eyes upon them with a longing that stirred within him a keen envy towards the inanimate objects. And then, in her absence, he had approached them, blown the dust off their smooth and complex surfaces, sheathed them carefully in their cotton jackets, and sat beside their slumbering forms as a man might sit, at her funeral, with the children of a woman he once loved.     "And who is she?" asked Jennifer, of the one other photograph he kept in open view upon his desk.     "My mother," he replied.     "She looks sad," observed Jennifer.     "She was sad," he confirmed, "although I never knew it, not until just before she died."     "And how did you know it then?" she asked.     And he told her of his mother's madness, how it started with small things, faint emulations of her daughter-in-law's habits. How his mother, who had always been grandly indifferent to all household affairs ever since her mother-in-law died and released her from her formal duties as her only son's wife, had started ordering new covers for her drawing room chairs and making trips to the Jewish bakery to buy cakes for their afternoon tea, she who had never taken the slightest interest in their diet when they were children.     At first they tried to ignore the change within her, as flowers appeared in vases in her bedroom, pictures on the walls, and quite unexpectedly, they realized that she, so refined in spirit, had hardly any taste at all when it came to material things. Never before, after all, had she been called upon to display any sophistication in such matters. She had gone through life without the burden of decorating her own home, or even selecting her own wardrobe--most of her clothes were gifts, or had been chosen by her mother-in-law many years ago. And here she was, without warning, seeking to master those precious talents by which Reba had put her stamp upon the set of rooms that had been allotted to her and her husband. Like her, she ordered paintings on silk, and jewelry boxes of Kashmiri craftwork, and he could only watch in horror as the bare dignity of his parents' chambers died a swift death under the motley onslaught of such doubtful treasures. And then came the day when he returned in the evening to find her busily instructing the carpenter to put shelves outside her drawing room where the long corridor turned and came to an end, so that she, too, might have a small kitchen of her own.     "I need jars," she said, "and some pans," she said, looking up at him from where she sat upon the floor fiddling with a small kerosene stove, and it was then that he realized his mother had gone mad.     It was a swift madness and ended soon with her quietly dying in bed beside his father, like a moth that had hit the ceiling fan and fallen upon the pillow, never to move again, she lay, serene once more, pale and cold again was her unanguished brow, and he could only be grateful that her death had been as delicate as much of her life had been, and that the frenzy of the past few months might be forgotten, and never come to dull the fragrance of her memory. Meanwhile, they dressed her in red-bordered white, smeared quantities of vermilion into the parting of her hair, and sent her almost as a bride to her pyre, their beautiful mother, his silent ally of so many years.     And at first he had hated her, his brother's wife Reba, for coming into their lives and distorting it in such an unpredictable manner, for driving his mother towards such an undignified end, to die with the taste of her burnt efforts at mango chutney upon her tongue, she who should have passed by degrees into delicious oblivion, on the firm and faded course that had been selected as her fate from the moment that his father, Indranath Roy, had first set eyes upon her, walking back from school in a small North Bengal town, regal in unbleached homespun, a thick black braid falling across the pale arch of her shoulder. "Who is she?" his father had asked the mill manager, "the young girl with the books, who is she?"     She was the daughter of the local doctor, his father had learned presently. She came from a family of strong ideals, moderate means, and many daughters. She was the most beautiful of them, and it was rumored that she was doing extremely well at school. Her mother had plans to send her to college in Dhaka, and though her father was reluctant that she should leave home unless to become a suitable man's wife, he had never been known to contradict his wife on any matter, so the neighbors said. And it seemed only fair that such a bright young girl should go to college--it was not as if it was unheard of these days--so the neighbors had judged between mouthfuls of betel nut, fanning away flies in that unusually warm November of 1931.     From North Bengal, Indranath Roy had journeyed into the foothills of the Himalayas, to seek out the Japanese cedars, with which they would line their new make of wardrobes--one of these they later had in their bedroom, and whenever she opened it, the room would fill with the fragrance of his shapeless desire to know and possess her as he had seen her walking home with her books, her sari red-bordered with dust, in that unusually warm November of 1931.     At the end of the week, while drinking tea with the mill manager in his hotel room, he had asked if he knew her name.     "You are still thinking of her?" the mill manager had asked in disbelief.     "Some things are meant to be," he had replied.     Four months later, he returned with a dusty entourage piping "It's a long long way to Tipperary," to marry her. The groom and his party were borne on palanquins from the railway station, past the dry paddy fields, the curious eyes of peasant children huddling in patches of winter sun, and a madwoman spitting guava seeds, to the village doctor's humble home, where his bride sat waiting, famished and decorated, her younger sisters busily gobbling sweets and playing hopscotch in the vast marquee, and her elder sister, by her side, staring wistfully at her painted feet. "Your turn will come," she assured her, "your turn will come."     "Mother will miss you so dreadfully," said her sister, "it will be miserable when you are gone."     "I wish they could have waited," she said bitterly, "at least till after my exams." It had been arranged that she would appear as a private candidate for her school leaving exams in Calcutta. She had her admission card tucked away in her trunk. She had almost fainted with relief when it had arrived in the post the week before. She had been assigned a seat at a famous convent school, not very far, her father assured her, from what would be her new home, the grand villa that her future husband had recently purchased from a departing Englishman, and rechristened "Mandalay," for he had made a vast fortune in Burma teak, she was told, much to her distress. Later, as she watched the unslept night pass like broken china between her fingers, her new husband, pacing by the window, would attempt to convince her that she need not be ashamed of his wealth.     "What I have gained from this world is not incommensurate with what I have given it," he told her. "We have always taken good care of our peasants, and now we take good care of our workers, our craftsmen. We are building a new school for the peasants' children. If you like, you can go and visit it when we are in the country, we could even start a girls' school, and name it," he said tenderly, "after you."     She sat with lowered eyes, his words drifting like clots of milk through the murk of her mind. "Would you like that?" he persisted, "to have a school named after you--The Srimati Neerupama Roy Girls' Primary School--would that please you?" he asked.     The sudden shock of her new name caused her to tremble under her heavy garments, but she nodded her jeweled head twice to indicate that yes, indeed, it would please her to have a girls' school named after her.     He laughed a low triumphant laugh. "I will make you very happy," he told her.     And though she never gave him this pleasure--not once in the thirty-five years that they lived as man and wife did he ever feel he had ever made her happy--he never ceased to be grateful to her for appearing to him on that distant day in the winter of 1931, her schoolbooks clutched against her bosom, her lovely eyes dipped against the low rays of afternoon sun, an image that he would feast upon until the day of his death many years after she had left this world, and longer still since she had withdrawn from it into unfathomable depths of her own. Between him and her private kingdom was a wall of terrifying silence, and yet more ravishing than ever was she, he sometimes thought, in her splendid seclusion, in her voluptuous indifference to her role as mistress of his splendid home, as the mother of his five children, as his beloved wife.     Sometimes, it frightened him a little that although she loved her children, nowhere in her affections was a hint of the manic tenderness that he had always associated with motherhood. She read them endless fairytales, guided their homework, watched over them when they were ill, but her concern for them never seemed to stray beyond the rational. She would calmly swab the pus from a ghastly wound and dress it as her father had taught her many years before, and when the child winced she would lay a firm hand upon its head and kiss its brow, but not once did he see tears in her own eyes for the small sufferings of the flesh of her own flesh. It was as if she had decided to accept motherhood without any of its agony, and somehow succeeded.     Within a year of their marriage they had been blessed with a son, cast very much in his father's image, only lighter, like his mother, in complexion, and softer somewhat of jaw. With him, at least, she had been dutifully engrossed, especially as there had been no other children for a good five years, after which were born, in quick succession, three daughters and another son. For this last birth, she could not return to her parents' home as she had done for the rest of them, for they were deep into the War by then, and the railroads were no longer safe. Indranath Roy had dispatched her with the children, for fear that Calcutta might be bombed, to their country estate in the east, a land of rivers and perpetual floods, and it was there that, on a night of heavy rain, that Debendranath Roy made his way bravely into the world, while she fell immediately into a terrible fever, her blood corrupted by his strenuous birth. Eventually she recovered, but was faded and frail for many months, even after they returned to Calcutta. So angelic was she in her illness that Indranath Roy felt it would be obscene to lay his hands upon her, except perhaps simply to soothe her brow, and gradually it became more and more remote a possibility that he should inflict upon her his cruel male needs, pierce through the layers of mute suffering with his acid lust, until soon it seemed almost inconceivable that his devotion to her might ever have been ennobled by desire.     Still, some part of him suspected perhaps that he had stifled something within her, and in 1951, he made a last vain attempt to rekindle her spirits by taking her on a trip to Europe. It was a promise he had made to her in the first tender year of their marriage, a promise that he was still eager to keep. And even she, for the first time in many years, seemed somewhat enthused by the prospect of traveling to the lands that she had dreamed of so often as a child, that had come alive to her in the books that she had devoured then, come alive with the insistence of a lost past, locking her into histories that were not hers, that ran alive still like a quick river beneath mute rocks and, dipping her hand down through them after all these years, she was startled at their force. She packed her warm shawls and long-sleeved blouses into a trunk and asked her sister-in-law to accompany her to Lindsay Street in search of an appropriate overcoat.     But the long journey by ship took the steam out of her emotions. The endless expanse of ocean stretched her thoughts again to a gossamer web, where all that had once mattered clung like fine dust, and by the time they arrived in London, she was already weary and longing to be back within the cool walls of their home in Calcutta, where since the death of her mother-in-law just after the war, she had lived in solid, imperturbable calmness, a sort of blissful lassitude that she had never imagined she would come to accept as a way to exist.     Before her marriage, she had seen her life to be sweated out in the blood and thunder of crisis; she had felt she must devote herself to delivering her people from the yoke of poverty, from colonial oppression, the injustices of feudalism. She had seen herself as a village schoolteacher, in the evenings teaching women to read and write by the light of several kerosene lamps, insects buzzing thickly around. She had seen herself waking before dawn to walk to the railway station and catch the train to town to be in time for a political rally. She had thought she might fall in love with some dedicated revolutionary, who might appear suddenly at her home in between two critical missions, and she would feed him whatever she had in the house, sit by his side and fan him while he ate what could be his last meal, and then he would briefly and tenderly touch her cheek and vanish into the night. That is how she had thought it might be. And instead she had become the wife of a timber merchant, mother to five well-fed children, and so little besides. And yet it was not as if there were no avenues open to her as a rich man's wife to better the lot of the unfortunate millions, indeed that had been one of the arguments her father had used in getting her to agree to the marriage.     "Think of how much you will be able to do for others with your wealth," he had said, "think of what you might achieve, my sweet, just think of it." Certainly, her husband had been closely involved with whom he considered the more respectable of Nationalists, had donated extensively to their movement. But he had made no attempt to include her in any of it, and it had not been obvious to her where exactly she might have found a niche. That was all history now, with the War over and Independence gained, although at the cost of Partition, which had forced her father to pack his belongings and move his large family to Calcutta, where they lived now upon the southern fringes of the city, struggling to make ends meet, too proud to accept any offers of money from her or her husband, except the occasional college fee, a lavish birthday gift, or the loan of a car to take someone to the hospital, but nothing more.     It intrigued Indranath Roy, however, that she did not spend more time in charity work, like other ladies in her position, now that her children were grown. How was it, he thought, that she of all people, who had shown such interest in the early years of their marriage in the fate of their people, how was it that she, brimming with passion as she had been then for their suffering, how could it be that she was now so indifferent to the workings of the world without, that it should come to matter so little to her what passed beyond the high walls of their garden, that she should be content to sit and sew under the shade of the fig trees all afternoon, her children frolicking about her or fallen asleep on the grass, a heavenly tableau? Watching them from his office window he would often feel that he was looking through a telescope, that these were glimpses of an ethereal reality of which he was master, over which he exercised an intangible authority, but could only savor from a distance. (Continues...) Excerpted from A SIN OF COLOR by SUNETRA GUPTA. Copyright © 2001 by Sunetra Gupta. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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