Sunetra Gupta Biography
Nationality: Indian. Born: Calcutta, India, 1965. Education: Princeton University, A.B. 1987; London University, Ph.D. 1992. Career: Research assistant, Department of Biology, Imperial College, London, 1988-89, principal investigator for grant, 1989-92; Wellcome Training Fellow in mathematical biology, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, England, 1992-95; junior research fellow, Merton College, Oxford, England, 1993-96; researcher, Wellcome Trust Centre for the Epidemiology of Infectious Disease, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, England, 1995-99, reader in epidemiology of infectious disease, 1999—. Agent: David Higham Associates, Ltd., 5-8 Lower John Street, London W1R 4HA, England.
Memories of Rain. New York, Weidenfeld, 1992.
The Glassblower's Breath. New York, Grove Press, 1993.
Moonlight into Marzipan. London, Phoenix House, 1995.
A Sin of Colour. London, Phoenix House, 1999.
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Sunetra Gupta belongs to that Rushdie and post-Rushdie generation of "Indian English" writers whose members are essentially cosmopolitan in their cultural and linguistic affinities—though they are often read and marketed as predominantly "Indian" writers in the West. Gupta, born in 1965, spent her childhood in Bengal and Africa, studied biology at Princeton University, and obtained her Ph.D. from London's Imperial College. She now lives in Oxford with her husband and daughter and divides her time between writing and researching infectious diseases. Sunetra Gupta is the author of four novels: Memories of Rain, The Glassblower's Breath, Moonlight into Marzipan, and A Sin of Colour. She has been described as "a prodigious talent" by the Independent on Sunday and her work has been pronounced "brilliant" by The Times.
Being a resident in the famous university town, it is not surprising that Oxford provides some of the backdrop for Sunetra Gupta's fourth and latest novel, A Sin of Colour. This is a book, written in consciously literary English, that sets out to tell the story of three generations with their roots in a house called Mandalay in Calcutta. Bought from a British officer by a wealthy Bengali family, it is to Mandalay that Indranath Roy brings his clever and innocent bride. It is to Mandalay that Indranath's eldest son brings his own brilliant wife, the beautiful, collected and successful woman with whom the younger brother, Debendranath Roy, falls in love. Fleeing the house, his family and his apparently futile love, Debendranath moves to Oxford and marries an English woman, whom he largely neglects. Debendranath is later presumed drowned. It is left to his niece, Niharika, another of those brilliant, successful women who stock Gupta's narratives and share many similarities with the author, to provide the finishing touches. It turns out that Debendranath had fled back to India where he had lived incognito. His growing blindness drives him back to the family and to his writer-niece Niharika, who is almost the only family member living in Mandalay, now in ruins and abandoned by the next generation.
The thinness of the plot evident from the above summary of A Sin of Colour is also noticeable in Gupta's first novel, Memories of Rain—but in both these novels this thinness is brilliantly obscured by Gupta's virtuosity with literary language. Again, in both the novels, Gupta's extremely literary—even canonical—sensibility is revealed in the centrality and profusion of the references to Euripedes's Medea. In Memories of Rain, the entire plot is concentrated within the span of a single day. On that day, Moni, an Indian woman who had come to England after having married the English Anthony, decides to leave her unfaithful husband and returns to India with her daughter. The relationship between Moni and Anthony presents the usual paraphernalia of cross-cultural differences and racism, with the onus of "primitivity" reversed and applied implicitly to "cold" England rather than the Bengal of Rabindra Sangeet.
In between these two novels with relatively simple narrative and thematic structures, Gupta wrote two other novels that were somewhat more experimental. The Glassblower's Breath is the story of a brilliant young Indian woman and her relationships with a variety of people, such as the tragic Jon Sparrow ("poet and mathematician, child prodigy"), and places ("the inadequacy of your relationship with the city"). Against the backdrop of Calcutta, New York, and London, replete with echoes of the modernist big city experience, the second-person protagonist—always referred to as "you"—tries to satisfy the demands of individuality, family, and society. She fails, but in the process provides a narrative of a brilliant young woman's capacity for experience and the desire of men and society to control and define her. From the stylistic perspective, The Glassblower's Breath is interesting because it is one of those rare novels with a second-person protagonist—an experiment that necessarily induces Gupta to employ the stream-of-consciousness technique, or something very similar to it.
Moonlight into Marzipan is also interesting from a stylistic perspective, as it mixes up first person narration ("I") with second person address ("you"). Moreover, it does not follow a chronological order of events, leaving the reader to assemble the parts of an open-ended story. In effect, Moonlight into Marzipan is not one text: it consists of various overlapping and at times incomplete texts. As in the other novels, we have an assemblage of brilliant characters, with the world of science leading to the experience of creative writing.
At its simplest, Moonlight into Marzipan is about two promising scientists, Promothesh and Esha, who marry each other and set up house in Calcutta. Marriage turns Esha into the typical housewife and obstructs her career. However, by accident, she enables Promothesh to achieve international renown for a major scientific discovery, a discovery that is clearly meant by the narrator to carry redemptive significance for the so-called Third World. Newly achieved celebrity enables the couple to move to London. However, this move leads to Promothesh's infidelity and Esha's ultimate suicide.
The above story line is tied up with Promothesh writing his autobiography, which provides us with the axis around which the novel turns. The novel is in many ways the autobiography. Later it is revealed that the autobiography was to be written for Promothesh by the expatriate Russian writer, Alexandra Vorobyova. As the Italian critic Sandra Ponzanesi has noted, "when Alexandra Vorobyova goes away and abandons the text, Promothesh is left with pieces of his life scribbled in notes; the result of his long conversations and confessions with the dismissive narrator."
As is obvious from the summaries given above, Sunetra Gupta's novels share many stylistic, narrative and thematic characteristics: a dexterity with literary language, a profusion of canonical references (ranging from Euripedes to Tagore), a tendency towards versions of the stream-of-consciousness technique, a concentration on brilliant protagonists straddling the worlds of science and literature, and thin plots resolved by or revolving around momentous events (deaths, disappearances, drowning, suicides).
What is perhaps less evident is the position that Gupta occupies between the two dominant trends in contemporary Indian English fiction—that of magic realism (Salman Rushdie and Vikram Chandra) and that of "domestic realism" (Vikram Seth and Anita Desai). At first glance, Gupta seems to belong to the first group, as she usually writes about individuals defined by their family relationships in an ostensibly realistic manner. But much of Gupta's oeuvre is also sustained by the evocative, non-metaphorical language of magic realism in extracts like this one: "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" (A Sin of Colour). Gupta is not the only Indian English writer to use the language of magic realism in a narrative that is not really magic realist: Arundhati Roy has done it at a more complex level in The God of Small Things.
Given Gupta's concentration on female protagonists, her limited textual experiments, and her language, it is predictable that critics in the West would compare her to Virginia Woolf. Kirkus Reviews, for example, has called Gupta "a young, true heir to Virginia Woolf."This comparison is both justified and exaggerated. Above all, it is a comparison that reveals more about Gupta than it seems to.
Like Woolf, Gupta is a literary stylist. But unlike Woolf, her stylistic experiments are not at the cutting edge of the contemporary literary scene. Again like Woolf, Gupta is a highly literary writer—after all, Gupta's social background is no less privileged, brilliant, and "arty" than Woolf's Bloomsbury circle. But, unlike Woolf, Gupta seldom—if ever—critiques and subverts the literary canon in a significant manner. It is in this context that one should be wary of providing a typically post-colonial ("subversive mimicry," "subaltern agency," etc.) reading of Gupta's—and, for that matter, many other so-called post-colonial writers'—texts. The situation is much more complex: there are both elements of cultural subversion and linguistic hegemony in Gupta's and other Indian English writers' texts.
Finally, like Woolf, Gupta provides a gendered reading of society while not making a militant political statement. However, while Woolf might have had a poor opinion of female suffragettes, her writings adopted feminist perspectives that were often far ahead of contemporary opinion even in literary circles. Something similar cannot be said of Gupta. In fact, women writing in other Indian languages (such as Ismat Chughtai and Mahasweta Devi) as well as some Indian English writers (Githa Hariharan and Shashi Deshpande) have taken the gendering of novelistic discourse to far more radical levels than anything that may be encountered in Gupta's novels. Gupta's novels remain interesting, though more for what they promise than what they actually achieve.