- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2011

By Sunetra Gupta
Interlink/Clockroot Publishing, $18, 372 pages

Sunetra Gupta’s fifth novel, “So Good in Black,” opens with travel writer Max Gate returning to Bengal, where he used to live. His old friend Byron Mallick, a charismatic businessman, is accused of supplying milk adulterated with chalk to an orphanage. “A little chalk in milk will not kill anyone,” he says to Max. “Better surely for them to drink something resembling milk than no milk at all.”

Max’s heart sinks at this acknowledgment of guilt. Now the question is whether Mallick also was involved in the death of Damini, the founder of the orphanage, who was killed while cycling down a nearby hillside. Mallick calls it “an unfortunate coincidence” that her death occurred so soon after the discovery of the adulterated milk, but Max’s old friend Piers O’Reilly believes that Mallick arranged it so she could not tell the world that his factory produced it. He confesses that he was trying to prevent her from exposing him, but only by “pleading with her to let an old man hang on to his reputation.”

This opening suggests that “So Good in Black” will be about whether or not Mallick was complicit in Damini’s death - in effect it will be a sort of detective story - and the discovery of wrongdoing is indeed a vital strand in the complex web of the novel. More important, Max’s return to Bengal prompts reflections on his earlier life there, when he was married to Barbara and trying to become a novelist.

Damini - a crusading journalist, fearless in her commitment to truth-telling - had been a friend and a voice of conscience. Mallick was also a friend. The brilliant son of a relatively poor family, he seemed set to become a professor of history, like his childhood comrade Nikhilesh. Instead, Mallick went into business - multiple businesses - and became fabulously wealthy.

Tended by his valet Vargas, he has lived elegantly, spending his time with his collection of books on the history of Bengal and Kolkata, gathering people to bask in his charm and hospitality, and largely raising Nikhilesh’s daughter Ela while her parents were working in Africa. Ela was a magical child, who grew up to be a beautiful and extraordinary dancer. When Max fell in love with her, he doomed his marriage to Barbara and returned to the West, where he abandoned his dream of becoming a novelist.

This history is clarified only gradually as Max reflects on his old life in Bengal and what has happened to everyone who has been important to him. The passage of time is an important preoccupation of the novel. It suggests that while some things change, much remains the same. People and events don’t, however, necessarily become clearer: They are opaque, ambiguous and almost always beyond an observer’s reach.

Sunetra Gupta writes of ambiguities brilliantly. Her language swoops from evocative reconstruction of memories and landscapes to sharply focused depictions of social encounters. She is as much at ease describing the seashore and gardens of Bengal or the streets of Kolkata as she is describing Christmas in a country house in Ireland. She also layers events so they reflect on one another.

If Byron Mallick betrayed Damini, then so too did Max, when he used her in his books. What is more significant, she raises the history of Warren Hastings, governor-general of India from 1773 to 1785, a figure who fascinates Mallick and whose history suggests parallels to his own. Hastings was a fine administrator and, like Mallick, fabulously wealthy, a friend to learning and a patron of the arts.

Nonetheless, he was impeached for suspected corruption and misdemeanors, and though he eventually was acquitted, his vast wealth was exhausted by the costs of his defense. But was Hastings actually guilty? If so, how did his guilt relate to his undoubted skills and talents? And how does his life illuminate Mallick’s?

Questions hover around both of them, and it is those questions that hold attention because the author is not well-equipped for - or perhaps less interested in - investigating personality. Some characters, including Piers O’Reilly and Vargas, who enter her tale only intermittently capture attention as exotics. But interest fades in Ela, Damini and Barbara, who don’t develop as the novel progresses; they are all “lovely wonderful women” rather than real people. Nikhilesh, too, is a cipher, as is Ela’s husband. Ultimately, too, the initial interest elicited in Mallick also fades, disappearing into the chiffon swirls of ambiguity that veil him.

Max’s nostalgia fuels this novel. He looks back to his past, when he was more hopeful, more innocent, more capable of infatuation, admiration and love. Doors opened for him. At the end of the novel, doors are closing, the mood is sad as Sunetra Gupta’s meditation on loss and evil draws to a close. Long after the last page has been conned and the book set aside, readers will continue to reflect on this meditative and often fascinating work.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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