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World Prose Portfolio #6: Sunetra Gupta

Sunetra Gupta is an acclaimed novelist, essayist and scientist. Her fifth novel, So Good in Black was published in February 2009. She has just been named as the winner of the 2009 Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award for her scientific achievements. Sunetra, who lives in Oxford with her husband and two daughters, is Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, having graduated in 1987 from Princeton University and received her PhD from the University of London in 1992. Sunetra was born in Calcutta in 1965 and wrote her first works of fiction in Bengali. She is an accomplished translator of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.

Sunetra’s childhood and her family’s peripatetic lifestyle have had a great impact on her work. Her early years were spent moving between Ethiopia, Zambia and England. When she was 11 the family returned to Calcutta, a city which continues to inspire her writing.

“My father, Dhruba Gupta (1934-2004), was an extremely important figure in my life. He had a profound influence on every aspect of my thinking. He was an extraordinary person and had indefatigable energy for creativity and what he called “creative criticism.” He lectured in African history at Calcutta University but he also spent time writing and lecturing on cinema. He wrote novels, short stories and essays on a wide number of topics. He managed to expose me to all types of art and he educated me in criticism – how to receive art. He inculcated within me the spirit of being able to move between the areas of art and science with ease. He didn’t find it at all interesting that I was a scientist, but he made it seem natural and easy for me to be a scientist and also to write fiction.

I can still see him sitting cross-legged on his bed with a little table over his knees, typing, with my rabbit Andropov stretched out beside him. I remember many evenings just sitting at the dining table, our plates cleared away, talking until midnight. He had an extraordinary sense of humour – I can still hear his generous laughter echoing through the rooms of our flat in Calcutta.

My mother, Minati, always supported our peculiar habits and if she hadn’t looked after us as wonderfully as she did, I am certain we would have been destitute. My father loved to travel which is why, during my childhood, he insisted on taking teaching jobs in Ethiopia, Zambia and Britain which brought much excitement into our lives, but not much security. My father was a very principled man and would easily resign a position without any regard as to how it might imperil him financially. My mother was never very good at making him change his mind, but always saw to it that there was some other practical solution, usually involving a lot of hard work on her part.”


To find herself in a space like this, who would have thought it? Walls newly plastered and the wind sweeping through, when a rare wind there was, and otherwise the stillness, the sullen heat of the afternoon, and the tap-tapping of the builders, two floors below, putting in the kitchen – ripping out what had been installed there in the 1970’s and replacing it with gleaming steel and marble that harmonised strangely with the yellow arches – in a way that she would never have been able herself to conceive of, and yet was so easy for her daughter to see.

Her daughter’s house this, a narrow mountain village house recently purchased in this remote corner of Italy, where she had agreed – nay begged – to be installed to oversee the building work that had to be done to make it habitable.

Are you sure you want to do this? Anamika had asked her.

Well, why not?

You do not have to do this, her daughter had said.

But it is what I want, she had assured her.

Anything but to have to return to the flat in Calcutta where there was nothing more to do now but to tell the servants what to cook for lunch and dinner, and then to sit and read, perhaps make a few telephone calls, and receive those that came, and then the stillness of the afternoon with nothing else to do but read again, and finally the world coming life again and a semblance of duties emerging from such necessary events as the re-opening of shutters, children’s voices in the communal garden, footsteps outside of people once again starting to come and go, nothing to do with her at all, but dragging her in nonetheless into a sort of ceremony of living, nothing more than that. And how was it different when he was alive? Her husband, the renowned brain surgeon, with whom she had so little in common, and yet whose habits had girdled and protected her to an extent that she had never supposed until his sudden death had pressed it upon her that she had nothing to do, no-one to be, otherwise.

And now, here she was, enclosed within another kind of solitude, inhabiting the top floor of a many-levelled mountain house, while the rest of it was restored to provide her daughter and her family with the kind of retreat they felt they deserved after a year of grinding at their respective jobs and studies, studies, yes, the twelve and fourteen year old girls, her granddaughters, whom she had often been requisitioned to guard while their mother was called to attend to her duties, now securely embedded in the next layer of the English school system, and happy in their lives. Lives that she had once feared might not be easeful on account of their being of mixed race – an opinion formed out of her own limited experiences in the United Kingdom, those years in London and then in Leeds, while her husband pursued and acquired those necessary letters to his name and she looked after their daughter and suffered a sequence of miscarriages – how kind they were, the landladies with their tea and jam and endless willingness to let the child sit on a sagging corner of the sofa while she wept and wept upstairs in their lodgings, what a relief it was to return to Calcutta, to try no more to have another child, to have a spacious flat of her own to decorate with fabrics of her choice and prints of her favourite pieces of contemporary Indian art and servants again, good reliable servants too, what an orderly life they led for a time, her husband absorbed in his profession, her daughter excelling at school, and she – in mid thirties now – adored by all and not at all sure what to do with her own self.

Time had passed, it had not been entirely wasted either, she had spent much of it in the company of her old friends who still occupied themselves with what her husband called intellectual pursuits. Anamika had grown up, left home, first to study in Delhi, and afterwards to Cambridge University, where she had met and married a fellow student by the name of Harry Wyvern. This son-in-law of theirs, contrary to her husband’s expectations, had proved to be quite capable of supporting their daughter, having wrenched himself free of academia at an early stage, he had done very well indeed on “the dark side” as he so frequently put it, Harry Wyvern, their flat in Holland Park had been extended and cleverly reconfigured so that there was almost an enclave created for them – his wife’s parents – for they had been frequent visitors there, with her mainly occupied with the granddaughters while her husband attended to his various commitments, met with old friends, or just walked around London, adding to himself, or so she supposed.

And then her husband had died, he had reached his sixty-seventh year and died, a classic heart attack, he had known exactly what was happening to him all along, from the moment of summoning the driver to drive him to the emergency department of his own private clinic, and she, there with him, or outside the chamber where he lay struggling with life, she, knowing that he suffered his pain in full knowledge of its consequences and forever herself be backbraced by the enormous dignity with which he bore it all.

In due course, they had all arrived, Anamika, Harry, her lovely grand-daughters, they had taken charge and it had all happened as it should – the funeral, the grand memorial service, they had entreated her to return with them to London but she had declined and they had been respectful of her reasons. She had told them that she would come, as planned, the following year in late March. That had been the usual time of her visit – to coincide with her grand-daughters’ Easter holidays when both parents were especially busy – and she did not feel she had any reason to alter that yearly routine.

She had said goodbye to them, no tears, firmjawed, the vermillion rubbed clean from her parting, she had watched them disappear into Customs and Security and come home to an empty flat. The servants slept in their quarters down below and it was late enough for none to be awake setting that final jug of milk to cool in the refrigerator or snuffing out the last mosquito coil. She realised suddenly as she entered that she had never been just by herself in any kind of private dwelling ever in her life. And so what of it? She snapped on the light in the living room and sat herself down on the settee. She could of course telephone someone, they would understand, be prepared immediately to come to her, be anguished that they had not realised that there was nobody to be with her right now. She sat for a while trying to decide who to telephone and then suddenly raised herself from the settee and instead of reaching for the telephone headed towards the drinks cabinet which she had never before even thought to open and poured herself a small glass of whisky. She returned to the settee, glass in hand, but the sense of herself sitting there like this did not suit her and so she put the glass aside and made her way to her bedroom and lay primly down upon the bed, sometimes sleeping and sometimes not, until morning arrived.

In late March, she had arrived, as promised, in London, and they had taken her with them to their new house in Italy, in a remote part of Tuscany, which they were only part way through renovating. The two top floors had been fully realised as they had intended with four excellent bedrooms, all ensuite and an enormous living space below, in the corner of which there existed for the moment a slab of marble and a gas ring, and a wonderful marble basin which was to stay and be made a feature of when the floor below was transformed into the sort of kitchen her daughter wished to walk into when she returned to this alternative home of theirs, this paradise. Another level down was a swimming pool and a set of neglected spaces that could easily be turned into rooms, or something else entirely – who was she to comment on their possibilities, just a tired old woman who had been left to keep an eye on the Italian builders – had begged actually for the privilege, and had spent the last six weeks or so feeling useful again after a fashion.

And she had made friends, unexpectedly good friends – first, the woman from whom her daughter had purchased this property who lived in a nearby village and had hoped herself to restore it and bequeath it to her own children – and others too, through her, this wonderful Jane Hempshaw, her own friends – some just like her, Englishwomen in their sixties, and others terribly different – like Marcella from Rome, not quite forty even, who came here only sometimes, and with whom she had stayed up more than a few nights talking and talking while she, herself drank tea and Marcella drank wine and smoked cigarettes – on this very terrace – this very terrace, where she sat now, staring our onto the Apuan Alps, the morning light cheap and dreadful upon the edge of the table.

This evening, Marcella will take her to nearby village fete, there will be music and dancing and much general merriment for her to observe, and they will be plied with food of many colours and textures. Amid all this, they will sit, Marcella and herself, and try and talk of this and that, and so many other things. And during the course of this evening Marcella will unexpectedly let slip that in the last few months Anamika has been diagnosed and operated on for breast cancer – oh my god, she will say, I had no idea that she was keeping this from you, oh my god, what a fool I am, she will say, hiding her face in her hands, her cigarette poking out through her rich blonde hair.

She probably did not want you to worry, Marcella will tell her.

And just at that moment, the village band will break into the Abba song ‘Fernando’ – and instead of thinking of her daughter, her imperillment and her treachery in concealing something so consequential, she will remember a similarly hot evening in Calcutta, a party at one of the clubs, the band playing these same songs, and the sudden unexpected attraction she had felt for one of her husband’s younger colleagues as he had gazed upon her then. She had carefully avoided him after that occasion and he had emigrated to Canada soon after, so it had not mattered at all.

There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Fernando.

I am certain it was caught early, and she is going to be fine, Marcella will try and reassure her.

Yes, of course.

She was only trying to protect you.

Yes, I know.

They were shining there for you and me, for liberty, Fernando.

Will you tell her that you know?

No, I will not.

Marcella will light another cigarette and eventually they will talk of other things. But something will be broken between them forever by her careless revelation, and when Marcella drops her back home and they embrace and say goodbye, it will not be clear to either of them whether will want to see each other again.

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