A Sin of Colour

A man in his late thirties is last seen entering a punt on the Cherwell in Oxford. When no further trace of him is found, Debendranath Roy is presumed drowned. He leaves behind a pale and languishing widow in Oxford, and a mystery that takes twenty years to unfold.......

He wakes to the scrape of an aluminium kettle against the metal edge of his berth as the train jerks into motion and the young tea vendor who has just climbed into their carriage loses his balance. Luckily he is not scalded, the damage is limited to a few disposable cups of unglazed earthenware that Debendranath Roy itches to put back together even though he knows that they would be of no use to anybody. I will give you some money for the cups, he tells the boy. Sir, you are kind, the boy replies, it is not much, but then I earn so little, I can hardly afford to lose even these.

As the train approaches Calcutta, and the morning becomes more bright, it crowds with commuters who have missed their local trains, and with hawkers of every description for whom Debendranath Roy feels an intense sympathy, not so much because of the wretchedness of their condition, but because, like him, they too seem to be trying to eke out a living from the surreal. When he disembarks at Howrah station, his pockets are stuffed with their wares, bottles of stain-removing liquid, packets of rubberbands, a corked test tube full of needles of various lengths and thicknesses.

Outside the station, he takes a bus that is obviously going to the Esplanade, and from there it is only a short walk to his childhood home, to the house that they never called by its name. But he cannot bring himself to make the journey straight away, instead he wanders into the Grand Hotel, and has a beer by the pool, it is noon, he had thought he might be there by now, that the gatekeeper's wife would be cooking him lunch, but something is holding him back, something tells him he must wait until the frantic rhythm of a tropical morning has fully ceased, and the slow tempo of the afternoon has firmly established itself, for he senses that something awaits him in Mandalay beyond the repose that he seeks.

He finds himself loitering in the bookshop in the Grand Hotel Arcade. It is more of an overflowing bookstall, but here he has browsed for hours as a student, jostled by other eager readers, it was here that he came like a hungry dog in the hope that he would be able to fill the huge gaps in his knowledge of politics and history that had yawned so wide in those wonderful evenings at Reba's father's hosue, when he would sit enthralled but tongueless in the winds of a fierce and splendid debate, and wish that he had at least a few choice words to offer, especially if, as was often so, she was there, at her father's feet, quietly voicing her own opinions, that he ached to endorse with an especially coruscating comment. But he could usually only come up with some tangential observation from the physical sciences that would cause them to pause and think but then quickly replunge into the flow of their discouse, so that sometimes he would feel as if he had interrupted, albeit with applause, the rehearsal of a dedicated group of performing artists.

He finds a book on Bohemian glass, and leafs gladly through it, until the bookseller reminds him of the price - you can of course pay in instalments, he says. Yes, I know, says Debendranath Roy, but it still may not be something that I can afford.

Actually, you still owe me some money, says the man. Debendranath Roy looks up at him where he sits high above a mound of books. It is the same person with whom he had an account in his youth and afterwards. Was it true that he had left the city twenty-five years ago without settling up, it had never crossed his mind.

I am terribly sorry, he says. Can I pay you now?

It is no matter, says the bookseller. The sum would be worth nothing now anyway, unless I calculated the inflation.

You could have sent a bill to my father, says Debendranath Roy.

I thought you would come back, says the bookseller, but they said you had drowned.

There was some truth in that, says Debendranath Roy.



Asked about the origins of A Sin of Colour, Sunetra Gupta explains how the idea came to her.

  "Curiously enough, it all started with a request from the Daily Mail in London to contribute to a feature they were writing about Susan Hill’s sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. I had to invent an alternative version of the second Mrs de Winter’s life by the following day. I devised a notion that Max should be dead and that Mrs de Winter should have a daughter. Together they go back to Manderley and the daughter becomes obsessed with Rebecca. Her mother feels that Rebecca is staking a claim yet again by stealing her daughter. From this was born the kernel of an idea where a diffident English woman is taken back to India by an Indian husband who is completely infatuated with his older brother’s wife - the Rebecca figure, but in my book very much alive. The house in India, which has a very serious role in the novel, is called Mandalay. Essentially however it’s a story about obsessional love.  

The title is thanks to Howard Barker, a sadly neglected poet and playwright whose various works and particular dedication to art have influenced me greatly. The line comes from his play A Hard Heart in which an extremely arrogant woman says of her own vanity that if it is a sin, it is “a sin of colour".

The sins in  the novel – and there are many – are all fuelled by obsessional love or infatuation." 















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