The Glassblower's Breath

The heroine of The Glassblower's Breath is a brilliant young Indian woman caught between her own almost limitless capacity for experience - emotional, intellectual, sexual - and the desire of the men in her life to capture and define her. The landscapes of three great cities teeming with urban menace - Calcutta, New York and London - form an almost surreal back drop for this unsettling tale of an intelligent woman struggling but failing to conform to society's blueprints for marriage, family and friendships ...

pen and ink drawing of metal scoop filled with letters

You think perhaps you will leave me now, that it is time to call a halt to this charade, that our passion is resinate, and our tenderness yellowed, the most unoriginal sin has become yours, that most harmless decrepitude, your lips are stained with the velvet of a younger lust, the acid of an immature wine, how it tingles beneath your foretongue, my beloved, if you leave me tonight, what will you remember later of our love? What will you see thorugh the alabaster windows? Will it be merely the shadows of my dreams, the aimless phantoms weaving back and forth in Fellini-esque choreography. Yes, my love, I see you, peeping through stained glass into a candlelit cathedral, where the men and women of my dreams have gathered, they drift back and forth between the sunken pillars, the carven capitals, the floor is bare earth, can you hear Brahms' Requiem in the choir, my love, that blood-salt wind that once fed our passion. With each act of love, we primed each other for death, is that what you miss most, my beauty, that brush with death, faded now into a mere pleasurable surge of blood? Your lips are gorged with death, my love, vinegarded green. With whom will you go gently into this rude night? Will it be the butcher? Look into his eyes, my love, can it be he that you will leave with, look into his eyes, they are a poet's eyes, are they not, they are like the moss that seeks to fill the green in a decayed freso, and his lips, thin and sweetly chapped, how deliciously they twist and tremble against each other, and then the timeless benevolence of his smile, his cheeks are as opaque as death, and his pale hands, my love, if it is an easy encounter with death that you desire, it is he you must leave with, retrace your watery path to the Holloway Council flat, pause, perhaps to nourish your famished selves at the local chip shop, for these gentlemen are hungry, and not only for your love, and the night will pass in slow sweet discovery of a diluted death, the blood will ebb and you will wake parched, stagger into that lurid kitchen of the spray-painted forks, to pour yourself a glass of water, a sweaty dawn will break, barefoot, can it be he that you will leave with? Or will it be your cousin, the baker, there he stands, my love, still in dream, his back pressed against the window, like a wide echo he spirals into the gloom, like a band of laughter, he is waiting to conquer, once and for all, you, in your new condition, he is waiting to take you out into the night where your combined destiny awaits, that which you have ignored for so long, where will you go, in this wild night, with your delicate timeless desire? The daffodil fields are drowned, my sweet, the pollen-packed memories drenched with blood. Your sensations converge upon him, he waits, he has waited for so long, and there is his power, there is the cheap magic, time, the easy draught, fancy mead, nostalgia, the first brush with death, that earliest and most premature of emotions, nostalgia, upon that honeycomb have you endlessly fed, he is the laughing shadow of your past, only he can make death sweet, and strip it of its dignity. Will you go with him into this good night? It may be your destiny, your love has all the trappings of destiny, does it not, my love, how might it be, then, you and he in a small flat in Hampstead, and the child, of course, a consanguinary paradise. But before blood, there was water, my love, and destiny can be tiresome, will you leave, then, with him, dearest, or will it be the candemaker, after all, Jonathan Sparrow, see him, seated awkwardly at the kitchen table, at the very same spot where this morning he was wolfing down cereal, he broke off to ask for a boiled egg, do you remember, a boiled egg which you denied him, he would miss his flight, you reminded him. Were you in a hurry to be rid of him, my love, he, and why was it that he could not bring himeslf to leave, enthralled as he was by the reluctant magnetism between you, you are bound by cords of steel. are you not, veins of ore? Unfettered by desire, your spirits clasp and drink of each other, the chain mail clinks, you and he are locked in a lattice of light that only entropy can touch, not mere death, but he is tired, my love, and hungry, he does not relish this non-linearity of his fate. He wishes for it to be as last night, or this morning, he wishes to be consumed in an eternal circle of the events that have this day, an endless repetition of identical non-ritual. Is it he with whom you are more likely to walk into the night, penniless, homeless, as you had been, in your first evening in this city, many years ago?



The main character in this novel does not have a name and is referred to throughout as "you", a device which did not suggest itself to Sunetra until she was half-way through writing the book.

"I was struggling with the use of the third person for my central character to whom I did not feel it was right to give a name. Using the second person suggested itself to me as the solution. It’s not a contrivance. It plays a cohesive and structural role in this novel with its many characters, events and ideas.

The time frame for this novel is a single day. The central character is a young woman who is caught between her very strong emotional and intellectual needs. This is reflected in her relationships with three of the other principal characters who all happen to be in London that day. One of these is a man called Jonathan Sparrow, her college friend, with whom she has an extraordinary intellectual affinity. The energy of their relationship is fuelled by that affinity. She loves him very deeply, more than anyone else in the book.

As the novel begins Jonathan Sparrow is due to leave London where he has been visiting "you". She takes him to Heathrow, but he decides he can’t bear to fly to New York. Without her knowledge he returns to Central London. Sparrow happens to be a candle maker and the other two men happen to be a butcher and a baker. The baker is Bengali and has been living in England for a long time. He specialises in making exotic creations, like the Taj Mahal in Marzipan and, in a nod to Jude the Obscure, sponge cakes of  Oxford Colleges. He has submitted to an arranged marriage but is completely in love with “you”. He observes her as she emerges from a bookshop with the butcher and follows them for the rest of the day as they seek a place to make love. The butcher, who is from South London, is on a day out with his six year old son. “You” feels an overwhelming physical attraction towards him, so much so that she forgets everything that she is supposed to do that day. Eventually they converge upon the Kensington town house where "you" lives with her wealthy half Iranian, half English husband and her orphaned niece, who has recently arrived from Calcutta. The death of "you's" sister casts a big shadow over the novel, and for me it reflected the death of my very beloved aunt who died of breast cancer at the age of 48. I was recovering from the loss of her as I wrote this book. The other key character is “you’s” father who is very much like my own. In fact there are two characters who are faithful to real people. The father in it is my father, and Jonathan Sparrow who is based on a friend of mine called Lance Lattig.

The Glassblower’s Breath is about trying to negotiate between the need for order and the desire for chaos both in life and in language.The style of this book departed from Memories of Rain in many significant ways. I felt more inclined to indulge in my love of the absurd.There is a great Bengali tradition of absurdist humour in writing. “Sublime nonsense” is what my father used to call it. Many of the events in this book border on the surreal, such as Jonathan Sparrow's encounter with an eccentric aesthete who believes he has arrived to assist him in preparing a full alphabetical dinner.

This book puzzled those who thought that I was their master of multiculturalism. It dawned on them that the “adriftness” they were seeking in my book was in fact an “adriftness” of the mind, rather than exile from culture and country. I like to think that all my novels are anchored in individual politics, day to day politics. People look to make acquaintances with new cultures in novels sometimes, or they say - I like this book because it’s an interesting issue. That is certainly not why or what I write. I try to locate myself outside issues, but not outside politics."

















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