So Good in Black

It is the eve of the transit of Venus in the year 2004.  An American travel-writer, Max Gate, and his once much beloved friend, an extremely charming and highly refined Bengali businessman by the name of Byron Mallick, meet in extraordinary circumstances upon the shores of Bengal.  Byron is likely soon to be facing charges of murder, and Max – who has arrived with some notion of resolving the crisis – finds himself instead confronted with a need to revise his own notions of morality, loyalty and love.


Byron Mallick gets up and walks over to an ornate Victorian mirror on the wall and straightens it.
Do you know how much money your mother owes me, Piers? Byron asks him.
Oh, loads and loads, Piers replies.
And who will continue to pay her debts if I am gone?
Who will indeed, I wonder?
You do not care about your mother, do you? says Byron.
Who does? asks Piers O’Reilly.

Between Mary and Piers O’Reilly, I have watched that gap between mother and son yawn very suddenly, like the closed lips of a wound mischievously pulled apart.  When I first knew him as an undergraduate, he would break off whatever he was doing every evening at six to telephone her, his mother – hullo Mary – he would say, kicking his young heels like a colt – and then some inane conversation would follow, from which he would clearly draw sustenance, that was how it was then.  And now, almost thirty years later, now it is I who will phone her to remind her that it is his birthday, and that perhaps she might remember to find some gap in her turgid social calendar where she might telephone him to wish him well.  Mothers – never do I regret that I have been spared this transformation in mine, who keeled over at the age of sixty at a pacifist rally, still full of love for me.  In those that survive longer, it is as if those seeds that were half sown, half a century ago, suddenly wake and rage, obliterate all but what they might have been when they had instead submitted to this other life.  And so it is with Mary O’Reilly, who feeds her insomnia with oysters and champagne and the company of wanderers, so it is with Mary O’Reilly, that her duty to her son is now a stain of dried mercury, once bold and consuming, now a mere scar.

What you face is the death penalty, Piers says to Byron, lighting another slim cigar.
The death penalty, eh? says Byron.
Not to mention the disgrace.
I have faced worse, says Byron Mallick.

For yes, he has, arrested in 1967 for shoplifting in Holloway, an act of which he was at the time wholly incapable.  Facing the alternatives of simple suicide or dreary defence, he had chosen and succeeded in the latter. Many years later, he and I had gone there together, found the responsible employee, and ensured that he went home that evening without a job to return to the following day, a man now in his late fifties, fully signed up to multiculturalism and all of that, his grandchildren capuccino-coloured, but himself still with a past, a past that included Byron Mallick sitting in his boarding house and contemplating ending his life, I was not sorry to see that revenge as a dish eaten cold, even though the change in the man’s personal attitudes might not have quite justified it.

You have faced worse? mocks Piers.
Very much worse, Byron confirms.
In what way? Piers challenges him.
It was I who thought to take my own life then, says Byron.

In 1967, sitting in his dimly lit rented room, still in the overcoat within which he had supposedly concealed a plastic wrapped pork pie before inconveniently dropping it while exiting the shop, it was he that the security guard had detained rather than the young woman in a short yellow raincoat scuttling away with her arms crossed over her chest, it was he who had been searched rather than the sour smelling pensioner who had emerged exactly at the same time with him from the shop, and on the side of the door that the pork pie had fallen, in 1967, Byron Mallick had seriously considered taking his own life, so much simpler a solution than battling for his reputation against such odds, and then his eye had fallen upon a letter left by his landlady on his desk, he had recognised Nikhilesh’s handwriting and opened it, pulled out first a photograph, the first that he had been sent of Ela, hardly two years old, pouting at him, and holding it in his hands Byron had wept, wept and wept in his cold English room until the cabbage frowst had condensed in whorls upon its glossy surface, someday she will need me, he had thought, someday she will need me, and if I do not fight my case, I will not be there.

So, best then if I disappear? asks Byron.
Best indeed, says Piers, the rogue tide...
But who will clear my name then if I am not alive? asks Byron.
We will see to it that your name is never sullied, promises Piers.
And I am to trust you on that?
You speak as if you have a choice, says Piers O’Reilly.

Choice, yes, it was choice that had suddenly spelled itself clear that November evening in 1967, and eagerly he had grabbed it then, how boldly he had ventured into the Magistrate’s court and shredded the arguments against him, how profusely they had apologised afterwards as if to a foreign dignitary that they had mistakenly offended, how delightfully hardened he had felt afterwards, as if his insides had been sprayed with steel, he had walked into a jewellery store and purchased an antique brooch and sent it by secure airmail to his mother.

No one will know, tempts Piers, not a soul.
That I have been carried away on the neck of a graceless wave? says Byron.
You shall be remembered as one who possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity, and all the virtues of man without his vices, promises Piers.
Enough of this nonsense, says Byron Mallick, I have a very early appointment at a nearby factory, he explains.
Formula milk, perchance? asks Piers.
Actually yes.
No chalk?
No chalk this time, this is for export, he replies without batting an eyelid.
More bespoke ethics, eh? I find myself saying.
Better than flatpack, replies Byron Mallick.



So Good in Black is Sunetra Gupta's first novel for almost a decade. Like its forbears, it revels in the use of complex language and thought.

"At its centre is a character called Byron Mallick who is intensely charming and ostensibly extremely corrupt. But the person who tells this story is his American friend Max Gate, a diplomat turned travel-writer based in London.  I have returned here to the vulnerable male voice but this time to explore notions of morality and the torque between loyalty and love. I feel that Max is the person to tell this story because he experiences moral dilemmas in a way that is helpful to the reader. The dilemmas are stark and surreal. It is declared at the outset that Byron is implicated in a heinous crime. He admits to having adulterated infant milk formula for profit, although he denies involvement in a murder that occurs as a result of the investigation into the crime.

There are several connections made to a period of time in the late 18th Century when British society was forced to think carefully about the language of morality notably within the context of the trial of Warren Hastings.  Hastings was the first governor-general of British India, but was impeached in 1787 for corruption.  Many important figures were involved in the proceedings such as Edmund Burke who made many an impassioned speech to condemn Hastings.  As Sara Suleri says in her excellent book The Rhetoric of English India: "When Burke's surplus eloquence was enjoyed, year after year, as rhetoric alone, eighteenth century England made tacit declaration of its awareness that morality was moribund where colonialism was concerned".  Byron's own notions of “geographical” morality are borrowed from Warren Hastings; the idea that different moral standards apply in different settings. As the voice of the devil, Byron functions as a spokesman for extreme latitude in morality. Max however is playing a different game in that he is constantly attempting to construct a moral code that is rigid enough to be of some use to him and yet flexible enough to accommodate his own weaknesses.  There is a collision in this book between these two sensibilities.  The book also deals with the moral dislocations caused by passion and obsessional love, as reflected in Max’s anguished relationship with Byron’s god-daughter Ela, and indeed to a degree in Max’s extreme sense of loyalty to Byron himself.

The title, So Good in Black, comes from a popular song. Byron has all the attributes of the devil, so I was looking for a title that would resonate with that idea. One afternoon, while I was repainting my study and listening to a very old tape of Crowded House that I had just unearthed from some obscure recess, I encountered the line…”and he doesn’t like Beelzebub because he looks so good in black.”  I thought it was perfect."















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