Review: So Good in Black

Book by SUNETRA GUPTA
Reviewed by JENN MAR

So Good in Black

In Sunetra Gupta’s So Good in Black, the devil is a fashionable industrialist with a seaside villa in Bengal, and he’s guilty not of any overtly malicious crime, but of donating milk to children. Incredible as it may seem, evil in this novel is not made of sulfur and coals, but of institutionalized power driving the market of ethics. It’s this market of ethics, or ethical imperialism, that Gupta explores in her fifth novel, a novel that unfolds with heated conversations, and dialogue resembling philosophical debates.

The premise guiding these debates is just as sinuous as the devil himself. American travel writer Max Gate returns to Calcutta to attend a woman’s funeral, and like all travelers returning to a destination after so many years of misery, Gate experiences a heightened sense of wonder, and chill, towards the landscape so inextricably tied to his memories. As he surveys the beach, following a shadowy figure along the seashore, the daughter of a woman from his formative years, Gate delivers an incantation to the past: “Child on the seashore, I loved your mother once.  How unkindly these words pound through my blood as I walk down this dry path towards you, how cruelly they beat their rhythm within me, as though already relentlessly rehearsed.” If one assumes from this lyricism that Gupta’s novel is just one more project about a moldering landscape haunted by the mind, one will be either relieved or annoyed when the story makes its turn. Very quickly, the novel sheds its theme of romantic and geographical loss, and replaces it with a philosophical inquiry about, well, milk. See, the occasion for Gate’s return is not only the funeral; Gate is also there to confront his longtime friend, Byron Mallick (the devil incarnate), about his complicity in Damini’s death. Mallick, just one of Calcutta’s nouveau riche caste in the novel, had donated batches of his factory’s milk to a shelter led by Damini—only, unbeknownst to her, it was milk adulterated with chalk that her Bengali orphans received. Damini apparently confronted Mallick about his tainted milk before her body was found near a bicycle path, at the bottom of a foothill.

At the start of the novel, the mystery surrounding Damini’s death is banished to the backdrop when Gate arrives at Mallick’s home, a dreamy seaside villa in the Bay of Bengal. The two men are seated under the “faintly acrid light, the waves spread[ing] and sink[ing] like the wings of birds leaving their skeletons ridged upon the thin sand.” Mallick removes the pipe from his mouth, pointing to remote figures in their view, and offers his visitor a few words about the scandal: “A little chalk in milk will not kill anyone, Max.” Although Mallick denies killing Damini, he admits to consenting to the delivery of tainted milk to her orphanage. In his unflinching justification of the scandal, Mallick sees nothing immoral about his decision to feed starving children spoiled milk:

“How can I make you understand, Max? These children are already on the brink of starvation—what harm can a little bit of chalk do them? Choices are more complex, Max, when most of your customers live below the poverty line—the market adjusts according to its own ethics, ethics that those of you who have enough to eat cannot dictate—we live by a sort of ethical imperialism these days, trying to tailor our rules to meet the standards that are acceptable to a fatter economy, and nobody gains, nobody.”

Within Mallick’s statement is a rationale freed of any impetus towards a universal ethics, and this is what Gate finds so alarming. From Mallick’s statement a trial proceeds—not the actual trial of Byron Mallick, an event surprisingly absent from Gupta’s novel—but a trial by the author against a code of ethics shaping our moral landscape.

The problem with Mallick’s logic is that he purports to serve the Bengali culture a good deed by donating milk to orphans, when in fact he draws a line on his altruism in several ways: by donating tainted milk, and by decorating a shady business transaction with a humanitarian label—a.k.a. “donation” of damaged goods at cost price. While one might stiffly argue that Mallick should have known better, perhaps one should question whether we are any different from this man, when the banal gestures scoring our lives reveal how often we compromise our ethics in similarly discriminate ways: passing stale scraps to vagrants, shipping unwanted clothing to countries of the dispossessed. But shoddy ethics take place on a larger scale too, of course, and if one should dismiss the relevance of Gupta’s novel, one only needs to read The Nation’s recent expose on the Clinton Foundation—accused of donating to post-earthquake Haiti trailers that were moldy, badly-constructed and laced with formaldehyde. It’s likely that most of us will publicly shake our fists at this trial, but I suspect that posture and action are two different things, and the prevalence of these cases in today’s climate means that we have a complicated, if not uneasy, relationship with ethics. So we must ask ourselves: Is it fair to spurn a man for alternating between two sets of moral codes—for reserving a separate etiquette for the world’s bottom feeders? Is one’s ethical responsibility with or without limits? How should one view the devil and his glass of milk?

The book’s tenet can obviously be found in its title, So Good in Black, which refers to Mallick’s immaculate appearance, as well as a song by Neil Finn, which goes, “And he can’t stand Beelzebub / ‘cos he looks so good in black, in black.” Mallick, then, stands for the devil, as well as the evil of the banality of good deeds, gone unchecked.

As if Bryon Mallick weren’t enough to represent our modern predicament of evil, Gupta conjures Warren Hastings, former Governor-General of the East India Company. Hastings, a well-known historical figure of British India, makes frequent appearances in the conversations of Gupta’s characters, particularly Max Gate and Byron Mallick, who love trading arcane facts about literary figures over drinks (“Warren Hastings…lover of Philadelphia Austen and putative sire of Jane’s cousin Eliza”)—but who doesn’t love a history lesson against the backdrop of a murder-mystery? It’s no coincidence that Gate encounters a lithograph of Hastings’ at the National Library; or that his ex-wife’s son presents him with a little red book on Christmas morning, entitled Essays on the British Raj, a stage prop that allows our narrator to meditate on the crimes of Warren Hastings, introducing similarities between Hastings and Mallick, and thereby closing the distance between the present and history. Apparently Hastings was accused of a crime analogous to the one that Byron Mallick was to be charged with over two hundred years later—a breach in ethics. During his trial, Hastings was said to deliver a four-day long speech, pleading his captors to apply different moral standards to his crime, based on the privilege of his class standing. Even Hastings’ peers were to see the injustice of his request, later accusing him of hiding under “geographical morality.” The law must have seen something else, though, because Hastings was ultimately acquitted of his crimes. But by acquitting Hastings of all charges, isn’t the culture presenting a market of law and ethics, easily bought and sold by the privileged class?

The author would describe this as a case of “arbitrary power” corrupting law. But someone else might easily confuse Hastings’ trial with ethical relativism, from philosophers who believed that men would never settle their factional squabbling long enough to create a universal ethical code—but actually, Hastings’ speech goes beyond relativism, to the darker side. Once one becomes immune to the speeches of Warren Hastings, and to the charms of his ideological twin, Byron Mallick, one begins to recognize the challenges of the trial. While listening to their pleas, should we not caution ourselves with Stirner’s observations that the only ethics are those that benefited the self, common good being illusory? Or Nietzsche, who said with his typical embittered tone that everything that a powerful man does is moral?

Besides Mallick’s milk scandal, there are other storylines that take permanence in the novel, even though they reside in the past and seem to fall in accidentally, by way of chitchat, or an illuminating gesture that allows Gate, with the passport of memory, to wander from the main road. Gate likens these long flashbacks to closing his eyes and “allow[ing] myself to be invaded, like a man drowning gently, by such memories.” The novel is, after all, an invasion of memories. For the most part, Gate spends his Calcutta summer on the beach, or not far from it, in an armchair with the sounds of a small child chasing after a dog, and the banter of nearby friends, while Vargas, the servant, slips in and out of the room, filling drinks and retrieving empty glasses—only at the height of stasis does memory make its call. This is how one learns about the histories of the nouveau riche surrounding Gate, a group given ample weight, considering their impact on the novel. Some of these characters include Piers O’Reilly, a staunch epicurean and Gate’s former Princeton buddy; Barbara O’Reilly, sister of Piers and the woman whom Gate marries, only to divorce years later after a brief affair with another woman; Ela, a graceful dancer from Calcutta and the elegantly sad surrogate child of Byron Mallick, who happens to be charged with the murder of Ela’s beloved cousin, Damini. The lives and histories of these characters often cross over to continue, or give new meaning to an existing narrative; sometimes what appears to be an important storyline falls, and is forgotten. Every now and again the narrator appears to retrieve a memory that isn’t rightfully his, meaning that Gate as a narrator swallows other people’s histories. Why Gate can recount the exact pains and splendors of the childhoods of Ela and Nikhilesh, the author can probably explain, but one can imagine how this lyric accretion of memory is related to the problem of constructing an “ethical” narrative.

So Good in Black is not entirely a philosophical treaty, though it’s quite possible that Gupta was deliberately inviting morality to play with the construction of her novel. One wonders whether the author had been meditating on the politics of storytelling, how stories impact our moral choices. Artfully crafted, a story may corroborate one’s failures or victories; a story too can be an elegant way of promoting an otherwise shameful act. And what of Byron Mallick, the limelight on a man who has made one supremely controversial choice? Gupta’s narrator, Max Gate, either blessed or cursed with the responsibility of bearing witness, resolves the problem by failing to properly—that is, conventionally—lay out a story. One might think of Gupta’s novel as embodying Gate’s conscience, either prolonging the moment of judgment, or willfully protesting man’s ability to dispense an ethically-sound judgment on his peers. Of course, others chide Gate, a travel writer with higher ambitions for writing novels, for both wanting and failing to translate his impressions of the milk scandal into a best-seller: “Let me guess…you are wondering how you might make use of these circumstances, are you not, Max? Perhaps to finally produce that great novel that has eluded you for so long?” The problem confronting both the author and her narrator is that storytelling entails prescribing a system of ethics, and no one necessarily wants to divide actions into two separate compartments—no one wants to decide whether the devil is “victim or a villain.” What Gupta has done instead is write a novel that dances around the question, rather than dramatize a clear answer to that question. The result is a loose and baggy thing—not a monster of the same temperament as Henry James’ description of the 19th century beast, but a novel that is spacious enough to host a lifetime’s worth of impressions, memories worthy and seemingly unworthy, a constellation of impressions that together conjoin at a single time and place, when a man is confronted with a simple moral decision.

Review: So Good in Black

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