Selkirk had never owned a wristwatch. It had never seemed necessary to be in possession of one. What time it was had never been of any consequence to him in any part of his life. There was his childhood in Calcutta when time seemed lozenge-like, lickable—those long afternoons of lying still in shaded rooms, and then afternoon tea on the veranda with his mother, tapping out with her long nails the anguish of her most recent rebuff at one of the clubs on account of her lowly origins—and then, mercifully, his father, returning from a long day at work, the gentle grey-haired man who had rashly married this chorus girl in the throes of middle age, his father, still loyally serving the company he had joined as a young man in pre-Independence times and trying to make as good a life as possible for them all. When he unexpectedly keeled over, just a few months before he was due to retire, she did not hesitate to return to her old life, and Selkirk was promptly despatched to the boarding school that his father had attended, where time—to return to our original subject—was dispensed in quantities he could neither measure nor understand.
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.