Memories of rain, by Sunetra Gupta (1993) is a dark jewel of a book, a sombre and dense memorial stone made of darkness and yearning, frustration and anger. We are inside a sort of cenotaph: a young Bengali woman’s stream of consciousness and we never get a chance to hear anything else than her voice and the poetry which often resounds in the vault. It’s gloomy in a sense, but the prose is so dense and palpable that – as an unborn child waiting for birth - one is lulled and fed by its rhythm and texture. Sometimes you gasp for breath, but then, as opposed to the narrator, you can lay down the book and return to it later! I have to say that I have had trouble finishing the 200p novel: it isn’t long, but so little happens that one is at first unsettled and has to adapt. In fact everything has already happened, and what we read is the tremendous impact of what has happened.
She’s called Moni, and one day, during the Calcutta monsoon, Anthony, a drenched young Englishman, her brother’s friend, enters her house and life, and gets caught by her heavy aura of darkness. Like a satellite he is held prisoner by the gravitational pull of a dark star he hadn’t seen as he was cruising by. They marry, and she’s flown away to Bristol, England, where a short-lived period of agonized lust takes place, an Moni, keeping company to her dull mother-in-law, waits every day for Anthony to return from London. She bears a child, but soon their relationship deteriorates, and Anthony meets with Anna, a poet’s daughter and physically Moni’s contrary. The passion which starts between Anthony and Anna is the story’s main event. Moni now revolves around the two bright stars in a desperate orb of darkness and frustration. What she feels and thinks about while suffering because of them is the substance of the book.
Moni’s tragedy is that she’s a doomed woman, engulfed in a destiny of resignation and self-abasement; she cannot shout out, she cannot rebel and plead; she’s made to accept from the start, to resign herself to whatever happens to her, and we as readers watch as disconsolately what she is unable to change as much in front of her as within her, in the sediments of feminine behaviour that she’s made of. Here’s an extract from the book:
She will steal away like a sorry child, without dignity, she cannot confront him, the language of their love was silence, but now the space between them is dull with forgotten emotion, she cannot use silence to convey her pain, they stand upon Parliament Hill, the child unravelling her kite, Anna’s hair shimmering like a net upon the morning wind, the smoky profile of the city stretches out in the distance, she is still a stranger to this land, she watches the dark lust upon his eyes as they twist about in the sea of pale gold that blows upon his face, her hair, she reaches out for his trembling hand, he looks round in surprise, she has not reached for him in many years, she takes his quivering hand in hers, she will know the depth of his desire, she will feel the keenness of his lust, she will intercept the waves of passion that roll towards the emerald eyes, she must remember how much he once loved her to enjoy the prospect of leaving him, for she will not have the pleasure of his despair, she must steal away, when he would least suspect, in the few holy hours before a birthday party… (p.98-99)
This is in fact what Moni will do, this is the only action she will be capable of: slide back to her old place in her parents’ home, get back to her world, to her ring of safety and balance, where the forces that have played upon her and jolted her numb are no longer felt, where poetic oblivion can once again engulf her and soothe her like a child. Moni is as much a woman as a child; her femininity is omnipresent, her body and desires are heavy and rapturous, yet her will is childlike, strangely she can accomplish and impose nothing. In front of her husband’s desire, she submits; in front of his mistress, she submits, and all she needs is to remember, to live her feelings in the past and in song. If she had fought against her rival, God knows what would have happened. But all she can summon is that silent retreat away from him, because she knows he’s involved in an absolute of reality that she can’t even name for herself. He at least knows this absolute, even if she hates him for it. And yet, no, she doesn’t hate him. Not any more. What she feels is that numb distance, that frigid friendliness with darkness, whom she says has been her friend ever since she was little. We see her at times making strange love to this darkness, opening her body to it…
So the paradox and strange attraction at the centre of this story is a mixture of powerlessness and intensity: she's transfixed, like the toad her brother wanted to anaesthetize and dissect, but on the other hand, it is Moni who creates, she’s the one who magnifies, who churns love into beauty, light into night, song into silence. What Anthony (and everybody else around her) has done is merely at the surface. She inhabits the immense caves of emptiness. The sombre, black-blue beauty we are washed into comes out of her only. It’s sometimes hard to see its colour, but when you do see it, Anna’s golden hair and green fairy eyes are just speckles of day which the huge Monsoon is about to swallow. Moni the dark witch, the drowned queen, the Mermaid of memory, has a power which can hurt no one, but which makes her utterly ill-adapted to the grassy playfulness of human frivolities. No wonder her prince left her to her depths. Having been caught by the spell of her moist black hair, he has quickly let go, and surfacing, has dabbled in the shiny beauty of Anna’s sunniness. She was his truth.
Not everybody will like Memories of rain. Critics say it is indebted to Virginia Woolf’s famous style of writing, but it also probably has the idiosyncrasies of the first novel that it is. Wading through it, I was wondering whether it could possibly become a movie, and I found myself answering yes, surprisingly enough, provided the director could transpose some of its thickness, some of its “glueyness”. I’m sure they are ways to recreate the feeling of hopeless imprisonment that pervades the story, along with its magnificent exploration of the realms of dark femininity. Moni could be interpreted by warm and stubborn Tabu, who has the sombre quality needed, as well as the voluptuousness; then Anthony might be any light-skinned actor, but who would have to have the intelligence and perceptiveness of a sophisticated Englishman!