“The heavy breath of old unpolished teak, the freckled edges of the old mirrors, the lime-choked cisterns, and the chipped ceramic.” Sunetra Gupta, A Sin of Color

‘I like a bit of dust,’ he replied, regretting that he had spoken so harshly to her, when she meant so well. But taking the frame from her hands, he saw that she has simply rubbed the dust into the corners; the effect was to him somehow obscene. And in that moment, he realized that he would rather that his whole life were left exactly as it was in that moment of terrible beauty when he realized that he loved her as he would never love any other woman, his brother’s wife, Reba. For since then, he had taken comfort in any form of desuetude: the heavy breath of old unpolished teak, the freckled edges of the old mirrors, the lime-choked cisterns, and the chipped ceramic. Decay had become nectar to Debendranath Roy on the day that he discovered that he loved his brother’s wife.

Once a mouse running over her bare feet had caused her to shudder so violently that Debendranath Roy had been crushed by the lushness of her displeasure.

The hot August nights stamped through her like herds of panting buffalo, and she woke feeling more drained and tired than when she had come to bed, dreading the rest of the day.

—Sunetra Gupta, A Sin of Color, Chapters One and Two

The story can’t help but emerge as if from a thicket, dappled with all kinds of turns of phrase, like the ones above. A Sin of Color is one of the more absurd books I’ve read lately but its absurdity, rather, the absurdity of the events which take place, is seen and raised by the vivid quality of its language and the light-filled way that the author approaches her characters. Have you ever wondered what happened to all those colorful characters who used to inhabit great literature of the past, like Bleak House and Tristram Shandy? Sunetra Gupta has found a couple and set them loose in this book.

What would you do if your uncle returned to the family manse after you had spent 20 years believing that he had drowned himself? The book I read before this one, Hari Kunzru’s Transmission, was also about failure, but many types of failure: systems failure, personal failure, failure to connect. A Sin of Color is about a kind of personal failure, as incarnated in the uncle, Debendranath Roy.

It’s Debendranath Roy’s unrequited love affair with his sister-in-law (see second quote, above) that makes sense of the whole situation. As illustrated in the first quote, it’s the kind of love whose existence makes everything else nonexistent, like an overly fatty candle throwing off sparks in a very dark room.

‘In laughter there are more dreadful phases than in tears’ –Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

The only signs of the terrible sorrow Boldwood had been combating through the night, and was combating now, were the want of colour in his well-defined face, the enlarged appearance of the veins in his forehead and temples, and the sharper lines about his mouth. The horse bore him away, and the very step of the animal seemed significant of dogged despair. Gabriel [Oak], for a minute, rose above his own grief in noticing Boldwood’s. He saw the square figure sitting erect upon the horse, the head turned to neither side, the elbows steady by the hips, the brim of the hat level and undisturbed in its onward glide, until the keen edges of Boldwood’s shape sank by degrees over the hill. To one who knew the man and his story there was something more striking in this immobility than in a collapse. The clash of discord between mood and matter here was forced painfully home to the heart; and, as in laughter there are more dreadful phases than in tears, so was there in the steadiness of this agonized man an expression deeper than a cry.

 —Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XXXV
There are a million ways to describe grief, yet this particular one comes out as newly fresh. Part of the excitement of reading, that keeps me posting more quotes and comments about the books I’m reading, is the ability to stop on a paragraph and point out just how great a gift the classics give to us by continually reconfiguring those hoary old emotions—love, fear, anger, grief—into new forms for us readers’ enrichment.
Boldwood is crushed by the news of Bathsheba Everdene’s recent marriage to Troy. Gabriel Oak’s own feelings to the nuptials are rather sensitive as well, but he has been protecting his feelings by estranging himself and his heart from Bathsheba for most of the book.
Hardy shows us Boldwood’s brittle nature through paradox. We’ve seen this technique before; the author explains something in some detail, then with a grand gesture says, “Aha! this actually means the complete opposite.” Hardy does set it up for us here, as we have been privy to the details of Boldwood’s tragedy over the last couple chapters, as Boldwood sees Bathsheba’s love drifting out of his reach. It is we readers that he is addressing in “to one who knew the man and his story.…”
So really, the perspective that Boldwood’s fate brings to us disinterested readers, the perspective that Hardy has spent most of the novel creating, is that here is a man who is so committed to rectitude and keeping up appearances that it is only someone like us readers or our surrogate, Oak, who have followed the trace of Boldwood’s tragedy, who can actually discern that tragedy while he yet maintains his bearing.
The erosion of that bearing, however, will be the story of the remaining chapters.
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