BOOK REVIEW / When the twain met: 'Memories of Rain' - Sunetra Gupta: Orion, 13.99

Click to follow
'OH EAST is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet'. So said Kipling, who placed the gate of the Orient at the frontier of India - for the Near and Middle East, though Muslim, at least share with the West their Judeo-Christian inheritance. It is in India - where human existence is no longer governed by a paternalistic deity, but by myriad gods and goddesses in their many avatars - that the real difference in mentality begins.

Is marriage between an oriental and a European therefore doomed? Even under the Raj, when miscegenation was usually frowned upon, happy marriages between Indians and Europeans often took place. In today's multi-racial Britain, mixed marriages are subject to the same statistical hazards as any other: seven out of ten are likely to end in divorce.

Memories of Rain, Sunetra Gupta's dazzling first novel, is a meditation on the East-West divide through the marriage of a beautiful Indian girl with an Englishman. Walking down Oxford Street on a rainy Friday afternoon Moni, married to Anthony for 10 years, and with a six-year-old daughter, sees a woman crushing an ice-cream cone to feed the pigeons and giving them water in a plastic bowl. This image opens the gates of memory: she reflects that the birds can't drink, for 'many years ago her grandmother had told her that pigeons can only quench their thirst by opening their beaks to drops of rain'.

This first paragraph sets the tone for the narrative which unfolds over the weekend. Through a series of flashbacks and reflections Moni illustrates the contrast between her native India and her adopted country.

The gentle drizzle of London reminds her of the monsoon in Calcutta in 1978, 'where the rain poured from the skies not to purify the earth, but to spite it, to churn the parched fields into festering wounds, rinse the choked city sewers on to the streets, sprinkle the pillows with the nausea of mould . . .'

On such a day Anthony arrives from London to study Bengali theatre, is brought to Moni's house, and falls in love with the adolescent girl who appears to him 'like the ghost of beauty'. He marries her and brings her to 'this island, this demi-paradise'. They settle in London where she finds employment in a library, and he takes an administrative job.

For a while all goes well, but gradully 'the intoxication of their tropical lust wears off', and his passion for her turns into mere affection. After a few inconsequential affairs, he falls in love with Anna, a tall, attractive English blonde, who is more 'attuned to him intellectually', and 'leads him back to the world to which he belonged'.

At first Moni tolerates the triangular relationship in good grace, but gradually she retreats 'into the tender sorrow of her silence', becomes 'mute with sour despair', and develops 'an abrasive misery in her eyes'. He will never abandon her, but can she go on?

Memories of Rain appeared in America last year to a rapturous reception; one reviewer - quoted in the blurb - wrote that the author 'is a true heir to Virginia Woolf'. Do not be put off by this - the comparison might have been provoked by the stream-of-consciousness narrative, but Ms Gupta has a refined sensibility and a graceful style all her own. She shows an intelligence, wisdom, and judgement astonishing in so young a writer - she is only 27. If there is a precedent, it is Elizabeth Smart's In Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept: the rich poetic prose, the exacerbated sensitivity, the ravaged heart.

But while Smart's Western heroine decides to stay with the painful status quo, Ms Gupta's Oriental Woman, invented more than 50 years later, is more courageous, and resolves to take her destiny into her own hands and change her life.

This clearly autobiographical debut - Ms Gupta is a scientist researching infectious disease at Imperial College, and has been married to an Englishman - promises much for the future. My only reservation is that Moni conforms a little too much to the Western ideal of the 'Oriental Woman' - a lovely odalisque, sensual, passive, 'clay in his hands' - and that the sumptuous feast to which her prose invites us at times leads to surfeit: not every noun needs an intense adjective. But these are small caveats to an otherwise authentic creation.