Calcutta rain dance

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 November, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 November, 1993, 12:00am

Memories of Rain by Sunetra Gupta Phoenix $60 SUNETRA Gupta's promising debut novel is full of memories: of love, Calcutta and the filthy, torrential rains that are never far away.

Essentially a post-love story, when desire and first love are no more than blotted remembrances, the tale is told over the course of one long weekend. But through flashbacks it takes in the course of the entire love affair, from marriage to childbirth and the torpor of the affection that marks the present phase of the relationship.

The marriage which is the focus of the book is a cross-cultural one: Moni is Indian and Anthony an Englishman but the dissolution of it has less to do with the problems of being a foreigner in a strange land than to do with being a stranger in your own home.

What the mixed marriage allows for - and what Ms Gupta exploits beautifully, giving free rein to a tongue reared on poetry - is a series of shifting scene sets: images of college girls in vibrant saris, heads bent over books or sharing the secrets of an extended adolescence; the homes that crumple before the rains; the steel rod and wood eternity of a London underground escalator that does not work.

Anthony, who evolves into a steadily more complex character as the tale unfolds meets and falls desperately for Mona in the height of the rainy season in Calcutta where he is on the fringes of a local experimental theatre group.

Theatre and films are the staff of his life in London, where he is working on a shadowy thesis. Like the marriage, the thesis is never finished, but never discarded either. Instead index cards flutter through house moves and other events like sad images of something that will always be there but never be fulfilled.

Life for Anthony is not so hard: when he has a whim to go to India he rings mother in her big empty Bristol home and explains it would be good for his thesis; when, much later, he takes a lover who is more than a fling (but possibly no more than an ageing man's ego boost), she is woven into the fabric of his marriage, mothering his daughter and a constant figure at both his and his wife's side.

Details of this curious menage are spun out bit by bit in a voice heavy with the inevitability of it all. Anthony's infidelities, like the broken escalators and cold damp North London flats, are a fact of life that can no more be dammed than the sweepingfloods of Eastern India.

Like many cross-cultural voices appearing on the literary scene these days, Ms Gupta evokes all the magic of foreign lands, weaving verses of poetry and images of plenty and hardship torn at will from each of the two lands her novel enters.

Ben Okri, in The Famished Road, managed a similar feat, spinning out a yarn in a melody that stays with readers long after the books have been laid aside.

For a first novel, Memories of Rain is brave and bright. Its dreamy quality and international flavour sets it far apart from the countless stories of love, mixed marriages and infidelities. From this start, her second novel will certainly be something tolook out for.