I’ve known Susmita Bhattacharya for a couple of years now, and 2018 was particularly special as we both hadshort story collections published by Daliha Publishing (Subjunctive Moods for me and Table Manners for Susmita). I’m delighted to interview her and find out more about her experience of writing and publishing these pieces. Table Manners contains a number of prizewinning stories and is a wonderfully diverse and far-ranging work. The stories showcase her poignant and razor-sharp writing style, considering social and cultural differences. Susmita is also the author of The Normal State of Mind, published in 2015 by Parthian Books.
C. G. Menon: Susmita, congratulations on the upcoming publication of Table Manners. It’s a brilliant collection with some extraordinarily complex stories in it. There are so many shifting undercurrents, where situations turn out to baffle the reader’s – and the character’s – expectations, and a real delicacy of touch. You’re a very prolific short story writer, with a formidable list of publications. How did you go about selecting the stories to be included here?
Susmita Bhattacharya: Thank you, Catherine, for your kind words. As you’ve mentioned, I started writing these stories from as far back as 2006, and the latest one a couple of months ago. When we started discussing the collection, my publisher, Farhana, mentioned how even though the stories are so diverse, they have a common thread of identity, loss and belonging and lots of food running through them. I tried to be true to those themes and chose the stories that gave the reader something different to reflect on every time.
CGM: ‘Marked’ is one of the most complex stories in the collection, bringing together multiple time periods, narrative strands and political events. Can you tell us more about the process of plotting this story? Was it conceived as a response to the Brexit vote?
SB: ‘Marked’ went through many versions before ending up as the one in The Lonely Crowd. I first set it during the 9/11 tragedy but after Brexit happened, it was much, much closer to home. When putting together the collection, I felt that I needed to update the story and it became more personal to me. It became my response to the Brexit vote, and what happened the morning we woke up and heard the results. We had gone to bed late the night before, quite confident that we would remain. We were woken up by fireworks in the distance but realised to our shock that it had gone the other way. We did not face any racist reaction like the protagonist does, but I heard first-hand experiences from others who had, and I used those experiences to develop the story. This was also a progression from the other story in the collection, ‘Letters Home’, which is set during the 7/7 London bombings. I wanted to explore these events from the eyes of the ‘outsiders’ who call this country home.
CGM: Many of the stories centre around food: eating, non-eating, cooking. In the title story, ‘Table Manners’, food is used as a means of connection between characters and their pasts. Was this a conscious choice when writing the pieces?
SB: Food is an important focus of my writing, not just because I love food – the cooking and the eating of it, but also because food conveys so much more. The social paradigms that food can indicate – the eating or non-eating of it, and the personal journeys of my characters are important to me. Missing the food of my childhood, then tasting new foods during my travels and then the complete inability to taste food was something I experienced during my chemotherapy treatment. These were all important milestones that shaped my thinking and viewing of the world. The shock of realising what we take for granted when taken away from us created an even more special connection with food for me consequently.
CGM: Several of these stories depict characters who are very conscious of their surroundings. There’s a real prominence of ‘place’ in these. You’ve travelled a lot: how much of the characters’ sense of displacement comes from your own experiences?
SB: I’ve always been attracted to travel and immersing myself in new cultures and places. As a child, my window to the world was my grandfather’s collection of books on travel, photography, nature, etc. I’d spend my afternoons losing myself between the pages and imagining myself in scenes from a Henri Cartier Bresson photograph or following the camel caravans through the sand dunes of the Sahara. I was immensely fortunate to then travel extensively first for art field trips around India during my college days, and around the world on oil tankers for around three years with my husband. We did a road trip across India as well as the US. I’ve lived in Mumbai, Kolkata, Singapore, Cardiff, Plymouth and now in Winchester. So yes, a lot of the characters’ sense of displacement and sense of adventure as well, comes from my own experiences. My travels opened up a world to me that was so diverse and different, and yet, underneath all of that, people were really the same. Their lives, their struggles, their successes were things we could all relate to, no matter which part of the world they came from.
CGM: In ‘The Taste of Onion On His Tongue’, an elderly woman confronts and disentangles her own dreams. We sympathise with her, but the precision of your writing style means that we’re aware right throughout the piece of the upcoming revelation. How important is it to you to manage a reader’s expectations? And are you a fan of the ‘twist’ ending?
SB: It is very important for me to understand what the reader expects from my stories. But I don’t want to manage the readers’ expectations by manipulating them into believing something that is not. I’m not a fan of the ‘twist’ ending as such even though it is evident in a couple of my stories. I did not plan them to end as a ‘twist’ but that’s how they ended naturally. In other stories, I have explored endings that end in a moment, or are open to the reader’s interpretation. Most of my stories follow a more traditional style rather than experimental. For me, the narrative and the character’s journey are more important than the style of writing, which I consciously keep quite simplistic. I feel my strength lies in storytelling, and my hope is that the reader can lose themselves in the world that I have created in my stories.
CGM: In many of these pieces there’s a sense of looking back. This comes across most strongly in two very compelling stories: ‘The Summer of Learning’ and ‘That Face, Like A Harvest Moon’. Are there other pieces in this collection which you feel resonate with each other in this subtle way?
SB: Although it wasn’t a conscience decision to mirror stories, I’ve realised that there are stories that do so. For example, ‘Letters Home’ and ‘Marked’ are set during two very dramatic events in the UK. One during the 7/7 bombing and the other during the Brexit referendum. ‘Dusk Over Atlantic Wharf’, ‘A Holiday to Remember’ and ‘Growing Tomatoes’ are from the point of view of the young wives who find moving to a new country difficult but eventually overcome their prejudices and fears. I feel these stories are all subtly reflecting off each other. In India, we have a something called a thali – usually served at lunchtime, where various dishes are placed in little bowls, all arranged on a big platter – a thali. The dishes all vary in taste from bitter, to spicy to sweet. But they all complement each other perfectly. I hope that this is what the collection will have achieved for the readers.
CGM: The stories are very elegantly structured, and many of them have plots that come almost – but not quite – full circle. How do you plot out stories? Do you begin with the events, with the place, or with something else?
SB: I don’t usually plot out the entire story. There is no plot structure or idea that I tend to follow consciously. It depends on where the idea stems from. I listen to the radio a lot, and one can find some amazing prompts or starting points from news stories or documentaries. For some, like ‘Letters Home’, it started with the event. ‘Spider’, which appeared in The Lonely Crowd earlier, was inspired by a documentary film I had watched, while ‘In the Lap of the Gods’ was inspired from a personal experience of attending a religious camp years ago. Sometimes, it could just be a feeling, an observation. I wrote ‘The Luxury of Quiet Contemplation’ after spending a night on a mattress on the floor in Mumbai, unable to sleep because of jet-lag. I just listened to the night sounds and watched the shadows projected on the wall by the streetlights, and the story came to me. I juxtaposed my horizontal self with that of the woman who had a fall in her kitchen. So it is a sort of pick and mix exercise! I never quite know which element I will start off the story with.
CGM: You display a wonderful command of a range of narrative voices throughout this collection. How do you know when you’ve ‘got’ the voice you want in a short story, and what do you do when writing to make sure you maintain it?
SB: This is an interesting process. For some stories, I don’t have to work on the ‘voice’. It comes instinctively and without much tweaking. For example, I had to work on ‘Buon Anniversario Amore Mio’ a lot to get the voice right. However, with others, I have to work on several drafts before I am satisfied with the end result. When I’m writing a short story, I sort of get into the character mind. I hear the character’s voice in my head. It’s easier to write the story when I’ve come to that point. Sometimes it doesn’t work that way. That’s when I have to rework either the voice, or the tense or the ending to get the effect I want. I also read aloud to myself to make sure that the voice is consistent. It’s always interesting how the story finds its own shape and ending. Sometimes it is a surprise for me as well, and sometimes I know how I want to end the story and work backwards to find the beginning. That’s what I love about writing short stories. Always challenging and fun.
CGM: Your novel The Normal State of Mind also deals with characters stepping outside their accustomed roles. How do you find the process of writing novels differs from the process of writing short stories?
SB: I’m a short story writer who also writes novels – that’s how I’d define myself. The novel was not a linear writing process at all. I wrote it in pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle and then fit the pieces in to make it flow coherently. It was a difficult process, but also it has been the best learning curve for me. I know now how not to write a novel, and train myself to be a bit more consistent with my writing technique. The short story is a different matter altogether. I often finish the first draft in one sitting. Then it’s a question of going back to it over several days, or weeks and tweaking it. I enjoy the challenge of writing short stories and the form fits in well within the time constraints between work and family life. I’m in the process of writing a novel now, and I must say that being part of a writing group helps a lot in getting that commitment to stick to the project and keeps me going. There is a structure and a focus that I find works very well for me. I would definitely recommend it.
Photo of Susmita Bhattacharya reading at the launch of The Lonely Crowd Issue Four by Jo Mazelis, 2016.