Dahlia Publishing is delighted to be publishing Susmita Bhattacharya’s short story collection, Table Manners. I’ve been a fan of Susmita’s work for years and had the pleasure of working with her on our Beyond the Border anthology in 2014. It was only recently that I plucked up the courage to ask Susmita whether she had plans to work on a collection. I was delighted when she said yes. In this short blog, Susmita Bhattacharya tells us more about her fascinating life, moving from place to place on oil tankers, and how this informs her short fiction.
“Maybe you had to leave in order to miss a place; maybe you had to travel to figure out how beloved your starting point was.”
― Jodi Picoult
When I began my writing career, I had no idea how true Jodi Picoult’s quote would be and how much it would relate to me. I had no idea, in the first place, that I’d be leaving my home in Mumbai and travelling around the world on oil tankers for three years with my husband. I had no idea that I’d live in five cities in three different countries that I’d call home. And I certainly had no idea how much I’d miss the place where I was born. Where I’d grown up. Until I moved so far, far away from there.
I lived in Cardiff, back in 2004, when I wrote my first short story that was published. It was filled with nostalgia for Mumbai, the place I had left. I remember feeling so homesick while writing that story that I cried and ached to go back home. I also wrote about Singapore, where I had lived prior to Cardiff and that had a different feel to it. It was more to do with the culture, the sights and sounds and tastes – because that’s how I had experienced the city. It did not pull me emotionally like my city, Mumbai, did.
While in Cardiff, I did my Masters in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. I was putting together a collection of short stories as my submission. I realised most of my stories were set in India – one in Singapore. But I couldn’t set any of my stories in Cardiff. I lived there for nearly five years, but I didn’t dare to. I didn’t feel like I had immersed myself enough to be able to do justice to it. Except the one where the protagonist lived in Cardiff but pined away for Mumbai. That was kind of autobiographical, and I learned to move away from such themes quickly.
Finally, after moving to Plymouth, I got the distance I needed from Cardiff and did not hesitate to set my stories there. I realised that not being present in the place I was writing about gave me a new perspective about the place that I missed while actually living in that city. I still haven’t got that distance form Plymouth, having moved once again, to write about it. But I will – soon enough.
My days of sailing gave me the distance I needed from myself. It put me in an extraordinary position of leaving the ordinary life behind and experiencing new adventures. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to reflect and think about my life and my goals. It gave me time and space to write and to experience the world quite organically. It helped me see new worlds and cultures, and it definitely helped me figure out how much I valued my starting point.
The stories in my debut collection, Table Manners are my attempt to capture some of these experiences, physical and emotional, my starting points and create fiction that explores this sense of place.
Susmita Bhattacharya was born in Mumbai. Her short fiction has been widely published, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her novel, The Normal State of Mind, was published in 2015 by Parthian (UK) and Bee Books (India). It was long listed for the Words to Screen Prize by the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI). She teaches contemporary fiction at Winchester University and also facilitates the Mayflower Young Writers workshops, a SO:Write project based in Southampton.
Reviews for Table Manners
“Graceful, poignant and beautifully wrought – a masterful debut.” Angela Readman
“These triumphant, sharp eyed humorous stories mark the arrival of an intriguing new voice; tender, poignant and wry.” Irenosen Okojie
“A winning collection. These stories are delicately shaped around sharp and tender moments rendered in rich, vivid prose.” Mahesh Rao
Table Manners launches on 28th September 2018 at P&G Wells Bookshop in Winchester. Everyone is welcome to join us for an evening of readings and refreshments.