Writer Judy Birkbeck reviews Table Manners, by Susmita Bhattacharya, published by Dahlia Publishing, 2018.
Susmita Bhattacharya’s first collection ranges between India, Cardiff and Singapore and other places, and focuses on family relationships and cultural differences or the clash between generations, but above all the treatment of women in various societies.
In Summer of Learning, a girl and her parents experience difficulties when visiting the father’s family in India on a long-planned trip of a lifetime. In their drab home in Cardiff they are poor, her mother has two jobs, day and evening, the girl makes her own dinners from something in the freezer, and they have no servants, nor fresh vegetables picked daily from their own land. In India her father pays for everything and goes out with the men and gets drunk and shouts at his wife to gain respect, whereas in his own home he is gentle and quiet. With the non-judgemental acceptance of the child, the girl simply observes the differences between her loud-mouthed grandmother at home smoking, swigging wine, watching soaps and burning dinners, and her sharp-tongued Indian grandmother attended by her daughters-in-law. By the end her spotless candyfloss-pink suitcase has lost its shine and the reader is left wondering, like the girl, what the repercussions of the trip will be. She will miss the taste of fresh mangoes, the gossip of the women, giggling with her cousin and feeling the tickle of her cousin’s fingers in her own blond hair, but will things ever be the same again between her parents? A further contrast is shown with the dire circumstances of the cleaning girl, hardly older than the protagonist, yet married to an elderly alcoholic layabout and caring for a sick baby tranquillised to enable his mother to work.
There is much sadness in this collection: terminal illness, loveless marriage, bereavement, the alienation suffered by non-white persons in Britain after the referendum in Marked and after 7/7 in Letters Home, and the tragedy of the inequality between rich and poor, particularly rich Westerners and the poor in India, as in Spider in which a group of tourists (“all pensioners … travelling the world before ending up in a hospice”) are shown the exotic side of India, the Taj Mahal and so on, while our protagonist is taken to an ordinary home not normally seen by visitors.
The sadness is counterbalanced by optimism, as in That Face, Like a Harvest Moon, in which a grandmother gets over her past losses and places her hope in future generations, or as in the title story, in which the protagonist’s will to live is restored by a simple act of kindness.
There is often a gentle, poignant humour in this collection – in Good Golly, Miss Molly the newly widowed protagonist is comforted by the parrot talking to her in the voice of her dead husband. Some stories are distressing: the ending of Letters Home is heartbreaking, and in all too many of the stories abuse of a wife appears, including acid burns, and acceptance of that abuse. Overall, the position of women is the main issue here: they are chattels, subservient, or exist merely to provide (preferably male) offspring. The wife in Comfort Food is taken along to a dinner with an important businessman and his wife, to show off; her husband gets her to wear a black chiffon dress and she has to eat exotic food. The ending is a salutary lesson. In The Luxury of Quiet Contemplation, a woman wishes her daughter-in-law were submissive, but remembers that she herself was criticised by her own mother-in-law for being too modern, going to the cinema with her husband and wearing flowers in her hair and perfume on her blouse.
The straightforward prose of these delicate stories is full of wry observations. If one word had to be chosen to characterise this collection, it would be ‘empathy’.
Judy Birkbeck has had short stories published in many places. A novel, Behind the Mask is Nothing, is published by Holland House Books. Find out more about Judy: www.judybirkbeck.co.uk.