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Monday 1 October 2018

Table Manners, a short story collection by Susmita Bhattacharya

I have been reading and loving Susmita's short stories for several years. From her features on Thresholds (The International Short Story Forum) I have also been introduced to short story writers such as Amy Bloom and Janice Pariat. Today, I am delighted to welcome her onto the blog today to talk about her writing and Table Manners, her new short story collection.
My own review is at the end of this post. 

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, (Parthian Books, 2015/ Bee Books India, 2016) was long listed for the Words to Screen Prize by the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI) in 2018.  She teaches contemporary fiction at Winchester University. She also facilitates the Mayflower Young Writers workshops, a SO:Write project based in Southampton. Her short story collection, Table Manners, is published by Dahlia Publishing.

Table Manners: 
A parrot takes on the voice of a dead husband. Two women in search of god and marriage learn what it means to love. A man living in exile writes home. 
From Mumbai to Venice, Cardiff to Singapore, this collection of short stories of love and loneliness in the urban landscape is delicately nuanced and sprinkled generously with sharp observation of the human condition.
A captivating debut collection which introduces us to a powerful new voice.

Q: How does a short story first come to you? I’d love to know how you go about ‘trapping’ a short story and then turning an initial idea into a real story.

Each story has a different process. Sometimes, I’m inspired by a visual. A person engaged in some sort of action. Maybe sipping coffee in a piazza in Venice. Or a street covered in broken glass after a football match. Sometimes it comes from a moment that I’ve personally experienced. The Luxury of Quiet Contemplation, for example, came to me when I was visiting my sister in India. Due to jet-lag, I didn’t get much sleep and I was disorientated because of the unfamiliar surroundings. I lay in bed and just listened to the sounds of the morning from the window above me. Sometimes I get ideas from the news or radio programmes. I love the Listening Project and I always have Radio 4 on when I’m cooking. Something about the amalgamation of the smells in the kitchen and the stuff I listen to on the radio seem to work. Maybe that’s why I have a lot of food in my stories.

Q. Every writer has a different process. Could you share how you complete a short story? For example, do you know the ending when you start writing or does it evolve during the writing process?
Again it is a different process every time. It could be that I know the ending and I work backwards to find the beginning to the story. I knew how I wanted Letters Home or Comfort Food to end. It was a matter of figuring out how to lead the story to the beginning. Or it could be the beginning and I have no idea of how it’s going to end. Then I usually just keep going until it finds the natural end. Sometimes that doesn’t work, and I have to keep going back to the story until I’m satisfied with it. In Buon Anniversario Amore Mio, I wrote about the protagonist through a writing prompt at a workshop I attend every month. (I try to attend every month!) The prompt was to write about the place – the setting being the focus of the exercise. I set it in Venice, having just returned from a holiday there. I knew why my character went there, but I didn’t know how it would end. The two characters in the story guided me to the ending they wanted. It was quite surreal, just following their lead. It has happened before, and I really enjoy that process because I have no idea where I’m going to end up.

Q. I believe you share work within a writing group. Would you recommend this to other writers – how has it helped your own writing? Do you mind sharing how your particular group works? 
I think it’s incredibly valuable to share work with a writing group. As you know, writing can be isolating, and a lot of times the imposter syndrome gets the better of oneself. A writing group has many benefits. There is of course the social aspect. Being with people who understand you and do not think you’re crazy because you talk to your characters or that you have a different coloured pen for every notebook you own. There is the support network a writer needs so much – to honest feedback genuinely there to help improve the writing, a chance for you to read others’ work and have an input on their process. Deadlines are important too. You have a reason to finish that section of writing because you need it ready for the next meeting. I would definitely recommend it.
I belong to a Winchester based writing group called the Taverners – because we meet in a cosy pub called the St James Tavern. It is run by Claire Fuller, and there are eleven members. We meet once a month and share a maximum of three thousand words of our work-in-progress a week before the meeting. We read and annotate the feedback on the printouts, and then on the evening we begin with someone. That person reads out a section of their work, and then the others follow with discussion of that work. The writer isn’t allowed to speak or engage in the discussion. Once we’ve finished, then the writer concerned can ask questions and talk about their work. Then he or she chooses the first one on their pile and it goes on. It’s great fun. And extremely useful. A few of the stories in the collection were discussed in these sessions, and I definitely got some superb feedback which I incorporated into the final versions.

Q. Is there one short story, or perhaps an entire collection, which you wish you had written? Or one that significantly inspired your own writing.
 I love Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories. I love her style, and the subtext that runs between the lines of her stories. Reading her work has been vital in the development of my own style. In particular, I love the collection Unaccustomed Earth. There is so much breadth in that collection, one cannot put her in a one-size-fits-all box. I love the quietness of her stories. Sometimes it feels like she’s just mulling over her thoughts on a page, but she does it with such finesse and confidence, it’s wonderful. From the South Asian writers, I love Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories. I’m partial to anything set in Mumbai. He really captured all of the senses and ethos of Mumbai. I wish I could write like that about the city I was born in. The city I love.

Q. Can you tell us what you're working on right now? What new projects are you planning or hoping to work on in the near future.
I have a couple of writing projects on at the moment. I’m working on a novel, which is set in Mumbai and Southampton. I’m also getting together all my flash fiction, let’s see where it goes.

Thank you, Susmita, for coming on the Blog today, it has been a real pleasure to have you.
You can link with Susmita here:
Twitter: @susmitatweets / @dahliabooks
Most importantly you can buy your own copy of Table Manners here:
Dahlia Books

Review of Table Manners:
Table Manners and other stories by Susmita Bhattacharya (Dahlia Publishing) is a collection of 18 mouth-watering short stories which paint poignant images of love and loneliness making you both smile and sigh sadly in equal measures. At times the stories are delicate and incredibly tender, then others are richly comic or heart breaking in their sadness. The prose is sharp and funny, fluid and immensely readable. I read and enjoyed every single story in this collection, and am already returning to read my favourites again. I particularly enjoyed the cast of multi-cultured characters and settings. Whether the story is set amongst the marbled beauty of the Taj Mahal, rich upmarket Singapore or a wet English seaside, you are truly immersed along with the characters and quickly feel part of their world.
Several stories had echoes of Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing where the main characters are dislocated from their homes and struggling to settle in a foreign land, such as Hoda in Growing Tomatoes craving her mother’s cooking, or poor Hassan writing home to his wife as he tries to fit into working life in Cardiff. The men in Bhattacharya’s stories are beautifully written, they are complex and multi-layered, never simply villains or heroes. In Buon Anniversario Amore Mio we share Andy’s pain and anger as he endures his wife’s cancer, constantly parading a ‘brave’ face. We nudge the gentle widower in the title story Table Manners towards his new Chinese neighbour, they have no language in common except a shared love of food and we hope their friendship is blossoming.
Picking out my particular favourites is tough, but I did love Mouli and her parrot in Good Golly Miss Molly, a surprisingly uplifting story about grief. Spider is an honest story about the realities of poverty and how a tourist regrets asking to be shown the ‘real’ India. I laughed along with the young couple in Holiday to Remember which took me back to horribly wet childhood caravan holidays by the seaside – this could have been a gloomy depressive story but in Bhattacharya’s skillful hands it becomes a reflection of what it takes to make a marriage work – it has a delightful ending.
Throughout this collection the writing is lush and sensuous, the characters diverse and multi-layered, the stories are expertly structured and you feel in the hands of a very talented author. These are stories to be savoured like a good meal, you will want to keep reading and not leave the table.


  1. Thank you for introducing me to this author.

    1. You're welcome, Julia. I hope you enjoy Susmita's stories as much as I do.