Book review: Table Manners by Susmita Bhattacharya
Reviewed by Pia Ghosh-Roy
Title: Table Manners
Author: Susmita Bhattacharya
Publisher: Dahlia Publishing
Year of Publication: 2018
No. of pages: 159
True to its title, the stories in Table Manners seem to be seated around a long dinner-table having a conversation over the course of an engrossing evening. With each story, I was invited into homes and lives that had their own unique rhythms. The stories wear different personalities, inhabit different parts of the world — India, Singapore, Italy and the UK — but sit beautifully in each other’s company and make for a meal to remember.
Many of the stories took me into the heart of traditional marriages and relationships, with their set dynamics, power imbalance, the dominant male and the ‘good wife’. Yet, within that, there are hidden moments, quietly captured and gently exposed, that reveal more. You will meet women, who while living the life that is expected of them — adjusting their hopes, and lowering their expectations — keep aside a bit of themselves that belong to no-one and answer to no-one. I found these private selves opening themselves up to me in these pages, where they share their concerns, their contemplations, and their inner chaos, where they show their bruises both visible and invisible.
In the first story, a wife nurses a childhood love for her male cousin, and is torn between this reckless and doomed emotion, and “The Right Thing To Do” by her staid marriage. It is told by the female house-help, whose thoughts are consumed by two things: her mistress’s irresponsible heart, and a neighbour, Mrs Dalal, who is regularly beaten by her husband and ‘turns up with her bruises at the most inconvenient of times’.
In one of my favourite stories in the collection, Li, a young woman, plans a quiet evening with a bowl of “Comfort Food”, but gives it up when she has to accompany her husband to a business dinner with a potential client – a potential male client, who subjects her to an evening of unwelcome attention and lecherous stares.
While Li is bruised by an unpalatable evening, Mouli in “Good Golly Miss Molly” is bruised by loneliness. Mouli’s husband has died, and all she has left of him is a pet talking parrot that he’d given her when they were newlyweds. We also see quiet bruises in another story that stayed with me – “Growing Tomatoes”. It introduces us to Hoda, who has travelled from Mogadishu to Cardiff to become a second wife to a man named Abdi Khaled, and to bear him the child his first wife couldn’t. Abdi Khaled is not only old enough to be Hoda’s father, but he is also blind to his own infertility. In “That Face, Like a Harvest Moon”, Manju, a grandmother, is bruised by her unmarried granddaughter’s unwanted pregnancy.
For me, the most beautiful part of these stories is that they end not with a resolution but with small, sharp shards of hope. Sometimes, this hope is fragile, but it comes from a place of strength. It shows the little things we find to comfort ourselves with, to seek joy in the difficult, bring light into the shadows. For Li it is ending a distasteful evening with a bowl of comfort food. For Mouli, comfort comes as the voice of her parrot who speaks like her dead husband. For Hoda, comfort is in finding a small patch within her misery in which to sow the seeds of her first tomato plant and watch it begin to flower. For Manju, her granddaughter’s pregnancy makes her revisit a painful part of her past and lay her own ghosts to rest. In their own ways, they all squeeze out the comfort and closure they need to make their day, their week, their life, more bearable.
These stories spoke to me of quiet resilience, of finding beauty in the ordinary, of rising above what is handed to you. While reading them, I travelled into their worlds. I could smell cups of chai, pots of noodles, pakoras and mango pickles, crisp cannoli and cones of creamy gelato. I could hear the sounds of busting cities and quiet streets, of windows opening and doors creaking shut, of murmured conversations and angry voices. Just like the mixed clamour around a large table that I would expect at a dinner party that throws together a colourful cast of characters, I watched my evening swell up with accents and aromas. And then, I waited for a lull in the conversation, broken only by the clinks of cutlery, to hear the silences — because in each of the stories in Table Manners, these silences are rich with wordless gestures and glances. They spoke to me the loudest.
Pia Ghosh-Roy grew up in Kolkata, India, and lives in Cambridge, UK. Her fiction has won the 2017 Hamlin Garland Award, and been widely published in journals and anthologies. Pia is currently working on her first novel.
Find her at piaghoshroy.com