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Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan

Reviewed by Thangasurabi Bright Raj

 

If you have ever wished for a book that is filled with rich magical realism along the lines of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children, then look no further. Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People is here.

Temporary People is a delight to read. As an ex-expat worker, I could relate to the truth behind these tall tales of escapist fantasy. The stories are a heady mix of the experiences of Indian migrants, mostly Malayalees who work in the modern day El Dorado a.k.a the “Gulf.” In the book, there is heat from the scorching desert sun, the sweat of desperation, the heaviness of longing, the lust for the dirhams, the stench of disillusioned dreams, the helpless rage and the determination to see a means to an end of all those who travel to the Middle East for a living.

The book is certainly unputdownable, thanks to Unnikrishnan’s narrative style that is humorous, absurd and imaginative. His employment of allegoric, satiric and parable-ic methods to dish out stories will remind you of Franz Kafka’s works. He has divided the stories (a.k.a Chabters) in the book into three sections, book 1, 2 and 3 with the numerals typed in Arabic, which appears to be like a personal tribute to the adoptive, temporary country; the UAE.

The very first story, Gulf Return, hits you with unexpected humor that will give a few loud guffaws and sets the mood for what’s in store for the reader. Underneath the humor, the desperation of the migrant workers to return home after having been away for too long is excruciatingly evident.

There are three stories by the same title; Pravasis, which loosely translates to ‘people living in a foreign land.’ The first and the second Pravasis contain just words and not sentences. The first Pravasis has precisely 63 words. 63 sharp words. The first story is harder hitting than the second one.  The third Pravasis has no words at all. It just contains two powerful cartoon sketches that shows many queues of immigrants who are presumably at airports. These three stories sum up the immigrant life in the Middle-East perfectly and in a way the book itself.

If you have ever been a constant taxi hailer while living abroad, then the Taxi Man is one story that you can relate to well. Taxi drivers are often the loneliest people in the world even if they ferry across people all the time, and even if they are with people all the time. The drivers indulge in a conversation with anyone who would give them half an ear and a pint of validation.

Mushtibushi is an impactful story where child sexual abuse is the central theme. Unnikrishnan becomes the voice of a 12-year-old, prepubescent girl named Maya who tells the tale of an anthropomorphic elevator named Mushtibushi which is a child molester. “Mushtibushi, the peep-show pimp, the looker upper hiker of skirts, the unzipper of flies. One more, I promise. Just one more. The harbinger of sleaze.” While this story is an excellent work of imagination it lacks empathy. I think the author has taken issue of child sexual abuse a tad too lightly; he has clearly never interacted with survivors of such abuse.

Throughout the book, Unnikrishnan has taken the liberty to add generous nuances of Malayalam and Arabic. This might be a challenge for readers who are not familiar with the jargon of the mentioned languages and places in the book. However, Temporary People is a brilliant piece of work and is remarkable as a debut novel. I believe that it has carved a spot for the author as one of the best emerging writers of Indian diaspora literature. The readers will not be left in a grey void after reading this book. They will either love it like I did or find it very claustrophobic so that they will stop reading half way through. And I am recommending this book to all those who are planning to go to the Gulf states to seek a fortune and to everyone otherwise.

Thangasurabi Bright Raj is a wordsmith, dancer and a chef at large. She published her first novel; Shall We Dance, Mr.Koshy? when she was just 24. Today, she runs Sinfully Delicious Cooking Studio in Hyderabad, India where she teaches West African, Italian and Thai dishes to enthusiastic home chefs. Her blog :  http://blogs.rediff.com/bronzegoddess/

When I Hit You Or, a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

Reviewed by Sushumna Kannan

Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You Or, a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Wife is a deftly edited book on a marriage that reveals the dark sides of ideology-obsessed men. If earlier, these ideologies were somewhat downplayed as likes/dislikes or masked as principles that the husband liked to follow and imposed on his wife, in Kandasamy’s book, the ideology is explicit, stated upfront and even what brought the couple together, yet its execution has meant physical violence, death threats and control.

Kandasamy’s terse sentences and narrative timing are enjoyable but I have a bone to pick about where the novel leaves us in regard to ideology. Before I come to that, however, let me record my appreciation for the many things she got right. Kandasamy’s beginning is gratifying—it resonates with all the daughters out there who have mothers summarizing their lives for them from time to time. Just when the reader is about to get impatient with the narrative that is denied the backstory, Kandasamy bravely talks about past boyfriends and explains how the marriage that has now ended, occurred in the first place. Brave, because Indian families, whether in India or in the diaspora, are largely in denial about the fact that modern women fall in love and enter relationships.

Kandasamy’s narrative on the predicament of a past love is reminiscent of the many manipulative tricks that cultures have practiced over time. They often follow this pattern: ‘You are crying, you are emotional, let us talk when you are feeling better. You are matter-of-fact, oh, you are so loveless, you don’t turn me on.’ This is largely because current notions of femininity do not allow for women to be emotional and rational at the same time—a dichotomy that is false, in the first place. The past love’s sad yet timely end is inevitable because, “If you stipulated that marriage would be at the end of the road, you were controlling, not letting life flow. If you felt cheated when your lover said: I never promised in marriage in the first place, then you are illogical.” (122) This also captures the current milieu on matters of love; a generation ago, marriage was the assumed end of falling in love, just not true anymore.

Tracing one’s steps back into a failed marriage is an uneasy task, which is why it is now considered uncouth to ask: ‘what happened?’ Women in abusive marriages, when they do walk out, find it extremely difficult to narrate, explain and give convincing examples of abuse. Everything seems trivial to the listener, who is trying to be objective, while this ‘objectivity’ is steeped in multiple layers of cultural norms that misunderstand women, love and surrender, right from the start. People want to know, but they are not listening. Not really.

Writing as a method of healing is highly recommended by psychologists but most abused women in India cannot afford to consult a psychologist or have the time needed to heal. Kandasamy shows such women how to write about their trauma. Her narrative offers rich perspectives and makes probing inquiries, expressing and unearthing the layer of thoughts that lie just beneath our everyday experiences of unease, pain and hurt in abusive relationships until they cumulatively begin to traumatize us. It is in such a layer beneath our expressions that oppression hides, in the very structure of language, society, culture, love, marriage—making it harder for us talk about it logically. Kandasamy effectively relegates the perpetrator of violence in the marriage to the most minimal space; no easy feat.

But, what Kandasamy does with ideology, I find dissatisfying. It does not take the conversation on it forward. Clearly, Kandasamy is not taking the postmodern position of critiquing ideology as such. She is an activist and seriously political and this wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice, of course, if they believed in some form of transformative politics. However, Kandasamy is also not offering the complex theoretical position that ideology is an obstacle yet inevitable because we need ideology to fight ideology. If this is indeed her underlying idea, then it never gets worked into her plot twists, characters or narrative.

A consistent exploration of the postmodern option of critiquing the critical concept of ideology might have opened up the problems she explores within the marriage. My initial reading of her was that she would do this, but she only does this sporadically. When she writes that adhering to her husband’s wishes had meant this: “I should be a blank. With everything that reflects my personality cleared out” I had thought that she had realized that this is indeed what all ideologies do, whether of the left or the right. (16) Much later in the book when she mocks: “The revolution is just around the corner,” it still seemed like a good possibility. (133) But Kandasamy does not pursue this critique to its logical end. Instead, it becomes apparent that she is critiquing the selective interpretation of an ideology (153), its inadequacies, its execution and its blind spots. Now, that is not any less interesting a conversation to have, especially as it gets pitched as Marxism v. Feminism. However, this is a topic that is at least a few decades old. You only had to read We Were Making History (1989) for an amazing set of stories that offer the feminist criticism of Marxism, not Kandasamy (2017)! Well, you could be more charitable and opt to be shocked instead at how nothing has changed for women in the intervening three decades but that too is a point that newspapers seem to be making on an everyday basis, anyway.

Currently, the inevitability of ideology constitutes one of those conundrums in the world of ideas that is hashed and re-hashed but finds fewer innovative ways out. Among non-intellectuals too, there is an increasing intention to be ideological; millennials are weary of the numerous normalized injustices and failures of governance world over. An articulation of the very conundrum of ideology by Kandasamy could have presented greater opportunities to capture our times better, instead of an adherence to one.

 

What I find inadequate is also the feminist critique of Marxism: “…lipstick will not survive the New Democratic Revolution. The lipstick that costs three hundred rupees is not something that society needs.” (132) Or,

In the same breath I also say that I continue to think that working-class women also have sexual desires and need equal rights, and that they need feminism too. When this is met with disdain and disapproval, I talk about why such a vacillation is a hallmark of the petit-bourgeois mind, and I promise to work on it by declassing myself. (142)

I am not sure how desire is critique enough, because Communism when driven to its logical end is about equality over and above desire, which is all the more why a critique of ideology as such appeared to be underway. Instead, Kandasamy seems to be only critiquing the extremism of the husband’s Communism. Clarifying her position in an India Today interview, Kandasamy says:

This novel is not a critique of communism. It is a critique of how patriarchy and toxic masculinity can enter, inhabit and use any ideology for its own gains. You may have the most progressive ideology in the world and you can see that being co-opted and convoluted for the purposes of subjugating women. That is why I think that feminism becomes an urgent and obligatory necessity in every radical space. As much as I share my experiences of violence and misogyny within progressive groups, I will also bravely stand up to be counted as a Marxist.

To me, her point about co-opting ideologies for agendas of our own, personal or political, is also as old as the earth, or at least as old as Althusser (1970).

 

Even as I congratulate Kandasamy for speaking about the violence of the left that many artists and intellectuals refrain from mentioning, as if it were some untouchable thing, her response to the issue appears to be: have ideologies but practice them in moderation or, choose their non-violent version. This is no different from the right wing’s formal disavowal of lynching mobs—only a matter of degree, not of substance. And how does this pan out knowing that the Buddhist tradition, which she sharply critiques in her earlier work, Ms. Militancy, upholds moderation as the best way to live?

 

Even when Kandasamy writes this: “I do my best to criticize myself viciously until I become a ‘true comrade’. It feels like confession. It feels like what I imagine Sunday morning confession feels like to church-goers. It feels as if Communism was a religion, even if it swears that it is against religion” (142); I cannot help thinking, this is Weber (1905). Kandasamy could have at least attempted to sift the differences between the philosophy of Communism and the way it is practiced or absorbed in different parts of the globe, while also telling us why her moderate version of it is worthy and different and where it draws its lines.

 

Furthermore, anyone who has dabbled in Marxism/Communism a bit, of the moderate kind even, will have had their own moments of guilt that made them unable to enjoy any of the things they once did. Ideologies such as Marxism rip a sense of the everyday from us with their alarmist, red-alert kind of blaring emergency mode. For so many people I have known, Marxism has meant an endeavor in the erasure of their own selves, self-deprecation and self-mockery. In other words, cruelty towards their own selves. I also think that all of us who have been left-leaning, no matter in how small a measure, are guilty of haranguing others; critiquing them with too much passion, and a little too much of everything—anything but moderation. Needless to say, this exaggerated and crippling sense of urgency is true of other ideologies too. Participating in ideologies appears to have one worthy result, however. We get to understand what the lack of jouissance can do to us, why it is important to be happy more than anything else, and to do the little things that add to one’s happiness. Unsurprisingly then, ideological constructs were the single largest object of critique in the philosophical thought that emerged from diverse traditions in ancient and medieval India.

On occasion, it feels as if Kandasamy could be boiling down the problems of Communism to an individual’s flaws; an individual who is a good example of the flip side of strong intentions mixed with idiosyncratic expressions of violence, misplaced masculinity and untreated trauma caused by the justification of violence. It is not reasonable to expect a wife to dig deeper into the traumas of a husband or attempt to heal them. That’s not her job, after all. She is a writer. Not that a psychologist wife could facilitate healing any better. Nevertheless, what did the wife expect when as the article in Scroll mentions, she was drawn “to his claim that he can make a true revolutionary out of her”?

Applying Marxism or Communism as if from a textbook to our lives is obviously flawed. It makes one want to ask: the personal is the political but is the political personal too? Because politicizing the personal is not sustainable. Precisely for such reasons, some Marxist teachers are known to ‘confess’ that they would drink Coke occasionally, to explain to their students that it was alright to live a little, sensing that they thought of Coke/Pepsi as the most useless object that created desire where none existed, symbolically and simultaneously being the essence of capitalism, colonialism and corporation. Perhaps, working out a more nuanced position towards ideology and its workings in the outline for When I Hit You… might have added an additional substantive layer to Kandasamy’s already beautiful writing.

References:

Althusser, Louis. (1970) Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. La Pensée.

Stree Shakti Sanghatana. (1989) We Were Making History. Zed Books.

Weber, Max. (2001, fp 1905) “The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.” London and New York: Routledge.

“Wonder Women” India Today. https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/supplement/story/20170703-women-lawyer-politician-comedian-986705-2017-06-23

Bahuguna, Urvashi. Scroll.in https://scroll.in/article/840295/this-novel-or-is-it-a-memoir-shows-a-writer-reclaiming-herself-from-a-violent-abusive-husband

 

Sushumna Kannan has a PhD in Cultural Studies from Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, India. Her research on the South Asian devotional traditions and feminist epistemology focused on the medieval saint, Akka Mahadevi and her vachanas. She received the BOURSE MIRA, French research fellowship in 2006 and 2007 and the Sir Ratan Tata fellowship for PhD Coursework and Writing in 2003 and 2007. She has published her research on Bhakti, dharmashastras, ethics, women’s writing in Kannada and English and on translation theory in peer-reviewed journals and as book chapters. She is currently working on a couple of book projects and the translation of some Kannada fiction into English. She also writes poems. One of her feature articles was nominated for the Laadli media awards 2017. She is currently Adjunct Faculty at the San Diego State University, San Diego, USA. For more of her writings,visit: www.sushumnakannan.weebly.com

Ghost in the Tamarind by Subramanian Shankar

Reviewed by Ghada Ibrahim

A fictitious tale steeped in forbidden love, societal struggles and a country’s struggle to independence, Ghost in the Tamarind is a gripping read. Although it takes place in the 1970s, there are parallels that one can still draw to the India of today. The caste system, a powerful and ingrained structure of society, with the crushing effect it has on individuals who dare to oppose it, has woefully stood the test of time. The narrative is memorable with every character forming budding attachments with the reader. It is a novel that ignites the soul with sensory language and captivating moments.

Ramu, the main character of the story, is a Brahmin boy who hails from Southern India. This young boy’s life takes a sharp turn when he discovers a man’s body underneath (you guessed it) a tamarind tree with his throat viciously slashed. The corpse belongs to an estate worker, Murugappa, who worked for the family estate that Ramu’s grandmother presided over. Understandably, the brutal nature of the death leaves Ramu deeply affected and scarred. But, at the same time it is the death of an Adi Dravidar, which means the murder is forgotten and even buried within the hegemonic system of caste.

In an effort to unburden himself, Ramu reaches out to Ponni, Murugappa’s daughter. And in the shadows of unspoken castes, a keen friendship between the pair is kindled and grows. As their love blossoms, the turmoil of caste in India begins to loom large. The staunch ideologies surrounding the caste system soon catch up with the star-crossed lovers and follows them to all the corners they seek in order to hide from the oppressive and hateful society. Since Ponni is from a lower caste than Ramu, she is referred to as an untouchable. Throughout their love and marriage, neither of their families support them. Regardless, the couple refuse to let the oppressive state of India dictate their life.

The story progresses to speak of Ponni’s deep involvement with education and her staunch resilience in the face of adversity. In an effort to eradicate the hateful ideologies embedded in their society, the pair of them turn to spreading awareness far and wide. The reader cannot fail to notice the tremendous amount of sacrifices that the duo must make. When Ramu and Ponni build a school in Thirunelveli, the owner of the land soon realizes that leasing the land for building a school results in a loss of workers. Trouble rears its head every step of the way, making the novel increasingly entrancing with every progressing chapter.

In their struggle to choose love over societal control, they realize that society’s countless members lean towards the latter. In a world where oppression is common, many forget what they stand for and cower under the pressure of stronger forces and powers. Countless individuals have accepted the lives they were assigned, and the fates bestowed upon them. What makes Shankar’s novel fascinating is the extraordinariness of ordinary people, driven to great lengths developing the courage to stick to their position, unapologetically. The couple that risk all they have in order to bring about a change in the society that they live in – now that is a story I would read to a crowd and wipe away welling tears in unison.

Well-woven and crafted with words that ring in one’s ears and rattle in the ribcage, Ghost in the Tamarind is a story that speaks of jarring realities that surround us to this day. The contrast of time does well to highlight the state of affairs back in the day, but, it also works to bring to light the fact that not much has changed in India. Controversial, hauntingly beautiful and gripping, it is a novel one must not hesitate to dive into headfirst.

Ghada Ibrahim is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in Psychology. Aside from being an avid reader immersing herself in the literary world, she also runs her own food blog (FoodieLassie.com). She has been blogging and writing since the age of 15 and has worked for multiple blogs and digital newspapers including Freaked, TheAppMedia and LawyerHerald. Ghada aspires to become a published author one day and share her love for all things literary with the rest of the world.

Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar

Reviewed by Mary Ann Koruth

“Jennifer,” the first section of Amitava Kumar’s novel, Immigrant, Montana opens with a testimonial by a young man, prematurely guilt-ridden, and so, perpetually seeking pardon; he has left India for the United States to begin graduate studies. He arrives, a dark, disheveled traveler in line at the airport. Soliloquy follows soliloquy, as Kailash, the protagonist, explains his case to an imaginary white judge in a courtroom of the country of his choosing: “You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK…his eyes haunted…it is far from your thoughts and your assumptions to ask whether he has ever spoken soft phrases filled with yearning or what hot, dirty words he utters in his wife’s ear as she laughs and embraces him in bed.”

Is the nature of exile so complex that we who choose it, appoint the new country as the moral arbiter of our choice? Who else will forgive and heal us? The very fact that Kailash places himself at the mercy of judgement by a citizen of the country that granted him passage, so plaintively making the case for his dirtiest, rawest, truest, most private self, sends a clear message. For Kailash, India is the past, the future, America, and the struggle of passage is the present. This present is the subject of the novel more than the individual who lives it. And if an entire lifetime, or a significant portion of it, should be dedicated to this struggle, to assimilate without losing one’s sense of self, to continue to be recognizable to oneself, yet beloved in the eyes of the desired one — if this is the fallout of exile, then so be it. Look at me, says the immigrant, as a desiring, feeling human, ambitious for the life I have chosen, unable to justify my choice, but pursuing it nonetheless.

Kailash’s discovery of America is entwined with the discovery of sex, love and the women who make up the country: “I dreamed of being a writer, and even while fumbling with the clasp on Nina’s bra, I sought language for my experience.” The virginal graduate student explores the exhilarating shores of sexual discovery. As Kailash contemplates the positions—in bed and out of it—that he and his girlfriends might occupy, the reader sees a purely personal revolution unfold, that is equal parts sexual and political, real and rhetorical. The experience of sexual liberation and cultural freedom are synonymous, and Kailash sees one through the lens of the other. Conversations about love and lust cross over into conversations about the state and the histories, both present and past, that dog him.

“Yes, they ask me over at Immigration, Did you marry her for love? I’ll say, Yeah, I love the way she climbs on top and fucks me.” In the section called, “Nina,” sexual rapture meets literary muscle and though the resulting banter might not sound like regular pillow talk, it is very entertaining, because this is not a novel about sex. In a particularly stylized moment, the narrator comes out of the shower and sees his lover lying naked in bed, “…A lovely creature stretched on the dark sheet: on the inside of her thigh, in dark red lipstick, she had written Here…” Sleeping with and loving American women is part of Kailash’s acculturation. This metaphor is gorgeous, and gorgeously written. And Kumar informs us of the narrator’s own discomfort with it, just as we begin to question its veracity. Language and art are no substitutes for love and trust and sheer kindness.

Throughout the novel we are aware that the narrator, like ourselves, relates his story in hindsight. What will we learn? What does he learn? No doubt, Kailash approaches life in America, and sex, with a prepubescent zeal, and why not? Give it your all or give it nothing. How dilute our experience if we are not there for the ravishing. And so, all this with America. References to India on the other hand, are historical and scholarly. Kailash’s memories of his childhood hold a mirror to the devastation and violence that is at the heart of life in rural India, and especially in Bihar, Kumar’s home state. In all these references, we see a deep anguish scuttling beneath Kailash’s factual retelling of India’s colonial past and his own experience of family as a place of attachment and sorrow but little redemption. A cousin is raped, a mother loses both her children, an old woman on a plane fumbles at a toilet door, and Kailash is simply overwhelmed by the scope of these injustices. How much safer is Morningside Heights and the firm landscape of Columbia University. And yet, as Kailash admits, the redemptive quality of exile lies in its link to the past. Without the sadness and the hankering, there would be no happiness.

Immigrant, Montana is a supremely erudite, cerebral novel, primal at heart, with long interludes into political history. Filled with footnotes and images, it is a collage more than a story, nonchalantly plotless. But it returns, always to the carnal heart of our existence, the protagonist’s lust for life. And it is funny—even if a lot of the humor is in Kailash’s absurd and self-conscious attempts to open the gates of love—his words, not mine, the clichéd inside joke about clichés. Even as he omits the name of a town in Gujarat while seducing a lover with a story from his past, not because he might have forgotten it, but because he believes he has repressed it, as he moves from woman to woman in search of his own elusive self, we see a man and his peripatetic heart, and the pattern of his life. This is what we learn, and what he learns about himself—that his wanderings are his life, that the desire that drives his wandering defines him, and thwarted as he is by his own blunderings, these blunderings are a piece of who he is.

The novel finds its emotional voice and center in its last section, “Peter and Maya.” Here, the narrative lightens and lifts, as if its different rhythms suddenly synchronized. Though we see an awkward and flawed Kailash throughout, in these pages, he begins to see himself with compassion. Old loves and colleagues become helpmates. Flecks of clarity illuminate his understanding of himself and what he can offer to the wider world through his life and work. An unintelligible world begins to sort itself out.

Mary Ann Koruth’s love for the English language came from growing up in a family where fidelity to literature and grammar bore a moral dimension. Her writing and reviews have appeared in The Indiana Review, The Rain Taxi Review of Books and The Hindu. She has written for TheAtlantic.com while interning as web editor, and has covered art and culture for other publications. She holds an MFA in fiction from Rutgers-Newark.

Table Manners by Susmita Bhattacharya

Reviewed by Selma Carvalho

For diasporic writers, home is that nebulous place without borders and boundaries. The question that confronts them always is which experience to bring to the page? That of being Asian or that of an evolving syncretic identity carved of a myriad of experiences? For, conventional wisdom says, write what you know. However, British-Asian writer, Susmita Bhattacharya, successfully thwarts conventional wisdom in this collection of short stories titled Table Manners (Dhalia Publishing UK, 2018). She casts a wide net drawing on cartographies and characters as diverse as the Singaporean Li Xian and the Somalian Hoda. That she does so with dexterity and empathy is what makes the stories plausible.

If there is a leitmotif in this collection, it is that of humanising the ‘other,’ for, the world is still a place where the ‘other’ is observed from a distance as either a curiosity or a threat. Bhattacharya’s craft lies in de-mystifying the ‘other,’ breathing life into her characters with their own individual histories.

There are incisive portrayals of Wales, in many ways still provincial, juxtaposed against the tensions experienced by new immigrants. The oft-heard phrase ‘Are you alright, love?’ can sound alien, even frightening, to a newly arrived Indian bride, wrenched from everything familiar to her, and tenuously embarking on a journey with a man she barely knows. But as Bhattacharya observes in, “Dusk Over Atlantic Wharf,” human beings are remarkably resilient when it comes to adapting, and that the language of empathy is all-embracing. Before long, the phrase is contextualised by the new bride.

Not all stories end with successful assimilation. In “Letters Home,” Hassan, a Bangladeshi immigrant to Wales longs for home as he adjusts to his new life. Writing to his wife, he notes: “But one thing not good about Cardiff. I find out immediately. It is raining raining all the time. Small small drops, like mist. Not like in Dhaka, big fat rain that fall like stones. And so cold, my bones feel like kulfi. I think I am inside a fridge. Muyazzambhai bring for me a big black coat. When I’m inside this coat, I like Cardiff once again!” Oscillating emotions are not uncommon amongst immigrants; the weather, the people and the government can seem comforting at times and cold, indifferent and unjust at other times. Even as Hasan dreams of bringing his wife and new-born son to Wales, he experiences a loss of dignity, and begins to question his place in this new land.

Almost immediately one is drawn to the atmospheric details of Bhattacharya’s renderings. “In the Lap of Gods,” for instance, she recreates the goings-on at a Christian Singles camp, the likes of which are routinely organised by ambitious Christian groups, and whose chief mission is to introduce virginal girls to eligible boys. These puritan values fall through the cracks when the protagonist’s own sexuality begins to unfold, challenging everything that is held sacred. Bhattacharya, one assumes, has no lived experience of such a camp but in fact, she is a Bengali who grew up in the Protestant Christian tradition.

Bhattacharya’s early influences are rooted in the Bengali appreciation of literature as central to understanding life. Her grandfather had an extensive collection of books, everything from fiction to photography, and as a child, she devoured them. Being able to read in three languages – Bengali, English and Hindi – helped immensely.

Pain is the uttering of a universal language and Bhattacharya speaks it deftly; the hauntings of the barren, the estranged, and those condemned to die loom large in the night. “The Taste of Onion on his Tongue,” begins with these ominous lines: “Seven o’clock. As the sky deepens into shades of violet and I wait in anticipation. I take my place at the window and watch the people returning home.” It is the disturbing story of a childless widow whose voyeuristic sexual fantasies involve her neighbour’s husband. Bhattacharya uses the concave black mirror to turn the gaze inwards. The sense of failure that the widow endures (reflecting the trauma of infertility for women) is so complete that she begins to normalise ritual humiliation.

Another fine example of desi noir is the story “Spider.” Bhattacharya exquisitely observes frissons in Old Delhi where the extraordinary dwells amidst the ordinary, and where tour guides can morph into fakirs or royal princes depending on the appetites of foreign tourists. Paula, one such tourist, is led by the dubious tout Mohan, through a city where: “The houses, rather shacks, spilled onto the street, making it narrow and congested. Cyclists, cows, scooters and cycle rickshaws hurtled past each other and the hundreds of people walking in the middle of the street. Here men wore skull caps and lungis, and sported orange beards. Women were covered in burkas and children had dark kohl lined eyes.” The story reaches its climatic end, when Paula learns that nothing, not even individual pain, is private, and that everything can be on exhibition for the right price.

Vivid descriptions of food – cracked eggs dropped in boiling soup, plum sauce on pork, oolong tea, octopus fritters fried in golden egg yolk, prawn pakoras – are woven throughout the book as the link bridge that has the capacity to heal divisiveness, to reach out to the ‘other’, and enable a more intimate understanding of oneself. In the title story, “Table Manners,” the protagonist, a widowed man, is withering and withdrawing from the world. A chance encounter with an elderly Chinese neighbour, and an invitation to tea, rejuvenates his spirits.

It is hardly possible to start reading a story in this collection and stop midway. It is not the ending in these stories that the reader will crave but rather the journey itself, made suspenseful through a profound evocation of geographical space and the character’s place in it.

Selma Carvalho is the author of three non-fiction books documenting the Goan presence in British East Africa. Her short fiction and poetry have been published by LitroLighthouse, online Mechanics’ Institute Review (Birkbeck), and Kingston University Press, among others. Her work appears in 12 anthologies and has been translated into the Portuguese. She has received a nod from numerous major competitions, notably as a shortlist finalist for the London Short Story Prize 2017, runner-up for the Dinesh Allirajah Prize 2017 and the Dorset Fiction Award 2018, and winner of the Leicester Writes Prize 2018. Her collection of short stories was long-listed for the prestigious SI Leeds Literary Prize 2018.

Reviews

Ghost in the Tamarind by Subramanian Shankar

The narrative is memorable with every character forming budding attachments with the reader.

Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar

The Prematurely guilt-ridden, and perpetually seeking pardon for leaving home.

When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

Critiquing the selective interpretation of an ideology.

Table Manners by Susmita Bhattacharya

Evocation of geographical space and the character’s place in it.

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan

Humorous, absurd and imaginative.