The Scribbler is pleased to have Susmita Bhattacharya of Plymouth, England on the 4Q Interview this month. It is Susmita’s second visit. As one of our Guest Authors she previously shared her enjoyable short story, The Mango Season. Susmita is an accomplished author who has just released her debut novel, The Normal State of Mind. You can discover more about by following the links below.
4Q: We are anxious to hear about your new novel. Please tell us what to expect when we read The Normal State of Mind.
SB: The Normal State of Mind is a story about love, friendship and finding one’s voice. It is a story about two women, Dipali and Moushumi and their friendship. It is a story of how their friendship helps them deal with personal issues and the Indian traditions that dictate how they should present themselves in society, for one is a widow, and the other is a lesbian.
The novel is set in 1990s India, and I hope to show aspects of urban India and Indian society that have not been seen in Indian fiction. I hope this book will bring about a debate or discussion about women empowerment and the LGBT presence in India.
One of my favourite quotes is by Vijayalakshmi Pandit, the first woman politician to hold a cabinet post and diplomat, whose brother happened to be the first prime minister of India. She mentioned in a piece in the Ananda Bazaar Patrika (1938): ‘People tell me the modern woman is aggressive. I wonder if this is true. But if it is, she has good reason for it, and her aggression is only the natural outcome of generations of suppression. The first taste of liberty is intoxicating, and for the first time in human history, a woman is experiencing the delights of this intoxication...’
This stands true even in today. She wrote this in 1938, we are in 2015 now, and still, the modern woman is fighting... fighting for her rights, fighting for her equal place in society. I realised that be it lesbian or a widow, as Dipali, mentions in the book, women are still identified in relation to a man, or to the lack of one.
It is a story simply told and I hope it will connect with readers around the globe. When I was researching for the book, I talked to people from different cultures and social backgrounds, and realized that there are some issues that affect people no matter where they come from. The struggle with coming out and acceptance is something common for most gay and lesbian people I talked to. But this is a story set in metropolitan cities of Mumbai and Calcutta, this is not a general reflection of Indian women in any way.
And yes, there is a lot about Indian food in the book!
4Q: You have many short stories and poems published in the UK and internationally. How did the idea for your novel begin and when did you decide to write this story.
SB: The novel started as a dissertation for my Masters in Creative Writing in 2005. I was comfortable with writing short stories, but I wanted to push the boundaries and attempt writing a novel. It was difficult to put a finger on what I should write about. I thought of many complicated plots, historical themes etc but wasn’t confident to write, or rather see it to its end. But the mantra ‘writing what one knows about’ struck a chord as I realised that my experience as a single, working woman in Mumbai and having friendships with like minded women, and men was the best place to start. My experience as an assistant to a well-known fashion photographer also helped me shape the book. Though I have been inspired by some of my experiences to write the book, this book isn’t about me or anyone I know. But I had fun revisiting some old haunts to refresh my memory and reconnecting with old friends.
The book took eight years to write, as in between, I had two children, moved houses and relocated from Cardiff to Plymouth. It then took two years for the book to be accepted by a publisher, and finally it is here in 2015.
4Q: Please share a childhood memory or anecdote.
SB: I was born and bred in Mumbai. In the book, I have written about the bomb blasts that ripped through the city in 1993. I was in Art College then, and my friend and I were returning home on a public bus. We had made a plan to have lunch at my place. As I was preparing lunch, we heard a bang, and the crows in the trees shrieked and flew up into the sky. We shrugged it off, thinking someone had started off a firecracker. But it happened again, this time closer to home. The house shook, the window panes rattled, and the smell of gunpowder came through. We weren’t sure what was happening. This was before the days of social media and mobile phones, so news didn’t get around so quickly. Also, the telephone lines went dead, so we couldn’t contact anyone. My parents were at work and my sister in school. Then a family friend came rushing in and told us that bombs were going off in various parts of Mumbai, and two had gone off just couple of hundred yards away from my house. And the scary part was, when we were on that bus, it had stopped at the traffic lights just outside the building that had been bombed fifteen minutes before it had gone off.
My dad returned from work and he rushed to the school where my mum and sister were to escort them home. He had to walk past the bombed sites and told us how the street was covered in shattered glass and debris. He got them home safely. But in the meantime, I was worried sick as we didn’t know when and where the next bomb would go off, and was relieved only after they all got back safely. My friend too had to wait until her father managed to find a way to come to our house and fetch her. Unfortunately, there were many others who did not get back home that day. This day will remain etched in my brain forever.
4Q: Spending several years travelling to many parts of the world with your husband must have been an exciting adventure. Can you share some of your experiences?
SB: I spent time on seven oil tankers over a period of three years. Those years seem surreal to me now. Was I really on board oil tankers, experiencing all sorts of adventures? I think spending time away from the human civilization, seeing nothing but the blue sea and sky for days helped me look inwards and make friends with myself. It also made me appreciate nature as well as understand how human interference can harm nature’s way.
One of the first things that come to mind is how I came across events/ moments without planning for them. For instance, I once looked out of my bedroom porthole when we had anchored out at sea, and just below me was a dolphin that was helping her little one to swim. She held the baby over her snout and pushed it above the water to breathe. Maybe they were just playing. I felt very honoured to be given that opportunity to watch.
Another time, our ship had anchored at Augusta, Sicily. My husband and I stepped out to see the town, and I was intrigued to see the whole town covered in ash. Looking up, I saw Mt Etna belching out smoke. For three days, we stayed anchored in the bay, and I watched a live volcano with lava streaming down the mountainside, once again from my cabin windows. We’ve been tossed about on stormy waters, sailed on glass-like calm seas, kept watch to keep pirates at bay and done the Titanic pose to boredom!
But again, being out at sea without much communication (on that particular ship we didn’t have email contact), we completely missed out on the day 9/11 happened to the rest of the world. On that day, we were treated to best ever display of dolphins and whales that came close to our ship, and it seemed they were performing for us. Hundreds of dolphins leaped and danced against the evening sun, whales spouted showers and swam along the ship, swishing their tails and diving. Flying fish glinted above the water. It was a fully orchestrated show. We didn’t know what was happening elsewhere in the world. That night, the Chief Officer got some news on the radio, but reception wasn’t clear, so though we gauged something had happened, we didn’t know what exactly. We called home and that was when we realized what had happened. But it was only a week after 9/11, when we reached Gibraltar, did we first set eyes on the television replays and newspapers.
On a more cheerful note, there was another very pleasant experience when sailing down the St Lawrence River, Canada. There was a man on the shore who would find out which ship passed by his house and he’d raise the flag of the crew as a hello. (Not sure if he is still there, this was about 12 years ago). As we made our way down the river, my husband told me to go up to the deck and watch the shore. So I did. Suddenly, I saw the Indian flag rise up and the national anthem being played, in the wilderness on the shores of the river in Canada. I’d been away from home for so long, it was as if this man had hugged me personally and welcomed me to his home. It was a wonderful feeling.
Thank you Susmita for being our guest this week. Susmita’s novel can be purchased here. Her website is susmita-bhattacharya.blogspot.co.uk/
Next week on the Scribbler you will meet a writing team of sisters, Lorraine Campbell and Pam Burks that pen under the name of Ellie Campbell. Read an excerpt from one of their novels.