I surf cookery videos on YouTube. Watch how potato chips are fried. Follow the step-by-step of making hot, puffed up chapattis. I feed my cravings with my eyes only. My tongue has turned traitor. I lick my lips and swallow saliva that tastes like metal, the chemicals of pipettes and test tubes in a school chemistry lab.
On my good week, I will run to the kitchen and knead that dough. Roll into balls. Devour chapattis with melted butter. I will savour every flavour that has lived as a memory on my tongue. Melted cheese and hot tabasco sauce. Chocolate ice-cream. The familiar heat of fish curry with rice.
The next blast of Taxol shooting through my veins will strip my tongue again. Like sandpaper, they will rub till my taste buds are sore. I will stop eating. We will strike off another session from the calendar. I will return to watching cookery shows, an ice cube giving my blistering mouth relief.
You promise me the end is not far off.
If I take a sip from that cup – will you promise me that it will taste like tea? If I suck on that boiled sweet, will you promise me I’ll feel the sugar rush and nothing else? And if I chew on that piece of toast, will you promise me that it will taste – like toast?
It will not. You cannot promise me anything. Except that when it is all over, you will cook me all my favourite dishes.
If my tongue has a memory, I want not a single reminder.
Susmita Bhattacharya is an award-winning author and creative writing lecturer. Her debut novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian, 2015, BEE Books, India 2016) was longlisted for the Word to Screen Prize at the Mumbai Film Festival, 2018. Her short story collection, Table Manners (Dahlia Publishing, 2018) won the Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection (2019) and was a finalist for the Hall & Woodhouse DLF Prize, 2019. Her short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured on BBC Radio 4. She teaches creative writing at Winchester University and facilitates the Mayflower Young Writers programme in Southampton and has been involved in several Mayflower 400 projects in 2020. She lives in Winchester.
Photograph by Theme Photos.
The NFFR and Susmita Bhattacharya Interview
You have written quite a bit of flash fiction. How did this influence your approach to creative nonfiction?
It was interesting to write a creative nonfiction flash piece. There was so much to say, but then after rewriting, editing, honing it down, I felt that it still managed to be effective in its distilled final version. I found it very challenging, and also exciting to write a nonfiction piece in such a limited word count. Personally, I feel there is a lot of connection with poetry and creative nonfiction and this is something I will definitely experiment with in the future.
You’ve also written a novel. Has your interest in very short stories influenced your approach to longer-form writing?
No, I don’t think so. For me, short stories are the very essence of writing. I love reading them, writing them, learning from them. Both the forms have very different structures, and need the writer to approach them with different mindsets. Writing short stories or flash is not easy, they have their own challenges to make them work. Novels have their own process as well. So, for me, the two are very different writing forms and very different experiences.
2020 was particularly challenging for many of us. How did last year’s events influence your reading and writing?
2020 was challenging in so many ways. I wasn’t able to focus much on my writing, and also it wasn’t possible to do a lot because there were other situations like home schooling, online teaching and a lot of cooking ( I didn’t realise how many meals I’d have to make to feed everyone throughout the day!). Also it was the mental and emotional aspects of worrying about the unknown, about family living far away from us in India – it was just not conducive to being creative. But I did try and soldier on with my novel, and being in a writing group helped as I had to write something for the monthly meetings. I did more reading though. It was lovely to spend time with my children, reading together (sometimes!) and I managed to read some brilliant novels and short stories, so that was a plus. Yes, 2020 was definitely a year very few of us will forget.