"In the Lap of the Gods", from Susmita Bhatyacharya's award winning debut collection of short stories, Table Manners, begins with a woman from Mumbai recalling her time at a camp for Christians. When we meet her she is on a train with others bound for the camp. She reveals she is going there hoping to find a husband, as her friend did. Her parents are pressuring her to marry. She has had two bad relationships with men. We see a young woman not really having a secure sense of self.
Christians are a small percent of believers. On the train she sees there are followers of numerous faiths. (The train ride is marvelously rendered). To be a Christian is to be an exception to the norms of India. She also rejects the idea of an arranged marriage. She is trying to find not only a husband but her way in life.
She does find love at the camp, but with another woman. The relationship is more a strongly felt crush than a sexual affair but there are strong sensual forces at play.
"There is no one else in this world. My heart beats to the rhythm of the distance hoots of the owl. My fingers stray to caress your fingers, still tightly wound around the cup of rum. I smell the smoke in your hair, the rum on your breath and I am lost. I feel like time has been suspended. I feel a sense of recklessness, of sweet danger rushing in to envelope us. I’m not sure what I want but you are guiding me. You touch my lips with yours. Ever so softly it may not have touched even. I move forward, pressing firmly into your mouth. But you lean away. You give a little laugh.
‘No,’ you say.
I laugh as well. But I climb out of the bed, unsure of my movements. You pull the blanket up to your neck and snuggle in.
‘Tomorrow,’ you say. That’s all you say. And then I turn off the light and face the wall."
Her friend wants to go to America and become a gelogist.
The narrator knows Christianity is but an infant compared to Hinduism, that the roots of Indian history way antedate that of England and America. I feel she knows she is only on the shallowest level a Christian. I found the reflections of the woman on this very profoundly written:
"‘You know, these hills are older than Moses. Older than mankind itself.’
I look around me. The hills glow in the dark. Galaxies swirl above, the stars powdering the sky.
‘The Ghats are older than the Himalayas. They’re more than 150 million years old and go back to the time the earth had one big continent. We are witnessing something to old, so sacred that we must stop and pay attention to it. This is the abode of the Hindu gods. And when I look at this amazing geology, I believe in god’s creation....
They have floated away and we stand there in the dark. I cling to your hand, and we embrace. The ancient mountains bear witness and I feel the shackles falling. I feel so light I could fly. I am not afraid to face my parents again. Actually, I’m not afraid to face myself – I look forward to returning home and being myself. I feel your fingers caress my arm, my desire for your touch increasing as we fall back on the cold, damp grass. I want to return to the real world with you by my side. Yes, that is what I want. But I’m too afraid to think about it. I suppose we will bury our secret here in the in the lap of the Gods, with our desires just fading into memory.
‘Be like these ancient hills,’ you tell me. ‘Stay strong and independent. You do not need a man to complete you, believe me.’
I will leave the close of the story untold. It is really a powerful work.
In just a few pages we are presented with a young woman unsure of her sexual identify, feeling unsettled in faith and in conflict with her parents expectations.
Years ago when I first began posting on short story collections I followed standard procedures, I would post briefly on a few of the stories then conclude with metaphor laden concluding remarks and issue a recommendation. Sometime ago I moved toward focusing on individual stories. If I like a writer as much as I do Susmita Bhattacharya, I post on numerours of the stories. This seems more respectful of the writer, better for serious readers and for me also. Writing about a work seems to increase my understanding and helps me recall the story.
In the months to come I'm planning to feature her work numerous times
From the author's website.
"I was born in Bombay, India in 1974. I did graphic design in college and worked as a web designer. When I married, I quit my job and jumped on board a ship to sail away into the sunset with my husband. After three years of sunrises and sunsets at sea, we decided to come ashore and test our land legs. Destination Singapore. Mandarin classes. Food court delights. French film fests. And when we could no longer stand the chewing-gum ban, we moved to Cardiff, Wales. We threw crisp packets on streets, just because we could. We became students. He a PhD in Maritime Studies, me a Masters in Creative Writing. We did studenty things in out thirties. Open house. Hostel travels. Then we had a baby. Sleepless nights. Sleepless days. I needed an addiction to cope. So I took up writing seriously. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I'm still addicted. Have finished a novel and a collection of short stories. Experimented with flash fiction with second baby on the scene. Still writing. Still on a high! "
This story is part of our ongoing project, Short Stories by South Asian Women.
I am so glad to have discovered Susmita Bhattacharya