Book review: The Other Side of the Table by Madhumita Mukherjee

Circa 1990.
A world drawn and woven with words.
A bond punctuated by absence and distance…
Two continents. Two cities. Two people.
And letters. Hundreds of them.
Over years. Across oceans. Between hearts.

The other side of the table by madhumita mukherjeeI was delighted, and a little apprehensive, when I read the back cover. Delighted because three of my favorite books are epistolary works – May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude; Helene Hanff’s 84, Charring Cross Road; and Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Apprehensive because I am generally wary of Indian authors, even though there are some excellent novels out there – Indu Suderasan’s brilliant Taj trilogy comes immediately to mind. But then, there are also disasters, like I, Rama or How About A Sin Tonight. And telling a story through letters isn’t the easiest thing to do.

The Other Side of the Table tells the story of Abhi, who is training to become a neurosurgeon in London, and Uma, who has just entered medical college in Calcutta. They write to one another about medicine and life, love and friends, about travels and family, and things that are close to their hearts and about nothing at all. Each letter reveals a tantalizing glimpse into their lives.

We learn that Abhi lost his parents in a car accident when he was very young; that he’s known Uma since he was a child living in Calcutta; that since he’s gone to London, he feels that there’s nothing to tie him to India, except his friendship with Uma.

…I have not gone back to India ever since I came here. What do I go back to? Whom do I come home to? Dadu and Didu are gone. Come to think of it, there is no one there for me but you. You are my only link to India, a continuum from my youth.

We learn that Uma has dreams and ambitions, which she isn’t willing to sacrifice just because they aren’t conventional; that she’s spirited and fiery and unafraid of speaking her mind no matter what the consequences.

“Don’t be ridiculous Uma,” Dr. Bose said without preamble. “Girls don’t do surgery. What is this all about?”
…I heard myself say, “With or without interruptions, I hope to become a very good kind of surgeon, sir.”
“You think it is easy.” His lips curled with sarcasm.
“No, sir. I think it can be done, and I think I can do it.”

Mukherjee scoffed at my apprehensions with the first letter itself. She uses beautiful language without falling into the trap that most Indian authors find themselves in – that of convoluted sentences and big words. Just read this wonderful description of Abhi’s impression of the human gut:

…the glistening, frilly, vulgar and voluptuous beauty of the gut.

This is a beautiful story of dreams and love and loss. Each letter peels back the layers of Abhi’s and Uma’s lives, laying bare their innermost thoughts and desires. Each letter gives us a glimpse of their personalities, their little quirks, finely breathing life into the two protagonists, until you feel like you’ve known them all your life. She crafts a story that will make you laugh with them and cry with them. One in which your heart contracts with sorrow and then, a few letters on, surges with joy.

Part of me wanted to devour the book in one sitting, the other part wanted to stretch out the experience. I took the middle ground – I read the book in two days, and then, once it was over, I started it all over again, so I could savor it one letter at a time.

Highly recommended if you enjoy epistolary novels. If, like me, you are generally wary of Indian authors, pick this book up – I promise you won’t regret it!

Buy now on Amazon

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  1. I find myself at times apprehensive when reading stories or books being told through letters. But as I’ve said before, if you recommend it, then I will give it a go!

  2. I would also be a little put-off by a book told solely through letters. Unfortunately, I have zero experiences of reading books by Indian authors, so why not let this be my first? Thanks for the review!

  3. I actually love a novel in letters— it provides the reader with personal perspective that doesn’t translate as overly mechanical. Thank you for the suggestion!

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