There are some books where you are part of a respectful audience and then there are some when you are a voyeur. I felt like the latter when reading 'The Other Side of the Table', written uniquely as it is in the form of letters. Letters, those wonderful things from a bygone era few from this time will know of. Those blue-brown things that smelt of sweat and perfume and musty mailboxes. Those things that made you to learn to wait and be happy with one little piece of love at a time.
In her debut novel, Madhumita Mukherjee assumes the voices of Abhi, a budding neurosurgeon based in London, and Uma, a young medical student from Kolkata and charts their friendship through many, many letters exchanged over the years. There is no real beginning and no real end to this story, no one tells you how Abhi and Uma came to be friends, and what their friendship culminated into. When you open the book, you suddenly find yourself in the middle of their lives, secretly reading through their private, prized stash of letters.
The quintessential bachelor Abhi, and the nubile Uma talk earnestly to each other through these letters, sharing details - big and small - about their lives. They talk about love, they talk about friends and family, and they talk the talk of doctors. Abhi is ever the light-hearted and well meaning older friend, while Uma is feisty in her blooming youth. There is warm affection some times, and sweet reprimands at others. Some faux anger here, and real appeasement there. When a crisis befalls one, there is firm handholding by another. Sometimes, Abhi is the guardian, and sometimes, Uma the caregiver. Roles switch easily in this beautiful Platonic relationship, where they seek little else from each other but honest words on a piece of paper.
Mukherjee writes as efficiently as Abhi as she does Uma, and the reader never finds a gender bias in her voice - at least I, as a woman reader, didn't think so. Her style is easy and her words, relate-able. A doctor herself, she offers some interesting insights into the lives of doctors. She also balances perfectly the distance and dynamics of this fictional relationship, with neither Uma nor Abhi ever stepping into the sexual zone a man-woman are so wont to do. But one sees the foundations of their relationships growing stronger, an invisible yet undeniable proprietorship building over each other over the years. When Abhi is faced with a life-threatening illness, Uma takes the final leap of faith and seals their bond by joining him in person, their distances bridged forever.
'The Other Side of the Table' is a part light-part poignant read and it has its memorable bits. However, neither Abhi nor Uma are people who you will count among your favourite characters. That's because you are never really part of the plot, but a mere reader of letters they've written immersed in each other.