In the spring of 2015 I had a Skype-chat with Susmita Bhattacharya. I needed to record some pronunciations before taking her story The Summer Of Learning into studio. Susmita had not long finished another round of chemotherapy following surgery for breast cancer the previous year. I wasn’t to mind her ‘punk look’, she warned me.
Pronunciations captured, we talked mostly about raga – something I knew little about – and what type might be appropriate to underscore her story musically. Beyond the fact that she was recovering, we didn’t really discuss her illness. Now that her treatment was over, now that her prognosis was good, now that she was ‘better’, I guessed Susmita’s main challenge would be fatigue.
Which shows how much I knew.
Awareness about breast cancer itself has, thankfully, increased in recent years. Less is widely-known about its aftermath, what’s really going on when people like me think someone is better, and it’s this that Susmita addresses in her creative non-fiction piece for Radio 4, My Chemo Brain. I don’t want to give away too much more now because I’d rather you listened instead.Our radio experiments in ‘creative non-fiction’ – an elusive thing neither essay nor documentary – are still at the ‘playing in the sandpit’ stage. Though it required a lot of work from the writers to make it work, our first attempt – Comics, War And Ordinary Miracles by Adnan Mahmutovic and Lucy Durneen – came largely ready-made conceptually. And we haven’t done enough of these pieces yet to formulate ‘rules’ for them. Susmita had explored her territory in more factual essays addressing the effect of illness on her work, but we wanted something more personal, something that gave her licence to create again.
A character evolved: a young girl about whom Susmita planned to write once she had reclaimed her writing brain from her chemo brain. In the text around her, the recurring editorial note to Susmita in the drafts of the piece was ‘more of you, please.’
And Susmita gave more of herself. A lot of herself. This is the hardest thing to ask of anyone.
She also reads, beautifully.
My Chemo Brain goes out on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, 3.45 pm on Friday 29 September. Available for 30 days thereafter on BBC iPlayer.