An Interview with Sampurna Chattarji

July 14, 2013

1. "Dirty Love" has been described as a book of short stories based on Mumbai and we came to know that your next is already in the pipeline, again a short story collection about the City of Joy: Kolkata. What’s about these cities that you want to tell the world in a different way?

When I write, I’m not wondering what I’m going to “tell the world”! I’m trying to unravel something for myself. In the case of Dirty Love, that ‘something’ was the city of Mumbai. Unlike all the other places in my life where I found myself by chance and circumstances (Ethiopia, Darjeeling, Kanpur, Delhi, Calcutta) Bombay was the only place I chose to be in (I moved here from Kolkata in 1995). It was love at first sight, and Dirty Love is about my love for the city but, as the review in Biblio put it, “this love is dirty—just like the city it represents. It leaves it stench on you. It marks you; you belong to it. You reek of it from afar, and it will never leave you, never desert you.”

I was interested in communicating the city’s claustrophobia and its expansiveness, its safety (as a young working woman I never felt safer than while travelling in Bombay, by train or by cab, after working very late) and its precariousness (the disaster zone following the Mumbai deluge comes to mind)—the fact that water is simultaneously our greatest need and our worst nightmare. I was aware of the different kinds of communities in the city, how one could be blissfully unaware of another, I was aware of how seamy and dreamy this city could be, the multiplicities within it. It seemed to be not just a construct (both real and imaginary) but an entity. And the feeling of its ‘aliveness’ grew on me and manifested itself in the stories in the book (like ‘My Revenge on the Beast’). The changing topography of Mumbai also found its way into the book, however tangentially or bizarrely (for example the Worli Sea Link in ‘Insectboy’ or the 2008 attack on the Taj in ‘Madam, photo?’). This was my city, the way I had viewed it, lived it, loved it.

As for the other city in my life—Kolkata, that’s the one I fled from, the one I have made an uneasy peace with, the one I feel an exasperated affection for as opposed to the mad love I feel for Mumbai. I am still so ambiguous about it, and I guess that ambiguity will come through in my book of Kolkata stories.

2. In Dirty Love, you have tried to give the readers some very different aspects round the city of Mumbai with very specific identifiable locations and characters. How come the city becomes such an integral part that it becomes a character in itself?

I have observed it very closely, in all my travels and crisscrossing over the city, in all kinds of weather, in all kinds of company. And so it has become deeply-entrenched in my mind. Inscribed, marked, written in me even before I began writing about it. Or maybe, as the Timeout Mumbai review put it, I just “inhaled” the city “like a deep toke off an unfiltered Charminar” and it got into my system!

3. Tell us something about 'The Fried Frog', from its ideation to conceptualization and the appreciation by every section of this society.

The Fried Frog and other Funny Freaky Foodie Feisty Poems is the first book of poetry that I was actually asked to write! That never happens. Publishers are very keen on fiction, they rarely ask you for a book of poems! But Sayoni Basu who was then at Scholastic asked me for a book – I had already written a few poems specifically for young people, and she asked if I’d write some more, enough to make a book, and I did. It was a fabulous experience, and I ended up dedicating the book to the kids from my Summertime poetry workshops, and specific poems to specific kids who I remembered very fondly from the workshops, kids with a love of language and gift for poetry. The book has been reprinted several times, and is still going strong (it came out in 2009) – kids and adults both love it, and that makes me very happy.

4. How was the experience then of creating 'AbolTabol: The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray' way back in early 2000s, and now after it’s  known to be the most complete translated edition till date of Ray's work?

That was another special experience. I had translated a few poems from Abol Tabol, just for myself, and a dear friend sent them on (without my knowledge!) to the then-Puffin editor, Sayoni Basu, who asked if I’d do a book. Without a moment’s hesitation I agreed, and that was how it began. I enjoyed translating Sukumar Ray, whose poems I’ve loved since childhood. It’s been a Puffin Classic since 2008, which makes me delighted. What makes it even more special is that many young Bengali parents who live outside Bengal (‘probashi Bangalis’ as they are called) come up to me and say they’ve bought it for their kids who don’t know Bangla, growing up in Mumbai or Delhi where their second language in school is Hindi or Marathi. I feel glad to know that my version of Sukumar Ray is bringing joy to new generations of kids (and their parents)!

5. Born in Ethiopia, grew-up in Darjeeling, graduated from New Delhi and now in Mumbai, how much do these places influence your world and work. Also which place would you consider to be one ‘home-sweet-home’ type?

My parents moved back to India from Ethiopia when I was just 8 months old, so for me Ethiopia is a kind of fantasy that I constructed through the pictures and stories that my parents shared. My dad had taken loads of photos, and we’d have slide-shows at home in Darjeeling, on Sundays. So I got a very vivid visual introduction to the place of my birth. It’s always exerted a powerful tug on my heart, but I still haven’t visited it as an adult, and the only place where I’ve invoked it is in ‘Birthplace’, the opening poem in my first book of poetry Sight May Strike You Blind (Sahitya Akademi, 2007). I know at some point in my life it will enter my writing in a very real way, but when that moment will come, I cannot say.

Darjeeling was an ideal place to grow up. I loved the mountains, the air, the freedom that we had, as kids, to go on endless treks and hikes without adult supervision. That’s where I became an avid reader, and began writing my first poems and stories (and reviews – I had an exercise book devoted to reviews of the books I read!). I’ve written several poems about Darj, but so far no fiction. Perhaps that too is biding its time!

Delhi was during my college years, in LSR. That’s where I made extraordinary friends, friends for life. But Mumbai/Bombay is the place that has affected my life and work most, and which I consider home-sweet-home.   

6. Given a choice which one would you like to pen-down and why, Poetry or Fiction?

I don’t see myself in an either/or situation vis-a-vis poetry and fiction. I write both from different impulses, and I’d like to keep it that way.

7. Tell us about one of your typical day spent writing. How does it go?

I’m afraid it’s rather regimented! I’m a morning person, so I wake up early, around 6.30 a.m., get myself a cup of Darjeeling tea, and sit at my desk. I work till breakfast, which is around 9 a.m., and post-breakfast I’m back at my desk again, breaking only for a cup of strong freshly-brewed black coffee mid-morning. I write till lunch. This morning schedule is sacrosanct, I do not like being disturbed at all, and my family members and friends know better than to bother me while I’m writing, as I can get very cranky and rude if interrupted! I keep my phones off, and stay quiet, anti-social and focussed. Post-lunch till tea-time, I focus on admin stuff, answering emails, answering interviews such as this one, writing my reviews and so on. I keep the evening free to watch movies, listen to music, and post-dinner I read. When I’m proofing a book, I don’t give myself any free time, and am at it like a maniac – most often because the deadlines are so tight, and I’m obsessive about ensuring there aren’t any errors, and also because it’s my last chance to make any changes!

8. What's your take on film adaptations of books? Tell us one genre which you will like to explore by writing a unique novel, very different from the ‘SampurnaChattarji’ types?

I don’t know what you mean by a “Sampurna Chattarji type”! As far as I can tell, there isn’t such a thing! My first novel Rupture (HarperCollins, 2009) was described by one reviewer “as a novel that serves as ‘an ax for the frozen sea’ inside us all,”; by another as a “dark tale with no fairytale solutions in sight”. My second novel Land of the Well (HarperCollins, 2012) was described as a “cerebral thriller”; at the centre of which “is the idea of the body as the mind's slave — simply a vehicle for ideas, disease, and decay”. And Dirty Love (Penguin, 2013) is a love song to the city, in which urban legend and ordinary everyday life come together. Yes I write what is called ‘literary fiction’, but with each new book I’m exploring something different. What stays consistent—and I take pride in that—is the quality of my prose. I write with care, precision, intensity, and often that gets picked up by reviewers as being a “poetic” style. I take that as a compliment!

Some film adaptations of books work, some don’t. For example I loved Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi, and did not like the film by Ang Lee. But I loved Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, perhaps more than the book, and certainly better than all the other adaptations that came before.

Many of my filmmaker friends have asked me to write a screenplay for them, as they feel my writing is very visual, but I have no interest in writing a screenplay! I’d love to write a pulp novel though, something lean and mean like a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett novel.

9. Do you think that novels can actually empower any society to break some existing shackles?

I’m not sure a novel can “empower society”. What it can perhaps do is offer a glimpse into some hard truths, things that people prefer to look away from. It can, perhaps, break existing taboos. It can open a window in the mind, that’s all.

SAMPURNA CHATTARJI is a poet, novelist and translator with ten books to her credit, and three forthcoming. Born in Ethiopia in November 1970, Sampurna grew up in Darjeeling, graduated from New Delhi, and is now based in Mumbai/Thane. Her debut poetry collection, Sight May Strike You Blind, published by the Sahitya Akademi (Indian Academy of Letters) in 2007 was reprinted in 2008.  Sampurna’s poetry has appeared in Indian and international journals such as The Little Magazine, New Quest, Chandrabhaga, Indian Literature (India); Stand Magazine, Wasafiri (UK); Drunken Boat, The Literary Review (USA); Wespennest (Germany), Interlitq (Argentina), Carapace (South Africa) and has been anthologized in 60 Indian Poets (Penguin); Both Sides of The Sky (NBT); We Speak in Changing Languages (Sahitya Akademi); Interior Decoration: poems by 54 women from 10 languages (Women Unlimited); Imagining Ourselves (IMOW, San Francisco); Fulcrum (Fulcrum Poetry Press, US), The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (Bloodaxe, UK) and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry. Her 2004 translation of Sukumar Ray’s poetry and prose Abol Tabol: The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray was reissued in 2008 as a Puffin Classic titled Wordygurdyboom! She has also translated the Bengali poet Joy Goswami. Sampurna has authored several books for young people, including The Fried Frog and Other Funny Freaky Foodie Feisty Poems (Scholastic 2009) which has gone into several reprints. Her first novel, Rupture, was published by HarperCollins in 2009 and her second poetry book, Absent Muses, by Poetrywala in 2010. Her second novel, Land of the Well, was published in 2012 by HarperCollins. Her latest book, Dirty Love (Penguin, March 2013), is a collection of short stories about Mumbai. Sampurna was the 2012 Charles Wallace writer-in-residence at the University of Kent, Canterbury.


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