CREATIVE JOURNEYS 5: Sampurna Chattarji
Friday, 6 March 2015, 6.30 p.m. The British Council Library, Prestige Takt, 23 Kasturba Road Cross, Bangalore
It’s been a decade since Sampurna Chattarji’s first of thirteen books came out. What has that journey across genres been like? Is there a narrative that holds it all together? In an attempt to answer some of these (and other) questions, Sampurna will share extracts from her work and experiences from her life as a poet, fiction-writer, children’s author, translator and general mad-hatter.
Copyright for this text and extracts rests with Sampurna Chattarji © 2015
I will begin my talk this evening with Pessoa. Fernando Pessoa, who wrote much of his greatest poetry in the guise of his three main heteronyms—Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis—each of whom he equipped with invented biographies, and each of whom had a very distinct writing style and world view. In a letter he wrote (as himself) on 20th January 1935 (the year he died), he says:
“What I am essentially—behind the involuntary masks of poet, logical reasoner and so forth—is a dramatist. My spontaneous tendency to depersonalization, which I mentioned in my last letter to explain the existence of my heteronyms, naturally leads to this definition. And so I do not evolve, I simply JOURNEY. (…) I continuously change personality, I keep enlarging (and here there is a kind of evolution) my capacity to create new characters, new forms of pretending that I understand the world, or, more accurately, that the world can be understood.”
Pessoa puts the word JOURNEY in capital letters as if he cannot emphasise it enough. What is interesting (and relevant to me) in this extract is the idea of the “involuntary mask” – the code-switching between personalities, the assumption not just of different personae, but also the appetite for enlarging one’s dramatic universe, for peopling it with “new characters, new forms of pretending”. And while I haven’t gone so far as to invent heteronyms for myself, I think the litany of descriptors I append after my name in every bio note comes from a similar place of Pessoan restlessness. In ‘Autopsychography’ (translated by Richard Zenith) there are these lines that speak directly to and of me:
I’m a fugitive.
I was shut up in myself
As soon as I was born,
But I managed to flee.
If people get tired
Of being in the same place
Why shouldn’t they tire
Of having the same self?
My soul seeks me out,
But I keep on the run
And sincerely hope
I’ll never be found.
It’s both a running away from and a running towards. In the last decade I have been running away from Sampurna Chattarji, children’s author, towards Sampurna Chattarji, general mad-hatter, and the poet, the novelist, the translator have been the guises which have enabled me to escape being found.
So is this then, not a journey, not even an evolution, but simply some sort of grand deception?
I should hope not. I have always loved subterfuge, masquerade and shape-shifting for their tremendous potential to express essential truths. And so, permit me to read a poem from my second poetry book Absent Muses, titled,
This is the path of disguises.
A god lying across it like a log,
waiting to trip you over.
A boulder shaped like a fish,
misleading you with notions
of the sea.
A painted arrow,
the daub of an alluvial hand.
This is the land of cold winds,
the compass twirl of ice.
There could be a bridge.
Three billy goats gruff.
The bridge could be the spine of a fossil.
Narrowing or widening as you walk,
the bridge to hell or heaven.
All possibilities are coincidental
where doppelgangers stalk.
So much slaughter under the bridge.
One stone could start an avalanche.
You are familiar with avalanches.
Who said the way would be easy?
Sharkfin, goatcheese, sabretooth,
you are always moving
towards the next disguise.
One day you will wrap
the landscape around you like a cloak.
In your harlequin skin,
your saffron ash, your polar fur,
your bruises are hidden.
Tricksters leap from one memory
to another, befuddling.
A lake asks questions,
drugging you as you drink.
You fail the test.
You reach the end
of the road.
Head bowed, minute,
you wait at the edge of the cliff.
Inheritor of dust,
the smile has not left your lips.
You will wait an eternity, listening
to the call of the road.
And at last you will be content with stillness,
you will let stillness
be your last camouflage.
From Absent Muses (Poetrywala, 2010) pp 70-71
Looking back at this poem as if it were written by someone else (and it is written by someone else, a different me) – I find a clue in this line:
“All possibilities are coincidental/ where doppelgangers stalk.”
And in this:
“you are always moving/ towards the next disguise.”
Movement, without which no journey can take place. Not random movement, going nowhere fast, as it sometimes appears when one is in the thick of it, but one that has a secret coherence, a pattern that will be evident only when one is safely back home again, mapping it all down with the acuity of hindsight. In a poem called ‘One or Two Things About Home’ I find one of the few autobiographical references that reveal “where it was that I’m going, or where it is I’ve been”. I am moving – in the trajectory of the poem – across time, texts, and personal obsessions, and I will share just the last two verses with you:
What is it about Hungary these days? Should I treat them as signs?
Why else should I be reading Sándor Márai, recalling Csoma de Kőrös,
the Hungarian who walked to Tibet and died in Darjeeling?
If that’s not a sign, what is? Darjeeling, my home for thirteen years.
I left, at thirteen, and what it left me was a taste for mist
and gloomy afternoons, a relish for steep roads and gabled roofs,
a zest for steamed pork momos and cups and cups of tea.
Not for Csoma de Kőrös, he died of malaria in Darjeeling.
And Márai committed suicide in San Diego.
What is it about Hungarians and death?
You read too much, they tell me,
into what is, after all, a series of chances.
A chance gift, two chance gifts, no, three if you count the sausage.
The Hungarian Who Walked To Heaven, a short book.
Conversations in Bolzano, a tale of Casanova.
And the sausage.
And when Casanova speaks of Venice, lovingly, ravingly,
he speaks to me of Calvino’s invisible city.
Oh, you read too much.
Go back to the Hungarians. “Who are the Hungarians?”
Lapps? Finns? Turks? Huns? Kőrös was keen to find out.
Instead, he found a monastery, a bitter cold and a language
he would learn, a grammar he would take back for the world.
Which journey ends the way you imagine? I try and imagine
a journey on foot, in bitter cold, in rags. All I can summon up
are prayer flags, the tall fluttering wisps of cloth I walked past everyday
without noticing what they might be saying, blind to the language
of signs made of wind and air, white on blue, white on grey,
speaking to spirits that must have watched me go. And the more
I’d like to stay with Hungary, the more Darjeeling comes back—
the sound of Buddhist gongs, the stench of horse dung,
the juice of the Bhutan apple spurting on my tongue, the sight
of a yellow light in fog—each separate and terrible, each sign
invisible inside me, marking me for who I am, foretelling every
word, every action, that I might one day make.
Press deep, cut through to the bone.
From Absent Muses (Poetrywala, 2010) pp. 105-106
When I wrote, addressing Csoma de Kőrös, “Which journey ends the way you imagine?” I didn’t imagine that was a question I was really asking myself. In 1999 when I quit advertising to re-make myself as a writer, I had charted my course simply, clearly and with unshakeable conviction: I would write a novel. It would be published immediately. I would win instant acclaim and any number of literary prizes. I would be set for life.
It was a simple 4-point programme that seemed staggeringly practical and achievable. The fact that none of it worked out in just that way is something that could – after a decade since the first of my 13 books came out – very well look like a gargantuan failure. Instead, I find myself laughing at the naiveté and brashness of my 28-year old self, and thanking the universe for two wonderful gifts: the delay and the detour.
In 2001 I submitted a manuscript of short stories to Penguin and plunged – thanks to a series of unexpected incidents – into the multifarious multitudinous world of writing for children. In 2004, my first 2 books were published: Abol Tabol: the nonsense world of Sukumar Ray and The Greatest Stories Ever Told, both from Puffin, both unplanned, both an absolute challenge and delight to have done. Stories for anthologies and stand-alone children’s books began being commissioned and published with brilliant regularity, while simultaneously (and almost subterraneanly) I was writing my novels, gnawed by anxiety about the fate of my short stories, writing, in an attempt to overcome that anxiety another set of short stories! The children’s books kept coming and I kept vehemently disavowing and disowning the label of ‘children’s writer’. It wasn’t just the label I minded, the fear of being boxed and sealed forever in a category I hadn’t chosen, it was also my sincere belief in its untruth! My poetry was slowly and steadily being published, the only two prizes I ever got were for poetry, my first poetry book came out in 2007, I always wrote, “Sampurna Chattarji, poet” in my bio notes, I was slowly being recognized as a poet – but the output for children was (in my mind) threatening to obliterate everything else. 2008 saw the publication of 2 retellings, Mulla Nasruddin from Puffin and Three Brothers and the Flower of Gold from Scholastic. I was happy with these, they were creative retellings, my story-telling skills had been exercised and enhanced, they were original in a way I knew I could be proud of, but still the spectre lurked – the fear of being a retelling-queen, not a master-novelist. 2008 was also the year that my Abol Tabol translation was re-issued in the international Puffin Classic list, a wonderful unexpected honour, which made me happy, but not delirious. After all, I didn’t want to be labelled as a ‘translator’ either! I had begun translating for fun, it was never on the agenda, never part of my Grand Plan, and so naturally not as valuable as publishing my fiction for adults would have felt like.
Looking back makes me wonder at how clueless I was then, how oblivious to the enormous richness of that time, the huge learning involved, the enormous privilege of having an audience of many eager, receptive and often adoring young kids, instead of a faithful audience of one. I couldn’t see where I was because I was too impatiently looking ahead to where I wanted to be.
And that moment of seeming-arrival occurred in 2009, the day I held the first copy of my first novel Rupture in my hand. I can still remember the sensation of absolute fulfilment, the sheer tactile pleasure of the object that had been the objective of the journey I began in 1999. Here it was, at last. I remember saying to myself, rather dramatically, “If I died tomorrow, I would be fine with that.” It seemed I had finally arrived where I had wanted to be.
Interestingly enough, 2009 was also the year that The Fried Frog and other Funny Freaky Foodie Feisty Poems came out from Scholastic. It has since gone into reprint at least 5 times, and Rupture only once, but for the first time, I do not value one more than the other. And that seems to me the place that I really was meant to reach – a place where my own hierarchies of achievement would cease to tyrannise me, would no longer rob me of the pleasure of each and every book, no longer prevent me from revelling utterly in the joys of each and every persona.
Post 2009, the books came unaccompanied by the unseen dramas of my own dis-satisfactions and dis-contentments. Absent Muses in 2010, my second novel Land of the Well in 2012, both my first YA novel Ela and my first e-poetry book The Scorpion in 2013, along with – hold your breath – the book of Bombay stories that I had waltzed in to the Penguin office with way back in 2001 – Dirty Love. In the 12 intervening years, with all the digressions, detours, interruptions and interludes in my life, that book, originally called The Saint Who Resurrected a Goat, had changed as much as I had. It was a bolder, stronger, far more accomplished, intensely realized and better-written book than what it might have been had I been granted my wish of instant publication. Time was my co-author, delay my fellow-pilgrim, and my real journey had just begun.
2014 saw the publication of my translation of the Bengali poet Joy Goswami’s Selected Poems, a book that was 9 years in the making. I had learnt patience, but most importantly, I had learnt that nothing was more important than the process itself, the agonizing wait, the ruthless recognition of one’s flaws, and the persistent desire for that chimera: perfection.
You may very well ask, “If at least half of my given personas were dictated by chance, not choice, then what’s all that guff I began with about masquerades, and multiple personas?” Pessoa chose his multiplicities, was I just the victim of mine?
The answer perhaps lies in what I write, not in what I say. What I have shared so far has been anecdotal, the circumstantial backdrop to my life as a published writer. I could – given my penchant for subterfuge – very well have pretended all of it was intended, volitional, each book a milestone on a well-charted never-doubted route. It is important to say that when I embrace disguise what I reject is dishonesty. What I am choosing is the disguise that liberates, the deception that reveals.
I realized, while thinking about tonight’s talk, that multiple narratives and multiplicity of characters is something that runs through my writing, be it for adults or children. I realize how often (and how easily) I assume the male voice. Shashank in Mulla Nasruddin, the three boys in Three Brothers and the Flower of Gold, the nameless young protagonist in Land of the Well, the majority of characters in Rupture – all male. Jonaki, the crucible in whose imagination the action of Rupture unfolds, and so in a sense the most important figure in that fractured narrative, is a woman, yes, perhaps even my identifiable alter-ego, but the characters who move me are Biswajit, Tennyson, Nazrul, Neel, and Surinder. In Sight May Strike You Blind, my first poetry book, I was already playing with personas, inhabiting (in one section titled the Bodies of Women) the point of view of an admiring man, a painstaking painter, a judgemental woman, caught in the act of looking, of which Rilke wrote, “Looking is such a marvellous thing, of which we know but little.” It interested me to shift register depending on who was looking at whom or what, and in that shifting I found one of the continuities across my various avatars. “So much can happen when you’re just looking” says a girl moments before she kills herself in a short story of mine set in Kolkata, titled ‘Just Looking’. In Dirty Love, there are moments of intensity and luminosity when I am inside the mind and behind the eyes of my women characters. In Land of the Well I feel a great empathy for the women who are at one level predatorial and on another level deeply scarred. In Rupture, I know Mehjubin, I love her, but there is a strange opacity that prevents me from being her. It wasn’t till I wrote Ela that I entered and inhabited so fully the point of view of a girl, a thirteen-year old girl. Perhaps I had to be 43 years old in order to be able to do that! Be that as it may, the point I’m making is: my need for disguise.
When I am Aslam, Mehjubin’s husband, Nazrul’s father, there is a tenderness I allow myself. This is the tenderness of becoming an ‘other’, as if distance were needed in order to be both gentle with myself and merciless in my search for meaning. When I am Aslam, speaking in his voice, I know and understand him implicitly. When I am the narrator, the author, I am in a place of necessary estrangement, necessary because that estrangement is what I must overcome every time I sit down to write. And so, if you’ll permit me, I will read a little section that seemed relevant, from Rupture, about Aslam. The narrator here is not me, the omniscient author, but the German artist who is a minor character in the book, living in the house where Mehjubin and Aslam work as cook and gardener respectively.
IT IS HE WHO IS THE REAL TRAVELLER
Who is Aslam? I sketch him into my book, his beard is like
wire unsnagged from a fence. In his bony torso I see a cage of
dreams. He bears the asthmatic’s pose. But Aslam is not
asthmatic. He breathes freely, he owns what he breathes.
We speak in a language other than language, Aslam and I.
He has mastered the eloquence of gestures. There is a sternness
to him, a gravitas that pulls you into the centre of this wordless
communication. The fluency of his hands, the way he tied
my lungi, so many months ago, without smiling, but not
without tenderness. Sometimes, Aslam thinks I am a child,
no less foolish than his son. At other times, he thinks I am a
god. No, I would like him to think I’m a god. The god of the
rubbish dump. The god of the crow-wing, the festering crowd.
Aslam’s wife has never been impressed by my sketchbook.
I love her for that. She hides in her breast an enormous
scepticism towards me, and an equally vast affection. With
her, I thought I would speak the metallic click of the knitting
needle, the soft burr of the wool winding between knit and
purl. She laughed me out of that fancy!
Between myself, who has seen the world, and Aslam, who
has seen only this corner of it, it is Aslam who is the real
traveller. He has travelled through several versions of himself.
Versions or visions? I have seen those visions in the way he
walks and sits when no one is looking. When he thinks no
one is looking. In one, he was a hoodlum. Breaking car axles
and teeth, smashing fists into walls and flesh, not knowing
what hurt more, they or he. In that country, he burnt a bus,
piled rocks across roads and rail tracks to arrest all movement,
felt the heft of a wooden club fill his body with a sweet sense
of importance, the importance of being feared, the glory of
knowing that most things break if you hit them hard and
long enough. In that life, he ate little and spoke less. The
scarcity of words hungered him more than the meagreness of
food. He was thin, strong, he fed off every confrontation, and
in the nights, he dreamt his way into other lands, other lives.
The hoodlum travelled towards the machinist. The swagger
of his hips and his shoulders was now subdued by the decorum
of steel. Precision was a colour alien to his bruising fingers.
But he bowed before it, and it became him. He operated his
machine with the attentiveness of someone building a
spacecraft, flying a plane. On the day they set aside in this
land to worship Vishwakarma, divine architect, the god
without whom the machines would not work, without whom
the boiled, flattened and puffed rice would not reach their
children’s lips, Aslam put a garland around his machine,
marrying it. That was the beginning of Aslam’s great love for
But who is Aslam?
In my book, he appears as fakir and tin-man, a spine that
bends to the ground to pluck a weed just as effortlessly as it
earths him, ramrod-straight, waiting for the bolt of lightning
that will single him out. His feet are always bare. I have
drawn him rubbing his thumb along the arch of his foot
diagonally. It is part caress, part absent-mindedness. He coaxes
his feet to stay firmly on the ground, no matter where the rest
of him may be.
His beard is wire, his feet brown root, his eye crystal, clouded
over only for those who do not know how to gaze into it.
It is being a father that has shaken Aslam’s universe. Here,
instead of a vision borne along by wings or wheels, is a real
spitting version of himself, leaping around him, daring him
to fight. He is father not just to a boy, but to an accumulation
of cells and bones, with a spirit inside it, a bottled genie who
wears his face, who carries in his hips and shoulders and fists
a memory of breakage.
It is to wipe that memory out that Aslam wants Nazrul
to go with me. My land is so far, so alien and unimaginable
he cannot summon it up out of his breath, his hands, his
profound sleep. He looked long and hard at the photo I
showed him of my house. There was puzzlement on his face
as he handed it back.
When Aslam, my wiry fakir, my rooted lightning-rod,
thought about the place he was sending his son, a tremor so
internal shook him that he lost his bearings, lost the composure
of one who believed that everything he had once travelled
towards was illusory. Two things had become real with the
suddenness of that bolt he thought he was ready for—his
son, and his son’s new home.
He is losing his son, and I—what am I hoping to gain?
Here is this boy, slight, with a desire to live so strong it might
drive him to its exact opposite. Here, before his father’s
wrath—for rage is Aslam’s code for love—Nazrul is seething,
disaffection under his chewed nails, his restless limbs. Will
he be happy with me, will he learn the German language his
father has no need for?
I am hoping that by keeping Nazrul by my side, I will
slowly reveal to myself who Aslam really is.
Until then, I will keep drawing him in all his maybe avatars,
running between the blades of a riksha, sleeping,
curled up in a ball by the railway station, red-eyed, blackheeled,
chopping off the head of a fish, painting a wall.
From Rupture (HarperCollins, 2009) pp. 277-279
Aslam has travelled through “several versions of himself” – “versions or visions” – I ask, as if I were asking that about myself. The ambiguity of the author not just about the characters she creates, but about the character that creates them in all their “maybe-avatars” – that is probably a secret animating principle in my work. Why else does Rupture have 9 characters across 5 cities, contained only by the time-frame of 24 hours, the tightrope I gave myself to cross this minefield of my own making? In Land of the Well, I thought I had abandoned that fracturing. But no, though it is set in one place (Goa), in one time (the monsoons), with one emotional fulcrum (the nameless dysfunctional bright boy), it does have again that splintering of points of view, that layering of stories, told by as many as 10 characters, each lurking behind a pseudonym, but each minutely defined, described and detailed. Who do you believe? What really happens? Who is at fault? Everything is uncertain, just as every attempt to be content with just one point of view is unsatisfying. The impulse to overcome the limitation of one, to be the many-bodied spirit, to have the freedom to move from one set of eyes to another, from one internal landscape to another, why else do I write?
This protean impulse is present across my work, as is a preference for the mythic story. I only noticed this because an astute reader pointed it out. The mythologizing of story, the mythic figure of the storyteller, the eternal lure of the fabular. When thinking about how best to energize my retelling of the Panchatantra into something today’s kids might actually want to read, I realized the three princes for whom the Panchatantra was ostensibly written were my key. Those were the characters I could invent from scratch and I decided that these three, the original audience for Vishnu Sharma’s commissioned work of enlightenment and education, were going to be the narrators of my version. I was going to make them travel the same arc from audience to narrator that I had embarked upon myself. From being the ‘reasons’ for the text to exist, I wanted to propel them into the text itself. Resistant, participatory, interrogative, these three brothers would be my fictional authors, much as Vishnu Sharma is presented as the perhaps-fictional author of The Panchatantra. In Rupture, Tennyson is the mythmaker, inventing a history for himself in the absence of any recollected past. In Land of the Well, the boy – so hopeless at making friends and impressing people – has one hitherto unrealized gift, that of the adroit mythmaker, telling the story that gives the book its title, as well as (earlier in the book) spinning a yarn using the threads given to him by the two women who are ragging him. Here’s a taste of that:
‘All right then,’ Angie said, ‘shall we?’
She looked gleeful.
‘Right. You’re going to tell us a story.’
‘Not just any story,’ Poka said. ‘A story with a horse, a
fish, a cloud and a fruit in it. You get two minutes to think
about it and then you start.’
‘Forgot the crucial bit, sweets,’ Angie drawled. ‘It has to
This was worse than Tiger’s test. Erotic? The word
loomed over the boy like the fruit Poka wanted in the
story. Red and poisonous. Did they mean a dirty story?
How could he? He had looked at enough pondy to know it
wasn’t about storytelling. Pictures yes, gross and shameful,
but not words. Surely these two didn’t want him to tell a
story with nasty words in it? He couldn’t.
‘Listen,’ Poka said (always the gentle one, his rescuer),
‘do you even know what erotic means?’
‘Let’s see what he thinks it means,’ Angie squealed. ‘Don’t
you dare help him!’
His lifeline snatched away, the boy stared at his toes.
Still sitting on the carpet, he could feel three sets of eyes
on him. They were waiting. This was supposed to be his
thinking time, not sitting-blankly-and-wilting time. Let’s
see what he thinks it means. A fruit a horse a fish a cloud.
‘Thinking time up,’ said Angie efficiently and pressed
a knob on her watch. A manly watch, he’d noticed that
earlier, a solid knobby manly watch, out of synch with her
hot-bod vibes. Well, such observations wouldn’t do him any
good now. His time was up.
‘In a far country without any rain,’ he began, ‘a horse
wandered, riderless. It was a white horse, sacrificial, waiting
for the spurt of blood at the tip of the golden knife. It was the
aswamedha horse and it dreaded the moment of its death.
But it had to keep running, running through countries,
claiming each land that it galloped through for its king.
Forward was the only way it knew, that white horse. And
so, driven by thirst and dread, it ran.’
With an electrifying gladness the boy knew he had
caught their attention. Angie’s hands had started braiding
Poka’s long silky hair, fi ne braids which she wove nimbly
with unseeing hands. Her eyes were on him, listening.
‘At last the horse came to a place where instead of open
fields like the ones he’d left behind, there stood a wall of
wire. Twisted wire woven into a wall. The horse felt the
stab of something unfriendly against his muzzle and he
neighed. It was too high for him to jump over. His body
would catch on the twisted wire and he would die like a fly
in a metal web. He would die anyway, but that was later. It
was now that he was concerned with. As far as he looked
to right and left—the wall stretched, nasty and invincible.
The horse pawed the ground. He could not go back. He
thought of all the brave horses of legend and how they
would have leaped, but he could not. He loved his white
mane too much, his perfect silver hooves, his bright eyes
that the queen used to kiss with her soft mouth. He loved
himself too much and he wanted to live, if only to feel the
queen’s warm thighs astride him as she rode him every
morning, undetected by the king. He would have to return
to her, but not the way he had come. That path was closed
‘He pawed the ground again. The ground was sandy, the
loose earth came away easily under his sharp hooves. He
remembered a dog he had once seen in the royal compound.
Digging the ground, nosing in and coming up triumphant
with a bone. Memory flared in him like a bright fi re and
he snorted hot air and began. The earth flew. A hole had
appeared at the white horse’s feet. He would dig until the
light came in from the other side, that’s when he would
know he could pass safely through.
‘And then he saw it.
‘It was a golden light, nothing like the blue air around
him. The blue air was pale and nothing shone in it, not even
the sun. The golden light from the hole at his feet shone like
the ring that pierced the queen’s nose. He, pierced through
the nose with the bridle, she, pierced with her ring. He felt
weak with longing. He bent his face to the light. It shone
golden and smelt sweet. His knees trembled.
‘“Devour me,” said the light. “Devour me and throw my
seed back into this hole. I will grow into a tree taller than
the wall of wire. My roots will spread under the earth to the
other side. Immense roots, they will break open a hole in
the wall, large enough for you to ride through without the
wire catching your perfect white mane. And once you have
crossed, I will throw one fruit down to you which you must
carry between your teeth, uneaten, until you return. Give it
to no one, least of all yourself.”
‘The horse understood. He devoured the light and it was
heavenly. He had tasted apples from the royal orchard,
sweet and crunchy between his great white teeth, he had
tasted sugar from the queen’s powdered, perfumed hands,
but never had he tasted anything this sweet. It melted him,
it melted inside him. He ate it all, and when the softness
and wetness gave way to a hard centre, only then did he
remember about the seed.
‘Regretfully—for he yearned to suck the seed until it
yielded everything, yearned to bite that hardness until it
broke—he threw the seed into the hole and pawed the earth
back into place. He would have to wait. The light had said
it would grow. Out of the flat dry earth a tall tree, erect
and bursting with hidden fruit. He could hardly wait. He
scanned the sky. Not a cloud. When would the rain come
that would flower the seed into being? His own thirst came
back to torment him like a goad. The blue air pressed down
on him, hard and shiny. He broke into a sweat. What if the
light had lied? What if he was doomed to stay here forever,
next to this impassable wire wall, unable to go backwards
or forwards, trapped and doomed to die friendless and
alone? The soft strangling of the silken cloth that awaited
him was far better than this death. Big drops of sweat fell on
the ground where the horse stood and darkened the sandy
earth. It was the sweat of fear and desire, it reeked of lost
hope, and it fell off him in drops as stinging as tears.
‘The horse was so afraid of dying there, alone, that he
didn’t notice when the green shoot poked through the
ground like a tongue. The ground where he stood was
damp, and still he wept tears of sweat and still the pushing
plant grew. It grew and grew until it towered above the
horse, and only when the green shade softened the hard
blue air did the horse look up and see what had happened.
The ground trembled as the immense tree’s roots pushed
their way under the hem of the wire wall and rose groaning
on the other side. It lifted the wire wall with it as it went.
A hole appeared where there had been a mesh of thickly
intertwining wire. The horse could not believe his eyes.
Snorting, he trotted forward, and delicately, fearing a snag
on his splendid white mane, he eased himself through
‘He was through! He raised his hot eyes up to the
towering tree and he thanked it. “Here,” said the tree in
answer and it dropped one single fruit at the horse’s waiting
feet. Gently the horse held it between his great white teeth
and began the long journey home.
‘Briskly, he trotted. Silvery, he flew. And all the while,
between his teeth, the golden fruit. His lips quivered at the
thought of the sweetness so close, so denied. He trembled
at the thought of his teeth bruising the fruit’s fi ne skin.
Riderless, the horse kept on running. It was flatland still,
but turning green. The yellow sand was left behind and
now he saw before him a river. It was a timid river, running
shyly at his feet. He would cross it in a minute. But as
soon as he put his foreleg into the river’s cool water, he
heard a voice.
‘“Wait, silver horse,” the voice said. “I cannot let you
pass until you have answered my riddle.”
‘The horse felt impatient. Who was this? Who dared to
bar his way, he, the aswamedha? War would be waged on
that impudent being! But where was it?
‘“At your feet, silver horse,” the voice said.
‘The horse looked down. Near the leg that was still in
the water there swam a tiny fish with scales as silvery as his
hoof. He could have kicked it out of the way! But something
stopped him. Gently he placed the beautiful unbruised fruit
on the riverbank and said, “What is your riddle?”’
(Angie had stopped making braids. Her hands lay on
Poka’s shoulders. Poka’s unbraided hair lay spread across
‘“What tastes sweeter, the flesh of a fruit or the flesh of
‘The horse snorted. What sort of question was that?
‘“The flesh of a fruit of course,” he said, huffily. “Now
let me pass.”
‘But the fish would not let him go so easily.
‘“How can you be so sure?” it asked. “What about the
fruit you’ve placed on the riverbank? How do you know it
‘“Because I have tasted one just like it,” the horse said.
‘“But all fruits are not the same,” the fish said. “How do
you know this one is not bitter?”
‘The horse was filled with rage. The sweet flesh he had
carried all this while, trying not to think about it and yet
unable to think about anything else. How dare the fish
suggest this divine thing was bitter?
‘“Try it yourself and see,” he snorted, forgetting what the
light had told him.
‘“I cannot,” said the little fish. “The fruit is my sister. I
cannot eat my own sister. But you can. Eat it here in front
of me and tell me if it is sweet, and if it is, I will swallow the
first hook of the morning and die for being so impudent,
and you can cross in peace.”
‘The horse forgot everything. Give it to no one, least of
all yourself, the light had told him. But his mouth was mad
with the smell of the fruit nestled so long against his tongue.
He bent his face and delicately picking up the golden
unspoilt fruit, he ate it. He felt the juice burst inside him
like a shower. He felt the pulp slide down his throat like a
caress. And when he crunched the tiny seed barely bigger
than an almond, he felt an excruciating pain that sliced him
along the belly and brought him shivering to his knees.
‘The fish had gone. The water of that timid river was
bursting the banks. Roaring, wet with fury, it rolled over
him and he drowned, dreaming of the queen’s juice-stained
lips, her perfect golden hands.’
From Land of the Well (HarperCollins, 2012) pp.101-106
In Ela, the adopted girl has to go on a quest, the toughest quest of all – in search of the answer to the question, “Who am I?” This is where the crack in her selfhood allows her to step through into a mirror-world of fantasy. This is not the western fantasy world of teenage vampires and magicians. This is a world of grizzled boatmen, mangrove islands, a community of child rag-pickers presided over by a strange boy she meets in that other-world, which in the oddest way reflects and throws an unnerving, uncanny light on this-world. It is only when Ela takes charge of her own story, and chooses to invent her own mythology, that she is able to deal with the trauma and heal herself. In this, her self-created fantasy, she is nameless, and all-powerful, she is The Girl Who Was Hatched From An Egg.
In Dirty Love, in the story Insectboy, the lad with crippled legs reinvents himself as “the boy with the longest legs of steel”. As he speaks to the white tourist outside a coffee shop in Colaba, he creates a story that reveals his rich inner life, his ability to mesh fact and fantasy, also his yearning to be other than he is, even if that other is inanimate, to be “no longer flesh and blood and bone but silk and steel and stone” filled with “an endless inhuman joy that would destroy who he was, who he had been”:
‘Once,’ Insectboy said, abandoning the enticement of English
and speaking in his own tongue. ‘Once, there was a boy with the
longest legs of steel. He was so tall he could see over the tops of
buildings. At night when the city was asleep he walked around,
stepping over the buildings as if they were road dividers. GPO, VT,
Laxmi Building, BSNL, InterContinental, President, Museum,
Gallery, Taj, Maker Tower, Oberoi, Ambassador, Gateway of
India, Afghan Church, Mantralaya, High Court, what part of
his world had he not seen from the sky? He saw such strange
things on the tops of buildings—motorcycles and rooms filled
with pigeons and garden chairs growing around pots and pots of
flowers. He saw very young women and very old men dreaming
on the rooftops, and he never disturbed them. He saw a fire eating
a very tall building once, and from the roof, he lifted a whole
family that the firemen had forgotten to save, or been unable to
reach even with their longest ladders. He put them down, all the
way down near the sea, where they could forget the smell and
the sound of burning.
‘It was only at night that the boy could stand up to his full
height because there was no room in the crowded city for him
to unfold and unfold and unfold his mighty steel legs in the day.
Put them away, his mother shouted. Shut up and sit down or I’ll
break your legs, his father yelled. Mummy, his sister screamed,
he’s kicking me again in his sleep. They lived under a plastic sheet
in the rain, under the sky in the summer, only his father had a
cot, his mother, his sister and he slept on the piece of pavement
that they considered theirs. Down the road from their home was
the Sterling picture hall where he had never seen a picture. He
sat on the clean white steps whenever he could, he watched the
lines of people going in, he watched the big boys selling tickets
in black, he imagined what the seats were like and how far they
would tilt back and how close the screen would be. He hid away
his secret all day. At night, he went home, made himself small, and
when they all finally slept, he woke, and stretched and stretched
She was silent, but her lips were no longer slack. They were
listening, like the rest of her tense, pinned, wired little white body.
‘One night, the boy decided to go farther than he had ever
gone before. The piece of sea he loved the most was the one
garlanded by the Queen’s Necklace. But there were other parts of
the sea he had never been to. Haji Ali, Worli, Bandra, the names
were like a necklace too. He had only heard of them, the sea in
which the holy mosque floated like a miracle at high tide, the sea
along which people walked on rock, the sea beside which whole
families played on sand and in which only the daredevils swam.
The city was separated by so many seas! So many cities separated
him from that one sea . . . He would cross from one to the other,
he would make this important journey. He knew his legs were
long enough to dig right down to the bottom of the water, no
matter how deep. He would not take the land at all. From water
to water, he would move like a giant god. He liked the idea of
the waves splashing against his mighty steel legs.
‘So he started stepping over the heads of the buildings, the
Maidan, the Station, the Stadium, splash, he was in the middle
of Backbay. Looking back at the lights, he felt dizzy with the
beauty of it. But he had to go forward, not back. Extending his
mighty legs, he walked, in three steps he was rounding Raj Bhavan,
where was the magical mosque? He saw before him the way the
sea curved and curved, beckoning him.
‘He walked, not forgetting to look at the land, where there
were parks, there were buildings that might have hidden so
many beautiful things, he had heard of the tank where the water
never dried, where Ram’s arrow had fallen, where lamps were
floated every year, he wished he could step ashore for a second
and see it. But he had promised he would take the sea, not the
road! Baanganga would have to wait for another night. He walked
with giant strides and then right before him was the Dargah. It
was like a fairy tale, an island of light in the middle of the dark
water. It was so small, a small sparkling white stone of worship,
but it looked like nothing could damage it, not even the greatest
storm. He bowed his head, like his mother had taught him, then
stepping reverently around it he walked into what seemed like
the longest stretch of all.
‘The road ran all along the sea. No one was walking on it. He
was alone in the night, the lights were not as dazzling here, he
missed his part of the world, he wondered if he should turn back,
was this Worli, hadn’t he journeyed far enough? He wondered if
he could already smell Mahim, or if he was only wishing he could
smell it because that would tell him how far he had come, when
suddenly, the water changed.
‘The waves became warmer, heavier. They felt alive, like hands
and tongues. He felt the hands slapping his legs but not pushing
him away. They liked him! He felt like giggling as they tickled
him, he felt aroused, as if any minute now he might burst open.
He felt the tongues pushing into him, tasting the strength of his
legs all along their length to his knees. He felt like kissing the
surface of the water that pleased him so much. He bent down.
He bent down down down from his enormous height until he felt
the crack in his waist that warned him not to bend any more. His
face was skimming the surface of the sea. His legs were dug deep
in, steady as pillars. Hands touched his face, drew away from it
invisible threads of silk, he was the finest strongest silk, and they
were unweaving him, they were drawing him across the surface
of the sea in a net that would span the earth, they were playing
him like a giant harp through which the wind would blow and
make a music sent from heaven, he was being broken apart by
soft and skilful hands, no longer flesh and blood and bone, but
silk and steel and stone, he was being shaped and reshaped into
an arch of light, he was breaking slowly into an endless, inhuman
joy that would destroy who he was, who he had been, and hold
him in this strange new pose, his arms so intensely far away from
his legs, his heart no longer only at the centre of him but all over
his new body, his body laid down like a bridge across the water,
this warm dark living water that he now stretched across as if he
were a supple wire along which humans could safely glide. He
would never go back to the southern tip where he had lived all
his short, secret life, he would stay here forever, rooted in the sea,
this strange new enormous beautiful thing he had always wanted
to become, no need ever again to be small and folded, no need
to hide, here he would stay for all the world to see, linking two
parts of land to two parts of sea for ever.’
Insectboy stopped speaking, and looked at her. The white
woman was weeping silently, her tears seemed golden as they
streamed down her cheeks, and fell on her T-shirt. She made no
attempt to hide them, to wipe them.
From ‘Insectboy’ Dirty Love (Penguin, 2013) pp. 16-20
And so, in conclusion, to morph and mutate, to transcend the fixity of the given self, that desire is perhaps what cuts across the many themes, the many forms, the many genres in my writerly life. I haven’t spoken much this evening about my activities as a translator, and so I think I will end by reading a section that addresses that lacuna, while simultaneously expressing the need to be possessed and the impossibility of being just one:
“To translate,” he said, “is to move a body from one place to another.”
Is that why she doesn’t live in the city anymore? Why she roams the scrub hills, looking for brush to burn? Is that why she has to count—nose, eyes, teeth, toes— to figure out what she left behind when she moved? It all adds up, intact. And yet, that must be why she feels like someone else, like someone else moved in, speaking a lingo that shocks her, all those words she thought she’d forgotten.
The new occupant lives in her body like she owns it, fills out her cheeks, hollows out her ribs, makes her limbs lighter, then heavier, makes her want to walk instead of sleep, makes her want to weep instead of talk, makes her want to move a body from one place to another. Maybe it’s just a way of getting her old self back. Maybe nothing will be the same again.
From ‘Five Different Words for Love’ Absent Muses (Poetrywala, 2010) pp. 99
Copyright for this text and extracts rests with Sampurna Chattarji © 2015