Prime Edition

Dirty Love

Sampurna Chattarji

Penguin India

Pages: 247 Rs. 299

In praise of a memory like paper, a sky leaking sorrow

Sampurna Chattarji’s stories are flush with linguistic vigour, and their often fantastical premises cleverly cloak that which cuts too close to the reader’s skin, writes Janice Pariat.

Janice Pariat  13th Jul 2013

Sampurna Chattarji

em>Dirty Love, Sampurna Chattarji's collection of vignettes and stories set in Mumbai, is a terrifying onslaught. You are at the mercy of her razor-sharp words, held close to your throat, to your wrists. And you are compelled, willingly or not, to read on.

The collection falls in line after an impressive and noteworthy list of writing — poetry, novels, translations and books for children — and has lost none of Chattarji's characteristic playfulness, visual dexterity and her immense and profound love of words.

Language is pliable and clay-like in her hands, and she treats it as a familiar lover, dismissive yet tender, manipulating it to lie exactly as she wishes on paper. At times, her language seems to take flight, soaring away un-tethered. In Insectboy, a young, disabled protagonist tells a stranger about his dream, of walking into the sea on 'longest legs of steel', and being transformed — "He was the finest strongest silk, and they were unweaving him, they were drawing him across the surface of the sea [...] 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 [...]" It's a moving, poignant passage that manages to capture our, often unarticulated, desires to escape.

At the core of these narratives, pulsating like a raw, ragged heart, is the city. In Which One? a man is given a thick, hefty book — Bombay: The Cities Within — which he can't bring himself to read. Instead, he tries to decipher the meaning of the title. Was it places? Colaba, Fort, Amboli Railway Crossing, Juhu, Bandra. Or people's houses? "However much you found out, there would still be more. A book inside a book inside a book like a city inside a city inside a city." Until there is a moment of blinding realisation — "Bombay, the city within him, within the delivery boy, the actor, the socialite, the cop. Each person with a piece of the city inside him. Hidden until he shared it. A secret." The twenty-nine stories in Dirty Love cradle secret pieces of the city — the watchman who sees sorrow falling out of the sky, the lady who walks until the pavements end, the three women in a bar fabricating tales about each other, the dosa-seller, the photographer near the Taj, the Chinese restaurant owner. These, and countless anonymous others spill their longing and recollections on the page. A line in My Revenge On The Beast says "My memory is paper", and you have a feeling that Chattarji's observations, minute and visceral, are an attempt at capturing the essence of a city, one that is joyfully difficult to pin down, spilling over and overlapping in multifarious identities.

The stories in Dirty Love also carry a distinct poetic sensibility — like Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, this too could only have been written by a poet whose words brim with ambiguity.

he stories in Dirty Love also carry a distinct poetic sensibility — like Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis, this too could only have been written by a poet whose words brim with ambiguity. In his Advice to Young Poets, Don Paterson reminds us that "poems make us look again at the familiar by making it strange." Chattarji repeatedly conjures for us characters, places and situations that are commonplace and extraordinary all at once. In her story Strange Place, two young protagonists, each unknown to each other, share a moment of fleeting common emotion — that a certain stretch on a road is inexplicably unusual — and it is this rupture of mundaneness that runs through the book. Birds becomes symbols of an apocalypse, the sea leaks into a lady's apartment, a man is a faithful archivist of a woman's wonderful, mysterious smells, lost umbrellas go to Udipi, umbrella heaven.

Dirty Love, however, is not the easiest of books to sift through — the vignettes break with traditional 'short story' techniques that often work to the author's advantage and sometimes don't — you long for less internal monologue, fewer solipsistic musings, and at times, more narrative structure and pace. This unevenness apart, Chattarji wields potent literary power. My city of secret gods, says the unnamed narrator in the story with the same name, "Essential, ordinary, invented." She infuses her prose with rare self-reflexivity, all too aware of how the city changes even as she is penning it down. Ultimately, the city itself is a language, constantly evolving and transforming, forever within and beyond its inhabitants' reach.

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