A city of dreams.. and some nightmares

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Sampurna Chattarji
Sampurna Chattarji

Mumbai has been and continues to be an important setting for contemporary authors. In her new book, writer Sampurna Chattarji writes yet another ode to the city, bringing to life the sights, smells, structures, animals and the people of Mumbai in what is essentially a dark and visceral landscape. Chattarji, who started off as a poet and a translator, has already written a collection of poems (Absent Muses) and a novel (Land of the Well). With Dirty Love, she has finally forayed into short stories.

In a recent reading of her book in Delhi, Chattarji read her favourite passages to an eager audience. She was in conversation with Anita Roy, senior editor of Zubaan, who described her book as “the smelliest novel of recent times”. According to Roy, the city is described with honesty so vivid that you can almost smell the places, the roads, the filth, even the people.

We meet complex people in her books. The protagonists are an ‘insectboy’ with a gift for fantasy; a mother who is strangely indifferent to her son; a dreamy boy who falls in love with a girl “at first smell”; and the infamous rat-killers who have dreams of their own. It is a book about lovers and dreamers, about loners and misfits. “I’m drawn to things that are not very pleasant,” Chatterji admitted.

“When you open this book, you open a window to a crowd,” said Roy, explaining the author’s remarkable ability to shift from one character to another. You read about the travails of a watchman to a dosa-maker, from random women in a restaurant to postmen. The book ought to be read aloud, to admire the fluidity with which one word follows the other.

In one of her stories, Revenge on the Beast, there is a sense of demonic alienation from the city. It describes the city not as a machine, but as a mammoth who “crawls, oozes putrid juices, ingests and wants to fling you off its back”. The fast-paced Mumbai almost seems to turn against the protagonist, but she has her own antidote. “The words I have said are inside my head,” the book reads. “They are my revenge on the beast.”

Chattarji describes how she shifted to the city after having always lived in Kolkata. “I visited Mondy’s in Mumbai. And I instantly decided to shift there. You either love it, or you hate it. You cannot be indifferent to the city. For me, it is the city of my dreams. I always wanted to live here. And now I can’t live anywhere else,” said Chattarji. “This book is not a book about Mumbai, it is my book about Mumbai. It is my attempt at capturing the spirit of the city through my writing.”

The love-hate relationship with the city is presented in a morbid but dramatic way. The mundane turns surreal, and the monstrous becomes dazzling. One of the lines in her book perhaps describes the author best, “My memory is paper. There’s nothing that I trust more.”

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