In September-October, 2017, Coldnoon celebrated six years of publishing, and travelling with you. To mark our anniversary, we got together with writers, intellectuals and stalwarts of the art of thinking (and travelling). Here is an interview with Sampurna Chattarji.
We believe, in making travel arrangements, we subconsciously tend to eliminate possibilities which we deem unfit to perceived etiquette, or norms or occasions. Our understanding of travel is based on premises that define what traveling is not. Is writing for you a similar activity, where you are conscious of what writing is not? If so, what according to you is not writing?
I don’t think of writing within the binary is/is not. Having said that, I am deeply interested in binaries, wanting to disrupt and interrogate them, wanting to escape them, knowing I may very well be entrapped instead. Consider the poems I wrote for the Journal of Art, Sex and Mathematics – in which I explore some of the excitements suggested by the forward slash.
(‘Not-ness’ being more exciting than ‘Is-ness’, perhaps because it could be a monster. “The ness added to any word warping it towards similitude” as I wrote in a poem that has to do with my alien protagonist Space Gulliver’s “idea of return”)…
In 1794, the French author, Xavier de Maistre, wrote the renowned book, Voyage Around my Room, during a month and a half of solitary confinement, in consequence of a duel. Besides being a satire on the contemporary literary culture of voyages and adventures of colonial sailors to prospective new worlds, the book proved to be a demonstration of how an individual is almost always traveling, but perhaps does not recognize the value of their domestic travels, mobility or even touristic acquisitions. How do you see or understand traveling? Do you think it is a necessary activity for a writer?
Apart from my writing, I’d like to be remembered for the way I made people feel. Did I make a nervous person feel calmer? A lonely person feel less alone? An unhappy person marginally happier? I’d like to be remembered for small kindnesses rather than “greatness” (impossible and absurd in any case). Gentleness rather than genius. Stuff like that! An entirely sentimental desire, I’m afraid, and perhaps entirely unrealistic.
I see writing itself as a form of travel, not in terms of getting to a place, but rather as the place itself, where the detours and digressions between the beginning and the end is what keeps me interested. It is entirely the possibility of wandering, losing the way, and returning (for there must be a return) that makes me want to write. The piece of text (a story, a poem, a novel, an essay) concludes, has what is signalled as an end, but I sometimes think of that “end” as a typographical necessity, a constraint that has to do with publishing and not with writing at all. Perhaps that explains my love for circular texts (the never-ending story), emboxed texts (the story within the story within the story), open-ended texts. Writing is a desire for movement, writing is a ruse for me to keep travelling.
The “activity of travelling” on the other hand is one that I consider, increasingly, with doubt. I used to think it “necessary” to travel. I interrogated that idea at length in a poem from my second book, Absent Muses, reading which may reveal more than any answer might.
The physical process of relocating oneself from a “here” to a “there”—no matter how exciting in concrete, experiential and emotional terms—has increasingly begun to seem abstract and imagined. The only thing that saves all my physical journeys from being no more than mirages is when I write about them. The photographs taken are merely evidence of having been there. Until I have written, not about the journey but back into the journey I have returned from—when I am actually travelling I rarely write anything apart from scribblings in a tiny paper notebook—it has no reality for me. I may as well have sat at home and dreamt it all up (which is what writing fiction can be). Or read a book that took me there. I once met a person who was born, grew up and lived all his life in Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) who had never travelled anywhere, not even in Kerala. I looked at him aghast (I was younger then) and asked, “Don’t you ever feel restless?” and he answered, “Nothing that a good book can’t cure.” This was not a man who had stagnated, but a man entirely content with being still. His mind was alive, active and curious. I think of him sometimes with awe and wonder how he’s doing.
For me, the best kind of travelling as a physical activity is when I get to spend enough time writing once I’ve reached my “destination”. When writing as the place within which I like to travel and the place that I have travelled to in order to write overlap, I am happy. If I stay too long, I get cranky. I feel myself getting contaminated by a sense of belonging, familiarity. As the narrator in Dirty Love, my book of stories (about, set in and imbued with the place that is Bombay/Mumbai – another tantalizing forward slash there!) says at one point, cantankerously ungrateful for the multiple gifts the city has granted him, “The way I think is changing. This city is changing me. It’s the placeness of the place. It infuriates and excites me.” This querulousness is mine. Just as in Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien (set across Canterbury, London, Bombay, Wales, Dublin, Derry and back), three-quarters through the sequence of poems, there is a mild rant about being too near the place of allurement, disenchanted by the myriad possibilities the city of London allows, wanting to be elsewhere, or better still, nowhere. Here’s the poem in entirety:
Place has encroached her, Space Gulliver no longer
Able to wish nothing but the best for you
Resist the specificity, the voice of an English singer
Crooning her sentimental words masquerading at bitter-
Sweet truths for those who care not to think too hard
No longer able to erase the place names one by one
So that when asked where she has been all these days
She could say with the honesty of a born liar
The old word for ‘some place’
The sum of all the places
She has seen with the blindness of the obsessive traveller
So that when five coloured rings are raised in a green park
Below a baroque clock
She resents being so close to the future
The imminent that she wishes to avoid like the big event
Millions will come to see and only a few hundred flee from
‘South Bank’ she wants to say ripping it from the grey walk
Along any river not this one
Take without knowledge
Like translating a foreign tongue
Not being a mind-reader
Rip them from tradition
Poems like flowers blooming inwards
Invented characters drawn on little pieces of card
Poetry like lightning
Reduce the number of dangerous dogs
The backstreet breeding
Swapped for playstations
Armies of danger
The boy who died in his flat was unhappy living in London
Who wouldn’t be, Space Gulliver thinks
If only she knew what to do with this nearness
That might have been alluring if it had been unavailable
Disinterest in old ruins could be seen as a handicap
Just as disinclination to pore over beautiful things
In an overheated building filled with the loot of empires
She would rather breathe the sleet, the rain
Swallow the air
Her indifference to the noble and ennobling
Give me, Space Gulliver thinks, a shaky too-tall bar-stool
And many listeners, the smell of new pages cut with hesitation
The face of the boy who sits quietly waiting to draw
The next pint
This is a motif, clearly—this desire to run away again and again, to make myself uncomfortable again. And yet, Space Gulliver is full of poems in which I invoke place-names—the specifics of ports, histories, landmarks, buildings—with almost incantation like intensity. I now realize, 2 years after the book came out, and 5 years after I wrote it, that I had made room for the minutiae that I wanted never to forget in the journal-like entries which interrupt and punctuate the Space Gulliver and Canterbury Cathedral poems, as if to give myself momentary clearings in which I could breathe the air of “traveldom”.
And of course it is no accident that I preface the entire sequence with a quote from an earlier Space Gulliver poem (thereby travelling back in time) which goes:
Are they real? Is that a parking meter? A lamp post?
Is this what it means, to travel?
Your favorite or most striking lines by another author; or if you will, any composed by yourself?
Loads, but tonight I’ll choose these favourite lines in Bangla, by Sukumar Ray (whom I have translated, see Wordygurdyboom!):
Rodey ranga eeter paja,
taar oporey boshlo raja—
thonga bhora badam bhaja,
khacche kintu gilche na.
Pudey pith hochhe jhama,
Raja boley, ‘Brishti nama,
noile kichhu milche na!’
On a pile of red-hot bricks
there sits a king in a kingly fix—
Fried peanuts in his bag o’ tricks
that he eats but doesn’t swallow.
From his woollies to his crown
the hot sun burns him brown;
‘Make the rain come down,’
he says, ‘or else it doesn’t follow.’
from ‘Where do they go on a wild goose chase’, pg, 23, Wordygurdyboom! Abol Tabol: The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray translated by Sampurna Chattarji (Puffin Classics)
Do respond to the following words:
“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” ― Woody Allen
Facetiously funny, the way only Woody Allen can be, without cheesing people off!
What do you think of Coldnoon?
Coldnoon is an intriguing name, and a rather surprising journal. I enjoyed what seems like randomness—pink peacocks and Portobello mushrooms sitting side by side—but is probably carefully constructed! It encourages different modes of reading: a quick dip, a leisurely wander, or a systematic investigation. At times the terrain is bumpy (for example, the poetry selections are a bit uneven, in terms of quality) but overall, worth exploring, even setting up camp.