Title: Dirty Love
Author: Sampurna Chattarji
Publisher: Penguin Books
Price: Rs. 350
Sampurna Chattarji is branching out in all directions. She started as a poet, got a novel under her belt and is now rocking the short story scene. Her voice is mordant, expressive and very very sharp, and you would be well advised never to take your eyes off her, because she can turn on you like a snake. After so many decades of insipid, hand-wringing, upper middle class Indian Writing in English, it’s good to have a bandsaw like Chattarji come along and saw the medium in half. As the book draws to a close, the ripped seams of modern life fall neatly back together again, the audience cheers, the magician bows, applause and curtains. Another show worth watching hits the road, thank God. IWE will be all the better for it.
In her relish for the demonic and the twisted that lies just under the surface of modern Indian life, Chattarji is like a small electric Roald Dahl in sanganeri kurtas. The twin sisters Bombay-Mumbai are her muses, and she oscillates between them with a brisk no-nonsense bustling love. Her stories are always crisp, rarely long, and they glitter with sharp edges like the best shurikens. It would be a mistake to call her typical protagonist a flaneur, because the unruly drama of passion and transgression whipped up by the story can reach out and drag him or her into action at any time, so that the precarious observer’s pose these people strive for is always in jeopardy. The reader, too, is thereby always kept guessing. The short story, like the poem, works best when packed into a small box, and Chattarji’s packing skills are very fine.
It’s rare for a writer to be able to do both stories of violent, shocking action and stories where the drama is what is in the not-said, but Chattarji seems to be able to pull off either with ease. She also entwines her characters through route and locale, so that a minor character in one becomes the star of another, and this gives you a sense of a network of acquaintance and connection spreading over the city like a virtual cobweb, any thread of which can twang into song. Her city is somehow always wet and splashy, with that heady intimacy that only the rains can bring to brick and concrete, producing highly inappropriate thoughts of clouds, flutes and peacock feathers in the minds of the jaded inhabitants. The mischief of water flows under the text, and the drains, the sewers, the standpipes, the bathrooms and their mother, the sea itself constantly thrum under our feet. The city seems to stand on a liquid mass of moving mud as unreliable as the human heart. From this mud Chattarji shapes her specific pitchers and fills them up with the liquor of her choice. Some are bitter-sweet, some astringent, and some, like Three Women in a Restaurant, or No One in the Gondola But Them are filled with wistful nectar. Release is wicked, and so is Bad Language. But itemising the goodies in this basket will do us no good. The range and variety of them is just too wonderful, like the menu of an Irani cafe. You have to go and taste them for yourself.
This is a big collection, and worth reading in fits and starts. For some reason, Penguin has chosen to capitalise some titles in the table of contents and lowercase others, for no rhyme or reason that I can discern. But this, or the pedestrian cover, will not spoil your enjoyment of the book. I do hope that whoever is watching the development of Indian Writing in English will please take note of the Renaissance in the short story that we seem to be witnessing, and will stop writing the genre off as passe. The short story, with its contentiousness, its orality, its quick hand-on-the-shoulder casualness, is perfect for the Indian milieu. It is also the medium where the storyteller can show off. Unlike the high seriousness of the novel, the short story can get away with all kinds of irreverence. Irreverence is, of course, the one thing the IWE writers generally fail to peddle. And what we are looking at here is the higher irreverence, where the cover-stories for the doing of evil that circulate among us get short shrift from some very sceptical people.
In this unfriendly time we live in, there is nothing like a short story to give us a shot in the arm of angelic or demonic instruction, like a whiff of oxygen in a coal mine. Chattarji has grasped this aspect of her function very thoroughly. Although there is no lack of cold shivers in these stories, they will leave you feeling as if you’ve just had a dip in a high altitude lake: they will energise rather than chill you. I think the primary reason for this is Chattarji’s refreshing lack of cant. Her characters don’t waste their time drizzling on about the empty banalities of everyday life; they just quietly open windows in each other’s heads and look pensively in. You are invited to look with them, and you won’t be disappointed: there’s gold in them, their heads.