• To Set Out From Language: An Interview with Sampurna Chattarji

    I first met the prolific poet, novelist, and translator Sampurna Chattarji in Australia in 2017, when she was touring with the Jaipur Literary Festival. Her 16 books include: two novels, Rupture (2009) and Land of the Well (2012), both from HarperCollins; a short-story collection about Bombay/Mumbai, Dirty Love (Penguin, 2013); and seven poetry titles, the most recent being Over and Under Ground in Mumbai and Paris (Context, Westland Publications, October 2018), the result of a collaboration with poet Karthika Naïr, and artists Joëlle Jolivet and Roshni Vyam. She edited Sweeping the Front Yard (SPARROW 2010), an anthology of poetry and prose by women writing in English, Malayalam, Telugu, and Urdu. She is currently Poetry Editor of The Indian Quarterly.


    ROBERT WOOD: We have spoken before about the work that you do — editing, translating, writing in many registers. Readers who are interested in this can listen to an event we did on PennSound. But, today, I want to focus on language in a general way. Can you speak about the multilingualism of where you grew up, and, how you interacted with lots of languages from the very beginning of your life?

    SAMPURNA CHATTARJI: This is a complicated question for me. On account of the way in which I seem to have constructed (and narrated) my childhood at a slight tangent from the way in which it actually unfolded.

    I was born in Dessie, Ethiopia, and came back to India (Calcutta to be precise) when I was around 8 months old. Soon after, my parents moved to Darjeeling to teach at St. Paul’s School, a British-style residential public school. I grew up in Darjeeling. What does that mean in terms of multilingualism? I realise (now) that there were four languages around me: English, Bangla, Nepali, and Hindi. My school years were dominated by English (the medium of instruction and my chosen language for dreaming, writing, reading), with Bangla playing out a parallel soundtrack at home (where Tagore’s dance dramas form not just an aural atmospheric but almost a visual memory — of false accusations and unjust executions in Shyama, for example). I read and was read to in English, but I imbibed Bangla through conversation, recitation of poems by parents, recordings of my grandparents singing, my brother reciting Sukumar Ray in a solemn voice.

    When I think back to those years, I don’t recall the sound of English. I recall the Bangla-sound which seems to surround an English that was inside me as natural (and unnoticed) as breath. The only English-sound that registered from the outside was Richard Burton’s voice reciting Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and an actor in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II calling “Gaveston! Gaveston!” in a voice laden, I realized even then, with lament and love. Years later, a song sung by Hemant Mukherjee returned as loud as if it were playing in the room — “diner sheshe ghoomer deshe” — which I didn’t even remember hearing and registering! Nepali was onomatopoeic for me, all the trippy sounds of exclaiming over minor hurts and major surprises.

    And Hindi? Hindi was torture: learning to write essays on the cow … It was my third language (Bangla being the second), and at that point I did not see why I needed it. Not till we moved to Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh in 1984, when I was thirteen and a half. There, I was plunged into Hindi (and had to learn basic Sanskrit). After one more year of terrified muteness, I was able to speak, read, and write Hindi fluently thanks to my excellent teacher, Mrs Saxena.

    This question of language also brings up a question of identity and history; not only about being Indian but part of a diaspora (given you were born in Ethiopia) and also part of a community that is pre-national and post-national (Bengal). These observations challenge monolithic hegemony and interrupt established conventions. How do you regard the importance of multilingualism in today’s Bombay and beyond? And how does this fit in with your own history?

    I never think of myself as having been part of a diaspora — though I suppose my parents were, for the three short years they spent in Africa, my dad teaching English in a comprehensive school in Wollo Province, part of a community of international teachers (from Sweden, France, America) and Indians (mostly from South India). This community is vivid to me from my parents’ stories and photos. The brothers Larousse teaching them French and devouring my mom’s coconut barfis and donuts. Laila Eckmann’s strawberry pancakes. Fred Bashar’s guitar lessons to my brother. Diwali parties featuring sparklers and crates of cold bira. Sri Lankan friends, the de Silvas. Mr Krishnamurthy’s obsession for maths, Mahler, his wife’s shyness, and her talent for making bondas. Just one Bengali family mentioned there: the Sils. In Darjeeling, as a kid, I was fascinated by a little yellow book that had been given to my parents by Ethiopian Airlines. A book of handy phrases in Amharic. I remember learning some of them and savoring words like dorowat, injira, watat, the numbers from 1 to 10 … Feeling obscurely, and proudly, African. My notional motherland, my actual birthplace, my Inani and Alemithu.

    I never felt part of any community — Bengali or otherwise. We were Bengalis, that was a fact that I never interrogated except with the idea of rejecting some of its burdensome traditions and expectations. We were probashi Bangalis — meaning the Bengalis who dwell outside Bengal. This accentuated my fierce sense of outsiderness. I revelled in it and was antagonistic to suggestions that I become more Bengali (by reading Bankim for example, or learning robindro shongeet).

    In Bombay (which I came to when I was 25) multilingualism meant adding layers of sound that I didn’t need to necessarily understand to feel at home. That was the great gift of Bombay. That Marathi, Gujarati, Konkani, Tamil could exist around me like a comforting murmur, neither challenging nor accusing me of outsiderness. I would move through it with my English, my Hindi and, yes, my Bambaiyya, dropping the chasteness of Mrs Saxena’s Hindi in favor of an ungendered, cruder patois with which I established contact and transcended divides, recovering formal Hindi inflections and vocabularies only when in a taxi driven by a person from the North.

    Your work as a translator has included a book of poems by Joy Goswami. Speak to me about Goswami, but also of approaching the poetic from a place outside of English.

    Joy-da, as I call him, led me into Bangla poetry in a way no parental (or societal) urging might have. It’s almost shocking how a single book by Joy Goswami (Surjo-pora chhai) catapulted me into that world. I discovered him not through his hugely popular poetry but through one of his most obscure and difficult works. His poems hit me with their starkness, and I knew at once I had to translate them. Joy-da had read my Sukumar Ray translations, and was receptive, generous and trusting. I translated three books (and am translating three more: his prose poems this time) over nine years, and umpteen conversations.

    To approach the poetic from a place outside of English simply meant that I had to test the limits of my dexterities in the language I wrote in, and re-educate myself in Bengali. I had already realized while translating Ray how much Bengali I had inside me (a shock in itself!) and translating Joy-da was a way of deepening that, in more profound and difficult ways. It was also, in a sense, becoming a child again. I remember taking my dad along with me on my first meeting with the poet in 2005 — it was on my dad’s bookshelves that I discovered Joy-da’s poetry — as if it were my first day at school! I had to proceed to a known place via a great unknown. I had to read more than the specific books I was translating, I had to translate entire areas of another poet’s experience into an understanding that would be uniquely my own. So that every word I chose in English would mysteriously, accurately and inspiredly relate to the Bangla words that were before me. There could be nothing slack about it. Mythologies embedded in single words would have to be teased out by poetic rather than annotative means. Failures would have to be acknowledged.

    In a similar vein, there has been your recently released Elsewhere Where Else with Welsh poet Eurig Salisbury. It comes from a different era, culture, homeland, possibility, and space than Goswami; but can you speak to us about how you continue to share space, about voicing things together, and realising your own practice with someone else.

    Collaborating with Eurig has made me more aware of being Bengali! Because of his intense Welshness, his commitment to his language and his culture, and yet his great desire to not be trapped within an insularity, to move across the hostilities between English and Welsh, to acknowledge the power structures in publishing and the need to resist dominant discourses. In my part of the world, where writing in English is taken for granted, and is no longer seen as a symptom of colonised lackey-ism, what I was able to offer him was my confidence. In choosing the language you please. In celebrating the resources of that particular language without guilt.

    Over seven years, we have shared space conceptually and concretely, with the lived experience of each other’s homelands adding depth to our own. Translation is where we began — Eurig moving from my English to his Welsh, I moving from his Welsh to my Bangla — but along the way the shared space became that of writing new work — in English or in Welsh. Eurig was freer there than me — he had a choice. I cannot write poetry in Bangla! While thematic convergences enabled us to write Elsewhere Where Else — with its poems about Mumbai, Aberystwyth, and Kolkata — argument has been essential to our close working relationship. The ymryson/kobir lorai section in the book makes argument itself the form. Our new collaborative book is for children, in which Welsh and Bangla words (unexplained) trigger poems in English, each writing an interpretation based on sound alone. Along with a section where we both write poems on Indian and Welsh cultural and culinary experiences that we’ve shared.

    These relationships also inform your own creative work. In other words, translation matters to your poetry, and, so too does collaboration. Can you speak about what you borrow from each world, and what you leave behind? What has been the cumulative effect of this on your own writing?

    Translation has made me think about the structural nature of English (and its shortcomings!) in a way I might never have otherwise done. What I borrow from translation is ferocious attentiveness, relaxed play, and fresh conceptual fields. What I leave behind is another version of me. An English-me whose hidden core is Bengali (as if the center had been swapped).

    Collaboration has energized my writerly self and saved me from despair. My collaboration with Eurig is organic and ongoing. My collaboration with Claus Ankersen for an Indo-Irish poetry project was time-bound and sharp. My collaboration with Sue Butler was epistolary and unexpected. My collaboration with Jonathan Edwards was delightfully whimsical — resulting in poems about Dylan Thomas’ home in Laugharne as well as on little brown frogs and fiendish contraptions! My collaboration with Sharon Morris for Gelynion was again time-bound — with someone I had only just met — and it was beautiful, our voices utterly different and yet utterly possible to harmonize (as we realised in performance).  And most recently, my collaboration with Karthika Naïr and the illustrator Joëlle Jolivet has been demanding, joyous, and miraculous, resulting in the book Over and Underground in Paris and Mumbai published recently by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications.

    What I gain from collaboration is new rhythms of working and thinking, new rigors of form, and new possibilities in experimentation. What I leave behind is a set of poetic conversations, which, I hope, will inspire new collaborations to come.

    Now, I want to shift a little and to think about the role of community. I know you are active as an editor, especially with The Indian Quarterly. Tell me about the pleasures, challenges, and hope of editing, and how it keeps you in dialogue with all kinds of poets in all kinds of languages.

    Pleasures: To solicit work from poets I’ve long admired. To discover fabulous new work by emerging voices. To work with the poet and/or the translator to make existing texts better. To introduce to the Indian readers voices from other countries and vice versa.

    Challenges: To find good poems in translation from the other Indian languages into English. To make the most of a limited number of pages (12-14) in every issue. To achieve surprise and coherence, newness and lastingness.

    Hope: The greatest hope is, I think, to communicate to readers and contributors alike that the editorial role is one that can be assumed with clarity and confidence, openness and exactitude. To convey, especially to the younger poets and emerging translators that good editing is essential — be it for one’s own work or other’s. To make the relationship between poet and editor one of dialogue and genuine critique. To emphasize that it is a conversation. And that editorial subjectivities need to be anchored in objective analysis and robust feedback.

    I think dialogue is what I love most about my editorial job. And the sheer joy of seeing someone else’s work in print — it’s unbelievable. My work with IQ has, however, alerted me to a lacuna in the Indian poetry scene — and that is the paucity of excellent translations of contemporary poets. The translations from Hindi, Marathi, Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil, Bengali are usually good. The rest makes me wish I could find resources to enable translation work on and with contemporary poets from the other languages (Assamese, Oriya, Telugu, Kannada, Khasi) … to create a new pool of practicing poet/translators.

    You are also active in poetry events and readings in Bombay and across India. This includes in-depth examination and celebration of many fine local poets with some international guests. How would you describe the community of poets where you are, and how does that inform your own practice as editor, translator, collaborator, and creator?

    The community of poets in Bombay makes me feel very rich. To have a few good friends who will read, critique, question, support, and care is a blessing. Enhanced by those from elsewhere, with whom exchanges across the ether and real-time encounters continue to prove that friendships are still possible in the literary world! Knowing and respecting this immediate and long-distance community makes me alive and alert to the importance of give-and-take, of exchange that is intellectually demanding and emotionally renewing. I feel responsible and invested, and it makes me want to be my best self, both in my work and in my interactions.

    Finally, a simple question with many possible answers — what is the future work in language that you have planned?

    In a poem from Moutat Moheswar (Shiva, My High) Joy Goswami writes (my translation):

    In softness I’ll set out from home/ In birdness I’ll set out from language

    I’d love to do something like that. To set out from language in a selfhood other than the one I currently inhabit. On the Paris Writer’s Residency (March–April 2019) I will be working on what I have tentatively titled The Encyclopaedia of Everyday, in which I hope new dis/continuities will emerge.