Tag Archives: Sampurna Chattarji

THESE HILLS CALLED HOME

Sampurna Chattarji

Photo : Subhrata Ray

Photo : Subhrata Ray

A few years ago, as part of the social programme at a literary festival in Bhutan, we were taken to visit a Bhutanese village. The trip made me think of Ashis Nandy’s book An Ambiguous Journey to the City, in which he has an essay titled ‘The journey to the village is a journey to the centre of the self’. I often get asked the question, “Where are you from?” Seeing my Bengali surname, strangers assume I must have been born in Kolkata. When I tell them I was born in Africa, in Dessie, Ethiopia to be precise, eyebrows rise, and people like my (then) ten-year old god-son ask me if I am African. Adults say, “Oh, so you grew up in Africa!” at which point I have to say “No, I grew up in Darjeeling”. “Oh, Loreto! I was in Loreto College, which year?” at which point I have to explain that I graduated from Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi. At this point my interlocutor starts getting a glazed look in her eyes. To ease her pain, I put an end to the story, and say, “But now I’m based in Bombay, have been for the last 15 years.” Relief, exclamations (“So Bombay is home for you now!”) and finally we can move on to other things. This kind of exchange has had an educational effect on me. Now when I get asked the same question, I respond with the short answer “Bombay” and let myself off the hook. But in a country where you still get asked the question, especially when travelling long-distance by train, “Where is your village?”, I wish I had the presence of mind to say, quoting Nandy, that my village is at the centre of my self; to say—I left my village at the age of thirteen but my village has never left me. That centre is Darjeeling; that centre is, I suspect, home.

It is only now, when I look back at my writing and glean from it the presence of this absence, that I see how pervading it is; how growing up in Darjeeling gave me a core that would manifest itself in my poetry and fiction in the strangest ways. In my novel Rupture, one of the characters, Partho, an anglophile film buff, is a product of a public school set seven thousand feet above the sea. When he descends from the hills to the plains, he finds he doesn’t fit in, and in his anger he blames that unreal, paradisiacal childhood:

It had ruined him. The pristine air in which everything seemed sharp and immediate, as if summoned that very instant by some faultless conjuror’s hand. The presence in his life of those mountains of shadow and ice. The way in which, on clear evenings, the setting sun brushed each glittering white peak into a thing so ravishing and transitory, so technicolour that he could hardly believe in its existence. How could something that looked so real and solid and provable be enchanted into something so unreal by a trick of the light? Between the steepness of a slope under his climbing legs, the blueness of the air above his spinning head, the ache in his teeth that told him the mountain existed, the fog in his eyes that spirited it away—between all those implacable contradictions, how could he not have got tainted?[1]

Being unfit for any other kind of life, particularly life in the plains, makes him a slightly warped and more-than-slightly dislikable man. And yet, I realized that when I wanted Partho to redeem himself, to find some way of reaching out to the wife he abandoned, and the children he never cared for, it was to his most cherished memory—that of the hills—to which he returns:

It was the fog I loved most, because it was the fog that made the light so warm in that cold place of my youth. The thin drizzle, the thick fog, the warm yellow light in the classroom, in the dorm, in the cubes. Fat slices of bread, butter so cold we ate it in chunks, tea so hot we skinned our tongues. Everything golden, the butter, the apple juice in the end-of-term glass, the sun through the cryptomeria hitting your eye as you lay on the wet crunchy grass. And inside the dak bungalow the candle, as we bent over a game of cards, teachers and students cheating equally—all is fair in the circle of light against the dark. A bear prowling outside, honest, someone saw it with his own two eyes. Huddle closer, here no bear will get you. Off the road, in the khudside, with our peashooters. No peas in them, just hard, scrunched up pellets of paper, nicking the ankles of those who walked past our noses as we hid among the insects, invisible until betrayed by a stinging nettle and the yelp of a bare-legged boy. Eat the stem of this tender green shoot, suck the juice from the rhododendron flower. Part the fern on that mossy wall and look into the gap between the stones. It feels like a discovery, the orange marble that you hid. Here is treasure, immeasurable.

Under a bush near the chapel was our little hidey-hole when we were in Primary. We hid there and watched. There was nothing to watch, it was the hiding that mattered. On that tree with the flat branch was where we built a little machan made of twine. We were going to hunt tigers from there, when the rest of the world was sleeping. In two days, it was found and with it our nest egg of three stolen library books, for reading by torchlight as we waited for the tiger to arrive. On that bend is where I fell often, gouging open my knees. In that corner of the junior field is where we did our Mowgli dance. Akela we do our best. Up the narrow stairs, but not all the way to the Infirmary, is where we burnt the wax and drew the batik patterns. Below, we planed wood, rejoicing in the spray of dust, the pile of wood shavings curling at our feet. Across the senior field, we banged at the pianos, rows and rows of notes straining to become music. Sometimes, on an empty afternoon—where was everyone—you would hear a melody, someone playing again and again, practicing, perfecting, because this was the thing he loved.

They gave us so much room, Paromita, to find out what we loved. [2] 

I think it is that love for the hills that has stayed with me, no matter how far away I went. The American poet Elizabeth Bishop asks in her wonderful poem ‘Questions of Travel’— “should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?” It was while attempting to understand the ‘whereverness’ of home that I realized home is what sneaks up on you when you least expect it, as happened in the last section of this poem:

 

One or Two Things about Home

 

Hungarian sausage, from an Indian friend in Austria.
A hard white cylinder, twisted at one end, like a sweet.
The white is a dusting of flour (on wax?),
the cylinder hard as a shinbone.
Tear the twist of wire off, unwrap the flour-skin.
The meat inside is red. With a sharp knife, cut a slice.
Press hard.
Bite into the little red disc.
It’s sharp, and salty, and good. Could do with a glass of wine, though,
to go with this Loidl Spezialitaten, this Haussalami,
saying the words all wrong, but wanting
to say them, wanting the mouth to do more
than eat this red and salty foreign meat.

What is it about Hungary these days? Should I treat them as signs?
Why else should I be reading Sándor Márai, recalling Csoma de Körös,
the Hungarian who walked to Tibet and died in Darjeeling?
If that’s not a sign, what is? Darjeeling, my home for thirteen years.
I left, at thirteen, and what it left me was a taste for mist
and gloomy afternoons, a relish for steep roads and gabled roofs,
a zest for steamed pork momos and cups and cups of tea.
Not for Csoma de Körös, he died of malaria in Darjeeling.
And Márai committed suicide in San Diego.
What is it about Hungarians and death?

“Who are the Hungarians?”
Lapps? Finns? Turks? Huns? Körös was keen to find out.
Instead, he found a monastery, a bitter cold and a language
he would learn, a grammar he would take back for the world.
Which journey ends the way you imagine? I try and imagine
a journey on foot, in bitter cold, in rags. All I can summon up
are prayer flags, the tall fluttering wisps of cloth I walked past everyday
without noticing what they might be saying, blind to the language
of signs made of wind and air, white on blue, white on grey,
speaking to spirits that must have watched me go. And the more
I’d like to stay with Hungary, the more Darjeeling comes back—
the sound of Buddhist gongs, the stench of horse dung,
the juice of the Bhutan apple spurting on my tongue, the sight
of a yellow light in fog—each separate and terrible, each sign
invisible inside me, marking me for who I am, foretelling every
word, every action, that I might one day make.

It’s hard.
Press deep, cut through to the bone.[3]

Journeys never turn out the way you imagine. Now an affirmed city-dweller, the hills where I spent all my formative years made me, in invisible and undeniable ways, the writer and the person that I am. Like Eustace Trotter in Allan Sealy’s The Trotter-Nama who thinks of the Himalayas as a “vital place to which his thoughts would go back again and again…”, a feeling that goes “deeper than the ordinary longing for a sense of quiet rootedness” and is instead “the sense of a source or spring”—Darjeeling continues to be a motherlode for my work which I am yet to fully mine. For me these hills called home are not just a place on the map but a feeling in my heart. I will end with a poem which I smuggled into my book of children’s poems, but which is really about my adult sense of longing, belonging and loss.

 

Used To Be

Used to be
just waking was reason
to go mad with joy.
Fed, dressed, kissed,
then sent hurtling
past the lawn
past the field
past the slopes
past the trees
past the breeze
past the town
past the high Himalayan peaks

into this: 

A desk
in a room
in a city.

Used to be
just the thought
of a book
unread
was cause
to lose my way
through a day.
Rapt, not hearing a word,
just waiting for class
to be over
and then

walk run race home
open the door
fling down the bag
drink up the milk
throw off the shoes
jump on the bed
take out the book
and sink into: 

A quiet depression.

Used to be
just the sight of yellow light
in mist was poetry,
hot bread and jam,
a hiding place in a wall
behind a fern
where a single orange marble winked,
firestruck and swollen,
a candlepowered tin
floating titanic in a tub. 

Proud of the red apple cheeks
I stole from my little Bhutia friends,
proud of the Kanchenjunga
I fitted into my window,
proud of the giant night shadows
I spread across the wall,

I sit: 

Too close,
too distant
from where I began.[4]

***

[1] From Sampurna Chattarji’s Rupture [HarperCollins Publishers India, 2009]
[2] From Sampurna Chattarji’s Rupture [HarperCollins Publishers India, 2009]
[3] From Sampurna Chattarji’s Absent Muses [Poetrywala, 2010]
[4] From Sampurna Chattarji’sThe Fried Frog[Scholastic India Pvt. Ltd., first edition June 2009, reprinted September 2009]

***

Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji is a poet, novelist and translator with twelve books to her credit. Her four poetry collections include Sight May Strike You Blind (Sahitya Akademi 2007, reprint 2008), Absent Muses (Poetrywala, 2010) and The Scorpion; her two novels are Rupture (2009) and Land of the Well (2012), both from HarperCollins. Wordygurdyboom! (Puffin, 2004, 2008) is Sampurna’s translation of Sukumar Ray’s Bengali poetry and prose; and Dirty Love (Penguin, March 2013) is her short-story collection about Bombay/Mumbai. Her latest book is her translation of Joy Goswami’s Selected Poems (HarperCollins, 2014) http://sampurnachattarji.wordpress.com/

 

 

 

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No One in the Gondola but Them

Sampurna Chattarji

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

What’s Mumbai like, his old friends asked him when he first moved here, a year ago. It’s crazy, he said. It’s wonderful. No one sleeps. We party all night. It’s sensational.

~

No one in the city dreamt in their beds any more. Instead, they climbed into the shuttles that sped through the rain, and found a seat near the window. The windows of the shuttles went all the way from seat to ceiling. A fine beehive pattern lay across the glass, so that when you looked out, the city looked pointillist. But mostly, you saw no city. You saw a sheet of liquid rippling past your ears, above your forehead, along your elbow. You nestled closer to the glass protecting you from the water, and you slept.

Swapna had started taking the shuttles instead of the trains. She didn’t need to go into town every day, she could fix the time of her meetings according to her convenience, mostly at coffee shops, and the shuttles left every twenty minutes from a stop ten minutes away from her house, no need for her to race to the station and brave the muck and so many umbrellas dripping down her neck. The conductors who started recognizing her urged her to buy a monthly pass, save herself money, but she mumbled about not having to go every day, this on the third consecutive day of taking the same shuttle. They probably thought she was an eccentric with her long flowery umbrella, her knee-length shorts and her black ankle boots that she took out every monsoon. She wasn’t young any more and she had gone soft in the belly and thighs, but none of that stopped her from wearing clothes that were practical. She wore a chunky stone at her throat and strawberry balm on her lips. Her arms she mostly left bare. She hadn’t accounted for how cold the air-conditioned shuttle would be. The first time she rode it, she froze so badly, it took a whole afternoon of cafe lattes to thaw her out.

But now she was a veteran. In her capacious tote bag—sunshine yellow, turquoise blue, burnt sienna or classic black—she packed a shawl to match her shorts, her bag or her neck-piece, and the minute she was done paying, she wrapped herself in it like a bug in a rug, and slept.

From time to time, she registered through her sleep where she was. Godrej Soaps, Chheda Nagar, Sion Hospital. Then there would be a long blank and she would wake just in time to see Gloria Church looming out of the greyness and slipping away as the bus curved past its spire. When the dome of the mosque below J.J. Flyover slid by in a green haze, she knew it was time to start unwrapping herself. Unwrap, fold, pack, comb, yawn, stretch, stand up, leave.

*

It was on the first Saturday that she understood what was special about the shuttles. There were only four people at the stop—a tall young man in a black suit and tie, a blowsy old lady in a yellow chiffon and a big red bindi that was curling at the edges due to the damp or the wrinkles on her forehead, a very stylish young woman with spiky gelled hair, and her. The rain came down as they waited, the drops blowing sideways. They didn’t have to bear more than two minutes of this before the great purple shuttle materialized out of the rain like a benevolent whale.

Swapna’s favourite spot was where the seats faced each other and were higher than the rest because they came over the wheels. She hated travelling facing the wrong direction, but that only happened when she was late and all the other seats were taken. She claimed her place with her tote bag, tucked her umbrella into the space behind the driver’s seat, and when she returned, the tall young man in the black suit and tie was sitting next to her bag which happened to be sunshine yellow that day, and would have matched the blowsy lady’s chiffon very well. The young man courteously held his knees sideways for her to get in and then stretched out again, placing his polished black shoes on the step where the facing passenger would have placed his or her feet if he or she had been there. Swapna wrapped herself up, put her tote bag on the empty seat opposite her, no one was going to steal her money, her mobile or her book of poems by Agha Shahid Ali, folded her legs so her boots rested neatly on the step, and fell into a doze. The AC blast had dried her wet calves and arms in seconds, and she felt warm and drowsy under her shawl, as if she had drunk a brandy. Knees covered, ears covered, hands tucked between legs, a cocoon.

The rain streamed past the windows, the wheels ploughed through the water, making arcs of spray so high they came up to her face. It was like being on an ocean liner, Swapna thought sleepily, a luxurious ocean liner. She was on board a liner, there was dancing in the ballroom, and soon they would go out on to the wind-lashed deck to see the penguins. There was a girl there with a mop of tight black curls dancing with a woman with straight yellow hair, and everyone was clapping. The penguins made a pattern of black dots on the white ice floe.

She stirred. The space that had originally been there between the tall young man’s black-suited arm and hers had vanished. Through her shawl she could feel, instead of a whistling fingerbreadth of cold air, the warmth of his arm.

However deeply she slept she always made it a point to hold herself away from whoever sat next to her, especially if it was a man. She hated it when a fat man sat next to her, his thighs and arms bulging over into her seat, no mal-intention there, merely an excess of flesh, and no place for her to shift and create that sliver of all-important space. If it was a woman, it wasn’t so bad, but she had trained herself to attract the right person, lifting her bag in time to catch the slim ones.

This man was slim, and he had chosen this seat when there were forty-three other seats to choose from.

Swapna did not feel the slightest tremor of alarm.

If she unwrapped herself even a little bit, the cold would enter. The rain was falling ceaselessly, and bursts of light, fuzzy at the edges, floated past, as if the entire city were under water. The thought of her safety, her immunity to the wetness of the rain and the coldness of the air conditioning made her snuggle closer to herself. It didn’t matter that the boy’s arm, for he was more boy than man, lay against hers. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. He was clean-shaven, his hair was neatly cut, he didn’t have much character yet, but that would come with time. His eyes were shut.

She did not draw herself away. The shuttle swerved. He did not take advantage of the swerve to press against her. That is how she knew he was innocent.

She was in a schoolroom, packed with fifteen-year-olds. She was talking to them about mathematics, about alpha sine minus one. Zito the Magician turned a rat into a rabbit and held out his hat. Archimedes was in his bath. Next he was on the sand, drawing circles, and a corporal chopped off his head. The school children were marching, one-two, one-two. You are as far as memory, she said, and I am as far as invention. The rabbit fell down the hole. The fifteen-year-olds giggled.

Through her dream, she felt the arm of the young man beside her. The idea that his whole body lay beyond that arm was one that did not have any reality. She noticed that her hip was close to his hip. Her arm touched the length of his arm. It was Venice, and the gondola was easing through the water. A child in a red raincoat with a hood waved at them, and then let the hood fall back to reveal the very old face of a dwarf. She was frightened. The warmth of his arm and his hip made her less frightened. She allowed her right arm to relax. Normally the idea of a strange man’s hip against hers would have disgusted her. This man did not feel strange. She allowed her upper body to relax. They drew their sleeping breaths together, and the rhythm of calm, soft, shared breathing soothed her. There was no one in the gondola but them.

Swapna was aware that the young man was aware of her comfort. Once, long ago, on a mountain road, with a mist outside as thick as the rain, she had sat like this with a friend, immeasurably sad at the thought that they could be nothing more. His arm had touched hers in just this way, and she had prayed, don’t let him draw away, god please don’t let him draw away, and he hadn’t. They had stayed silently pressed together along the length of their arms, and when the ride ended they had known what could never be said.

But should they? Was this nestling right? As if to send the young man a signal that she was no frustrated middle-aged pervert, Swapna sat up straight, angled her legs towards the window, and drew, for the first time, her upper body a few centimetres away. After so many minutes of shared warmth, the gap between them felt arctic. She rested her head against the cold pane of glass. The windows were fogged up, the water splashed and streamed. She was in a mechanical car wash in a rich suburb north of New York. She sat with a married friend, whose wife and son were away in India. He was her merry host, he lent her his wife’s fancy chappals for that evening’s dinner at an expensive Thai restaurant, she was so tired of wearing sneakers and socks. Afterwards he drove her around, pointing out the large houses, telling her their ridiculously high prices, pointing out his son’s school, where he played the sax, the dead mall where they had bought iceberg lettuce and milk that afternoon. And then he said, I need to get the car washed, and she found herself sitting inside it, the windows white with foam, the jet of water thudding against her burning ears, two inches away from a suddenly silent man, talking to make the silence go away, talking to banish her memories of steamy car wash scenes in movies, wondering how anyone could do anything with those giant fronds of mop lashing outside like octopuses.

She slept. When she woke, he was right beside her, arm against arm, hip discreetly against hip. She felt a slow-spreading smile light up inside her. He was fast asleep, and he wasn’t the kind she saw so often, the kind who slept with their mouths open, letting out little puffy snores. He had repaired the rift that she had so carefully introduced into their relationship. He was telling her he had understood her message, and here was his in return—isn’t it nicer this way?

He was right, it was. Knowing he would not mind, or consider it unseemly, Swapna let herself go soft against his arm, noticing as she did so that he stayed absolutely still.

*

No one got enough sleep in this bloody city, Indra thought, as he stretched his legs out. A city of sleep-deprived souls. Akhil wanted to make a zombie-movie. Set it in this city, man, Indra had told him, look around you, you’ll never find more zombies per square inch in any other place. Chasing success, the standard Mumbai myth! What a con. Chasing sleep more like it, snatching whatever fragments came your way, greedy, desperate, desperately tired. You slept standing in trains, you slept sitting in buses, you slept luxuriously like pashas sprawled on velvet couches in cabs, whenever you took them. Hell, sometimes you slept at the wheel of your very own cars and crashed into the longest sweetest sleep of all. On weekends, you slept till lunch if you were lucky, if your wife or mother or landlady didn’t want you to go shopping, run errands or do some other lunatic thing. It created a craving so deep that on Sunday nights you couldn’t sleep just thinking how much you longed to. And then the merciless week began. All week you slept in bits and pieces, catching four or five hours at a stretch if you were lucky every night, and then off again every morning, running, with breakfast in your gullet and sleep in your eyes.

It sucked. Which is why Indra had decided not to buy a car, not to take the train, not to waste money on cabs, but simply take the shuttles that had sprung up miraculously all over town, connecting the dots that made the city a giant beehive.

What’s Mumbai like, his old friends asked him when he first moved here, a year ago. It’s crazy, he said. It’s wonderful. No one sleeps. We party all night. It’s sensational. All true. And all driving him slowly insane. If it weren’t for the shuttles, which left every twenty minutes from a spot just five minutes away from his flat, thereby allowing him fifteen minutes of extra sleep every morning, he would have lost it by now. Cracked under the strain. Like that man he saw two days ago, near Regal Bakery at Byculla, standing in the middle of the road in the pouring rain, his mouth moving soundlessly, gesturing wildly then stopping to make a frame with his fingers as if he were setting up a shot. His whole body felt splintered when he saw that man. It was the same shifting breaking sensation he felt on his sleepless, longing-to-sleep nights. It spooked him, and he turned away, glad of the shuttle’s speed.

Lately, the only place Indra could sleep soundly was in the shuttle. One and a half hours that refreshed him in a way not even five hours did. It was the pollution-free air, the cool, he didn’t have an AC in his room, it was the knowledge that from terminus to terminus, he owed nothing to nobody. And on Saturdays, it was the best.

It was on a Saturday that he realized—until he started taking the shuttle he hadn’t had a single dream after moving to Mumbai. Was it the rain? No, inside the shuttle, you never heard it the way you did when you were at home on a Sunday morning, covers pulled over your head, your entire body soaking in the pleasure of sleeping late, lulled and soothed by the music of the rain. Inside the shuttle, you were lulled and soothed by the movement, soundless and surging, through curtains of water, powerful and intact.

He dreamt he was on a water lily, a white lily, floating upstream. He dreamt there was a black horse galloping alongside. He dreamt that three moss-green elfin ladies in raincoats were swimming with him. He dreamt he was mute, and talking with his hands to a girl in a red and yellow salwar-suit, who listened to him with the sweetest look of comprehension on her face.

When it was time to get off at Cuffe Parade, Indra felt peaceful, restored. He knew then that he would have to do this again and again.

He started noticing things. The nature of your dreams depended on who you sat next to. Certain people made better dream companions than others. There were regulars. Following an unspoken code, they chose each other. The small man with the bulbous glasses sat next to the woman with the mole on her cheek. The young man with shoulder-length greying hair sat next to the girl in the windcheater which she never took off. The Parsi lady sat next to the Tamilian with vibhuti on his forehead. Indra still hadn’t found his regular. On weekdays he went with the flow, taking whichever seat was free. On Saturdays, he chose one, then another, relishing the fact that on Saturdays there were people you never saw the whole week—the irregulars, going to town because they wished to, not because they had to. On that Saturday, he chose the woman with the eccentric ankle boots.

She wasn’t exactly young or pretty or trim. But then neither was she old or misshapen or ugly. He chose her over the two other women. The older matronly one with too much rouge on her already red face who worked in the LIC building on PM Road, she was a regular, with many voluble bus-friends—today’s trip into town was clearly not for work. The younger one was a newcomer whose gelled hair and pierced nose attracted him, and yet, he chose the ankle boots. He knew it might look odd, his sitting there with so many seats free, but he was willing to risk it. She didn’t even bother looking at him as he held his legs sideways for her to get in after she’d stashed her long umbrella behind the driver. For a second, Indra was tempted to shift allegiances, choose Ms Spiky. He stayed where he was. She unzipped her tote bag, took out a shawl and proceeded to shroud herself in it. It was a large shawl, almost like a blanket, and she wound it around her knees, her neck, her head, and gave a little sigh before falling fast asleep.

A great calm stole over Indra. He closed his eyes. She was dreaming of penguins. He could see them, little scattered dots. He wanted to see them more clearly. She had a pair of binoculars in her hand. He came closer to take them from her. When he looked through them he saw, instead of the penguins, a towering flank of ice, coming towards them.

The liner veered to avoid it. Indra held himself steady against the rail, and felt fiercely happy. Her body was soft and warm against his. She was reading Alice in Wonderland. The Pool of Tears was rising, and she was swimming, trying to keep her head above the water. Two people were sitting very close together in a room, her and him, and yet there were a million light years between them. Someone had killed someone, only it didn’t matter much because it happened long ago. She was singing. He couldn’t make out the words of the song. At first it sounded like Spanish, and then it was Italian. She was frightened, there was a creaking wooden board giving way under her feet, and in the dark water below, an ancient sea monster bared its rotting teeth. He put his arm around her. She stopped trembling. She was soft and warm and breathing deeply close to him. He was dreaming of a giant squid, squirting purple ink in a vast translucent tank. He was dreaming of Claire Dane’s face seen through an aquarium of darting rainbow-hued fish. He was dreaming of Octopus Paul, picking the right team. He was dreaming of sitting in a car, with the rain pounding outside, lip-locked with a woman whose name he didn’t know. He was out in the rain, shivering, drenched.

Indra stirred. She had drawn herself away and stuck herself against the window. Was she angry? He sneaked a peek at her. She wasn’t angry, just worried where this might be going. Relax, he wanted to tell her, isn’t it nicer this way? I like the feel of you next to me, and I know you do too. Besides, we dream well together, you and I. Gently, he turned his body so his arm lay next to hers again. He could feel it under the shawl, her bare right arm locked between her legs, holding herself in place, making of herself a compact unit that would not jostle against him when the shuttle swerved or braked. She was dreaming again. He closed his eyes. He could feel her hip against him. All of her warmth and softness was accessible to him through these two parts, her arm and her hip. He slept . . .

‘Excuse me?’

She was asking him to remove the barrier of his long legs. She was getting off at Regal Cinema. She didn’t look at him. She had tidied her shawl away, combed her hair, put something fresh on her lips, which Indra suddenly noticed, with something close to regret, were very lovely. He stood up to let her go.

Would they acknowledge each other? If she wouldn’t, neither would he. What did the others do? The mechanical door of the shuttle opened with a gusty sigh, and she got off at the signal as if in a hurry to leave. As Indra watched her splash through the water flowing around the traffic island, he could tell she was weak at the knees too, and wet from more than the rain. She had forgotten to open her umbrella.

From Dirty Love (Penguin Books, March 2013), reprinted with permission of the author.

Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji

SAMPURNA CHATTARJI is a poet, novelist and translator with ten books to her credit, and three forthcoming. Born in Ethiopia in November 1970, Sampurna grew up in Darjeeling, graduated from New Delhi, and is now based in Mumbai/Thane. Her latest book, Dirty Love (Penguin, March 2013), is a collection of short stories about Mumbai. Sampurna was the 2012 Charles Wallace writer-in-residence at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

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