From copywriting to full-time literary works, Sampurna Chattarji has traversed a long path full of words. “I can express myself better through words”, she justifies her love for writing.
Poet, fiction-writer and translator, Chattarji has been navigating through the varied genres smoothly. I ask how she manages to do all that. “What is important is the ability to engage with the language. I have been writing for a long time before taking up full-time writing in 1999. The three genres occupy different mind spaces, but that hasn’t been a problem for me. Rather, I find working in the different genres highly relaxing”, she replies.
Mumbai-based Chattarji grew up in Darjeeling where her father taught English. She later graduated from New Delhi and played with words as a copywriter for several years in Calcutta. “But I lived in a world of books and wanted to write. So changed course”, she shares slice of her past. Her constant endeavour to explore the real world through words got noticed. Chattarji has been featured in several acclaimed international magazines and journals for her literary works. Her poems were featured on Hong Kong’s radio as well.
But writing requires some catalyst. Talking about what inspires her to carry her literary journey, she mentions political and personal experiences and “hundreds of things” but one thing for sure “none of them are abstract”. She belongs to “a generation that has had the freedom to go against the grain”, she says. Retaining her maiden surname is one such example of securing her free space.
Published by Sahitya Academy (Academy of literature, India) this year, her first book of poems Sight May Strike You Blind is a compilation of Chattarji’s poems written between 1999 and 2005. “The poems deal with range of subjects – personal relationships to violence. For all of us there are visual stimuli. I have been trying to make some sense of them”, Chattarji says.
In one of her poems Conversation she writes: You carry his curse in those clouded eyes, Dhritarashtra. Your mother flinched from him that night. His breath smelt of roots and his chest was white. More demon than lover he seemed. So your mother did it blind and shut the darkness in on you. You woke seeing nothing, regret eternal in your howl.
Why blindness? I couldn’t help asking. Chattarji mentions her own experience. “Almost four years back a hole in my retina was detected. So, I thought of looking at things from the perspective of those who can’t see. What does it mean to be blind?” she wonders from Mumbai.
Despite a growing list of acclaimed Indian writers like Virkram Seth, Amitava Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri and Kiran Desai, Chattarji feels the Indian Writing in English (IWE) “has not got its due”. She mentions poor marketing and lack of perception among the western readers about excellent works of Indian writers. Her expectation that the “lacuna could be filled through awareness” among the western readers about the “interesting state” of IWE becomes clear as we delve into her experiences at Edinburgh.
“I was at Edinburgh after receiving the Charles Wallace India Trust Creative Writing Scholarship in 2005. The experience there was excellent. Usually writing is a solitary experience. But such a scholarship allows one to meet people who are equally interested in writing”, she says. “It was like a commonwealth of writers – whose company was stimulating. Then there were noted mentors like Don Patterson who taught the poetry master class who helped in opening up”, Chattarji adds about eminent individuals with whom she still keeps in touch.
Among the current projects, Chattarji mentions her first novel, which she has completed, along with the second manuscript of her poems. Translation occupies a major portion of her works. It includes translation of the “nonsense” limericks of Sukumar Roy from the original Abol Tabol written in Bengali. For Chattarji “it was a challenging task though great fun” indeed. Poet Joy Goswami’s Surjopora Chhai is also on the list of her recent translations. “These translations give me an idea about the rigours that the original author had to go through”, she adds.
Talking about the requirements to become a writer, Chattarji says, “One has to be a compulsive reader”. Besides the command over the language, “One has to be a keen observer. There should be a sense of being attached to what one wants to write”, she adds. “But there are more factors involved for someone to become a writer. It is rather difficult to exactly pin-point those requirements”, she says.