Sunday, July 17, 2016

Space Gulliver- in conversation with Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji, Promenade des Anglais, Nice, 2011
Space Gulliver- in conversation with Sampurna Chattarji

Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien is Sampurna Chattarji's 14th published book, out from Harper Collins in July 2015. That she is prolific needs no underlining- she has published, poetry, poetry in translation, novels, short stories and prose in translation amongst other things; and dealing with them all would require more than this one conversation.

I sought to indulge her on her latest book of poems and prose poems, the complex but endlessly fascinating study of Space Gulliver, Chattarji’s outworlder Who Fell to Earth. Opening her eyes in this ‘alien’ situation, more than dealing with her Lilliputian/Gaian inhabitants, Gulliver considers her state of being. She speaks to herself in layered verse, and contemplative prose, as her physical being speaks to her too. It is Chattarji’s musing on our own condition, seen through a sensuality not of this world that reflects back on us, we the poor occupants of this lovely planet.

This body/object finds its counterpart in a building as object- the Canterbury Cathedral, in whose vicinity Chattarji spent several weeks in a residency. The cathedral’s spire casts a long shadow in her book, mingling with her chronicles of Gulliver that together create a palimpsest of materiality, bone and stone, leaving us as a flaneur traversing terrain, terrior and terror in equal measure.

I am very pleased that Sampurna graciously accepted my invitation to this interview, and in a freewheeling email exchange talked about Gulliver, but also about the writing of poetry, the experience of a residency and the interior world of the writer.

Tell us about the million strings that tie Space Gulliver to earth. I get a feeling that she arrives, not tabula rasa, but with a weight that she uses to make sense of earth, and yet, like wearing thick, soda-water glasses this gets in the way. Do you see her that way?

As a person who wears the kind of “thick, soda-water glasses” (slightly glamourized by a titanium frame!) you mention, I could hotly deny everything you say! Instead let me address the question, first by thanking you for intuiting this strange, loaded weightlessness that Space Gulliver carries with her into the world that is my book.

You are right, even though her arrival feels like a bolt from the blue, she does not arrive “tabula rasa”, it is not the shock of the first time – it is, as the first of the Space Gulliver poems states, a “return”. There is some degree of irony (I hope!) in the lines:

Space Gulliver returns
Space conqueror, she

The fact that she has come back to earth can be seen both literally and figuratively. It’s a jolt, and as the book progresses, a gradual acclimatisation to earth conditions, a re-learning of things she once knew and had (maybe) forgotten.

Having said all that, I must also add that there is another story to this return. As you know, I had written 6 poems inspired by a piece of artwork by Swiss artist Judith Albert. At that point in time, 6 poems seemed enough. Space Gulliver the character had come into my life and gone, and I didn’t miss her.
by Judith Albert, from Journal fuer Kunst, Sex und Mathematik

It’s only when I arrived at the University of Kent on a cold (snow still on the ground) February morning in 2012, and found myself ensconced in the room that was to be my home for the next 3 months that Space Gulliver (SG) popped into my head and refused to go away. I was, technically, supposed to be writing another kind of book (which I hope will get written another time, in another place). I tried shooing SG away, but she hung on. And I must confess (I can now confess!) that I hung on to her too. This may sound a bit pitiful, like a lonely child clinging to an “imaginary friend” but after the initial startlement, even a little annoyance at her reappearance, I was glad to have her around.

As I found my feet in those unfamiliar surroundings, as I began re-learning the student life, the shared-kitchen life, the temporarily single-againlife, it felt comforting to know that someone from my past life was with me in this sometimes disorienting new present. Of course if you’d asked me then, I may have had different answers, or none at all. But with the intervention of time I can see more clearly how this was a symbiotic relationship. She was not ‘me’ – but she was ‘mine’. I knew her once, I hadn’t paid much attention to her then, now that she was back, I could make her speak to me, reveal herself, I could invent histories for her, I could transfer emotional predicaments on to her, I could make her my alter-ego, my twin, my co-pilgrim. Does that sound too fanciful?

The word ‘pilgrim’ seems appropriate given that I was in Canterbury! I hadn’t thought of myself as a pilgrim before I landed there, nor even while I was there. But now, back home, I wonder if that’s what she and I were? Companions on a pilgrimage into the unknown. Not the entirely unknown – rather a half-familiar place now made strange only by the fact of considering oneself a more permanent resident, rather than someone simply passing through. My earlier visits to that part of the world had always been a week or ten days at the most. Three months felt like an eternity – at least in the beginning – and the idea of surviving it in the company of an intrepid traveller such as Space Gulliver was one that pleased, enchanted and comforted me.

But for all this intimacy with this ‘alien’ – to answer to the tail-end of your question – I never visualised her! A Scottish theatre-person who works with children asked me (at one of my Kolkata readings) – “How big is Space Gulliver?” and I was stumped! I had never thought of her in such concrete terms. Though I did not hesitate to accumulate concrete details around her, I had not seen her in my mind’s eye – merely sensed her. I knew her gender, I knew she loved walking, I knew she could see in the dark, could inhabit any number of modes of travel and apparel from boxes to bodysuits, knew she loved walking, knew the exact colour of her walking shoes (purple!),  knew she had a practitioner’s interest in language, knew even which books she liked (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe being one) – but I did not know what she looked like, nor how big (or little) she was. Flipping through the poems now, I see I have made her fluctuate – she can become small as a “tiny sweet orange”, as big as a giant in her “seven league boots” – but I haven’t conveyed any specific physical characteristics. Perhaps I want the reader to imagine her the way they will?

How complicit is she, who fell to earth, with this alien planet. Does she descend with her eyes open or was she surprised to find herself in the New World?

Oh, I wish I knew! Let me return to the poems for clues. In the beginning she is frightened:
That chest of carved and polished wood lies within her reach
But she will not touch it
She is a visitor now
And earthly things disturb her
All around her with their unflinching edges their resolute past
Even the drapes on the walls
And the intricately carved bedspread on which she
Frighten her with their ornate proximity their embroidery
That speaks of pain
Staking its territory as needles stab fabric in a million hands

Ordinary objects seem hostile to her, indeed almost terrify her. She, who is “no longer terrified of vastness” seems to shrink inside what is probably a normal comfortable well-appointed human habitation, as if everything in it were an assault. She recognises things because she has lived here before, but the time away has unlearned and undone her, and that fear seems to suggest that she came back before she was ready.

So maybe it’s not surprise that accompanies her back, but rather befuddlement – where am I, why am I here. Like waking from a trance. It’s almost as if, having “conquered space”, having become “Laughably used to having Brahmand around her” she has forgotten how to live on this planet anymore, what to do with her limbs, her gaze, how to fit herself into the circumscribed room, how to get used to being on the ground looking up at the sky instead of the other way around, how to deal with this new scale. It’s a kind of “space-sickness”, maybe.

On the question of her complicity: as the book progresses, doesn’t she lose her terror and become more and more complicit in the ways of this world? From being a kind of stowaway in a room on this strange mother-ship who imagines a “great benign-ness” watching her, who talks to ladybirds and hides from young people with “glittery skins/ And flyway hair” – she begins engaging with the world that initially terrified her, and she falls in love! How devastating for her! She is no stranger to this “amoral tech heaven” where:
devices need to be paired
Before they can speak to each other
Before this act so close to intercourse can take place
Him entering her phone directly
but she is rattled and unnerved by contact, is she not? See the lines:
To her who has lived without human contact for aeons
Stretching her fingers apart to see him better
Feels like the most intimate contact
As if she has really touched his hair
His neck his waist
Instead of merely the soft skin 
Of the device that nestles at his hip
Or at his ear
Accepting his mouth
Just as her straining eyes must accept that 
On some days 
The mid-morning moon that strikes her with its 
Deranged light
Is really the sun
And the mid-afternoon half-moon in a sky of no dimension
Is really the moon
And that the horizon is capable of receding
The way her body recedes
After half a bottle of red
Into a farness comforting in its extremity

At first, the only enterprise that interested her was “observation” and in this pursuit the horizon was her accomplice:
Space Gulliver prefers the complicity of the horizon
In this enterprise called ‘seeing’

She was comfortable with that complicity, it was neutral and perhaps even ‘scientific’ enough to leave her unscathed. But when human contact occurs she is pulled right in, and her relationship with her surroundings, and her apprehension of herself as an “alien presence” changes radically, to the point where she cannot quite demarcate the boundaries between herself and the “others”. She, who has wanted to obliterate location, finds that “Place has encroached her”. Towards the end of the book, you can see how the comfort of belonging, of having made friends with the seemingly-hostile environment and its inhabitants starts stifling her and she wants to move on, wants to “Abandon this ‘she’”, wants
a ship to sail away in
Leaving ‘her’ behind
To grow worms

"How many ways can you approach the same Cathedral"? Let us count (a few) ways. This is Canterbury, isn't it? Can you describe the experience of visiting the Cathedral and its impact on you?

Oh yes, very much Canterbury. As you know both the Cathedral poems and the prose Journal entries are clearly Canterburyan!
Canterbury Cathedral

I had visited the Cathedral in 2011, the year before my residency. I had visited it like a tourist, albeit a literary tourist, marking the spot of Thomas á Becket’s murder and remembering the play (Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral). Having studied Chaucer in college it was only natural that I should go and see a (really kitschy) version of Canterbury Tales, complete with odours and atmosphere!And take photos of the gates that the pilgrims must have walked through, wandered through the lodgings, taking more photos. Both the Cathedral and the medieval town were fragments of literature that I was somehow magically walking through, gliding through. It was both surreal and also strangely superficial, if you know what I mean. My interaction with the place was so on the surface, despite prior knowledge, despite a strange tug – my first experience of it was almost frivolous. I’m reminded of a game we used to play as children where we had to run and touch a wall and come racing back. That’s how I approached the city and the Cathedral; I touched and raced away, flushed with the sheer mindless triumph of it.

But in 2012, everything changed. First, I was perched on top of the hill, on a very modern campus, looking down on this very ancient city. And the best thing about my room on the edge of the University campus was that I had a clear view (on clear days that is) of the spires of the Cathedral. I cannot begin to explain or even understand how important that view became to me during my stay.  The Cathedral was how I oriented myself. It was like my true-north! I needed co-ordinates to locate and anchor me in this new geography and the Cathedral was my key co-ordinate. I grew fond of it, I admired it (in the night especially), I perhaps even spoke to it from my room!

And when I went down into town, I found I could save myself from being lost (in the early days) simply by trying to see where the Cathedral was. It was everywhere! Which could be maddening, but it was not, at least not to me. My relationship to the Edifice that was THE Cathedral had changed. I could still admire its beauty, but I could also ignore it. After all, I lived here. I could visit any time (or not). That freed me from reverence (not that I recall being reverent on my first visit either!) and I felt able to enter it normally, casually.

I remember one Sunday literally racing down the hill to arrive in time for the Sunday service because my friend (who is a fabulous singer, and whose choir had been narrowly beaten in an all-Kent choir competition, unfairly I thought!) had told me that the famous Canterbury Choir whose conductor was the key judge at the competition would be singing that Sunday! I wasn’t late, and I have to admit, the choir was fantastic. The acoustics of the Cathedral are so glorious, I felt kind of transported – and this without any religious leanings whatsoever! The only experience that outshone this one was hearing the choir sing in Christ Church, Oxford just before Easter that same year.

So thanks to my being a resident in Canterbury (or rather above it!) the Cathedral changed for me – from tourist attraction to familiar landmark to ethereal song – a movement that in a sense “vanishes” the structure away in almost exactly the way the fog would, or the night, once the Cathedral lights were switched off:
At midnight 
The cathedral 

PS: In 2015, I found myself taking a young Welsh poet friend around Canterbury! How strange: there I was, an Indian poet playing tour guide to a Welsh poet, after 3 years the geography of the city and the Cathedral still so familiar to me, it felt like home.

May we read your book separately (the Cathedral poems and the Gulliver Poems) or as part of the same occupied space.

I think you could, of course, read the 3 kinds of pieces separately, but I think they work best when read as part of the same occupied space (and dare I add – in the sequence in which they are presented). They are all of a piece! I like your use of the word “occupied”! That’s exactly it – the same space occupied in 3 different ways, in 3 different modes – creating and perhaps replicating my own 3-dimensional anchoring to what had once felt like surface alone, smooth and glassy, impossible to get a grip on.

Let us into the secret of your conception of Gulliver. 

You know your question makes me think about her lost/home planet, wondering where it was, what it was like. Almost like thinking of a lost book, the book that tells us where she was and who she was before she returned to Earth, the book I might one day even write (or not!).

When I wrote this book, with the subtitle: Chronicles of an Alien, I was finding out more and more about SG every day, with every new poem. In the initial SG sextet, she was clearly some sort of explorer, keen, hungry for words as much as for what the words provided: food, pickle, chalk; she was a pattern-seeker, a person equipped with naming words but not always able to fit the name to the object it signified:
There are many beings here, roaming the ether.
Are they real? Is that a parking meter? A lamp post?
Is this what it means, to travel?

Always a bit off-kilter, but never thrown. When she came back for this book, I didn’t think at all of her previous avatar. She was all-new, and mysterious to me. She was oddly disembodied – an idea that was the outline of the body that I would have to flesh out as I went along. The idea of having lived so long in another atmosphere, in an outer space too remote to contemplate, dependent on all manner of machinery, very sophisticated machinery that enabled her to breathe, eat, travel at the speed of light, all of it was taken for granted, like a knowledge that I shared in common with whoever might read her, eventually. All the science-fiction that we share like a collective memory. That’s what I was drawing on, and that freed me up to focus on her here-and-now, her landing and her learning to love where she has landed. I realise now – you’ve turned me into a detective, sleuthing through my own book! – that there is some sort of secret coercion in her past: a “They” that seems slightly sinister:
They never taught them to breathe
There were machines that did that
For them
Space Gulliver could hold that
Against them
Against herself
Who took her away

This reminds me a bit of the “they” in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We. A manipulative “they” who “took her away” – no doubt for her own good, perhaps with her own complicity, a “they” who made her dependent, made her powerful, made her very veryspeedy! Is that why she escaped? Giving up the adrenaline of speed for the grinding slowness of another gravity? Giving up a comforting airlessness and having to learn to breathe on her own again?
The slowness of it flabbergasts her
For days she buckled under 
Over-oxygenation of lungs

Having to cope with more primitive modes of transport, which rob her of her spatial sense:
Perhaps it appears far to her who has abandoned the great machines
That lent her speed and cannot travel anymore as the crow flies
For her to measure where she is how far from where she was
She will need instruments that torture 
Needles that point dials that encompass gauges that fill 
With secrets she is saving for the time she will read her own memoir

Gulliver exists in a phenomenological reality that is turgid, sticky; the gravity of earth is certainly heavier than her lost/home planet, her being even more grave as the gravity pulls her to possible reconciliations.

The words that you use to describe her phenomenological reality – “turgid” and “sticky” – how apt they are, and how wonderful that’s what it comes across as. Because it is turgid and sticky, the clutch of this organic world, at least in the early days of her arrival. Oh, and about her “being grave”. How right you are! In the beginning she is very grave, isn’t she? And then she begins to lighten up, loosen up, make jokes (even if the joke is sometimes on herself) – I liked seeing that happen.

I must also share two key influences: one is Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and the other is a science-fiction novel I adore: Walter Tevis’s Man Who Fell to Earth, which was made into a film with David Bowie (who else!) in the role of the ‘alien’, who as we see becomes all-too human by the end of the story. This section clearly references Solaris:
Space Gulliver adrift
That was how they made them in the movies
Bodies like bubbles
They rarely mentioned metal
The thing that saved you
The sheets you had to rip through if you 
Wanted to touch someone from a dream
Bloodying yourself all over
Mirrors were always convex on that ship
And disrepair a condition of comfort
Huge fronds of weed
Sea that spoke
Every cauldron bubbling with tomorrow
Isn’t that what they taught you in the schools
Where fabric was an essential lie
Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972)

Nicholas Roeg's The Man who Fell to Earth (1976)

My beloved alien comes from my fascination with a notion of space travel as inward, messy, traumatic even, a function of dream and nightmare, a place of comfort that doesn’t look or feel comfortable, that involves the flesh even while denying/disembodying the flesh. Damage as a necessary condition of any kind of significant journey.

"Space Gulliver unbridles her horse
Escapes on the bare back of the runaway sentence
Someone close the door of the barn."

You seem to straddle the world of prose fiction and poetry seamlessly, riding runaway sentences bareback. Space Gulliver is your 14th book. Can you give us a bit of an insight into your working ways?

Thank you for the compliment! I like the idea of being a bareback rider!

Insight: hmmm...
I think the way in which I work doesn’t change whether I’m writing prose/fiction or poetry. The only thing that is different is the nature of the sheer physical commitment: the day-after-dayness of sitting at the desk that a novel for example demands. While I can write poetry in short sharp bursts. How not to flag, that’s the great challenge in writing fiction, how to stay invested in the characters and their predicaments. When I’m writing poetry, I focus like a laser – and there’s no scope for flagging!

Having said that, I wrote Space Gulliver – which is after all a sequence of poems – the way I’d write a novel! I wrote everyday – and the fact that I had 3 different entry points made it easier in a way, kept me buoyant and interested and committed.

Returning to your time in Canterbury; how was your experience as a Resident Writer? Does the forced separation from a familiar environment invigorate the writing process, or is it a mixed blessing?

The day I arrived in Canterbury, my first reaction was: “Why on earth did I come?” It was a grey, grim day, and even the fairytale snow on the ground did little to lift my spirits! I even – I can now admit – cursed myself for thinking I needed to be on a Residency to write a book, having written all my previous (till then) 13 books sitting in my book-filled den at home in Thane!

But that gloom swiftly passed, and I found myself invigorated by the change. It wasn’t just that I was in a hyper-state of awareness, as if everything might be material to the writing, and in a way much of it was. I think an unfamiliar environment makes me look at everything, including the way I write, differently, and that was exactly what I needed.

Were you reclusive during that time or garrulously social?

I was deeply fortunate to be at the University of Kent, attached to the School of English, which counts among its lecturers several very fine poets, creative and critical minds: David Herd, Nancy Gaffield, Jan Montefiore (since retired), Patricia Debney, Simon Smith, Caroline Rooney, Sarah Wood. I gave a reading, I conducted a workshop for the MFA Creative Students, I attended many poetry readings by visiting poets, was part of many conversations about poetry and writing, I was invited to read poems about the sea at the Turner Gallery at Margate, along with other Kent poets (teachers and students).

I was drawn into the community in a way that was as hospitable as it was instructive. I learnt a lot! I made friends for life. And I was so happy that the first launch of Space Gulliver in summer 2015 was at the University! It felt so apt, and this was all because of the lasting associations that were forged way back in 2012. Canterbury gave me my second poetry-family (the first being right here, in Bombay!) –and I feel great love and gratitude to have such richness in my life.

So, I was neither utterly reclusive nor wildly sociable! I think I struck a good balance, and I am rather pleased I did, knowing my own tendency to sometimes get carried away!

(interview with Sampurna Chattarji, July 2016)
© Mustansir Dalvi, 2016, all rights reserved.