In Another Town

Sampurna Chattarji

Artwork by Hidetoshi Yamada

A dash. A line. A stop. Every texture is diasporic. Every body, in
its fundament, will loosen from its radical core and drift, too.
—Bhanu Kapil


In Pondicherry a baffled heart roams the streets looking for the body it once made peace with. It looks in the abandoned parking lot behind the Park Hotel where its owner once drank a hot brandy on a rainy afternoon. Two rusting buses cower behind the creepers, a band of monkeys sings. It walks down the promenade where a young couple buys bananas and great grey waves batter the shore. It looks inside a little red car with a dented fender. Across the canal, at the street sign it misreads as Amour, it looks like it might burst into tears, unsheddable without the body it has lost.

In Pondicherry silences grow. Sadness is a fruit that falls into laps that weren't even waiting for such bounty. The tears that flow unstoppably from the eyes of the girl irrigate a field of creepers on the ceiling. In Pondicherry the future is unseeable. In small shops by the wayside, fresh-brewed coffee arrives pushing the heat inward till one glows with a luminous sweat. Towels wrapped around necks, cold beer bottles cracked open in cars that circuitously find their way home. At night the roads slant from bar to bar, pendulum love.

In Pondicherry men from other countries stop en route and stay forever. A fork drops thrice from the same hand in another town, each tine pointing to Pondicherry. Is it a sign that that house in another town is called Auroville, that hotel the Park? If you are an artist, stay. And if not? Bend the back, find your labour, surrender. The girl who has lost her heart listens numbly to the messages. Indoor games are indeed an option. A mini-library beckons. In the field opposite, boys play netball in the moonlight. The sound of a woman drumming fills the air.

Let it go, let the whole place go, each scene inside your head, each turning. In its place imagine this new town with no name. It won't work. Until you forgive yourself, there it'll be, Pondicherry, where you practiced intolerable cruelties on yourself like some complex ineradicable witchery.


In Kolkata mothers strangle their sons. It is done with so much love no one notices, least of all the sons, who admit in candid conversations with perfectly strange older women in a hall full of people—small oasis of privacy—that they cannot leave their mothers and travel to other lands. They want to, but guilt holds them back like the soft strangling hands of the mothers who feed them, coddle them, protect them from the cold with hand-knitted caps and sweaters, with delicious little treats that no one makes like mother, with phone-calls of tender enquiry, 'have you eaten', 'what did you eat?', 'be sure to dress warm', 'have you caught a cold?', 'I told you to be careful', 'don't stay up too late', 'don't speak to strangers, especially women', 'don't work too hard', 'eat well', 'you forgot your medicines', 'come back soon' and this only after a separation of two days and less than a three-hour ride.

In Kolkata young male pharmacists flinch when short-haired women ask, loudly, with no hint of embarrassment, for sanitary napkins. Brusquely they say no, refuse to divulge where this unmentionable article might be found, and return with growing angry stains on their cheeks to their accounts, repelling any further intimacies across the counter. In Kolkata the young males are afraid to look a woman in the eye.

In Kolkata tempers are short and grievances long. Behind the housing society, two buses burnt to skeletons grow weeds, at unpredictable intervals a man shouts 'Horibol,' a dignified emaciated lady with white hair walks up and down in a coherent vocal madness of her own, a large shopping bag slung emptily on her arm. In Kolkata white-uniformed bearers pass on the supercilious traditions of a lost empire, and enforce unbendable rules, tea bags will be provided only for morning tea, the water will be warm only from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m., smiling is forbidden as they rise from their stools, humanity between guests and staff is not English, and so it goes, from floor to floor, cold air entering through old-fashioned keyholes.

In Kolkata musicians will play to a lawnful of chairs and tables, while inside, lovers of Kolkata will meet those who loathe it, and a conversation of true warmth will be possible. In a moment of weakness, nostalgia will intrude and guide feet up the stairs to a pub which crowds in, roof like a lid, stale smells, better it had stayed unvisited except in memory. Across the road pink onions and pewter mugs restore a sense of continuity. In Kolkata one's erased history must be admitted. In through the door. I lived here once.

In Kolkata the decrepit will draw me, a current I cannot resist. Crumbling walls, posters of demolition, a very old decaying persistence. Once no more than a room with a bookshelf that I raided with the zeal of one utterly stranded, a round of visits dulled by repetition, too many unmentionable horrors, each secret growing like the weeds on the rusted skeletal bus, now, what can I make of it? Come back, city, and love me. Am I asking too much?


In London rain falls. Things are either too near or too far or too much. Underground, murderers roam. Fallopian tubes, twisted. Oh, London, city of nursery rhymes and Dick Whittington. The cat again. Uprisings. The voice of the Irish poet intoning, London, a brooding chant of doom. Synth sounds, schizophrenia.

In London parks with mulberry trees bruise palms red. Mugs of beer in hand they sit under a midsummer moon, talking Bloomsbury. Ham sandwiches, seaweed strips, Old Speckled Hens clucking in the throat. London Bridge keeps falling down, wheels keep spinning against asphalt skies, the mist lowers.

In London poets arrive, and stay forever. Their childhoods follow, tumbling down grass slopes. Amelia Earhart appears in more than one poet's work. Anthologies of longing. Hot hearty soups, elfin faces of soul mates, conversations so hurried and intense they feel like lashes from a sharp bracing wind.

In London babies are born, books swapped, tiny poems handwritten on rice paper grow into a lamp in a gracious living room, a tree. The tea is from my homeland. Slaughterhouses, taverns, cock-fights, pickpockets float along the walls. Curry in Hampton Court, down Wolsey Street up the stairs to home.

In London I return to Ethiopia. My birthplace, its hot food, not names any more but tastes in my wondering mouth, injera, doro wat, shay. Tears will be hidden. Photos taken. Doors will open warmly, rides home will be taken, ignoring the voice of Esther the Sat-Nav, she who would, if she could, lead us into a blind brick wall.

In London there is more than one river. Tiny seashells strung around her bronze neck she roams, Saraswati, her breasts bare, her face serene. She will soon find a place, somewhere along the bank, where she will sit, cross-legged beauty, twanging her veena with fingers delicate as her unbroken difficult music.


In Tallinn a township of writers exists. Opening the garbage bin one morning, the poet finds a manuscript. She reads the first few lines. Ah. That's him, the one with the cats. He calls them Cinder and Ella. She calls them Calamity and Curiosity. They have never spoken except through abandoned manuscripts. One day Curiosity wore a collar and remade herself as an astronaut. That night another poet whom she had not yet met dreamt of Curiosity landing on Mars, and of her in a snowy landscape sledging after it, marking trails in the pure white desolation. It was, she was told, a beautiful dream.

In Tallinn a township of chocolatiers exists. Into the boxes they pack darkness with a glimmer of light, sweetness with a hint of bitter, streets with the sound of tramcars, dogs that bark in rhyme, vowels that tumble and stretch like little gymnasts, sycamore trees, troublesome wives, singers who have ruined their voices with drink, cafés that stay open all night for two young women sharing carrot salad and a bottle of champagne, waiters who are laughed at, waiters who marvel at breakfast orders at dinner time, omelets and toast and tea, like those waiters in another town, her hometown, serving dishes like Harem's Joy.

In Tallinn a township of chemists exists. There, out of bottles the colour of grass, they pour potions that will cure the world of all its ills. Snuffles and sneezles and tickles and trifles. Three drops in a cup of boiling water and the forest beckons, eucalyptus and pine, high altitude, stars, cerebral emphysema, spotted deer, wings, steamships, wise Sargasso Sea. Yellow moons, songbirds, seamstresses who weep as they stitch leaves from fallen trees onto their gowns. In small shacks leaves stitched into plates hold fresh wholesome food, luchi, aloo-bhaja, torkari, morning noon and night in the garden of flowering beans.

In Tallinn scarves are worn with élan, friends meet tomorrow as if it were today, 4:00 p.m. on Sunday is a concept full of possibility, a portmanteau endlessly unpacks itself, there is nothing unkind or insecure, illegal or dissatisfied, about the words 'kind,' 'secure,' 'legal' and 'satisfied' because they exist beyond the nailing cross of prefixes, and he my lover could well be she, and the bus that travels so femininely through the heartlands of Hindi is ungendered in Tallinn, where the language sings in an eternal present festooned with light, there we shall go, with our masculine folding tables on which we shall write tales of our happy undoing.