Sampurna Chattarji is a poet, novelist and translator with eight books to her credit, the most recent being her novel Rupture (HarperCollins, 2009) and her second poetry book Absent Muses (Poetrywala, 2010).
Her new book Land of the Well walks the line between reality and delusion, between treachery and trust.
Here's an extract from the book:
Sampurna Chattarji\'s book walks the line between reality and delusion, between treachery and trust.
It was Goa in the monsoon. What did you expect, it was beautiful. The boy was not alone. Expensive gliders on his feet, a Hawaiian shirt with too many colours on his back, the boy with the tidy hair tagged behind his mother and father. At seventeen, it made the boy ashamed to be seen with his parents, but what choice did he have? He had done well in the school-leaving examinations, his parents were proud of him and this was their reward. A holiday in Goa, in the monsoon. It occurred to the boy, with an accompanying pain in his chest, that if they really
meant to reward him, they could have sent him off alone. But when had they ever let him alone? The boy thought of humiliating metaphors to liken his condition to. A baby duck, walking with small, fast, intently worried steps behind mamma duck. A strolley, attached to an imperious hand, at Papa's well-heeled heels.
The boy knew his parents knew a shameful thing about him. He was top of his class, had been all his life, he was going to Princeton to study engineering or law, no expenses spared, the scholarship was merely about prestige, not money. All this was known, along with the small fact that the boy had no friends. Classmates who borrowed his meticulous, missing-nothing notes, hoping to achieve the same miraculous results as he did by cogging them, yes. But friends, not one. As for girls, the boy knew his parents were relieved that he was a failure with the girls. Enough time for all that later, they must have thought, if they thought about it at all. For the boy, the knowledge of his failure with the girls was sharp, unmerciful. He didn't know what one said to girls, how one could be easy the way the popular boys in class were. He never talked to them, he couldn't. They thought he was arrogant. They gave him openly derisory looks, threw snide comments his way, but most often they completely and instinctively ignored him. If it weren't for
the beaming eye of the teacher in every class, shining on him with all the pride and joy in a star pupil, picking him out for all the special tasks, the impossible tasks, pinning on his frame badge upon badge of approval, the boy would have felt invisible.
He knew he was not ugly. It had occurred to him once that the cause of all this avoidance, this social inability might be his unshakeable ugliness. He had studied himself coldly, carefully, in the mirror. He was tall, five feet ten inches. He was lean, sixty kilos. He didn't suffer from acne.
His skin was blemish-free, his nose was straight, his eyes dark, his eyelashes manly, his mouth well formed. His chin was nothing special, but it wasn't weak. His torso and arms were not muscular but they were smooth and firm and free of hair. The boy had the idea that girls did not like hairy men. As always, in these matters, he was wrong.
He had twenty-twenty vision, in spite of all the hours he spent glued to his books. What was wrong with him, that he should, after twelve clumsy years in school, have not even one friend to tide him over into adulthood? How could he blame his parents for cherishing his talent, pitying his friendlessness, and bringing him here to Goa, in the monsoon, as a reward? They stood there-three small humans in a big vault of echoes. The floor was a chequerboard. The boy stared at it. Black and white squares. When he looked away, he saw white and black squares everywhere. The map behind the desk seemed hand-drawn and the proportions were all wrong. It had not been drawn to scale. The boy yawned. They had left Bombay at noon and the food on the plane had been biryani. Where was everybody? Were they in the wrong place? But the hotel coach had fetched them from the airport, the driver had a small placard with his father's name on it, so they clearly weren't.
After a few minutes-during which it seemed to the boy as if in all the universe there remained only the three of them standing on a chequerboard, their small overnighters at their feet like sleeping dogs-a man appeared. He looked like a fish in a coat. His hair stuck to his head and his eyes bulged. The boy watched as if from underwater as his father hectored the Fish-man and his mother fussed about the cottage not having a sea view in her piercing, disapproving voice.
'Short walk, ma'am, to the beach… the cottages closest to the sea are shut for the monsoon… weather warps.'
The words, apologetic, anaesthetic, washed over the boy, who stood distancing himself from them, staring at the lamps hanging from the vaulted roof. Each lamp was a cluster of hanging globes. He wondered what they would look like at night, lit-up. He liked them this way, ghostly white fruit in the semi-dark of the vaulted roof, the huge dark-green leaves. The boy liked the place. He hoped his parents would not make it difficult for him to preserve that feeling.
Another man, not Fish-man, taller, younger, reedier, led the way to the cottage that had been assigned to them. There were four rooms in each cottage, and all the cottages were identical.
'You take the room on the top, son,' the boy's father said, 'we'll take the ground floor.'
The other ground-floor room was occupied. A pair of bright-blue slippers, Crocs, stood outside the door. It occurred to the boy-who was, if nothing else, always fair, even when he acutely disliked someone-that it was nice of his father to have booked a separate room for him. He could so easily have asked for a third bed in their room; they had done this before, when he was smaller. A third bed cost less than a full room. His father was happy with him. This was his way of showing his approval. Grown-up son. Needs space. Separate room. His parents were such nice people. The boy felt deeply ashamed.
Reed-man carried his bag up. The boy could have done it himself, it was hardly heavy, all it had was a couple of shorts and T-shirts, the latest Dan Brown, and his laptop. But hotel etiquette demanded it. The boy followed Reedman and waited for him to open the door, put on the lights, point out the amenities, turn on the hot and cold water taps and put down the bag, which he had been foolishly clutching all this time. After putting it down, he hovered. The boy signalled downstairs. Reed-man understood. But before he left, he gave the boy a surprisingly direct look into which the boy read the scorn of a newly made, responsible, working adult, so what if he couldn't have been more than two years older than him.
'Still playing the baby, are you?' that look said. 'Shame on you.'
The boy listened from near his door as Reed-man entered his parents' room. He heard his father's loud voice order a beer and two juices, one to be sent upstairs. He saw Reedman leave their cottage with a spring in his step, his right hand in his jacket pocket. Good, the boy thought. They would get prompt service around here. He shut the door and slipped the old-fashioned bolt across. In seconds he was sprawled across the bed, asleep. In no time at all, he heard a persistent knocking on his door. He opened it, groggily wondering who it was, and why couldn't they let him sleep a little longer. His parents.
They had changed into holiday clothes. His father was in shorts, his mother in slacks. They looked fresh and young. The boy felt stale. He mumbled at them, not wanting his mother to smell his breath, 'You go down. I'll come.'
What a way to start a holiday. When his classmates talked of Goa they talked of all-night raves, the kick of the little white tab dissolving slowly on the tongue. The energy. The punchy-rhythm of their insides outstripping the speed at which the world turns. The electric light in the eyes of a girl with spaghetti straps slipping off her shoulders as she dances.
And here I am, asleep on my first day in Goa. Asleep. Going to tea with my parents.
Was being a baby duck more, or less, humiliating than feeling like a pensioner in an old-age home? He stared at his face in the bathroom mirror. Were his teeth his own? He flicked them with his thumb and forefinger, and listened to the small, strong sound of enamel against nail before letting the water run.
Where were the other occupants?
As the boy sat by the dead pool full of water, empty of arms and bobbing heads, he wondered if they were the sole residents. Could an entire hotel be run for just three guests? The boy indulged himself in a rare sensation. Open the durbar hall for the evening! Summon the head cook, the prince wishes to congratulate him on his latest confection!
'Let's see the beach before it gets dark,' his father said.
The boy and his mother got up obediently. Down a little path they went, winding brown between green palms. Young palms. One of them was fl attened. Strong winds. Most of the cottages were closed. This side looked shabby, as if the hotel couldn't be bothered about housekeeping where no one lived. Low, knee-high lamps were set along the path. Of the ten lamps he counted on his side, three were broken. Great. Snakes in the dark. (Were there snakes by the sea?) Trip and fall in the dark. No, hide away indoors in the dark.
When the little winding path ended and became gravel and sand and wiry bits of vegetation poking out of bumpy little mounds, the boy almost stumbled. The ground tilted upward. They climbed to the top of the tilt and there it lay before them. The sea. The boy, who had lived in Bombay all his life, close enough to the sea unlike some of his landlocked cousins, realized that he, like his mother, had drawn in his breath. Breathtaking, this is what the word means, he thought.
There was nothing that came between him and the view. No vendors, no bathers, no dog-walkers, fl ute-sellers, monkeytrainers, tongawalas, no familiar criss-crossing colourful constantly changing bustle. It was quiet, and empty. The beach was very white. The blue water glittered. Little waves ran up and down. Placid and contented, the sea lay there like some big lazy beast, flicking its tongue gently at the sand, as if it was delicious, sweet, fine white sugar melting in its mouth. The boy licked his lips. The family walked down to the sand.
Paperback: 384 pages; Publisher: HarperCollins India; Language: English