I don’t know why I like Mumbai. I have never lived there nor stayed there long enough. Yet there is a certain grip this city that defies adjectives has on me. But that is not the only reason Sampurna Chattarji’s Dirty Love held me down for four hours straight; the time I took for a first reading of the tales evoked by this beastly city.
The 29 stories in this collection take you on a spiralling ride through strange smells, faces, voices across the city’s vastness spread like dust, accompanied by Chattarji’s talent for words. Bandra, Colaba, Juhu, Versova – the different neighbourhoods that sound like “darling” in a classical language – resound through voices of lonely inhabitants. They are the voyeurs, lovers, observers of their own strangeness, travellers, vagabonds, the imaginative and the imagined.
At first, I thought there was a logical movement to the way the stories progressed through the pages. The kind of logic that prevails in onion peels; you remove one after the other till you reach the core. So, in the first few stories, we read about what dots the surfaces of Mumbai. Slowly, we are drawn into the inner, dark, creeks of the mind-streets of the characters in the later stories.
I was wrong.
The core of the onion, in this collection, could begin from anywhere, from any story. Take ‘No One in the Gondola but Them’, a story about two characters who take the shuttle across the city to work. The shuttle that lulls its passengers to sleep and dreams through its swerves forms the landscape.
“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...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.” (p. 175, ‘No One in the Gondola but Them’, Dirty Love)
It is the gentle yet eerie story of those who sleep in commute, the story of Mumbai, of any big city.
The philosophy and pathos surface in stories like ‘The Insect Boy’, ‘On This Planet’ and ‘Sunday Morning’. At times, the city’s fables combine with strange human emotions to create a chilling effect. ‘Release’ for instance tells us about a woman who feels distant from her new born, plump, son. The very real emotions of the mother and the way they are portrayed break maternal stereotypes.
Relationships or the lack of it, money and the absence of it, professions and the absurd necessity of it, food and the longing for it – all this and more help readers recognise themselves, their friends and neighbours in these characters. In ‘Hungry’, food becomes a character in itself and Chattarji’s luscious descriptions underline the love-hate relationship between the narrator and food.
“Cold samosas hot idlis the clotted mass of meat cutlets the cold slab of vegetable the oily aloo tikki leaking profusely between bread slices the scrambled eggs the slithering chow the cold samosas the green cake the cream-coloured chicken roll...the mouths gorging showing their insides their yellow tongues their red lips their green teeth the traffic lights that come on in the dark and never go to sleep and never have to wake, again, to eat.” (p.91, ‘Hungry’, Dirty Love)
The inhabitants of Chattarji’s stories are not always sad and lonely. Occasionally, they exhibit a good-humored imagination that delights and reassures us. ‘The Lost Umbrellas of Udipi’ is one such story.
However, it is only a fleeting glimpse before they return to their dark universe of strange smells and struggles. The penultimate story, ‘Dirty Love’, about a man who loves a woman and chronicles all her smells, perhaps could be the dirty love Mumbaikars have for their city in all its corrupt weirdness. Just the way love should be.