Interviews / March 2014 (Issue 23)

Crossing Genres: An interview with Priya Sarukkai Chabria, author of Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions

by Shaily Sahay

Meditative yet fearlessly experimental, Priya Sarukkai Chabria's fiction, prose and poetry often cross genres to reach deep places within the reader, as she questions beliefs and looks beyond clichés. Her study of Sanskrit aesthetic theory, miniature paintings and films percolates through her work, either in voice or content or both, and in these the immersed reader often hears dreamlike or long forgotten strains of music.

Chabria is one of India's best-loved poets and the country's first female speculative fiction novelist. She is also the recipient of the Senior Fellowship to Outstanding Artists for Literature from the Government of India for exploring the validity of classical Sanskrit rasa aesthetics in contemporary writing in English, and she is currently translating the songs of 9th century Tamil mystic, Aandaal. Surrounded by sunlight, books, green plants and bird calls, I had a chance to converse with her and get to know her work, an experience just as deep as reading her writing. As she says of rasa theory, it "is like a double helix addressing both artists' practice and empowering viewers to 'complete' the work of art through their engagement. I demand my books have empowered readers who brings their emotional intelligence to work on it."

Her latest work, Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions, a collaboration with the British photographer Christopher Taylor, is unusual in its juxtaposition of photographs and text. Part memoir, part history, part travelogue, part exploration of ideas of "the city," part poetry and complemented with boxes of facts and figures to ground reflections, the narrative and photographs are intimate and reflective. Filled with heart-warming trivia about long gone writers and artists and dialogues with "nameless" people, Immersions is an ode to every soul who has loved or hated or longed for the city—either in fantasy or nostalgia.


Shaily Sahay: The body of your work is multifarious, yet it seems to be answering to the same distant call, and thus stands united on many fronts. How has that happened?

Priya Sarukkai Chabria: Perhaps because for me writing is a prayer for clarity, a spiritual act. It is rooted in the sad and wondrous mess of the world, and tries to push beyond to say the unsayable, and equally, hear the unsaid through the enchantment and tussle with language.

I'm fascinated by the backs of mirrors, the thin opaque coating of mercury that does the reflecting—it's like a veil that tells you there's something beyond its drape. The process of writing is similar. The first image one sees in a mirror is of one's self and the immediate surroundings. But this soon gets boring. So one intently examines the mirror, turns it around, gets to the veil. Now one is on to something! Imagine the mirror's surface shining with captured light that gets so focused, so fierce that it breaks the mirror. And now imagine the light running into unknown terrain as small streams that illuminate parts of the silent surrounding darkness. The act of writing is the breaking of the mirror.

This doesn't happen all the time. But one tries to reach the silence that lies beyond words to—poignantly—return with words about our existence. Perhaps this is why—to use your words—my writing across genres seems to answer "to the same distant call."

SS: Whom do you consider your literary guides, across the various literary movements in India/Asia and in the world?

PSC: This is impossible to answer, given the massive fluidity of literature. Names unscroll as one evolves as a writer, for one works under a shifting literary Zodiac. Spangling nets of influences are absorbed and "become" one's own, then there's a time when it's remade through the pores of one's experience; by the light that streams out of one's self at work.

I could better name certain literatures that have shaped my writing: medieval Chinese writing on friendship and exile, Japanese poems on love and the Buddhist way, 19th century French and Russian writers, Prakrit and Old Tamil approaches to writing love and spirituality, contemporary art historical writing and experimental work from the States.

SS: What was the inspiration behind Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions? When working with Christopher Taylor, did the city seem different because you were neither a tourist nor resident, yet had a deep relationship having lived here for long?

PSC: I agreed to do the book on an impulse! I wanted to rediscover the city I've grown up in and honour its sharp, saddening contrasts, its frenetic energy. But soon realised I'd taken on a daunting task. Many reviews begin with—"Not another book on Mumbai!"—before they find the read worthwhile. The challenge was to write about well-covered terrain in new way that was true to me—a wandering and sometimes lost, bard.

Then there's the sheer scale of the city and its multiple appeals. What does one leave out? I concentrated on aspects that fascinated me: the inflow of migrants, its changing look at it grows northwards, childhood memories of certain suburbs.

Besides, I'd never worked with a photographer. I didn't want text and image to be descriptive of each other, rather create a frisson between the arts of photography and literature through our parallel involvements. Collaborating with Christopher—his meditative gaze and austere practice—was immensely rewarding.

I went on long walks to find my way into the book. And slowly, like a monsoon cloud gathering on the horizon, the book began to form on the liminal[ity] of my mind. Both Christopher and I were fascinated by the textures of time that flowed through the city. This became our meeting ground.

The texture and tone of the book evolved during—to borrow Yeats's phrase—the "excited reverie" of writing: certain subjects—like the tides—lend themselves to prose-poetry, the urban forest to long winding "paths" of sentences, etc. And Christopher's contemplative photographs also shaped the "breath" of my sentences.

Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions demanded multiple methods of investigation—which a cross genre book allows. It lets you remain true to the experience as it changes. I'd make notes during our walks, then research thoroughly. Next I'd use these as a trampoline to leap into fresh connections: what makes the city move, and be moving? How much is sayable—and in which form?

SS: Do you think that sometimes the city unravelled before you, as you and Christopher sought it out, giving you more to see than you had hoped for?

PSC: Indeed! Much of the book evolved through chance encounters. It's the only way to experience the throb of the moment. It could have been disastrous as Christopher had limited time in Mumbai. But we were lucky.

Our book is peopled by the voices of those rarely heard but about whom I wanted to know more: shoeshine boys, vegetable sellers, tombstone carvers, fishermen, snake catchers, Bollywood's "little" people and many migrant taxi drivers who know the city's innards like a lover's hair and their "native place" in the hinterlands.

SS: From the suspenseful speculative fiction of Generation 14 with its embedded short stories to poetry to non-fiction, your work is rich and restless. What is behind the shifts in tone and register in your work?

PSC: Matisse wrote somewhere that the great thing about art is that no matter what happens to the painter, whatever the difficulties and interruptions of his life, the flower or the patch of sunlight is still waiting unchanged, so that he can complete it. This is true—with qualifications. He wrote from his time as all of us do. And he was speaking of the natural world which largely remains the same: the blue of far hills, the light of spring, even the body in dance, etc. Here's my difference with Matisse's argument: the natural world may seem unchanging, but the eye of the artist alters. She sees the same patch of sunlight possibly as brighter or troubled by shadows, and this is reflected in her art. The passage of time changes the quality of the experience. This is a fundamental. Yet we long for the "timeless" or to hold a moment's naked truth—and thus still it. This dynamic, I find, poignant.

And we write with the body, the entirety of it, I believe, not just with our minds and tapping finger tips. Notice how your breath changes when writing sorrow, when writing wonder, or anger. The difference is subtle, and telling. This must reflect in the writing, and in turn, reflect in the reader's body.

Therefore, for instance—though the quality is generally prized—I deliberately don't maintain uniform tone or language usage throughout a book. If these remain the same throughout—especially in first person narratives—can it truly reflect the characters' ongoing experiences? They've changed, surely, and this must find echo in corresponding shifts in language. It must judder, shift, find new ellipses and rhythms to reflect the unfolding mysteries. The effects must be worked in the microcosm to affect the overall colour and shape.

SS: You have studied Indian classical dance, Pali literature, films and miniature paintings. What places do all these influences hold in your thoughts and writing?

PSC: I consider all earlier art a gift, a living tapestry from which one draws to pulse with or struggle against the moment. This love naturally funnels into my writing as a continuous spectrum. For me Theseus of Greek mythology and Abhimanyu of The Mahabharata are cousins; the Japanese woodblock print, Durer's etchings, Nainsukh's miniatures, Bill Viola's instillations, noir films, etc. occupy my mind-space. When one creates particular, appropriate glimmerings leap from various fields of radiance to fuse in a verse or essay. That's on a good day!

SS: What is the one thing that is missing in the Indian/Asian literary scene?

PSC: One thing? That's tough. What I'd like is less fishbowl politics.

SS: You are also a mentor to upcoming writers and poets. What do you advise aspiring writers and poets to do? Which is the one quality that you consider the most important?

PSC: Become a ruthless editor; learn to discard the wobbly word, the easy sentiment, the forced form. Read much; give each piece all you have and don't lose hope. Above all: if you think you can live without writing, don't write.

SS: You curate the Poetry at Sangam website, which is one of the richest poetry resources with an inspiring collection of names, forms and subjects. Please tell us your process of picking up poets and their work, and how your team goes about it.

PSC: Thank you again. We're building an international community of poets. There are no boundaries; I chose poetry that makes me go ah! In each issue, I juxtapose the work of a young poet with an older, often celebrated poet; also we carry translations from all languages. Rahul Soni, the award winning translator, is the webmaster; his generosity is amazing. I thank the wonderful Arshia Sattar who invited me—in her free-spirited way—to take this on and D.W. Gibson for support.

Immersions: Mumbai/Bombay by Priya Sarukkai Chabria (text) Christopher Taylor (photography), published by Niyogi Books, 2014.

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