Over and Underground in Paris and Mumbai
Karthika Nair, Sampurna Chattarji, Roshni Vyam, Joëlle Jolivet
In February 2016, poets Sampurna Chattarji and Karthika Naïr met at the Kala Ghoda festival in Mumbai and decided to embark on a journey that would, in two years, result in a book of beautiful epistles dedicated to the arterial systems that throb through their respective cities; the local rail networks — the Paris Metro and the Mumbai Suburban Railway.
Over and Underground has two exceptional poets from India, riffing off each other using a genre of collaborative poetry called Renga where the last line of a poem becomes the opening line of the next one. Accompanying them are two artists; the talented Gond artist Roshni Vyam, who joined Naïr on her train rides in Paris and the French artist Joëlle Jolivet, who along with Chattarji, plunged into the bustle of Mumbai’s local trains. The result is an incredibly rich and immersive book of verses and visuals which are at times humorous, at times reflective, often elegiac and most importantly, humane.
The book itself is unorthodox in its form; split right down in the middle with the second half (or the first, depending on which way you choose to open the book) turned upside down. Twenty poems are tucked away between two hardback covers. Through much of the book, one follows the gaze of the poets as they surreptitiously take in the cacophony of urban commute. One encounters the usual suspects, like the migrants in Chattarji’s ‘Churchgate to Charni Road’: “a succession of men/pouring into the gap/between the tracks/ their bodies thin/ undernourished/ overwhelmed/ this procession/ of many-one.” Young lovers from Naïr’s ‘Lines Before and After (shock): “And just across the aisle, a barely teenage couple sample/ kisses, discover the calligraphy of courtship: and inky index/ finger drawing whorls in fuchsia from the well of a neck,…” Transvestites, tourists, toddlers, buskers, bhajan singers, boors. You have seen them all, but both Naïr and Chattarji, through their verse, jog your memory of them by lending us their compassionate eye, often presenting readers with contrasting tableaux. For instance, if in Naïr’s ‘Line 7 Homistan’, a posh Parisian mother allays her son’s imaginary fears of the stalled train, (that he has anthropomorphised in his head as a living being) feeling pain at being jabbed at with needles in order to be resuscitated, in the following poem ‘Shuntings and Sidings’ by Chattarji , a Mumbai fisherwoman confronts the very real fear of her underage yet working son falling off the edge of the moving train while he’s “winding a length of cloth/ into a circular pad which he will/ place on his head with the skill/ of one who knows that sloth/ is a masque for in-between/ train’s arrival and departure/ a slowly widening aperture/ into which the next scene/ can be inserted, sans waver, baya- haath- ka- khel sass.”
Then, there are those endearing moments like the one in ‘Lines 2 & 6 Excursions (mostly) overground with R’, where Naïr watches Roshni making a fleeting connection with a French preschooler: “Blithely heedless, each, to tungsten/ edict Number One — unwritten — / of urban commutes: Though shalt not/ meet thine underground-neighbour’s gaze, nor speak to them/their child/ canine.” (The line appears in more than one of Naïr’s poems, underlining the idea of the reserved Parisian.)
However, these are not just poems about a menagerie of strangers whose lives are briefly (and, sometimes, literally) intertwined in the forced confinement of train compartment. Both Naïr and Chattarji evoke a world of memory and contemplation through their work; the sort of contemplation that happens once the din of train has receded into a kind of background noise and our mind glides into other realms of thought.
In ‘Line 5: The Last Duet’, which is the opening poem (from the Paris side) of the collection, an otherwise mundane memory of listening to the journalist Bernard Maris spar with Dominique Seux on the radio, gains larger meaning in retrospect as she had “Listened, unknowing this would be/ their last duet, unsullied by grief, / horror, the end of nameless freedoms —/ another kind of being.” Naïr laments the death of the idea that one could fundamentally disagree in principle with one another, yet does so civilly without bloodshed. Terrorists killed Bernard Maris on January 7 2015, during the shooting at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo. Similarly, In ‘Western Line: Where was I’ Chattarji deals with the guilt of a survivor, being absent from the city on 11 July 2006 when a series of seven bomb blasts took place over a period of 11 minutes on the Suburban Railway in Mumbai.
The art in the book blends seamlessly with the text. Jolivet’s lively sketches capture the frenetic pace of Mumbai beautifully. Passengers are gracefully captured mid-action and her portraits reflect the resilience of her fellow passengers with her bold strokes. Roshni’s more intricate drawings interpret moments in Naïr’s poems with flair and at times with a touch of humour. A girl in a yellow dress frantically running to catch a train is imagined cheekily as sunflower and the Eiffel tower preens vainly alongside a peacock. An image that stays is that of a giant bird sheltering humans under her outstretched wings, the bird, in this case being a visual representation of the movie theatre in which Naïr had safe harbour during the Paris attacks of 2015.
Over and Underground… is a rich, immersive book of verses and visuals inspired by the arterial systems running through two bustling metropolises a brave and beautiful experiment, especially in a world where ‘poetry doesn’t sell’ is oft repeated by publishers, and poetry shelves are vacant in bookstores. Mind the gap, jump aboard this sensory ride. You will not regret it.