Letter from Mumbai. Undated.

by Sampurna Chattarji



Don’t ask me who I am. Don’t ask me what date it is. Lost all that aeons ago. Time! I was a slave to time once. I followed the clock. I caught the train, the 7.10 fast local. Every morning I shaved off the evidence of another day’s passage through my skin and faced the world like a newborn thing.

Oh but I thought I was its master! ‘Time is money.’ Someone, don’t ask me who, taught me that phrase very early. It jingled in my pockets like new minted coins, time is money, it thundered through my bones on the train, time is money, it splashed me with its salty spray as I walked along the Arabian Sea for a few brief moments before entering the lift to the 55th floor, time, time, time is money, money, money.

I hoarded it, spent it, invested it, multiplied it, squandered it, I dreamt it, worshipped it, I placed it at the foot of idols, I never gave it away, not even one second to a beggar at the signals. And all the time, hahahatheirony, I lived like there was no tomorrow.

Well here I am stuck in tomorrow. But only in this language. In the language which I never spoke, why would I? It wasn’t the language of success. In that language the word for yesterday was the same as the word for tomorrow. Kal. In the language of the girl I once loved but did not marry there was a word for the kal that has passed and another for the one that is to come. In the old books which I never read, why would I they were not the books that taught how to win friends and influence people, in those books they wrote of Kalyug. The age of destruction. The end of the world.

We would bring it on ourselves with our greedy wasteful ways, our Western promiscuous ways, our godlessness, immorality, excess. My grandmother warned me, and I laughed. My parents nagged at me. Turn off the light when you leave the room. Yesamma. Don’t leave the water running. Yespappa. Don’t eat the junk that comes from a packet. Fresh cook it. Slow cook it. Whereamma is the time for all that? What chemicals are you putting in your hair? What poisons in your stomach? Relaxamma. When we were young we walked ten miles to school. Yespappa. We played in the fresh air, why your children play only with machines in rooms cooled by machines ruining their eyes getting fat and blind and lazy? Modernitypappa, enjoy.

And soon they were, they did, the thatha-patis, dadu-didas, nana-nanis, owhatfun, switching on the micros, in second mobilemicrocartvdvdlcdlaptopblackberryipadipodtabletkindlesmartphoneiphonemacbookbigmacdonaldduckskytvdishtvgps and the gadgets multiplied and the buildings multiplied and the people multiplied and filled the buildings, ignoring those who had nothing and lived under the flyovers the expressways the skytrains the monorails the dumps the scrap heaps, human garbage left like always to rot, to serve to scrounge to starve.And the farmers killed themselves for hunger and debt and humiliation no water no food no power and the btcotton grew and the farmers’ wives stood for days neckdeep in water their skin wrinkling, no luck, the dams flooded their ancestral lands and in the cities the water-wars raged, tankers hijacked, cisterns poisoned, water-lords slaughtered, their bodies stuffed in the drains, no water for drinking bathing cooking and the rich men moved in bullet-proof cars and built citadels for themselves.

Far away from the cities the woman with a force-feeding pipe in her nose hunger-struck and wasted away nobody heard her protest, the mines were blasted and nobody cared for the tribals, the medicinal plants died the forests fell the nuclear plants rose the cancer spread and the gases leaked from the plants, so many dead and counting, look away look away, inedible expensive crops yielded more the sensex soared the guns roared and everyone was happyeverafter. And we killed and we killed and we killed. Sliced open bellies and killed, raped beheaded exploded and killed, thrust in rods and killed, killed all the female foetuses, men roamed the lands, twenty men to every woman, daughters were sold for money bartered for food, sons killed and hoarded and killed and everyone was happyeverafter.

And so, whoever I was, was I. I followed the clock. I caught the train, the 7.10 fast local. Every morning I shaved off the evidence of another day’s passage through my skin and faced the world like a newborn thing. I climbed higher, grew richer fatter prouder. I loved the city, I never went to the village, where was that anyway, I never taught my children turn off the light when you leave the room turn off the tap don’t waste water don’t waste food never said what poisons are you putting in your hair I let them loose my lovely children do as you please we never had that much freedom eatbuythrowwasteenjoy why shouldn’t they they deserved it and they did the baba-babies they were such good obedient children the apples and gm brinjals of my eye.

Later I sneered at those who still caught the trains to work because I had three cars and travelled in style spending hours and hours growing old in the traffic that crawled like an enormous poisonous worm. And because time was still money obscenely grinning in the bank I didn’t waste those hours ononono. I read papers watched movies listened to devotional music I even had sex when I could quickies behind darkened windows every second paid for against my lovely leather seats in the merc or the bmw depending on my mood.

And then the trouble began. The water stopped flowing from the pipes the electricity stopped flowing through the lines and the blood stopped flowing in my veins. I died. Time unravelled like a spring a string a broken thing. The city sank back into the sea from which it was reclaimed siren to seven islands once. I had seen the floods before, clogged drains, pelting rains at high tide, rubbish in the Mithi River, floods in the city, carcasses floating people walking all night people dying in their stalled cars. We had survived many floods. We would survive many more. We would grow fins and tails. Vishnu would arrive, the horned fish to drag the boat through the drowning world. Pralaya. Cyclical time. Why hadn’t I listened properly. Everything recurred. 12,000,000 human years just a day and a night in Brahma’s life. My time on earth was less than a blink of Brahma’s eye.

I died before my time. But was it yesterday or tomorrow? Has it happened already or will it happen now? When? Kal. There is no future, there is just me endlessly looping the world through my head and you ask again, who am I? I was I will be I am one of twopointwotwobillion people who lived thoughtlessly, carelessly, died painfully, partially. My mind, sick and jumbled, flickers, doomed to watch the end of the world over and over again, like a giant mindful eye that cannot close.

When this scrap fluttered into my mind, as scraps often do, as if spoken by invisible others like me, words that might have been written somewhere longago such aching painful words, I spoke them to myself like a prophecy like a wound like remembering

The dream that appears—a troubling new thing, for we never dream, my people—

is phrased in unmistakable words. Next morning I write it down, knowing not a single word is true, because outside my window the sparrows are bright and beaky as ever, energetic and curious, hopping and resting for a second or two before flitting away and returning, again and again, completely unafraid, chittering and cheeky, the flamingos are around my bed, they never left me, the crows are everywhere, the hawks are in the schoolrooms, the quails are protected, the ducks are from Beijing, the kites are heartless, the geese are thriving, the chickens are being slaughtered, thousands and thousands of them, the bird flu is back, and no one except the poor dare eat them, they are being sold dirt-cheap, and what is disease in the face of a juicy leg, a thigh, a breast, the pigeons are in heat, the lovebirds are in love, and yet I write it down, every word, as if it had already happened:

‘The sparrows were dying. Save the Sparrow Clubs met once a day to scatter seed on rooftops. Birdbaths became essential. On construction lots concrete holes filled up with the dark water that sparrows would not drink. Insects thirsty for blood were born. I reared one, in the vampire-light of my room. Mine was the nerve I offered it every night. The man who fed the dogs vanished. Strays prowled. The vultures were dead. The dead lay uneaten. The flamingos still came, rash pink on a chemical shore. I am no bird lover, but when two sparrows appeared by my window one morning, I had a moment’s exaltation. The last of a species and all I did was watch them leave. A fledgling crow, grey with exhaustion, was giving up learning to fly.

We travel by sea now. Underground, the other city rises.’

All that came, all that is to come, I would write it down … if there was anything to write it with or on, so instead all I do is speak in this terrifying whisper to myself hoping someone hears the words hoping someone will pass it on there is no warning there is no hope it was it is it will be too late too late too late

The passage about the dream is from my book about Bombay/Mumbai: Dirty Love (Penguin, 2013) and the phrase siren to seven islands once is from my poem about Bombay: ‘Boxes’ (Sight May Strike You Blind, Sahitya Akademi, 2007, reprint 2008)