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Catastrophe of being 13

Book bazaar

A ritual we cannot absolutely do without, just like unwrapping presents and cutting cakes at a birthday party — that’s what book launches are like for author Sampurna Chattarji.

Friend and author Ken Spillman, however, was elated to be “at a bookshop in the City of Joy on Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday for a book launch”. “What could be better?” he exclaimed.

The occasion: the launch of Chattarji’s teen fiction Ela (Scholastic, Rs 250). The audience aptly comprised students from Garden High International School and South City International School along with their parents and teachers.

The book begins with the protagonist’s 13th birthday, what she calls a “catastrophe”.

“This young adult fiction is an attempt to address that universal question — ‘who am I?’. Chattarji’s approach is unflinching, her prose incandescent, and narrating a rebirth in a coming-of-age novel, she has successfully handed across the crucial message that every life is a miracle,” Spillman said of Ela.

“It’s Kafkaesque,” the Australian exclaimed. “There’s nothing like this in teen fiction.”

Ela’s story came alive in the bookstore as three girls from South City school took turns to read out extracts.

Chattarji shared how she started writing the book in the third-person narrative. “I had actually written 10,000 pages. I knew her problems, I understood her crisis but I also realised it was all wrong. Only when I inserted myself into Ela did the plot start taking form. And with time, I couldn’t separate Sampurna from Ela,” the author said.

Spillman found it interesting how characters create a fantasy world of their own to escape and find solace from reality. “While Ela has created her world in the form of her journal, in my book, I am Oscar, life is Freaky, Oscar too seeks to escape during his time of crisis,” he said.

Chattarji, who has 10 books — two novels, one collection of short stories, two poetry books for adults, one poetry book for all ages, a translation of Sukumar Ray’s nonsense poetry and prose and three others retelling the Panchatantra and the tales of Mullah Naseeruddin — to her credit, is already planning a sequel to Ela. “I did a reading of the manuscript at a school and there were students asking me if there was going to be a happy ending to it. I think I owe them one,” she smiled.

(From left) Chaitali Dasgupta, Nabaneeta Dev Sen and Saswati Guhathakurta at the launch of Olo Shoi at Weavers Studio. Picture by B. Halder

Letters to a friend

Think Chiching Phaank, Saptahiki, Darshaker Darbare. Think Doordarshan, Calcutta. Two faces immediately spring to mind — Saswati Guhathakurta and Chaitali Dasgupta.

Dressed in Bengal weaves, complete with bindi and flowers in the hair, the two women who became almost synonymous with Bengali television are also the best of friends. Olo Shoi (Saptarshi Prakashan, Rs 200) is a collection of 30 letters Dasgupta and Guhathakurta wrote to each other between December 2012 and January 2014.

“Our closeness, our fondness for each other prompted us to write,” said Dasgupta, who retired from television this year after 39 years of service.

Guhathakurta, who also retired a couple of years ago, said what she loved the most about friend Keya (Dasgupta) was her “effortless laughter”.

The two shared anecdotes about their Doordarshan days. Dasgupta recalled how Rani (Guhathakurta) once went missing before a live announcement. “With 10 seconds to go, she walked in, adjusting a flower in her hair! We were both relieved and angry. Later, we found out that she couldn’t find the right flower to go with her sari and had stepped out of the station to look for one. She found some lying on the footpath across the office and picked up one before rushing back.”

Nabaneeta Dev Sen, who attended the book launch along with Bani Basu and Bharati Roy, mused that it is not often colleagues become friends. “I think this kind of friendship is very commendable,” she said.

Basu appreciated the grace with which the two women conducted themselves on television. “The art of conversation and nuances like listening carefully when somebody else is talking is something many people have learnt by watching them,” she said.

Roy, “not much of a television person”, admitted to “watching TV only for the two of them”.