Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Chandak Chattarji chats with his daughter, Sampurna, about his recent publication

We have the delightful pleasure of posting a chat between Out of Print author, Sampurna Chattarji and her father, Chandak Chattarji.

Mr Chattarji recently published what must surely be a wonderful aid to all writers, Get a Grip on English Grammar with Scholastic Publications. We await our copy, and do recommend that as many of you as possible get a hold of your own. Although I am not sure if Mr Chattarji would agree, as editors, we say, break the rules in your writing if you must, but take control of that radical step and know what those rules are!

We are most grateful to Sampurna and to Mr Chattarji for sharing this marvellous conversation with us.

Sampurna’s story that appeared in Out of Print is called Just Looking.

A freewheeling conversation between father and daughter:
Chandak Chattarji (CC) chats with Sampurna Chattarji (SC) about his journey as an English teacher in India and Africa, his relationship with the two languages in his life, and the motivation behind his new book: Get a Grip on English Grammar (Scholastic, June 2015) published at the ripe old age of 80-plus, in the aftermath of two cardiac failures in 2013 and shifting cities in 2014.

CC: The motivation for the book was simply to do something with the material that I had created and accumulated over the years. Original new material which I always prepared for my classes as a way of keeping things fresh for myself and for the students. I never had formal Lesson Plans, but thinking about what I was going to teach the following day led me to shape the exercises that I would then use in class on any particular day. At times, as the exercise books filled up, I used to wonder what was going to happen to all that material. I was creating it, using it and then putting it away in the drawer of my desk!  It never occurred to me that these could find a place in a full-fledged book.

SC: And that’s when I butted in! I was clearing out my dad’s desk in my parents’ flat in Kolkata prior to shifting them to be near me in Thane when I came across stacks of red and yellow long ruled notebooks filled with my dad’s meticulous handwriting. Inside I found all kinds of exercises, which I knew he’d been using to teach students, but I had no idea there was so much of it! It seemed horrific that they should just moulder. I typed up three sets of exercises, and mailed them to my editor at Scholastic, Tina Narang, asking if she’d be interested in publishing a grammar workbook. She wrote back at once, saying, yes, and that was how it started. Also—and this is something I haven’t said to you before, Baba—I thought this would be just the kind of thing to give us all a fillip. After the traumas of the last year everything had become so uncertain, and the idea of helping you get this book out was one way of giving us, as a family, something to look forward to and something concrete and positive to work on. 

CC: Once the contract was signed, I sat down and made selections from the reams of stuff already there and also started writing brand new material in the shape of comprehension passages, questions, as well as creating word games etcetera for the back of the book.

CC peruses a copy of his book that reached him on Father's Day
SC: While I began typing up what was already there. I have always been aware of my dad as a strict grammarian! So I personally was terrified of making mistakes when typing out his book! I had to ensure that Baba checked and cross-checked everything. He has invariably been the first reader to spot any typos in my books. Each time a book of mine has gone to press I’ve wished I could get him to read it through, but I didn’t want to torture him with extra work! So of course he would read each book once it came out, and spot the typos! I still remember how he found a really ghastly blooper in my first novel Rupture. I am very obsessive and paranoid about typos and there was just one in Rupture, but it was a bad one that had escaped all of us (me, my editor, my copy-editor). I still remember the day Baba called me on the phone and said, “On Pg 75 it says ‘You are tell they are family’ instead of ‘You can tell they are family’”! I still remember the horror of not having spotted that in all my read-throughs! And he never softened the blow when pointing them out (unlike my mom who would say, “It doesn’t matter, the reader will know it’s a typo and not you not knowing how to write”)!  Luckily that blooper has been corrected in the recent reprint of Rupture. So, anyway I have a fear of typos but at least in my fiction the context of the line would hopefully alleviate the mistake and communicate what I meant, despite the error. But for the grammar workbook, where the students’ learning was at stake, any mistakes in proofing on my part would be simply unforgivable. So my fear of typos gained epic proportions, especially when keying in the answer-section! For me, the most gruelling part of an otherwise delightful and life-affirming project was going through the proofs. Of course, Baba cross-checked everything twice so I’m hoping it’s gone into the world entirely typo-free.

So the question I want to ask you, Baba, is—and maybe it’s a really silly one because you’ve taught English all your life—but I’ll ask it anyway: How come you have such a strong grounding in grammar?

CC: Because I went to one of the-then best schools: Baldwin’s in Bangalore, where English was taught extremely well. That’s the stage when English became such a part of me. And then when we moved to Santiniketan several of the things I did there were on account of my proficiency in English. Santiniketan gave me the opportunity of bringing out multilingual manuscript magazines (in Hindi Bengali English). Also, as the secretary of the English Literary Society I came in contact with Geoffrey Kendal and members of his Shakespeareana Company which included stalwarts like Utpal Dutt. I remember going to receive them at Bolpur station of behalf of the university. I have never forgotten their performance of Macbeth in the moonlight. When the three witches were chanting ‘Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble’ the lights went out and the actors continued the rest of the play in the moonlight! It was magical. I myself acted in English plays, Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion and of course, Shakespeare. Our English professor directed them. The Head of the English Department was an Englishman, Mr Roy B North. His elocution was excellent and we had a very good relationship. He later went on to head Orient Longman.

SC: So strange coz your first publisher for an earlier educational book (A Comprehensive English Language Course) was Orient Longman!

CC: Yes. And then when I went on to Calcutta University to do my post-graduation I was lucky enough to have had the best of teachers: SC Sengupta, who was an authority on Shakespearean comedy, the legendary PK Ghosh, and the founder of the Workers’ Party, Jyoti Bhattacharjee, who was taken away by the police in the middle of a class for his political leanings. I had taken up journalism classes in the evening, but the whole day was free and that’s when I started teaching and never stopped.

SC: And unlike me whose strength is clearly English, you are excellent in both languages! Does it disappoint you that I don’t write in Bangla, and that as a kid I was never too keen on reading all the Bengali classics that you suggested?

CC: No.

SC: So it’s a misconception I’ve harboured for all these years! And one that led me to being so secretive about translating Sukumar Ray. I never told you’ll I was doing it until the proofs arrived! How did that feel?

CC: Surprise is not the word! It was much stronger. I was amazed—how could you, who never spoke Bangla without using some words of English, translate Sukumar Ray so well! I think it’s the best translation ever.

SC: And I think that’s just you being a proud father!

CC: The word ‘pride’ has taken on a new meaning for me when I see your work.

SC (blushing!): But tell me, Baba, what is it like when you move from Bangla to English? What do you feel for each of these two languages that you love, and write your poetry and prose in?

CC: I think separately in each language. I don’t translate in my mind from one to the other. I feel differently towards each language. At times I start writing in English and then realise that piece might work better in Bangla. Banglay likhle khoob bhalo lagey. And English comes very naturally. Often what happens is I feel the deficiency of English when writing. In Bangla, one word can have different shades of meaning and you can’t find an equivalent in English. For example, ‘onubhuti’ conveys experience and feeling, yes, also intuition or realisation, but none of those are adequate by themselves, rather it’s a combination of all these meanings.  Sometimes I think that this piece works in English and not in Bangla and vice versa.

SC: You’ve translated a short story by Jibanananda Das ‘Chhaya Nat’ (‘Shadow Play’). What impelled you to translate that, rather than his poetry which I know you love?

CC: After reading that story more than once I felt it has to be translated and reach a wider audience. ‘Chhaya Nat’ is most unlike the usual short story and reads like a poem. I did several versions before I arrived at the final one. I did try translating ‘Bonolota Sen’ and another poem ‘Hai Cheel’ but was not happy with my own work. The originals are outstanding and I decided to let them be.

SC: I’ve tried translating ‘Bonolota Sen’ myself, done several versions and realised not even one matches up to the original so I understand. To get back to your experience as a teacher, tell me what some of the highlights were?

CC: Getting a job at La Martiniere, Lucknow was one.

SC: And the favourite place you taught in?

CC: St Paul’s, Darjeeling.

SC: Weren’t you the first Indian teacher to teach English there?

CC: Yes, teaching the Sixth Form (Class 12) English.

SC: I remember, as a kid, that you were involved in all kinds of literary activities with your students. I remember opening the door to tall Sixth Formers asking for laung to soothe their sore throats during play-practise, I remember another guy who came home to practice ‘To be or not to be’ sitting on a mora in our living room!

CC: Yes. I enjoyed all that. The Paulite Pool was our wall magazine, I typed that up, it comprised contributions by students and teachers (mostly me!).

SC: Then wasn’t there a magazine called Peeping Tom?

CC: Yes. I remember the student editor, a Sri Lankan boy named Aftab Jafferjee who was very enthusiastic. As a House Master, Hall Master etcetera apart from teaching I had so much work, we only brought out one issue of Peeping Tom—it was a magazine with humour at its core.

SC: A pity you didn’t keep a copy of it for the family archive. To my mind, Baba, St Paul’s was very anglicised. You were involved in house concerts, plays, elocution, debating, all of which were in English. But didn’t you also act in a Bengali play?

CC: Yes, your Ma and I both acted in a Bengali play written by a colleague.

SC: I have memories of going back-stage after the show, there’s a photo of Dadu (Ma’s father), my elder brother and me. Dadu had come up to Darjeeling from Siliguri just for the play. So, Darjeeling was where I grew up. We went there when I was a little over one year old? You had just come back from Ethiopia, where I was born. What made you go to Africa? 

CC: I first got an offer to teach in Ethiopia in 1961, at the same time as the Lucknow job at La Mart’s. Since both my brothers were abroad at that time, one in England and the other in America, I decided to stay at home and accepted the La Mart’s offer.  But when the chance to go to Africa came again in 1968, I took it. At that time I was teaching in Sikkim at Tashi Namgyal Academy.

SC: What was it like, teaching in Ethiopia?

CC: One challenge I faced consistently over my 3 years there was the students’ lack of interest when it came to studying English, specially grammar. That’s when I first started creating grammar exercises, typing them out and cyclostyling them for the students. They didn’t have a set textbook so my material became the basis of their curriculum. The material for my first book (A Comprehensive English Language Course) I assembled while in St Paul’s. I also did an abridged version of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd for Orient Longman. That’s out of print now. For the Comprehensive English Language Course I had four sections: Language Exercises, Letter Writing, Comprehension and Essay Writing. So for this new book, I was clear that it needed to be very different in style and content. Get a Grip on English Grammar is a workbook in which the students can test themselves by doing exercises that will reveal how well or badly they have internalised the basics of grammar learnt in school.

SC: The working method for this book was different because in the first one you typed everything on your trusty Adler typewriter and this one I keyed in for you on your trusty IBM ThinkPad! Normally you would have typed it yourself, but I wanted to save you too much exertion in your recovery phase! So, any words of advice to the students who might use your book?

CC: Only this—don’t cheat, don’t fool yourselves. I’ve said this in my Introduction to the book: if they consult the answers that are given at the end before attempting the exercises on their own, they’ll only be doing themselves a dis-service! The answers are there only to cross-check if they’re right or wrong. There are no short cuts to learning.

SC: Having the book out at this stage in life, how does that feel?

CC: It feels good.

SC: And I’ve seen you writing away in your different notebooks. What are you working on now?

CC: A series of micro-stories. My writing speed has become slow, so I’m writing these very short short stories.

SC: About?

CC: Some have a supernatural slant. Some involve authors, literary characters. I’ve read some out to your mother. She says they remind her of haikus in fiction.

SC: So maybe that’s the next thing I’ll be typing up for you!

CC: I have already begun typing them slowly on my laptop, one story every few days. But thank you—I’ll keep your offer in mind!
Thane, June 30th 2015