The new book Over and Under Ground in Paris & Mumbai is a feat of collaborative art on more than one level. It began life with the poets Karthika Naïr and Sampurna Chattarji deciding to do a series of poems – a dialogue in verse – set around the train systems in the cities they lived in (Paris and Mumbai, respectively). As the writing took shape, the authors then added another, visual dimension through the artwork of the Gond artist Roshni Vyam and the French illustrator Joëlle Jolivet – further, they reversed the gaze by having Jolivet draw vignettes around the Mumbai Suburban Railway while Vyam illustrated the Paris metro.

The result is a gorgeous-looking publication that creates the sense of a wide-ranging conversation not just between the two writers but also between the two artists – who work in very different styles – and, eventually, between two mediums, text and drawing; you might find that this book requires more than a single reading to fully appreciate. There is lots of formal playfulness here, both in the conception of the poems (for instance, the last line of one writer’s poem is reprised in the first line of the other writer’s response, and vice versa – though the meaning and context of the words naturally changes) and in the ways that the drawings weave through the text.

It all adds up to poignant and humorous commentaries on many sorts of journeys and how they transform us, or are transformed by us: from the reassuring unpredictability of a daily commute to a disquietingly new encounter along a less familiar route; or from a trip that allows one to stay in the moment, casually observing other passengers, to one that becomes a channel for memories or reflections on life as it goes on elsewhere.

Both Naïr and Chattarji spoke to about the book. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us something about the origin of this project. How do two experienced authors, each with a history of writing something as personal and intimate as poetry in their own distinctive styles, collaborate on something like this?
Naïr (KN): Yes, poetry has always been – and remains – personal and intimate. Even more so, I guess, since most of my other writing is intrinsically collaborative: I write librettos and dance scripts; stage productions are hinged on a constant back-and-forth with the rest of the creative team: the choreographer, the composer, the set and lighting designers...

The difference was that this time, the collaboration extended to poetry – which, until then, I’d zealously kept as “my” space, the only unshared turf. But we didn’t change anything about our distinctive styles, approach or obsessions. This was much more a correspondence than an attempt to blend or homogenise our writing. We just drew up a specific matrix as our “playground”.

And it happened naturally: Sampurna and I met at the Kala Ghoda Festival in February 2016. She broached the idea of collaborating over poems. And, suddenly, the idea of a to-and-fro felt highly appealing: I had just emerged from five years of my book Until the Lions [a collection of poems about characters in the Mahabharata], which had been an imperious and all-consuming altar; Sampurna had had a similar solitary experience over her last book. Also, there was an ache to return to the quotidian, the messiness and magic of everyday life after so much of apocalyptic war and “epic” emotion.

So, I, in turn, asked if Sampurna would like to work around the local train networks because I was keen on writing about the metro in Paris (I already had, in Bearings, and intended to disinter that). She liked that option, and once we had the theme, all we needed was the connective thread, which lay in the structure I’d suggested for the correspondence: that we’d reprise the other’s last/first line to take the dialogue forward.

Sampurna Chattarji (SC): For me, it was a huge act of trust. I am, by nature, quite paranoid and secretive and can hardly bear to let the world (or even close friends and family) know that I am writing anything at all! Until the book is “out” – at which point I confess to being guilty. At that point in time when I asked Karthika if she’d like to collaborate with me on a poetry project, I was actively looking for ways to step out of what sometimes felt like a crippling (self-imposed) solitude.

I had done a couple of collaborative poetry projects before (with the Welsh poet, Eurig Salisbury, for example, with whom I co-authored the tri-lingual book Elsewhere Where Else / Lle Arall Ble Arall, which came out earlier this year) but those felt different because they were part of larger projects, involving literary organisations and cultural exchanges. This one was self-impelled and urgent: I needed to open my mind in a new way.

I had reviewed Karthika’s Bearings long before I met her – albeit sporadically – at litfests, with no real time for conversation. My admiration and respect for her poetry made me ask her whether she might be interested in a collaborative project. When she agreed so readily and with such warmth (and excellent ideas) it was sheer joy.

Karthika Naïr | Image credit: Koen Broos

Once you had committed to doing this, did either of you have any misgivings? Or any missteps during the process?
No misgivings. I had many active twinges of conscience during a long bout when I overshot the deadline by at least three months (we had given ourselves a three-week-time frame to respond to the other each time). But I suspect there were no misgivings because it grew into a book, and, gradually, into this specific book: we hadn’t given ourselves anything other than the joy and focus of writing as an end, initially. As for missteps, I reckon that would be for the editors, reviewers and readers to say. The book’s eventual title still feels new, but that’s because even before we started, the very adventure had been inscribed as Metro Lands in my subconscious, without any thought of semantics. So it’s more a case of mental allusions.

SC: Not one misgiving about the writing project (which doesn’t mean that there weren’t many moments of self-doubt about one’s own poems!). I’ve never shared poems-in-progress as freely as I did over the last two years. I recall how getting a poem from Karthika often galvanised me out of whatever stupor I was in, and filled me with energy to write mine. It has been wonderful. To get feedback, to receive from my poetry-partner the gift of attentive reading; and from audiences a sense of active participation.

Once the production began, there were many challenges and hurdles and heartaches – because of the sheer complexity of the illustrations and the format (with two covers). I was also worried about the working title Metro Lands, as the bulk of my poems were about the Mumbai Suburban Trains (the locals) and only two about the Metro (one of which is a meditation on the future metro). At one point, I was consumed with consternation about key images going missing! All of these issues was resolved by (a) the patience of the publishing team and (b) the sheer brilliance of my art-partner, Joëlle, who solved problems overnight!

What has the train system in your respective cities meant to each of you? How has it informed or altered your experience of the city? Has your relationship with train travel changed (for better or worse) over time?
Like I tend to repeat, perhaps boringly, the metro is integral to my life as inhabitant, as writer, also as citizen. And local trains are very much (again, something of my refrain by now!) the arterial system that binds disparate organs (neighbourhoods, districts, populations) into a whole, into a body with a soul. Like the old fable about the brain and limbs and stomach claiming primacy, various neighbourhoods may pride themselves on being the nerve-centre of a metropolis but they’d just be disconnected parts if untethered to the rest.

I also have a theory that cities where people from all quarters and backgrounds and destinations take public transport together (Mumbai, for instance, Antwerp, Paris, Seoul) have a different vibe to ones where people move in self-contained bubbles from Point A to Point B. Whether you like it or not, the metro is a great leveller, though an inevitably ephemeral one – I don’t claim that it extends an egalitarian light over all of our lives! But sharing space, limited space, even for a short time, does lead to some grasp of the need for (and benefits of) coexistence, even as one may carp and curse about the smells, the crowd, the discomfort...

SC: When I came to Bombay from Kolkata as a dewy-eyed youngster of 24, I travelled every day from my PG in Juhu to my office in Fort. I still recall that first recoil when I found myself on Churchgate Station, in an impossible upheaval of moving bodies! I learnt quickly how to negotiate that and it became second nature to travel by train. I loved the city anyway, but the trains made me love it even more. Nobody cared what you wore, how strange you might be, everyone made room, there was shoving and pushing and swearing, yes, but oh my goodness – there was something glorious and alive as well, of which I was part.

After Kolkata’s melancholia, inquisitiveness and apathy, Bombay was everything I needed – spirited, liberating and charged. I worked in advertising those days, and it was such a wonder to travel so freely and safely at all hours of the day (and night), among people from all classes and cultures. I travelled in the men’s compartment at rush hour with my colleagues; if it was very late I would choose to climb into the general compartment rather than the Ladies’ as those were deserted and felt oddly unsafe. The crowds protected and healed me.

Later, after I moved to Thane, I got used to the Central Line, and still later, as the pressures of daily travel eased, I could think more about the trains – as opposed to merely leaping in and hanging on. Recently, riding on Line 1 of the Mumbai Metro, I found myself longing to get out, back into the swarm and sweat of the locals: my poem “Ghatkopar to Versova and back” deals with that strange disconnect. The Mumbai Metro still feels (to me) too cool, too swank, too new – not real enough – yet! I take a kind of perverse delight in discomfort, I guess. I know it’s a boon, and yet I wish… (Is it because I am not a daily passenger anymore? Very likely.)

Sampurna Chattarji

In Delhi – a salad bowl of a city – the types of passengers one encounters often change markedly from one Metro line to another, and as each line moves further north or south or east or west: the conversations (and the tone, and language) you might overhear on the Yellow Line will alter from Hauz Khas to Rajiv Chowk and then further north to the old Delhi stations like Chandni Chowk, and then again as you get to Delhi University. Does it work similarly in Paris and Mumbai?
KN: Paris – definitely. Line 4, for instance, bisects the city from north to south and one can see the change in demographics, sometimes as abruptly as one station to the next. It can also be a lot more gradual, like on Line 2, which circumnavigates the northern half of the city from east to west, going from Nation – with a healthy mix of tongues and colours and wallet sizes – to Porte Dauphine, and its posh suburbs, via a station like Ternes, populated by affluent classical music aficionados and another, like La Chapelle, where Tamil and Arabic are as prevalent as French. On the other hand, Line 1, which I often call the sightseers’ line, will always be thronging with tourists because from one end to the other, there are a slew of iconic Parisian monuments, from Château de Vincennes, to the Louvre, to Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe.

SC: I had always thought that all our locals carried the same kind of passengers – a mix of languages, and types, and professionals: that’s their beauty (amidst the grottiness and grittiness of the compartments themselves). First Class compartments had the “swankier” types, of course, and the First Class Ladies’ Compartment a more aggressive non-accommodating type of entitled female. I did not see much of a difference between the commuters on Western and Central. Differences in the college students taking the train would be indicated by language – English and Marathi/Hindi (on the Central Line to Mira Road, for example, vis-à-vis a Western Line to Bandra).

However, I had never taken the Harbour Line until the project began! And that made me notice a different kind of passenger – less affluent (as indicated by gadgetry and clothes); even the landscapes we passed through felt less urban, more pastoral…It felt sadder and slower, somehow, a dereliction of the spirit, concomitant with the invidious spread of ugliness (in rampant urban construction). I chronicle some of these observations and emotions in my poem “Harbour Line”.

Eiffel Tower, by Roshni Vyam

How did the illustrators come in? And what was the thinking behind the decision to have the French artist Joëlle Jolivet do the Mumbai drawings, and the Indian artist Roshni Vyam do the Paris-metro drawings?
KN: While Sampurna and I were idly doodling on our metaphorical sketchbook after having defined theme and structure, we did speak of the possibility of having our respective “worlds” illustrated. Joëlle and I had loved working together on The Honey Hunter, and had planned to collaborate again. But it was an idea, and like I said, we steered away from being too concrete about anything, even a book, for the first year: this was writing for writing’s sake, an escape in many ways from more earthbound projects.

Later, in early 2017, I met Nicolas Idier and Dorothée Gieux from the Book Office of the French Embassy, which has always been wonderfully supportive of my writing, and mentioned our epistolary poetry. They were then drawing up the programme of the biennial Bonjour India – a platform to foster bilateral exchange between France and India in a variety of fields and disciplines, from trade to science to literature – and decided to help us take it forward.

And Sampurna had this brainwave, she suggested we reverse the gaze: that illustrators should be visitors to the cities that the poets – inhabitants – had written about. It was such a brilliant way of complementing and contrasting the familiar with the new, of delving into how differently we look at, or experience, the same things. So we invited Joëlle and Roshni to join us, and luckily, they were game! And the French Book Office organised residencies – for Joëlle in Mumbai, and for Roshni in Paris – so that the illustrators would have time to plunge into the subject, to explore the rail lines and stations and journeys.

Victoria Terminus aka Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station, by Joëlle Jolivet

These poems are about journeys – about the actual experience of being in the trains and the stations – but they are also about the memories evoked by the journeys, with one recollection leading to another. And even projecting forward into the future: for instance, in “Mahim to Goregaon”, Sampurna refers to a future meeting. And the ending of “Western Line” isn’t about being on a train at all but about not being on the train when the terror attack happened in July 2006. And from there, you link to other terror attacks in other places, and other absences. In the writing, did these train journeys become a metaphor for life’s journey, or is that too trite and obvious a way of looking at it?
KN: I don’t think anything is too trite or obvious a way for a reader to connect to, or interpret from a book. That’s the beauty of, well, art in the larger sense, isn’t it: the freedom for the recipient to absorb, or assign meaning? In my case, these poems are a travelogue – of short, everyday journeys within the larger city, but also through time. So much changed in the near-three years that these poems primarily chronicle.

My first poem outlines my memory of the last live broadcast by Bernard Maris, whom I adored (it is still difficult to speak of him in the past tense), the great alter-globalisation economist killed in the Charlie Hebdo massacres. And life changed, inexorably – through events, disasters, political mistakes, personal epiphanies, global phenomena – through that time. Shards of those changes are palpable (sharp edges, glimmers, the works) even in our daily rides: I think that is something the book does reflect.

And both Sampurna’s “Western Line” poem (which delves into the 2006 attacks) and my “Lines: Before and After” revolve around absence and presence/danger and safety/disaster and its aftermath. But in very different ways. She was away from the city, and chronicles reports meticulously, honouring the people she saw/heard/ read about later. I was very much in my city, but oblivious to what was happening – safe, in a cinema hall; safe, thanks to a metro ride – while a dear friend barely escaped with his life; and mine is a blow-by-blow account of the evening: ours together, then mine, then his. I think both Sampurna and I deal with guilt, but different types of guilt, in those mirror-poems: she with the guilt of absence, I with that of unknowing, forgetting.

SC: You’re absolutely right. The poems are as much about ourselves as they are about the journeys themselves. In “Mahim to Goregaon” I do a time-warp, where a future-possibility is invoked from a place where it has already become a past-and-present-fact. The doubling back from here to there and back happens more than once. “Western Line”, as you mention, is about being away, and the subsequent guilt of survival that makes me re-imagine and re-construct what happened. In “Shuntings and Sidings” I look at past statistics alongside present disaster (the Elphinstone stampede had happened days before I wrote it). From documenting the visual epiphanies that emerge from amidst the “daily carnage” to documenting time itself. These poems are about my time in this city as much as they are about the difficult times the city has been through.

In “Harbour Line” I even go very personal – something I normally eschew – allowing my obsession with blindness to enter the poem, inspired by the “public dreaming” that off-peak train travel seems to make room for. In “Ongoing and Underway” I think of loss, the loss of the familiar and much-loved topographies that I have chronicled earlier, in Dirty Love, my short story collection about Bombay. I think of deluge and drowning, those situations we’ve been in so many times before, and which have preoccupied me for years, over books (my first novel, Rupture begins with the line “The city has been drowning since dawn”).

I think my sorrow about the incredible pressures on the people of my city, the fraying infrastructure, neglect and negligence, fractures and fractiousness – all of it is somehow present in my train poems. Safety is no longer assured, and yet one must hope. One lives, and hopes and surges forward. It’s the daily commuters who give me this hope (and strength). I think that’s why our book is dedicated to them.

I must add that in “Central Line: swaying between left and right” I also wanted to chronicle – albeit in the spirit of irreverent speculation and wordsmithery – the histories and legends associated with some of the stations I pass through. What the names suggest, the layers of language, the possibilities they offer a poet.

You have a format where the last line of Sampurna’s poem becomes the first line of Karthika’s poem, and so on – much like a link between the compartments of a train. How hard is it to pull off something like this? Were there situations where one of you had a poem ready in her head but had to wait for the other to complete hers first? Did each of you have access to the full preceding poem, or only the line you had to begin with?
The regular renga-format – where the last line of an existing poem becomes the first line of the subsequent poem (by the other writer) – is great fun, but also simpler: you are building the next floor of the house, to take an analogy from architecture. We did that for a year, and then tried to add another layer of complexity, to reverse the process. So, the line to be reprised became the first line of the previous poem.

In other words, if Sampurna had written a poem, I would have to write my next poem in such a way that my last line reprised the first line of her existing poem. For instance, my “Landscape on Line 3 Reviewed” begins with “Hinged between symmetric hips” – Sampurna’s next poem had to end with that line. That’s like building the roof first, then the rafters, then the walls, and lastly the foundation.

Frustrating, not for me! It was a pretty muscular challenge but such an interesting exercise (and there are other, solo, forms where you would have to do the same, anyway, like the glosa, where you don’t have the advantage of being in a dialogue with your associate-poet!). There were times – two poems towards the end – where we told each other the first lines of our next poems, so that the other could already begin work on hers while each worked her way towards the existing last line. Otherwise, we read the previous poem in its entirety before beginning our own (about 80% of the time).

SC: The format was not frustrating for me, either. What I discovered, though, was that beginning a poem with a given line was easier than ending a poem with a given line. So, for example, “One day there will be no blood” was so easy to kick-start my own poem with, while “cover your sight with moonless, feathery heaven” was so much harder to move towards!

In hindsight, I realise what a salutary experience it was. I may never have come up with a phrase like that! And so it sent me off on a parallel track, where I moved from looking so intently at others to closing my eyes and looking within, confronting unsaid, unspoken fears. This one, of all the poems, was the one which made me travel internally in a way I may not have been able to if I hadn’t been “forced” (as it were) to end in a pre-determined place. Fairy tale, fantastic birds, dream, doubt – all of it entered on account of that last line given to me by Karthika.

When I had a first line, I could run with it in any direction I chose (creatively, that is, while the physical direction was bound by my specific train ride). When I had a last line given to me, I had to slow down, switch tracks, and eventually halt at precisely the given ending. It was very challenging and I loved it! It reminds me of an experience I had in the Metro Simulator where the “pilots” (as their drivers are called) are trained.

I have zero motor skills and cannot drive, but it was such a high, being in the driver’s cabin, working the controls and seeing myself glide towards a station, and then terrifyingly have the emergency lights come on, as I was going too fast, hurtling towards a potential accident! After three attempts, I finally managed to halt the virtual train exactly where virtual passengers patiently awaited. From accelerating to over-shooting, from yanking back to zooming ahead to slowly easing in and arriving where you were meant to – all of it was akin to the writing.

What is the ideal way for a reader to experience these poems?
Readers can dive in whichever way they’d like to: the poems are free-standing though linked to each other every single time through words, and there is often a thematic mirroring they’ll pick up. As for an ideal way, well, perhaps the way we wrote them. So, with one half of the book (the one that begins with “Line 5” and ends with “Shuntings and Sidings”), just open it on the first page and read till the middle. With the other, if the reader would like to follow the chronology of writing it, the very first poem is the last of the section (“Landscape on Line 3 Reviewed”) and the one s/he finds on opening the book (“Ongoing and Underway”) is the last one written!

SC: I love it when readers read poetry in sequence, chronologically, as if it were a novel. Especially if the poems were meant to be read in sequence, as ours are. The pleasures are multiple that way.