Goa in the rains, not the time for all travellers, but when you’re looking for romance and solitude and a few good deals on hotel stays, it’s ideal. A lonely seventeen years old grudgingly comes to Goa with his parents. He has no friends and lacks the gift for making friends. Nor can he swim. So he scuffs around looking at starfish and trying to order lemonade from the waiters in reception to prove that he is older than he looks and in control.
So far Chattarji’s characterisation is spot on – many seventeen year olds are loners, hate travelling with their parents but have no real option barring burying their noses in their books. Especially the nerdy kind who are better at studies than anything else. The boy spies on the other guests who begin to appear in a hotel which he feared was deserted. Especially on a group of noisy young people – well older than seventeen certainly, a suave hip group in their late twenties, with a beautiful waif of a girl in their midst who catches his eye. For some reason, the group is as bored as he is and when his parents decide to give him the gift of a few days on his own in the hotel to enable him to enjoy true grown up independence, Baldy, the head of the group singles him out.
This was the point I found a little strange – the late twenties types are usually either kind to seventeen year olds, or tend to ignore them. However what transpires is a sort of ragging kind of indoctrination into a select group, third years picking on first years kind of thing with no control buttons. The seventeen year old is flattered to have attracted their attention and does his best to fit in with whatever they expect, though he is alarmed by some of the things they propose. However, as a result of his gallant attempt to fit in, he is told their stories and is allowed to tell them stories.
Their tales are tales of disappointed lives and lost loves. The typical dog eat dog ways of city life. The odd thing is that they are remarkably open with the boy once he has conformed whatever they expect – far more open than one would expect, though yes, it could be that they want their group to listen to their lives all over again and perhaps shed new light on why things are what they are. At one level they are perhaps as much losers as the boy himself, though is overawed seemingly by age and experience.
Mingled love and pride keeps the boy hanging around his seniors. Pride because they admire his skill in telling stories – here Chattarji’s poetic style comes into play in a tale of a silver stallion in love with a queen, followed by the key story of the Land of the Well. Words win the boy his audience and words separate him from them. There is the underlying fable of the storyteller here, divided from the world by thoughts and able to see clearly into the heart of a story and reproduce it in all its bare essence, regardless of effect. Think Rushdie and Satanic Verses translated into a tale of growing up.
At one level Chattarji’s book is a kind of coming of age meets Lord of the Flies. At another it is an extended metaphor with phrases like ‘a track scratched into the earth by a spiteful twig’ that speak volumes for Chattarji’s reputation as a poet. This is in fact a book of poetic prose written by a poet who commands ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’. The rest is up to the reader.
Land of The Well by Sampurna Chattarji
Published by Harper Collins in India, 2012
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