S.Chattarji_tmbSAMPURNA CHATTARJI is a poet, fiction-writer and translator. Born in Ethiopia Sampurna Chattarjiin November 1970, she grew up in Darjeeling, graduated from New Delhi, and worked in advertising in Kolkata and Mumbai for seven years before becoming a full-time writer. Her translation of ‘Abol Tabol: The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray’ was first published by Penguin in 2004 and has been reissued in 2008 as a Puffin Classic under the title ‘Wordygurdyboom!’ Her books for children include ‘The Greatest Stories Ever Told’ (Penguin/Puffin), ‘Mulla Nasruddin’ (Penguin/Puffin) and ‘Three Brothers and the Flower of Gold’ (Scholastic). She has translated the contemporary Bengali poet Joy Goswami. Her debut poetry collection ‘Sight May Strike You Blind’ was published by the Sahitya Akademi in 2007 and reprinted in 2008. Her first novel ‘Rupture’ is forthcoming from HarperCollins.
Her Blogsite: http://sampurnachattarji.wordpress.com/
The following poem is from the  collection ‘Absent Muses’.

 

Our Knowledge of Faces

‘Our knowledge of faces is not mathematical’

Then why is it we say, she has an oval face,
his eyes are a perfect round, his chin square,
strong, a good man in bad times?
We believe we are being precise,
delineating shapes that we otherwise know
by name, names known by faces, sometimes
the two disconnected, fractal, wanting to meet
under the approving eye of unbendable rules,
but really, how inexact these words—
round, oval, square.

There’s more to mathematics
than the shapes of cut paper
recalled from the classroom,
happy red yellow blue shapes
hiding the bogey of abstract numbers,
sines, co-sines, quadratics.
More to mathematics
than the hypotenuse and the quadrilateral,
the compass in the compass box,
the 3-D set-square with the Disney cartoon,
the plastic ruler, the sweet rubber scent
of the illustrated A,
already the alphabet more seductive
than the numeral—
there’s got to be more.

Like string theory. I like the sound of that.
String theory appeals
to my sense of consequence,
one thing following another,
never mind what it really means!
Or the Moebius strip. The shape of infinity,
over and over the finger-trace
of knowing some things
will not end.
Or Pi. I’ve always liked Pi,
way before it became the name
of a tiger-taming boy in a boat.
The sound of it, the spell of it,
the spill of numbers on and on,
pressurized by brevity into a flat 3.14.
But, beneath that neatness, the knowledge
of numbers waiting to show themselves,
shark-teeth grinning, gleaming,
daring you to deny them,
daring you to defy them.

Our knowledge of faces is not mathematical

What we know is imagined,
summoned at the séance of chance meetings,
collected by the amateur philatelist
looking for the stamp of approval
from a pair of dancing blue-grey eyes,
constructed by the careful historian of one’s immediate past,
by fancy, that apprentice architect to memory,
confusing doodles for blueprints,
effacing the edifice of what one day will be familiar.

What we know is emotional.
When she blushed, how pretty she looked, how sweet.
(Was it an equilateral blush,
brushing her face into a perfect triangle of pink?)
Her chin trembles when she’s about to cry,
the skin puckers, it’s not her lip that trembles
like some other girls, it’s her chin.
(Is it an isosceles chin?)
His nose is slightly bent. Look at it head-on.
Not a crooked nose, no! Just a little off-centre. See?
Turn his face towards me. There.
His beautiful beautiful face with his Roman nose off-kilter.
(Wasn’t Pythagoras Roman? No? Oh.)

Our knowledge of faces is not verifiable.
No Quad erat demonstratum behind the geometries
of skin and bone, behind the different tones of melatonin,
pink, white, beige, brown, shapes cheerful from the classroom
where one learnt that numbers always add up the same way,
even if facts always don’t.

Numbers were meant to reassure us.
Why then this fear, this hiding behind figures
of speech, this rooting for phrases?
The comfort of absurdity, the absurd desire
to laugh in the face of gravity,
the magnetic attraction to another unexplained by all laws,
chemistry, physics, biology, pulling together,
making of us great cellular-molecular experiments,
all relationships secret, all indiscretions revealed,
but look how vivid the face of the first man
we slept with, the first girl we kissed, the first taste
of mortality.

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