Portrait of a City-soul

ImageWas this the secret of Istanbul – that beneath its grand history, its living poverty, its outward looking monuments and its sublime landscapes, its poor hid the city’s soul inside a fragile web? But here we have come full circle, for anything we say about the city’s essence, says more about our own lives and our own states of mind. The city has no centre other than ourselves. (Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk.)

How do you talk about a city? How do you contain the sights, sounds, smells, emotions evoked by a sprawling tract of land and all the people it holds within a slim (or not so slim) book, imparting to your reader a definite sense of this place? Even more puzzling, how do you do it for someone who has never seen your city, let alone lived on and walked the streets you have described with such haunting immediacy?

My regard for Orhan Pamuk, winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature (2006) has always been of an abstracted sort. I looked up to him as I look up to any well-known, well-regarded author who hasn’t particularly touched me, but whom the ‘literary world’ applauds for stylistic, political or content-related reasons. The only one of his books I’d read was My Name is Red and I have to admit that it didn’t exactly have me gripped. I would take long breaks, pick up other books, return only when I’d refreshed myself and thought that I could handle the long sentences full of paintings that did not seem, even when described with such verve and enthusiasm, spectacular enough for all the hullabaloo.

I have a very close friend who would probably roast me alive for saying all this. But hey, honesty is the best policy, especially when it comes to literature. Besides, I’m sure Pamuk had enough fans before I got my hands on Istanbul. Now he has one more.

What Istanbul really does is take you on a black-and-white stroll down the streets of Pamuk’s neighbourhood, throw into your line of sight the gleaming Bosphorus with all its drowned secrets, reconstruct, painstakingly but oh so lovingly, the half-ruined histories of a capital steel reeling from its loss of political, cultural and economic significance. Caught in a struggle between a desire to ‘westernise’ and at the same time, to hold on to its rich past, Istanbul seems to drift in a haze its flaneur calls ‘huzun’, a peculiar melancholy that seeps through the streets, the air, the faces of its inhabitants and into the pages of a book, far away from the city-space. It is this huzun that defines the experience of this city, Pamuk notes, a huzun that affected, though they knew not what to call it, the Europeans who have viewed the city, the Turkish writers of old who attempted to rediscover it for themselves, and finally, has infected and affected Pamuk himself. Image

Pamuk maps the city out for us through his years there: from his childhood in Pamuk Apartments through his first experiences in school, in love and finally, his all-important decision to abandon art and Architecture and become a writer. He ensures that we hear voices of as many residents and writers as possible: he discusses his debt to the French writers and painters who brought to life the beautiful, ‘picturesque’ Istanbul that he hunts; he pays homage to the builders of an unfinished, exhausting Turkish encylopaedia; he quotes with great amusement Turkish newspapers and periodicals admonishing the residents of Istanbul, seeking to teach them how to behave on the streets. He also paints loving portraits of his family and their adventures in the city, in society, from his fat grandmother eating breakfast in bed and overseeing the apartment to his final conversation with his world-weary mother wherein he makes his vocational choice.

I read Istanbul with a sort of wonder, amazed that someone could paint their home so lovingly and yet so unforgivingly. Pamuk is not sentimental about Istanbul; he emphasizes its dreariness, its dark alleys and darker history, its schizophrenic desire to emulate and yet remain distinct from the ‘West’. I found myself wishing I could do the same for another city, one which I think is, in many ways, eerily similar to Istanbul. Like the Turkish city, Delhi too has its rich cultural history, has seen many, many conquests and peoples come flooding through its gates. Like Istanbul, Delhi seems to both live with and desire to forget its past, crumbling walls of old forts juxtaposed to shining store fronts of designer boutiques and McDonald’s outlets. Like Istanbul, Delhi has seen its fair share of travellers, of writers and artists attempting to capture its magic. And like Istanbul, no one would call Delhi a ‘happy city’. In India, it bears a dark reputation, for a myriad of reasons, but still, that does not besmirch its position as a centre of learning, art and literature.

If I could recreate the magic Pamuk weaves when he talks about the Bosphorus, use his melancholic music to sing songs of Lodi gardens and the wonders of the Red Fort, I would. But I have a feeling that ‘huzun’ is not mine to steal, to utilize to discuss another city. No, huzun belongs to Istanbul, to its beleaguered people. Delhi needs another mood, another term to encompass the many emotions it evokes. When I find it, I will write that Delhi book.

And I will dedicate it to Orhan Pamuk.


Growing up Potter: Growing out of Hogwarts


See? Brimming with possibility

The beautiful thing about Delhi is the fact that it has something for everyone. It has a bevy of historical landmarks for all those interested in jaunting through monuments; it’s got a hip and happening mall scene for the most brand-conscious; it has bylanes and bylanes stuffed with restaurants serving every conceivable cuisine at every conceivable level of pricing; and it has probably the greatest mélange of people you will find in any Indian city.

I’ve lived here for nearly seven years and honestly, I can say that I love it. Despite its dark and dangerous reputation, I have felt more at home in Delhi than I have in any other city. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I did a lot of my ‘growing up’ here; 18 to 24 is, after all, a considerable portion of a young life and encapsulates some very important years. I went through my undergrad years here, made a lot of friends I think I will keep for life, navigated the perils of postgrad and then stepped into the ocean of working life. I’ve shifted from the confines of a campus-bound hostel to the freedom and aching responsibilities of an apartment in the big city and lost, met and re-met a strange and heady concoction of people.

In short, Delhi is my Hogwarts.

Entering Hogwarts is a privilege, one to which you have to be invited. That’s exactly how I came to Delhi—on the shoulders of privilege. My ticket to this city was a seat in one of the country’s most elite and sought-after institutions. With that admission in my hand, I felt, like most of my fellow Stephanians, powerful. Being granted access to the portals of this college was sort of magical, whatever me or my fellows might think now. Like good Hogwarts students, we mythologized our professors, creating deep-dark stories for them. This one had had a tragic, Snape-like love affair, that one sparkled with the whimsical wisdom of Dumbledore, a third had the no-nonsense fairness of McGonagall. It’s what good literature students do: build stories where there are none to be found.

Of course, my finding parallels between college life and Harry’s Hogwarts is not entirely surprising, given my need to view everything through a fantastical perspective. Nor is my need to call this city my version of the wizarding school based purely on the superficial similarities it shares with my college. No, I’m going for Hogwarts as a metaphor more than anything else, Hogwarts the protean space that shapes and moulds its residents.

The one thing the books made very clear to me is that everyone’s experience of Hogwarts is different. For Harry (and for Voldemort) Hogwarts is nearly sacred, it’s the home they never found elsewhere, the entry-point into a world that assured them they were important and had worth. For Hermione, Hogwarts is a zone in which to excel, to prove through hard work and dedication that she is indeed ‘the brightest witch of her age’. Ron, I think, saw school and its activities as just one more yardstick on which to be compared (and found wanting) to his older brothers. It was a stomping ground that nonetheless changed James and Sirius considerably, shoved some sort of moral compass into their callow teenage frames; it was a murky forest of complexes and misunderstanding for Severus; a safe-space made problematic for an insecure Lupin.

Like the Room of Requirement, Hogwarts is different for each person who walks through its doors. The protean nature of the school is perhaps best symbolized by its constantly shifting inner landscape—the moving denizens of portraits, the moving staircases with their trick steps, the hidden passages which open only to those privileged few in the know. For a single castle, the kinds of experience it offers are pretty wide-ranging, purely from an infrastructure perspective. And given how cut off it is from everything, physically (apart from Hogsmeade), it’s almost a mini-city unto itself.

Hogwarts is a crucible: it brings together a bunch of people, keeps them clamped up in one space for seven years and then sends them out, changed in various ways. Perhaps the biggest change it effects is in how children deal with their magic. The feats we see pre-Hogwarts children perform thoughtlessly (Lily flies through the air, Neville bounces along the ground, Harry vanishes an entire pane of glass) become difficult, if not downright impossible once they join school. They learn rules and laws and become constrained by wands and verbalization. The seemingly infinite horizon is bounded.

I suppose this is Rowling’s elaborate metaphor for what happens to our imaginations as we go through school and generally, grow up. It deserves an academic paper all to itself; but would it be presumptuous of me to say that the same sort of thing happened to me in Delhi? I entered college thinking I was limitless, that all it would take to achieve everlasting fame and riches was to churn out the novel that had been at my fingertips for months. Seven years on, there is no novel and the possibilities of actually writing one seem slimmer and slimmer. What’s more, I know that achieving everlasting fame is not really that easy. It takes hard work and dedication and sadly, being at the right place at the right time (if not knowing the right people).


Okay baby, time to leave.

Has Delhi curbed my ‘magic’, then? No, but growing up certainly has streamlined it, made me aware of the Golpalott’s laws that bedevil any endeavour. It’s streamlined my ambitions, for sure. Far from wanting to do a million things, I’ve narrowed the list down to a not so difficult thousand. Also, it’s made it possible for me to identify the million things I would rather not do, which, I suppose, is a very good thing.

So after nearly seven years here, it’s with a Harry-like air that I gaze upon this city. I feel it’s time to go somewhere new. Yes, it’s been wonderful and all that, and I’ve learned a lot, but surely the world has more to offer than one magical school? I’ll take the lessons this school’s given me, as dutifully as most Hogwarts alumni do (and we know Hogwarts alumni take their school very seriously. Witness the fact that people still seem to give a damn about Houses after they graduate). But for now, I hope, 2014 brings with it graduation and newer things. Who knows, maybe I’ll even venture into a Forbidden Forest or two.