A Love-Letter to Our Cities

A love letter to our cities
Istanbul and The Golden Horn, by Victor Costachescu / A love letter to our cities

The year is 2006. Announcing the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy in Stockholm said, his “quest for the melancholic soul of his native city led him to discover new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.”

He is Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish screenwriter, academic, and a novelist who has a poet’s voice. He was born in Istanbul and still lives in the family apartment building where his mother first held him in her arms. His portrait of his city is, thus, also a self-portrait, refracted by memory and the melancholy–or–hüzün–that all Istanbullus share: the sadness that comes from living amid the ruins of a lost empire. His work is as grounded in the city as Dickens’s was in London, Joyce’s was in Dublin, and Naguib Mahfouz’s was in Cairo.

I have always been fascinated with the idea of space and identity relationship — how space and place can affect the formation of one’s self, how the cells of history build the body of our future. I’ve grown up with veins that run like arbitrary Tram-lines, and with a heart that sobs, like the rain-soaked Maidan. I’ve held Durga Pujo’s bhog in one hand and Eid ki Seviyan in the other. Art has been my only religion.

Kolkata is my muse, as much as Istanbul is Pamuk’s.

-the-grand-bazaar-amedeo-preziosi
[The Grand Bazaar, by Amedeo Preziosi]

Imagine that old, old city, full of stories after centuries of human interaction, of cultural clashes and exchanges, of architectural wonders and wars of destruction. And then imagine one of its most talented writers, a storyteller with the power of 1001 nights, telling the story of the city from his personal angle, sharing his historical knowledge, his family history, and personal relationships, both fictional and real.

Imagine going to the markets and taking in the colours and flavours of the spices that he describes, hearing the voices of the lively sellers and buyers, engaged in an everyday dialogue that you might not understand, but feel close to all of a sudden, as you have the voice of Pamuk in your head.

Imagine feeling connected to a completely foreign world through the literary masterpiece of an author who knows how to cross the bridge between Asia and Europe, both literally and figuratively speaking.

Identity crisis as the defining element of identity itself — that is an idea only literature can explain and transmit, in conjunction with the black and white photographs of a fictional past glory and the experience of intense life carried out on the streets of modern Istanbul. For him, it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy. He has spent his life either battling with this melancholy or (like all İstanbullus) making it his own.

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[Photograph: Aishwarya Roy]

If cities were people, my Kolkata would be a woman. A lost, messy poet.

When her mother washes her hair, she makes murals out of the fallen strands — sticking them on the bathroom wall till they dry, before she winds them, into tight rings, to be thrown away.

The afternoon light runs along the delicate golden thread that was used to embroider intricate details on brocade. She fans herself with the pallu of her saree, while reading Ashapurna Devi’s feminist tales of the 50’s.

Growing up in Kolkata feels like a spent sun spilling its tangerine in your eyes. You sit in a bamboo chair, folding yourself inside the white carapace of your shawl. The cotton is starched stiff, except for where you hold it in your hands, where the sweat persuades it into a softness.

My city reeks of Angrez and Nawabs and Rajas. Of maatir bhaar (earthen tea-cups), raging politics, intelligentsia, and Ray’s films. Built with age-old heritage and hopeless romantics, she writes you a new poem, every other day.

By Aishwarya Roy