Print Edition - 2018-07-07 | On Saturday
Thirteen ways of looking at a city
- He who once walked these city streets knew of their contradictions. How they could house, at the same time, men created by gods and gods created by men
What does the ringing of a distant temple bell portend? Is it the death knell of the old and infirm that it sounds or do its sonorous peals herald the birth of something young and new?
Jul 7, 2018-
From the porthole of a moving aircraft, the hills rise languid, undulating like waves on a gently rolling river. Below, in the city, through the stratified squamous smattering of brick and mortar clusters snake asphalt arteries, carrying corpuscles of life.
The city is me. I am the city in which there are four million people and maybe a million more dogs. I am of five million minds and perhaps a few million more, when I am in this city.
Before each downpour, the city swelters in the July heat, sweating from its pores, swimming in a summer haze.
After the rains, I walk through the streets of this city, caked in mud up to my ankles. All around me, others fashion stepping stones out of bricks and pieces of wood, placing them adroitly in bodies of stagnant water so that they jut out like islands that can be used to traverse the treacherous streets. A step lingered too long can mean a plunge into murky unfathomable depths. And so, all acquire a quick hop-step, like prey on the lookout for a predator. Then, I witness a fall into a puddle, the waters rising in an explosion. I meet his eyes and he meets mine. I am reminded that I am him and what I see is me.
What does the ringing of a distant temple bell portend? Is it the death knell of the old and infirm that it sounds or do its sonorous peals herald the birth of something young and new? In each burst of sound, resounding across the cityscape, there is both this and its opposite. Each hears what each wants to. The bell itself is indifferent; it wishes no hale and no harm. Whether it is rung by the calloused hands of an elderly priest with a saffron tika on his forehead or a young nubile girl, fresh off the back seat of her lover’s motorbike, the bell tolls justas that old Christian John Donne once said, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Raindrops line the window like the scrawls of a child who has just learned to hold a pen. The patterns are indecipherable but in their very mystery is an allure unfathomable. Through the streaks, the city emerges fragmented, sectioned off into pieces so as to be better understood. Each man envisions himself the city’s messiah, holding all the answers to all its intractable mysteries. Each man, high in his armchair, his swivel chair, his exhibition chair, sits comfortable, complacent in the knowledge that he alone is the final coming, the dus avatar, Kalki. But the rain is the city’s only saviour.
Oh, you twice-born men, why do you search the city for a Shangri-La even as the dirt and stench of the Bagmati pools around your feet. This is a city of dreams only for those who have the luxury of sleep, but for those others, they have lost a lot of sleep to dreams. They catch snatches of slumber in between rides on rickety buses, on high-backed chairs while guarding celestial abodes, while sitting, watching, waiting for something that will never come. Around their feet too, the Bagmati runs black and sluggish.
In bars around the city, young men and women smoke filtered cigarettes and speak in accents. Theirs is a language foreign to those who keep the city alive. In the back alleys of bhattis, there is a language spoken, punctuated by curses, harsh and unforgiving, lilting and rhythmic in its cadence. The thick, fat ‘s’ rolls off of painted lips, the rhotic ‘r’ drops heavy from cracked ones. Each a language its very own, each pronounces a judgement on the other.
In the hollowed recesses of naked brick houses, songbirds once made their homes. But concrete slabs leave no space for mynahs, bulbuls and blackbirds. Instead of euphony, there is now only cacophony, the cawing of ravens and the cooing of pigeons. Does a city without song even have a right to exist?
The evening light is something to behold in the city. Brilliant hues of orange, yellow and red break across the horizon as if in an acrylic painting. The city, dappled in colour, looks like something from a distant land where exists a city that never sleeps. Even knowing it is the pollution that refracts light in so many dazzling ways does not seem to diminish its iridescent beauty.
He who once walked these city streets knew of their contradictions. How they could house, at the same time, men created by gods and gods created by men. He saw the city as a striated space, folding unto itself, layer by layer, until it revealed itself to those who would only dare to look. He understood the city in all its awesome potential, its ability to take away more than it could ever give in return. He watched the city from his perch, like a blind man atop an exhibition chair, as the world turned slowly around him.
Escuchala, la ciudad no respirando.
It was all summer in a day. It rained all year round. The city turned back into a lake. Everything was washed away. We watched from atop a hill as our homes, our lives were swallowed by the gaping maw of a now turbulent lagoon. We felt no sorrow, for we were finally free to build the city anew. The lake would be drained and there, in its fertile basin, would grow a new city, as fresh as a sapling.
(with apologies to Wallace Stevens)
Published: 07-07-2018 07:51