Plum Pie in the Springtime
It looked like a perfectly ordinary campus: the security at the gates, the bus stop, a handful of students waiting for a bus; the grey buildings but also the neat lawns, roads and paths. In 2011, I was at the University of Stirling in Scotland for three months on a writing residency, and it was April when I arrived Scotland.
Enigma of Arrival
Can a few sentences make a place you never imagined to be within your orbit occupy your imagination so utterly that it becomes, for a while, the only thing you can think about? I found the answer to that question some years ago, while reading Bosnian writer Dzevad Karahasan’s book Sarajevo: Exodus of a City (1993). Karahasan writes about the Hotel Europe, which sits in a part of Sarajevo that has long been the invisible border of the two cultures that haunt the city: the older Turkish part, which holds within it the city’s Ottoman past, and the Austro-Hungarian part, which followed it (from which sprung World War I). “The Hotel Europa,” he writes, “is therefore the semantic centre of Sarajevo. Bearing elements of both the East and of Central Europe, this hotel is like a prism that gathers within itself the diffuse rays of what Sarajevo truly is. I know that one cannot say what the Sarajevan spirit or the identity of Sarajevo is, because it cannot be defined, although it can be learned aesthetically, through experience. Hence one goes to the Hotel Europa for a cake or an ice cream, not because of the cakes (which are, honestly, much better elsewhere) but because of the Hotel Europa, where Sarajevo can be felt with one’s fingertips, where it can be smelled and sensed. To know Sarajevo means to need to go to the Hotel Europa quite regularly.”
In the Land of the Sun
Shortly after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990, Mexico’s most famous poet and essayist, Octavio Paz, was asked by The Paris Review why he lived in Mexico City. “Living in the heart of Mexico is neither an inspiration nor an obstacle. It’s a challenge,” answered Paz, adding, “if you live in Mexico, you’ve got to live in Mexico City.”
What can I say about Mexico City? It is densely populated. The traffic is perpetual. The smog is legendary. Parts of the city are infamous for gang and drug violence. The entire city is in a basin, with the centre surrounded by what used to be a lake. Many of the buildings are sinking into the ground.
An Epic Journey
A stiff breeze blew in from the sea, screeching through the arched holes of the stone tower, slapping around everything in its wake. Angry grey clouds hugged the horizon, swelling in ominous patterns and threatening to unleash a deluge. A long way below, the sea roiled and churned, as waves crashed against the rocks. There was a wild, raw beauty to the scene, something that probably left enough of a lasting impression on James Joyce to prompt him to open with it in Ulysses (1922).
It was a hot summer evening and I was in school when I first heard of the Vietnam War (1955-75). My parents had guests over and were discussing the movie, The Killing Fields (1984). Amid squabbling with my brother and other children over who gets more scoops of homemade ice-cream, I overheard bits of the conversations about missing people, Khmer Rouge, and Ho Chi Minh. A few years later, I read about the iconic The Girl in the Picture — the photograph depicting a crying, nine-year-old girl with third-degree napalm burns on her back. The photograph became a symbol for anti-war demonstrators across the world.
Changed to the Bones by Rome
The first time I visited Rome, I was broke, heartbroken, and travelling around Europe on my own. My “turning 30” gift to myself — and so far, this had involved cheap train rides, CouchSurfing disasters, and nights in noisy mixed dorm hostels. In Rome, though I’d be staying with a friend, and knowing nothing about the city, I disembarked at Roma Termini, hauled self and suitcase into the metro and alighted at Colosseo station, dumbstruck. “This is where you live?” I accused him. A stone’s throw from the world’s most famous ancient monument, in an apartment atop a heritage building on Via Marco Aurelio. Admittedly, this was a step up from CityHostel Geneva. I stayed a week, fell in love with someone named Giovanni, and — need I say it? — Rome.
What you can expect to find in the hometown of Ruskin Bond
Controversial opinion alert — I’m not a huge fan of Ruskin Bond’s work. There, I said it, sacrilegious words for an Indian growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, lost in the world of books, one who eventually would become an author herself, that too of Young-Adult fiction. And if that’s irony, here’s another one for you: the only time I went to Mussoorie as an adult, I ended up as Ruskin Bond’s neighbour.
Brew Me a Story
The district of Chikmagalur, in the Western Ghats, is several hours by road from Bengaluru. We go up occasionally for a short break in a quiet coffee homestay. There is a special pleasure in returning there year after year. The children are older, we are older, the hills are older — but things still feel the same. The estate dogs recognise us and run up joyfully. The phone network still flickers. The air is crisp and clear. Coming from a rapidly changing city, we are calmed by the sense of unchangingness and stability. We know it’s an illusion — but a comforting one.
The story that made the sights, sounds and smells of Delhi familiar to Assam
Long before I moved to Delhi in 2004 to study for my undergraduation, I knew the city so well that I could even smell it. I knew the names of lanes that, perhaps, even people living in Delhi didn’t know. I knew about abandoned Mughal-era gardens, the Partition refugees who lost daughters, sons and wives to unruly mobs, the different kinds of kebabs sold in Chandni Chowk, the tall scary men who hung around Sarai Kale Khan, and the three-wheelers that took the students and professors living in Shakti Nagar, Nagia Park, to the Faculty of Arts in North Campus. I didn’t know about the Vivekananda statue there, though, where I would later spend hours gossiping and debating with friends from other colleges, scholars from other countries and bohemian boyfriends of friends, who rebelled by falling in love with men their families didn’t approve of.
Coffee with Wallander and following the footsteps of the girl with the dragon tattoo
The hottest Swedish export in recent years has been detective novels, commonly known as Nordic noir, and although the genre also includes Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic thrillers, the entire phenomenon was basically born, once upon a time, in Stockholm.
Being a capital city and supposedly full of crooks, Stockholm was the setting for the acclaimed 1960s police procedurals by Sjöwall-Wahlöö, which were made into cinematic classics and popular TV serials. The city also inspired recent bestselling writers like Liza Marklund, Jens Lapidus and the (Ernest) Hemingway of fictional crime: Stieg Larsson, who debuted posthumously with super-mega-hit The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and in whose footsteps we now can walk on guided tours.
The tales that provide a theme for a dream in San Francisco
Do you have any objections to pets?” asked Mary Ann Singleton, newly arrived from the American Midwest and looking for an apartment in San Francisco.
“Dear, I have no objection to anything,” replied Anna Madrigal, her would-be landlady, a man who had become a woman, the grande dame of 28, Barbary Lane where The Tales of the City (1978-2014) would unfold.
That encapsulated San Francisco to me more than anything that could ever appear on a picture postcard, like the soaring orange span of the Golden Gate bridge or the row of brightly coloured Victorian houses known as the “painted ladies”.