Talking places

To float in the river is to merge in the sea
Sailen Routray

My home is the wide, open sea. 
am this clod of earth.
But I am more water than clay. 
My true home is the wide, open sea. 

All around me people roam
thinking that they are clods of earth.
Some have been told otherwise. 
Many of them do not believe.

Some of them do.
But they sit on the banks of this river or that stream,
afraid of the sweet lilt of the waters. 
Some jump in;
some drown and float,
drown and then float again, for good,
trailing towards the wide, open sea.
Some are slow, some fast,
depending upon the flow of the stream
and the lightness of their beings.

I have toyed with this stream 
or that river, for ages.
Now I have jumped into one.
I float. 

The sea is far away.
And I am heavy.
But I know 
that this stream is fast.
Even if it takes aeons 
to reach the wide, open sea,
it is fine.

There is a joy in this floating.
To float in the river is to merge in the sea.  

To find the sea is to walk to it
Samprati Pani

I can’t get myself to warm up to the city. The city on the sea. The city of dreams. Of arrivals. The one which if you survive, you can survive anything or anywhere in the world. The trees tower over me, as does the person walking with me, and then there are the skyscrapers I pretend are not there. At eye level, however, everything is tinier and narrower—roads, pavements, bus stops, grocery stores and even the cobbler’s shack on the pavement. Everything seems to have been compressed. Some fragments of the walking cityscape feel like fragments of other cities: the city that was almost home in a different space–time, the city that is the original home but doesn’t feel like home, the city I couldn’t fall in love with. But I know that the feeling is contrived, a desperation to find reference points that’ll help anchor me in a sea of disorienting images and emotions. 

Can the new be experienced in all its dizzying and excessive newness, or do we continuously fall back on the crutches of familiarity, no matter how inept or even obsolete? Is it inevitable that we carry the burdens—of our familiar selves, homes and not-quite-homes, cities and lives—when we walk the path that can lead anywhere because we haven’t walked it ever before? Does the freedom of being on the move, being elsewhere, necessarily make the burdens delicious or light-hearted as Walt Whitman writes in ‘Song of the Open Road’? Or do we sometimes abandon our selves behind, or lose them, or heal them, make them whole, in the course of walking the uncharted and the unknown?

I don’t know. But I know I have to walk the elsewhere. 

I try to discern the layers in the dense, overwhelming smell that travels with me everywhere, sticking to my clothes, skin, hair and the insides of my mouth. I can make out smoke, dust, rotting garbage, and sometimes the smell of fish wafting through it, but mostly it is an impenetrable heaviness. ‘I can’t make sense of the smells here’, I tell him, ‘and I can’t smell the trees, distinguish the smell of one tree from the other, the way I can in my city, through the seasons.’ I miss the smell of fried potatoes from my city. And I can’t smell any street food here. In the city on the sea. He tells me of street vendors being driven out of the area and about a notorious policeman with an appetite for beating up vendors and cleansing the city of them. I nod quietly. It’s too familiar. The well-known stench of power is not comforting.

I carry bits of the street back into the house. Inside the house, I can smell the lilies as I put them in a bottle and the freshness of the dhania that I grind into a chutney with garlic, chillies and coconut. The smell of the washed clothes hanging out to dry makes me feel I’m home.

I go to see the sea. It’s my first time. In the city on the sea. And I’m baffled. It isn’t the crowds or the filth, the horse carts, the camels that may or may not be there, or the sea of water paling before the sea of life. It’s an image I have no reference for. I’ve grown up close to the sea. Yet, the sea before me doesn’t feel like mine because I don’t have the words to describe it or name the feelings it evokes. 

Is it possible to speak of the unknown through the frames of the known? How does one feel the unknown? How does one recognize feelings that haven’t ever been felt before? 

I don’t want to know. Not yet. 

I think of the friend from my city and his story of the first time he’d set his eyes on the sea. In the city on the sea. It was half a century ago. He’d said, ‘I was visiting my relatives in the city for my uncle’s wedding. More than the excitement of the buzz around the wedding or of getting to play with my cousins, I was excited about getting to see the sea. I’d never seen the sea. Standing in the balcony of the house, I asked my uncle impatiently, “Where is the sea?” “It’s right there,” my uncle said, pointing to the horizon. But I could only see a vast expanse of land and not make out the sea. “Where?” I asked again. My uncle went up to a tulsi plant in the balcony and broke a leaf. Putting the leaf in my mouth, he said, “It’s right here.” I munched on the tulsi. It was salty. And I smiled. “You want to see the sea?” my uncle asked. I nodded, and he took me downstairs and said, “Just walk ahead and you’ll find the sea.” I ran straight ahead on the sand, still not quite sure if the sea was there, my eyes glued to the horizon. And then I stopped. It was indeed there. The sea. I’d never seen anything so majestic. I looked at the sea and smiled thinking, “Africa is just across.”

I wonder if his sea and the sea that is not mine will ever cross paths.

I walk to the sea again, giving the city a second chance. The sea of life seems sparser and calmer. As if it wants to be seen. My eyes follow two boys, possibly twins, kicking a ball around, and then getting bored of it and moving to building something in the sand. A third boy wants to be a part of the building game but is not allowed in. He stands quietly, watching over what he can’t join. The breeze is cool, sieving the clogging smell and making it lighter. Just a little bit. The colours of the setting sun seep into the sea and land, shades of orange one moment, pink and violet, another. I see the silhouette of a couple holding hands and standing at the shoreline. They kiss. 

I know love.

And I know I’ll walk to the sea. Again. 

—Sailen Routray and Samprati Pani

On one of their regular phone calls to each other, Sailen read out ‘To float in the river is to merge in the sea’ to Samprati over the phone. She asked him to type out the poem and send it to her, but something wanting to be written out was already brewing in her head as she was listening to him. Samprati wrote ‘To find the sea is to walk to it’ in response to what the poem spoke to her, without waiting for the typed poem to arrive. The two pieces together are as much a conversation between two friends as a conversation between the different places and selves that dwell within us and that we inhabit.

All images © Samprati Pani.

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