The two pieces included in this post are part of a book in progress that Sailen is writing, comprising a series of Odia short stories set in Bhubaneswar. The stories are around the theme of ephemeral and routine encounters of love, or its possibility, located in places that serve as public and private landmarks of everyday life in the city.
The blog has taken the shape it has over these years through the love and labour, struggles and dilemmas of the two of us—Samprati and Sarover. Making something together is never simple or easy. What has kept us going is our love for writing, for cities and for creating a unique space for thinking with cities, as well as the immense support, cheering on, love and respect of our readers, guest authors and collaborators. This is not a quibble about technicalities—a co-founder can remain a co-founder—but about two women taking ownership for something they have created, about not being okay with false impressions, intentionally or unintentionally, being in public circulation, about not letting their labour be appropriated.
The Kasba of my childhood was never a destination, let alone a subject of interest or enquiry. Nearly two decades later, when I arrived in a qasbah in Uttar Pradesh, I had learnt to spell it with a ‘q’, the Latin equivalent of the Arabic qaf. I had also learnt a few other things about it as a student of history. Broadly, the qasbah was distinct from a shahr (city) and often emerged around the qila (fort) of a military commander. In some parts of the Islamic world, the qila itself was called a qasbah. Historians have variously translated the qasbah as ‘small township’, ‘commercial mart’, ‘between a village and a city’ and ‘garrison town’. Indeed, qasbah has implied different kinds of settlements in different places at different points in time, and these meanings are accessed through the lenses of those who wrote about these settlements ‘not as points or areas on maps, but as integrations of space and time; as spatio-temporal events’.
Thousands of shrines of varying sizes reside in the streets of Mumbai. These shrines act as markers of new settlements and localities. Most of them represent and embody the identity of the people who brought them here. But more often than not, they hold together the hopes and aspirations of migrant communities as they navigate the precarity of the life worlds that a city like Mumbai generates. The shrines act as magnets, drawing together people with shared backgrounds and attracting sometimes a set of new believers. They belong to different streams of faith, ranging from organized religions to folk, tribal and occupational forms of worship. Many of these are exclusively cared for by women like the Velankanni Matha shrines. On the other hand, roadside Hanuman shrines seem to be a favourite of young migrant men who live alone or in groups in the city.
I lived for a decade in Chicago, where I could only walk in the Midway Plaisance—a wide boulevard with a fat-bellied, grassy middle—in Hyde Park. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition was held in Hyde Park and the Plaisance was a covered walk with concessions and private entertainment decked around it: markets from Algeria and Tunis, an ‘Indian’ village, an Oriental (Chinese) village and theatre, an Indian bazaar, a Moorish palace, a street in Cairo. The official guidebook told the white ‘walkers’ that they should expect to bump into an ‘Indian’ family making their bread or a Pathan sepoy waxing his moustache. Franz Boas, later to lead Columbia’s anthropology department, was the main force behind the 1893 Chicago Fair and had been hired by Frederic Putnam, then director of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum.
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?
I notice the night jasmine in front of my house in Bhubaneswar, after many years, when it gets infested with termites. The insects have woven a second skin around the tree. I hate termites. They eat books. I break a twig—as long as my forearm and as thin as Rumi’s little finger—from the guava tree that grows just beside the night jasmine. I don’t remember whether I planted the night jasmine or if it has grown on its own.
What is it about the olfactory sense that seems to hint at absences as much as presences? Why does one recollect so many peripheral details about ‘that particular smell’ but not quite the odour itself? Perhaps smell forms the base, the foundation, for our sensory memories, sending out tentacles into visions, hearings, giving then nourishment, yet ultimately laying hidden, subterranean. It is only when, for some reason, one does not use a particular sense organ that one gains faculties related to the others. This seems especially true for the sense of smell.
This piece is the first in a series of reflections on and conversations with interpreters who have embedded themselves in the city they translate to others. Their imageries and imaginations provide ways of seeing the past and present of the city as also forms of caring about the city to future generations of interpreters.
Vasu was off to a great start today. She was ready for office, well in advance to relish a steaming cup of chai and eat two parathas at an appreciate-each-morsel pace. On most days, breakfast was a paratha–jam roll, gobbled on the march to the bus stop. Today she had fifteen opulent minutes to reach the bus stop instead of the usual eight minutes that commanded dusty shortcuts, hasty footsteps and frantic waving to stop the bus. If only any of that had made a difference.
They’re selling postcards of the hanging They’re painting the passports brown The beauty parlor is filled with sailors The circus is in town Here comes the blind commissioner They’ve got him in a trance One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker The other is in his pants And the riot squad, they’re restless They… Continue reading If on a winter’s night, azadi…
Is the future odourless? How would Delhi’s zealous planners chasing the idea of world-classness imagine the future of Khari Baoli, Asia’s oldest spice market? Would it be in the form of an ordered set of malls rising in the midst of Old Delhi, reeking of heady European perfumes and caramel popcorn, with clean marble corridors… Continue reading Smell and the City II