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 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.
Different parts of the city hold different meanings for those who come to live in it. The footpath to a bus stop in East Delhi, the view of Purana Qila from a mudrika, the first ice cream at India Gate, a market, a park, a housing colony, a route or a stop accumulate to make the city for us, and in strange and invisible ways also make us. Yet, we continue to exist in ourselves and in cities in this constant play of the visible and ever-changing present, jousting constantly with our memories and our present navigating through a place.
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.
On the face of it, Patparganj’s apartments appear to be small islands, each holding together a set of people with a shared social background. And there are apartment dwellers, who manage to unlook and avoid the sea of life the islands are surrounded by, through the blinkers of their class and aspirations, shopping for vegetables and eating street food from the evasive confines of their cars or seeking the ‘happening city’ elsewhere. Yet, life here, as I have come to experience over the years, does not inevitably have to be one of isolated living confined to the apartments.
If it is indeed the same chuha, it is back with a vengeance. Its earlier avatar was well behaved. It would stealthily come out at night after Hunny went to sleep and would rarely leave telltale signs of its dinner, except sometimes half-eaten bananas. This one does acrobatics through all times of the day, leaping over masala jars and knocking them off, smashing Rooafza bottles, scurrying over the bookshelves, chomping on electricity bills and doing cartwheels on the sofa. It eats everything … potatoes, lids of Tupperware boxes, newspapers, phone chargers, books and unopened biscuit packets—you name it! It prefers to shit on the bed or on freshly laundered clothes. And it is BIG.
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.